Emi is the project lead for Embracing Henry. She’s an English major and Film and Media Studies minor, interested in the elements of VR that overlap with film.
In one of his articles on film, “The Myth of Total Cinema,” theorist André Bazin discusses the ideal that guides the progress of the cinema. He claims that as film developed, getting more and more sophisticated, it moves closer to its original goal: portraying a fully realistic world (236). According to Bazin then, art has always been moving toward VR and its methods, striving to present a world that better mimics our own.
The question remains then, what makes a VR film like “Henry,” different from a normal film? Does one medium facilitate empathy better than the other? For Fuchs, a VR space should cause an increase in empathy because it can encompass all three categories of empathy: primary, extended, and fictional. Primary empathy comes from being in the same physical space as another person (157), extended empathy comes from conjecture, guessing why a person reacts a certain way (158), and fictional empathy comes from relating to a character or non-human entity (159). VR film, and “Henry” specifically, involves being physically next to a fictional person and interpreting their responses to events. During the VR experience, the viewer observes from nearby, watching Henry go about the festivities for his birthday. For the duration of the film, the viewer remains at a distance, able to observe but not truly interact with the environment. Hence, the experience seems more situated in Fuch’s second two categories of empathy, both of which involve separation. Yet, at key moments, most notably when his celebration and home get ruined, Henry looks directly into the viewer’s eyes. This action bridges the gap between the viewer and Henry, taking on a more primary empathy.
The key moment of empathy for “Henry” then poses another problem. The viewer needs to be looking in the right place in order to feel that connection. VR film grants the viewer freedom of choice; they can look where they want. As a result, a director cannot guarantee that their choice moments will get seen. If a viewer turns around completely when Henry looks in their direction, they will miss it and thus, the attempt to facilitate empathy will fail. Film can generally combat this by focusing the camera on whatever object the director wants the viewer to pay attention to. VR uses other filmic tools to combat viewer distraction, specifically sound and mise en scéne (setting, acting, costumes, lighting).
In “Henry,” the sound comes from the hedgehog, so that when a viewer turns away from him, they still hear him behind them. This keeps the viewer in tune to the narrative; if they hear something intriguing, they are likely to turn back around to see what has happened. The key moment of Henry looking dejectedly at the viewer gets accompanied by a similarly dejected noise coming from him. If the viewer isn’t looking, they will still hear the noise, which lets them know something bad has occurred, even if they don’t know what. Sound allows the filmmaker to control audience perception, even if they are not looking in the right place, they still take certain cues. The mise en scéne works in a similar manner. While the viewer can look anywhere, movement generally only occurs in one section of the screen, drawing attention to that area. For example, when Henry moves about the kitchen at the beginning of the film, he’s the only thing in motion; everything else seems frozen. The frozen images are less interesting to observe, as they do not change, which encourages the viewer to keep looking around until they find the focus of the scene, where events happen.
While a separate medium with its own challenges, VR films like “Henry” use filmic techniques to facilitate empathy between the viewer and the characters on screen, only without the frame of a screen.
Bazin, André. “The Myth of Total Cinema.” In What Is Cinema. The Regents of the University of California, 1967.
Clune, Michael W. “Virtual Reality Reminds Users What It’s Like to Be Themselves.” The Atlantic, April 20, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/04/the-virtual-world-in-a-real-body/478956/. Image.
Dau, Ramiro. Henry. Virtual Reality. Oculus Story Studio, 2016. Ekos VR Experiences. Henry a VR Experience – Oculus Story Studio – Oculus Rift, 2016.
Fuchs, Thomas. “The Virtual Other: Empathy In The Age of Virtuality.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 21, no. 5/6 (n.d.): 152–73.