Cinema that really takes you places

You can be in the heart of a sooty coal mine in Chhattisgarh but with your feet firmly in Andheri. Welcome to augmented reality.

Updated - August 06, 2016 05:04 pm IST

Published - August 06, 2016 04:10 pm IST

A screenshot from Cost of Coal, India’s first narrative non-fiction film in Virtual Reality. Photo: Special arrangement

A screenshot from Cost of Coal, India’s first narrative non-fiction film in Virtual Reality. Photo: Special arrangement

A sofa or a lounger won’t do. I have to park myself on a swivel chair. Anand Gandhi, a leading indie filmmaker of the highly-praised Ship of Theseus fame, hands me a headset with his iPhone slid into the visor slot. I pull the contraption down over my eyes. Am I to play a computer game, I wonder. Or is it a simulated ride I am going to hurtle down? Not quite. “Do you see a blue dot,” asks Gandhi. “Bring the marker to it and shake your head twice.” I do. And voila, I am transplanted into the heart of the Kusmunda coal mines with ash and soot blowing right into my face. “Turn around 360 degrees,” he continues, and I get a view of the entire landscape — dreary fly ash pits taking over what would have once been green fields and forests.

I am like a child with a new toy, moving my head up, down, right and left, swivelling on the chair to experience Kusmunda from all possible angles, oblivious of how bizarre I must look to the people around.

I am shown several other clips — of rock concerts and cricket matches. I am taken on a protest march by women activists against the entry ban into the sanctum sanctorum of Trimbakeshwar temple. There’s a clip featuring Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park dinosaur. As the sleeping creature lazily raises his head and nears the screen, the scare factor magnifies enough for me to almost let out a scream. It is as close as a lizard crawling on the ceiling of your home.

First impression: Fun. I am hooked. This is a cinematic frontier I have never before crossed.

But there’s more to it than mere thrills. It is not just about watching a film but being within it, quietly and discreetly. It is as though a teleporter has beamed me into the film’s zone. It is about the camera taking me whisper-close to a remote place and to things on the margins of our consciousness — be it the human cost of coal, the alarming effects of coal mines on the residents of Korba, or the ideas of women activists on their way to Trimbakeshwar. It is as though the adivasi woman in Korba is standing next to me, talking to me; it’s not the filmmaker but me interviewing her.

The ‘radioactive’ fly ash ponds of Chhatisgarh where I am walking are in Gandhi’s Memesys Culture Lab in rainy Andheri’s potholed Aram Nagar. Cost of Coal is India’s first narrative non-fiction film in Virtual Reality (VR), directed by award-winning filmmaker Faiza Khan (of Supermen of Malegaon fame). It is produced by Khushboo Ranka with Zain Memon as the creative director.

Last July, Gandhi launched Memesys, a studio focused on creating such experimental and experiential work. With Cost of Coal , Memesys launches ElseVR (pronounced elsewhere), its virtual and augmented reality division. An online quarterly magazine with news stories and documentaries will be part of the effort. The first batch of six documentaries will be released end-August or early-September. In the coming months, Memesys plans to release more VR/ AR (Augmented Reality) driven content, including a cricket tutorial and a science show. Then, there will be writer-photographers Sooni Taraporevala and Ishan Tankha taking us on Mumbai and Old Delhi walks. Legal expert Lawrence Liang will do a show on policy, ethics and law. A show on antiquity and a sci-fi comedy are also in the pipeline. The team is already making VR film trailers and brand films, even as Gandhi plans his first VR feature film.

AR-VR has already entered many global newsrooms; Gandhi and Co. are pioneering it in India. He calls their efforts a convergence point for science, philosophy, film and culture. The nerdy bunch consists of committed sci-fi buffs, who talk jargon, throw up names and books you haven’t heard of, and quote Mark Zuckerberg (amongst others) on VR: “Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction, but the Internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.”

I stare on like an ignoramus, trying hard to get below the technicalities to the core. “It is new journalism, all about mixing traditional reportage with virtual reality so that the viewer doesn’t just see the news but experiences it as well,” says Gandhi. “It is about transmitting important and complex data experientially. It helps build empathy, reaches out to the decision makers, and gets them invested in issues,” he says. Be it protests, challenges or conflicts, VR is about the immediacy and intimacy of the experience. “Imagine reliving the Arab Spring through VR.”

How affordable and accessible is it? All you need is a headset and a smartphone with gyroscope, I am told. Samsung Gear VR might be an expensive proposition but Google Cardboard, for as little as Rs. 1,000, can be used to assemble a simple headset to mount any smartphone. The films can be accessed from filmmakers’ personal apps or from platforms like YouTube and Facebook. “Essentially, all you need is a piece of cardboard with two holes to put the biconvex lenses in and you can have an experience far bigger than Imax at a fraction of the cost,” says Gandhi.

How easy and inexpensive will it be for the filmmaker? And what kind of equipment will they need? A variety of camera rigs are available to help shoot simultaneously from all directions and the shots are stitched together later on the edit table. “There is a 15-20 per cent mark-up from the regular shoots,” he says.

In my head, many questions remain. Can VR also lead to delusional experiences and fantasies as much as empathy and understanding? Can it replace 2D cinema and its power of the suggested and the implicit? Perhaps it’s too early to think of these things. Let the technology take flight first. “Ultimately, it’s not about the knife but the surgeon wielding it,” says Gandhi. All we have to do is watch.

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