• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, July 22, 2019

    Your Own, Virtual, Jesus*


    I've been thinking about the two Virtual Reality Jesus films recently. I say "films" but really I question whether JesusVR really fits within what we would call a film, at least in the format it is currently available in. At present, you can download the film as an app from iTunes and, with a fairly cheap 'specialised' headset, watch it from the comfort of your own home.

    When you do, however, you discover that after each scene you are returned to the menu to choose which sequence you would like to see next. It breaks any sense of reality and narrative flow. In some ways it might not be uncommon to how some of the earliest cinema audiences experienced their films. Some theatres will have had multiple cameras and their owners might have spliced together all the different episodes into as few reels as possible, but I imagine that wasn't the universal experience. There are also parallels with the way people tend to experience the Bible as well - in chunks at a time, commonly just a single passage, rather than reading the whole thing through in one go.

    Those things and the way the footage is shot gives JesusVR the feel of a hi-tech museum piece, a bit like a 21st century version of the Jorvik museum, for those who know what that is. The location feels real, as do the costumes, and in a sense it feels like you're their, but there's also something oddly stilted and lifeless about the whole after. I'll discuss that later when I review it.

    Whilst I've not yet seen 7 Miracles I understand it is somewhat different in these respects. There are three main reasons for this assumption. The first is that it recently appeared at the Raindance festival, and there's an interesting piece on that here. In fact, not only did it appear at the festival, it also won the 'VR Film of The Festival' award. This suggests a level of quality above that of JesusVR. Secondly there is also quite a bit of footage to be seen in this vlog review on YouTube and certainly it looks better than JesusVR and solves some of the problems with it's predecessor.

    The third point is the filmmakers claim that this is "the first feature length VR film". What's particularly odd about this is that several of those involved with JesusVR are also involved with 7 Miracles. Enzo Sisti (who helped produce The Passion of the Christ, Aquaman and Life Aquatic) is a producer on both films, 7 Miracles' co-director/producer, Rodrigo Cerqueira, was the VR Technical Director for JesusVR and some of the more technical teams like sets, costumes and make-up, are largely the same. I suppose it might just be a pitch, but it feels like, for them at least, they see 7 Miraclesas doing something that its predecessor. And it's cool, I guess, that Bible films are at the forefront of the new technology, just as they were when the "new" technology was "moving pictures", 120+ years ago.

    The other thing that is reminiscent of 120 years ago is the static nature of the camera. At present the technology does not allow for much camera movement, and because the viewer is "in" the shot, cutting to a different scenes is jarring and disorientating. This in turn tends to lead to mid-length shots and long takes, typically one shot per scene. Films such as the Pathé Passion Plays are often seen as unsophisticated but they are actually just the forerunners of the kind of long-take photography that Bazin championed over half a century later. The Passion plays allowed the viewer to choose for themselves where to focus their attention as the cinematic grammar hadn't yet taken hold. So too it is with the VR films where the viewer can determine for themselves where to look having a far wider space available to them.

    Furthermore, the use of technology, turns out to be fairly radical in terms of cinematic syntax, grammar and, by extension, meaning. By allowing the viewer to have a 360° vision and to decide for themselves where they wish to look, cherished concepts in film studies such as mise-en-scène are largely left redundant. Moreover, ideas such as authorship take a new turn: if the viewer determines where they look at any given moment, then the importance of the traditional gatekeepers of what is included in the frame is diminished. As Collin observes, “the director’s control starts and ends with their initial camera placement – which means the close-up is out, along with pans, tilts, zooms and shallow focus”.

    It will be interesting to see how these aspects develop as the technology improves - something else it might have in common with those early films. Certainly, based on the limited snippets I have seen from 7 Miracles it gets you closer to the action that JesusVR and seems to have overcome some of these problems. Hopefully it will open up new ideas and concepts in things like faith and theology as well as in film theory.

    *Yes, you have correctly discerned a Depeche Mode pun.

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