As a medium, virtual reality has primarily been the domain of tech-savvy, youth-oriented marketing outfits— advertisers saw an opportunity to define the contours of entertainment’s future, and they eagerly dove in with a wave of branded content that revolutionized the concept of “immersive” video. Of its various genres and sub-formats, 360 degree video — video that fixes the viewer in one spot will enabling a full sphere of surrounding image — has emerged as the gateway into the wider VR world. Most audiences are already able to experience 360 video in-browser, with no need to purchase and plug into an expensive, admittedly-unwieldy headset. This cottage industry has bloomed overnight, with nearly every major brand dipping their toe into the VR pool in one capacity or another.
Despite this newfound potential to redefine interactive storytelling, VR has managed to attract scant few filmmakers of the orthodox cinematic tradition. Indeed, the format is somewhat antithetical to a director’s natural instincts, forcing him or her to construct a story without imposing a predetermined field of view, doing away with the notion of composed “shots” altogether. Leave it to director Terrence Malick to be one of the earliest high-profile filmmakers to embrace the format’s innovative promise. After the completion of 2017’s SONG TO SONG, Malick partnered with The Factory, Facebook’s in-house creative studio, to develop a 360 virtual experience called “TOGETHER”. The five-minute piece is rather simple, conceptually, yet abstract enough to foster multitudes of interpretation. Malick’s digital camera, operated by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, tracks gently along the image’s z-axis as it oversees performance artists Jon Boogz and Lil Buck engaged in an interpretative dance about the physical and emotional walls that prevent human connection. The environment is a dark soundstage populated with a series of billowing, free-standing curtains, upon which several elemental images of creation and nature are projected. Complete with a swelling orchestral accompaniment, TOGETHER plays something like a live stage adaptation of his 2016 IMAX documentary, VOYAGE OF TIME — a notion that’s hammered home by Malick’s ending on the image of a glowing galaxy hanging overhead, reminding us that, despite our many differences, we are all made of stardust.
Malick’s involvement no doubt served to elevate TOGETHER’s profile beyond that of a branded technological demo, disrupting VR’s distribution and exhibition precedents in the process by landing screenings at South By Southwest, Tribeca, and several other film festivals around the world. As of this writing, Malick is set to delve deeper into VR’s uncharted territory with a project called “EVOLVER”, in which he’ll team up with composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to explore “the lifespan of the human condition”. Until then, TOGETHER stands as Malick’s latest entry in a string of works that seek to distill cinema to its visual essence, so as to reconstruct it in a form factor that will carry a century-old medium well into its second.
TOGETHER is currently available via the Vimeo embed above. It is best viewed, however, using an Oculus Go or Samsung Gear VR headset.