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[The Future is Now] 'It's important to show viewers they exist'

Award-winning VR director thinks the medium has its own future separate from film
Oct 22,2018
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Director Chuck Chae, who won the Best Virtual Reality Experience award at this year’s Venice Film Festival for “Buddy VR,” says VR films should be seen separately from existing films. [MOMENTSQUARE]
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Scenes from Chuck Chae's award-winning interactive VR movie, "Buddy VR." Buddy is a character from the animated "The Nut Job" series. [MOMENTSQUARE]
Virtual reality may be the future of the film industry, gaming and the arts, but some enthusiasts think it has the potential to be so much more than that.

Award-winning director Chuck Chae believes that VR should be recognized as a medium in its own right. The winner of the Best Virtual Reality Experience at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Chae thinks that VR can neither replace nor become an extension to what already exists, including movies.

“I think VR films could neither replace films nor become an extension to the existing movies,” said Chae during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily earlier this month. “If audiences currently in their teens experience VR films at a young age, they will naturally accept the act of enjoying [VR movies] when they grow up, and therefore, replicating the way a film is currently being made for the creation process of VR content will be pointless.”

But providing a sense of familiarity to the audience is still important. “Until the technology is advanced enough to make the general audience feel comfortable enjoying VR content, offering a sense of familiarity like using well-known characters and allowing interaction between film characters and the audience is crucial in VR films.”

Chae added, “Thanks to the advancement of the technology, experiences can be catered to each person. Although it may be a little too soon to discuss this matter, I believe VR can rise to become mainstream [in the entertainment industry] without replacing the existing formats.”

His latest interactive VR movie, “Buddy VR,” is a good example. The 15-minute VR title features a timid and friendly mouse called Buddy from the animation “Nut Job” series. Through numerous interactions with Buddy, the video creates a friendship between the user and the mouse.

There are several missions that the user has to accomplish to carry the story forward. If he or she refuses to be engaged in the given activities, the film ends. This means the time and experience that each viewer gets differs depending on the actions they choose to take.
In “Buddy VR,” the user is initially induced to help Buddy take out a piece of cheese from a mouse trap in a colorful candy shop. Once the viewer helps the character successfully take out the cheese, Buddy approaches the viewer and asks them to write their name down on a piece of paper, which can be done using a controller. The journey continues with a series of similar interactions with Buddy.

To discuss more about “Buddy VR” and his thoughts on the use of VR in creating films, Chae sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Busan on Oct. 9 during his visit to the Busan International Film Festival, where “Buddy VR” was screened. Below are the edited excerpts.



Q. Buddy is not the main protagonist in the animated “The Nut Job” franchise, which was also produced by Redrover. Why did you decide to place Buddy at the center?

A. In the animated series, Buddy is a quiet sidekick who supports the main protagonist. He shares a generic appearance with many characters, like the one from [Pixar’s 2007 animated feature] “Ratatouille.” Since people are not yet familiar with VR cinema, I thought it would be a good idea to bring a familiar character people could relate to.

Also, other characters from the “Nut Job” series have strong personalities. I believed that a relatively quiet character that is willing to earnestly listen to what people say is something that modern people earnestly needed.

To make the movie relatable to more diverse viewers, I intentionally took out all the lines. Adding lines means adding a cultural code, which could limit its accessibility to markets of different countries. I instead relied on body language, which is universal.



I watched the movie twice and got two different endings. One of the biggest charms of interactive VR movies is that viewers can have a personalized experience watching the same content. What do you think is the best quality of VR movies when it comes to attracting an audience?

I don’t think all VR content needs to be interactive. When the technology, cultural adaptation and high quality content are all fully achieved, I believe there won’t be any limit to VR in terms of genre. But for now, there are some limits to VR like the inconvenience of using VR devices and the lagging quality of live-action titles. So the way to attract an audience to try VR content in spite of the inconveniences is by offering something different like [interaction].

To make the experience more realistic, it is important to show viewers that they exist in virtual reality. This can be done when characters from VR films recognize viewers.



People are commonly confused between interactive VR films and VR games, since they both involve tasks. Other than having a story and characters to sympathize with, how would you differentiate between interactive VR films and VR games?

The biggest difference is that VR games are reactive entertainment — providing compensation for their accomplishments — while VR films are interactive entertainment that also offers time for viewers to observe and analyze characters and to think about where the story is heading.

This is also linked to the sympathy viewers feel toward characters. Only when people can afford to dwell on things can they actually connect with characters.



What do you believe are possible side effects of the prevalence of VR and how can they be prevented?

VR experiences offer lots of fun because they let users live a completely different life from the world they are actually living in. Instead of lamenting their life, they can escape to virtual reality and feel more satisfied. By placing themselves in someone else's shoes, users can also expand their thoughts.

But there could be side effects like the confusion users feel in the actual and virtual world. I think going through such side effects is a natural process. To minimize any potential danger, however, society will have to raise people’s awareness on the potential dangers of the technology.



Part of the reason people watch films is because they can be passively entertained. But VR films require users to be more active.

VR is able to offer embodying experiences by narrowing the gap between users’ immersion and experiences. I believe people will one day be able to have a passive experience with VR films when further technological advancements are made to develop more comfortable devices and improve image quality. I believe VR has potential in that people have always desired something more powerful and immersive.



Do you have any concerns about where VR films are heading?

I’m afraid that VR films will simply replicate the language of existing cinema like taking on linear story telling. Editing the story, simulating film directing techniques and contracting the length to fit the running time is not something that VR films should follow. Having subtitles and narration are also several factors that disturb users’ experience when they’re actually in virtual reality.

Also, I’m very grateful to film festivals for screening VR films and the increase in the opening of VR entertainment cafes that offer VR experiences across the country. But I believe this could actually hinder the growth of VR in the long term because most VR experiences are treated like a secondary subculture.

At most film festivals, audiences are guided into a small cubicle with a chair and a computer, instead of a proper viewing space. This could affect how people come to perceive VR contents.



What are some important factors when it comes to VR storytelling?

The most important factor is authenticity. It is important to respect users with an open mind. In the past, artists presented their art and expected the audience to understand their intention. But things have changed. In an era when anyone can become a filmmaker, it is essential to ask audience’s thoughts [through storytelling], instead of forcing the artist’s idea onto them.

To what extent should an audience be given freedom in the virtual world is also another issue that the filmmaker need to mull over.
I believe the ability of a director comes from deciding what to allow and what not to when it comes to the actions that the audience is allowed to take during their VR experience. If the audience can touch and interact with every little thing in the virtual world, that would prevent the development of the story.



You’re currently working on an interactive VR film based on brainwave machine learning.

It is a bio-feedback device that helps interpret what kind of feelings an audience is going through based on their brainwaves. The machine recognizes audience’s feelings and alters the film character’s responses or the plot depending on the user’s mood. This is not confined to animations, but could expand to live-action films starring celebrities.



What are your plans as a director?

I’m currently working with the production company that was behind “Searching” (2018). Other than working on VR films, I’m also working on feature-length movies. Only when I gain a reputation in this industry will I be able to bring a bigger spotlight to VR movies.

BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]