A few weeks ago, I found myself in Spike Jonze’s Chinatown home dodging Syrian kids as they played soccer. I was wearing a headset that had me immersed in a 360-degree virtual reality documentary shot at a refugee camp in Jordan. As I turned my head to follow the action on the field, I lost my balance and kicked the leg of the nearby kitchen table. I wasn’t used to watching a convincing virtual reality movie (who is?) and felt bested by technology, like when an old person is listening to a museum’s audio tour on headphones and keeps shouting at people because she can’t hear her own voice.
The film was one of three that Jonze and the director Chris Milk had me experience using the headset. There was also an animation in which you’re standing in the middle of a lake. A train chugs across the lake, right at you, and then through you, exploding into hundreds of birds. The third film is composed of super-close-up footage of protesters demonstrating at an anti-police-brutality march in Manhattan (it was produced in partnership with VICE News, and Jonze is a longtime VICE creative director). The company behind these movies is VRSE, a virtual reality production house founded by Milk and backed by Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison and venture-capital cash. VRSE has impressed the entertainment industry at Sundance and global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The possible future of VRSE has Jonze and Milk ecstatic, like it’s the early days of filmmaking and they’re Eadweard Muybridge. And while the thrill you get from watching the movies can be hard to describe, it’s safe to say these guys are on to something, even if no one’s quite sure what that is yet.
I interviewed them while Jonze softly strummed an acoustic guitar.
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