Notes on the virtual future of dance films

A recent New York Times report on the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade, which offered 18 films exploring various aspects of virtual reality, included this paragraph:

The sheer experimentalism in the room is exhilarating. You can feel the various content creators exploring what can be done in the medium, whether educationally, artistically (“Ashes,” a dance film by Jessica Kantor is an example) or in terms of storytelling. What kinds of tales can be told, and from what perspectives? With the potential to now pull viewers inside of the film, will there be pressure to turn the story over to the viewer entirely, so that V.R. becomes just a more sophisticated selfie?

What tantalized me was the brief, parenthetical mention of a virtual-reality dance film, which is a form I hadn’t thought of. Dance that’s filmed and shown in 3-D can be very rewarding, because it recreates the sense of spatial depth that one has in the presence of an actual dance performance while also allowing the same possibilities—of camera placement, camera movement, and editing—that traditional 2-D film offers. (I’m not trying to evoke it here, but anyone who saw, for instance, the 3-D version of the 2011 film Pina will know what I’m talking about.) But VR, by nature, differs from 3-D, and this suggests problems as well as possibilities.

Unlike traditional film and video cameras, which have a limited field of view, a VR camera captures an entire sphere of visual information, or at least a full circle; it looks not in one direction but in all directions. In case it helps, here’s what one of the cameras looks like:

jaunt-sphere (credit Jaunt)(w)

A Jaunt VR camera from a couple of years ago (courtesy Jaunt)

You can see a simpler VR camera in the image chosen to represent Cantor’s “Ashes” film on the Virtual Arcade web page. The result allows the viewer to look wherever he/she chooses, left, right, up, or down. But there’s little point in this if the camera isn’t in the middle of things, surrounded by potentially interesting things to see. What’s more, the filmmakers are to some degree dethroned by VR, since they’re not deciding what you look at. A traditional dance film, or segment of dance in a story film, can create any number of impressions by means of composition and editing, which depend in part on each other; if the filmmaker is no longer controlling the content of a shot, on what basis can the editing be done? And for now (as far as I know) most of the cameras are stationary, parked on a stand, because a cameraman and/or a mechanism to move it would be visible. No pans and tilts, because the viewer can do those things; no dolly shots or crane shots: this is a new and strange kind of filmmaking, which in some ways is like very old filmmaking.

Since last fall, The New York Times has been producing a series of VR stories, which can be viewed in modified form on its website. A fairly good example of the promise and the problems can be found in “The Contenders,” which places a VR camera in the midst of some recent events on the presidential campaign trail.* Something is gained, but something may also be lost, when I’m given the ability to look around outside as Ted Cruz’s bus arrives, or scan the crowd in a small café where he speaks, or survey the scene at bigger rallies by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I gain a certain sense of being there, which is especially vivid when I feel a camera lens is about to poke me in the eye (during a segment where Trump is amid press photographers); on the other hand, I pretty certainly don’t need to be able to look at the ceiling or the floor.

And yet the possibilities seem great for dance created specifically for VR. Where will the rewards come? Where will the gimmicky bits be found? I won’t be surprised if we see and then leave behind VR analogues to such 3-D tricks as objects thrown toward the camera, which are now mostly avoided except as a deliberate, tongue-in-cheek effect. Someone who’s more inclined to predictions than I am could have fun with this. “We’ll find ourselves amid a swarm of writhing limbs! The cameras will become mobile! We’ll move down a line as a canon is executed and fly among jeté-ing dancers!” These things are conceivable, but I’d rather read a discussion among knowledgeable and imaginative people than speculate for myself. Stay tuned.


* Here’s how to manage the view, in case you don’t know or can’t decipher the small emblem on the screen. To control the direction you’re looking, click and hold in the center of the screen, then drag in the direction you want to go. You can zoom in and out with the scroll wheel on your mouse or with a two-finger swipe up or down on some touchpads.


5 thoughts on “Notes on the virtual future of dance films

  1. I would have missed this if you hadn’t drawn my attention to it, John. The idea of recreating the spatial depth that one experiences when viewing a dance performance is appealing. I like the HD theater experience for the ability to get close to the actors — closer than if you were in the theater — while sitting in my local art house cinema (and paying a fraction of what I’d pay to see them in NY). The technology will catch up, I’m sure.


  2. I wrote this relatively quickly and aimed only to alert people to a new possibility rather than to convey what the VR experience is like. Possibly I should’ve been more careful, because it sounds like you’re responding to what I said about 3-D, which is a separate technology. (A pretty wonderful one, in my experience. Have you seen a 3-D feature film?) VR is different, as I said, and it doesn’t necessarily include a sense of depth; the idea is more about viewer choice. Look at this image, from the recently presented dance film, and imagine that you’re standing where the camera is; you can choose to look at the dancers, or turn left and look out at the sea, or look up at the sky. This is what seems odd for now: that I can put on a headset to watch a dance film but end up eyeing the surf instead.

    Maybe that was clear to you and you’re just responding to the idea that struck you most. If so, sorry. Regardless, the little bit extra I wrote here may help. And thanks for the comment.


  3. No, I was thinking about VR — got one of those little devices you use with your phone (the NYTimes was giving them away to subscribers) and had fun with it, but of course you are limited by what was filmed and where it was filmed from. Imagine having the camera NOT fixed, so the viewer could watch the dancers from above, circle around them, even get a feet’s-eye-view of the dancing. This as opposed to being distracted by the surf or whatever.


    • Sounds like you could be working in the field, because what you’re imagining would be great. That kind of thing is already being done with computer-generated VR. In a demo I tried earlier this week, I found myself standing on the deck of a sunken ship. I could look up at some rays swimming overhead, duck to avoid a school of fish swimming toward me, and walk over to the rail to get closer to a whale that was cruising nearby. I don’t know how to make that possible with real dancers, but if they were motion-captured and regenerated with computer graphics (which is how the movie Avatar was made), THEN you could do it.

      Since you got the NYT’s device, I wonder which of its films you’ve seen and whether you got much out of them.


      • I think I’ve seen them all. Entertaining, particularly where you find yourself in a place you wouldn’t visit otherwise, but it seems as if they’re still trying to figure out what to do with the capability.


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