The 2015 Sundance Film Festival has been taken over by virtual reality, but not every project being showcased here tells a story in a different way. Some filmmakers choose to make experiences based on computer-generated imagery; others prefer a live-action feel for their work. Kaiju Fury!, a 360-degree, 3D cinematic virtual reality film, goes with the latter approach. The project is a collaboration among New Deal Studios, Jaunt VR and the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, which combined forces last year to take more of a traditional narrative approach to VR. The result is a 5-minute short that instantly reminds you of classic franchises such as Godzilla, Jurassic Park and even Gremlins.
What I saw at Sundance was a 3-minute version of Kaiju Fury!, which was being screened on a Google Cardboard headset paired with a Samsung Galaxy S5. According to Ian Hunter, who wrote and directed the short, the final cut is expected to be released in roughly two months.
The plot behind Kaiju Fury! puts you at ground zero in a city where two enormous beasts, one with lit-up, blinding blue eyes, fight against each other, destroying everything around them along the way. Naturally, humans try to find a way to stop the madness and save what's left of the place. "Kaiju" is a Japanese word that translates to "strange creature," a very fitting description for both of the main characters in this story -- Hunter says they are known simply as Subject Zero and Subject X. Both characters, by the way, were designed at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, so don't be surprised by the slight resemblance to Jurassic Park III or Predator.
Just as you'd expect from a virtual reality movie, the story features immersive moments that are interesting and eye-popping, including a scene where Subject Zero is right in front of you, making deafening growls and staring right into your eyes. Throughout Kaiju Fury!, the director constantly changes camera angles, allowing you to see the action from two different perspectives. In one, you're close to where the two beasts are battling it out and, in the other, you get to watch as the people in the story talk amongst themselves about how they can control the chaos.
As action-packed as Kaiju Fury! may be, though, I found the experience to be underwhelming. It's also not as entertaining or involved as other VR projects I've seen at Sundance, like Birdly, a flight simulator, and Evolution of Verse, a short film that uses visual effects to depict its story. That, however, perhaps speaks to the challenge that cinematic VR as a whole could face, rather than the production quality and the story of Kaiju Fury! For Hunter, that's all just part of figuring out a way to engage audiences with a story that's being told in virtual reality. "There are no rules yet, so we wanted to experiment. Do you want to use sound; do you want to cut here or there?"
"It's about learning what works and what doesn't. It's about breaking the system," he said. When I asked Hunter what made him want to take the cinematic approach with Kaiju Fury!, he replied, "In the VR world, we are always told first-person, so we wanted to play with changes of views and follow the narrative in that way." Next up, Hunter says the idea is to create more stories like this and make them platform-agnostic; that way anyone with a virtual reality headset, like an Oculus Rift, can enjoy them.