VR Cinema. Virtual Spectacle as a Dream


The essay analyzes the meaning of the term “immersion” in relation to its application in modern cinema, explores the significance of physiological sensations in the perception of artistic and entertaining VR content, and discusses the main features of the aesthetics of 360° spherical video.

In a state of immersion, a person ceases to psychologically perceive the screen as a repeater of an artificially created world, actually merging with the surrounding space. This technology, embodied in VR films, poses many still unresolved issues: the management of the subject’s attention, the role of editing, the quality of sound, the use of music, film narration, the participation of the viewer in a film's events, work with light and color.

The VR video format with a 360° overview is used in many areas: music videos, virtual tours, documentary travels, independent “dives” into art works, digital painting, and installations. In all these cases, the viewer feels like an observer, finding himself in the very center of an infinite, all-encompassing virtuality.

In contrast to the traditional film that appeals to the mass consciousness of the audience, the viewing of VR content is aimed at the personal self-awareness of the individual. Images perceived in this format have a potentially higher impact on the human psyche and the human unconscious because they are remembered more vividly as a result of the complex involvement in the personalized experience “here and now”. The ability of the author-artist to create for the viewer an emotionally saturated “dream” — with the psychological fusion of the subject and the space takes place — is a qualitatively new quality of VR dives, a feature uncharacteristic of traditional visual arts.

Full Text

The world is a complex of perceptive senses.

Man is a stream of impressions.

Hume 1


In the early 21st century, a period already marked by the growth of processor computing output, improved quality of displays, and popularization of digital cameras, one more technology appeared, making man and artificial virtual reality as close as possible: virtual reality (VR) immersion with a 360° field of view.

Early attempts to realize a similar artistic practice were made in 1957. Morton Leonard Heilig, the man who created the first system closest to the modern VR helmets and the author of the article The Cinema of the Future wrote: “[…] a really stupendous fact if that these new mechanisms have embodied clearly and brightly what painting, photography, and cinema together had tried to do all together—to reproduce the world in all its beauty, as it is perceived by a human being” 2. These qualities were attributed to a device 3, visually similar to a video game machine, where the spectator was to insert their head and experience the “complete presence” effect: the screen demonstrated a recording “from the first person,” the seat vibrated and moved, dynamics translated sound, and the camera received corresponding odors. In the author’s opinion, mass production of such recordings was to be a logically doubtless step in the evolution of the art of cinema.

According to James Jerome Gibson’s concept of visual perception, which was a contribution to the theory of mastering immersion, human beings perceive their bodies and surrounding spaces as a whole, where a special place belongs to the sight system sight is “kinesthetic, i.e., it regulates the body’s movements in the same way the ‘muscle-joint-muscle’ or vestibular systems do. Sight grasps both the movement of the whole body relatively to the Earth, and movements of separate limbs relatively to the body. So, visual kinesthesia works along with the muscular one. Sight receives information of both the surrounding world, and the observer himself” 4. The “eyes-nose-hands” system is a wholesome organ perceiving the surrounding space and the absolute reference point of distance for movement; it confirms the trustworthiness of the world observed by the brain, allows to orientate oneself in it, and to estimate the scale of surrounding objects. Such validation can also be projected to the perception of modern VR production that is beginning to penetrate the media.

Virtual corporeality as a phenomenon

The spectator’s full tactility in relation to a work of art, events, and heroes is now applied within immersive theater with no auditorium in the traditional sense, no “fourth wall” separating actors from spectators, and the action can take place in several locations simultaneously. The director creates various behavior patterns for spectators, giving them more active roles: in such plays the participants can choose their roots by themselves, following this or that plotline, influencing the action on the stage, contacting the actors. As a multistage scenario presupposes broad field for improvization, it supposes the collective tactility of the participants within the artistic happening, so that the spectators, remaining themselves (hidden under masks when necessary), can physically interact with the real set, actors, with one another.

Is it possible, however, to realize a scenario of this kind in VR? We remember that body and corporeality, from a philosophical point of view, are integrally interconnected and are treated as the most important element of human subjectivity (Edmund Husserl, Jean-Luc Nancy, Michel Foucault, and others). In virtuality, where parameters can be changed, the foreground belongs not so much to the biological essence of the human body, with its attributes set by nature, but rather to its correspondence to the psychological experience as suitable shell of conscience. Understanding this adequacy of the individual inevitably leads to a discourse that attributes the main role to the influence of experiments with long-time existence in an alien virtual body and their visual habituation on the human state of mind.

Reincarnations of such kind are investigated in the genre of interactive VR quests. While past projects of this technology were regular video games mastered by a player on his or her seat by means of VR spectacles, it has now become possible to practically fully submerge in the virtual world—with individual displacement and by using various objects. The participating team of one to three players is equipped with rucksacks, helmets, and special costumes with sensors that fix the situation of arms and legs inside the virtual space. As the game progresses the participants, without gloves, can hold hands, touch real objects, leaf over books, and take things on the platform, where every object has its own model of virtual play destination. The action continues in a pavilion with several sections, corridors, and rooms, meaning that the participants have full freedom of displacement. Due to such involvement in the virtual world, by wearing sensors and helmets a person turns into a living “avatar” who creates a supplementary subpersonality capable of keeping natural voice and sensitivity in modeling various sensations with the help of boots and costumes. For the participating subject, the VR quest is a kind of “virtual machine” for producing super-emotional experience, which synthesizes various trends of art — in particular immersive theater performance (orientation at subject), cinematography (staginess, visuality), video games (interactivity), and figurative arts as a whole. “See means feel”—this is the slogan of a spectator–player, a full-right participant in the events. An example of such project is the artistic, interactive VR quest The Psycho (2018), lasting 60 min per performance.

VR cinematography does not offer such degree of immersion in the recipient’s outer and inner sensations, as well as possibility of free displacement inside the artistic space; its classical approach is hypnotic and meditative rather than imitating the observer’s real reciprocity with the interactive environment. Nevertheless, the VR format drives the application of the immersion principle on a fundamentally new level. Videos with 360° field of view are now actively used in many audiovisual trends, such as musical video clips, virtual excursions, trips, independent “immersions” in digital painting, and installations. A characteristic example illustrating a high grade of immersion in modern cinematography is, for instance, the VR trailer to the figurative film Time of the First (2017, director Dmitry Kiselev). With the visual representation of the arms and the body serving as base reference frame, fixing the conscience, it allows the spectator to embody an astronaut during a spacewalk. Though the subject does not sense the spacesuit physically, nevertheless, by watching the video in their VR helmet as if being inside a spacecraft, they are gifted an extraordinary emotional experience, inaccessible through the means of classical cinema.

The spectator is “led” through the created world of the VR film and “allowed” to look around, to observe what is happening outside by means of various methods. The experiments with the spectator’s cognitive state in virtual reality are now at the initial stage of development; yet this technology demands the creators of VR plots to deal with unsolved tasks, such as operating the subject’s attention, the role of montage, the sound quality, the application of music, cinematic narration, the spectator–participant’s role in film events, the work with lights, and colors. Some VR films are experimentally made in black and white tones: one example is the short VR film on a medieval subject The Story of One Clown (2016, director Alexei Bysritsky), where the protagonist–spectator is carted to the execution place.

In the case of a VR film, the traditional cinema language is unserviceable in many aspects; rather, we may speak of a synthetic union of cinematography and theater, and the transition from a montage sequence to the virtual imitation of a stage performance, where the action is uninterrupted and the spectator is inside the watched mise en scène, in the very center of the events. In this case the scene should be extremely intense, so that any scenario of the spectator’s behavior could produce esthetic effect. Taking into account that creative possibilities in designing worlds of such kind are limitless, we may speak of potentially endless spectators’ immersion in the space of a digital dream.

VR film as spectator’s dream

In the opinion of Christian Metz, French cinema theorist, semioticist and author of Imaginary Meaning. Psychoanalysis and Cinema, the notions of “film” and “dream” lie on one metapsychological level but present a number of significant differences.

A person dreaming is unconscious that he or she is sleeping, while the cinema spectator knows about the cinema auditorium. This is the first difference, fundamental one, between situations of film, and dream. But at times the break between film and dream may somewhat curtail. In the auditorium the emotional participation can become especially mighty, depending on the film itself and the spectator’s personality, and then the perceptive transference in those short moments of fast-fleeting intensity increases by an order. The subject’s comprehending the film situation becomes less clear, it loses steadiness 5.

Such moments are when the perception of the film and the projection in the spectators’ minds are closest.

A diegetic film and oneiric stream of consciousness have both doubtless differences, and certain similarities. Watching a film, a spectator perceives images and sounds that represent real objects, while an oneiric projection is purely subconscious and accessible only directly for the person dreaming. The error rate in dream is considerably higher, since “[…] the subject ‘believes’ stronger, and what he believes in is less ‘true’” 6. Meanwhile, […] a diegetic film as a whole is much more “logical,” much more “made up” than a dream. Film fantasies or fairy tales, where unrealistic aspect is powerful, quite often are only are subject to different logic, the genre logic, a pattern of general rules set beforehand, and within the rules such films are absolutely logical. Rarely can we discover in a film narrative that impression of true absurdity we usually experience trying to recall our own dreams or getting acquainted with the dreams of others 7.

Despite frequent (but not obligatory) lack of logic, dreams can significantly differ not only for different persons but also for the same person in different periods of life: many dreams are wholesome and consecutive stories that can be reconstructed and written down by the dreamer immediately after awakening. Consequently, both dreams and films, after some time, leave “imprints” of emotionally enlivened experience in the memory. Metz concludes,

The film stream is more similar to oneiric stream than other products of wake. As we have already said, it is perceived in the state of weakened wake. Its meaning itself (sound images and movements) gives it a certain similarity to dream, as it directly coincides with the oneiric meaning in one of its two key qualities—expression “in images,” i.e., according to Freud, is subject to embodying in images. Among various wake regimes, filmic state is one of those most similar to sleeping and dreaming, to dreams we see 8.

Then, the stronger the emotional impression left on someone having watched a film or experienced night dream is, the deeper emotional imprint remains in memory. This explains why many people can remember their childhood nightmares throughout their lifetimes, while film characters are “liquids in communicating vessels,” after watching them “flow” into dreams to take part in new plots generated by the subconscious and extending the place of their dwelling in the imaginary personal space. Carl Gustav Jung writes in his works dedicated to dreams, archetypes, and the unconscious: “[…] dream is an unpremeditated trip happening to us. Dreams influence a person’s general emotional state, letting him or her live while sleeping through feelings blocked in real life due to these or those reasons” 9.

Alejandro González Iñarritu, the creator of Oscar-winning VR installation Flesh and Sand (2017), the action of which is dedicated to the social problem of the wall on the US–Mexico border, is attending the birth of some new art that requires special grammar.

I took an artist’s risk, went along yet unexplored paths and learned a number of lessons. Here is no frame, no two-dimension limitations. During this realistically unreal experience our feelings are tested for strength. The experience obtained during the installation will be unique for everyone. I wanted to create full submerge. And unfortunately, the theme of immigration requires demonstration in VR, since in common life we have already lost sensitivity 10.

According to witnesses’ impressions, this emotional experience of submerging in the VR is extremely difficult to compare to anything: in the end the spectator is “killed” with a rifle bullet in the middle of a desert.

Experiencing such a situation crosses the borders of conventional interaction of an observer with a work of art. VR content, being immersive, is capable of deeply influencing the “dreaming I” of the spectator submerged inside an artificial illusion spreading around them. The author–artist has the ability to present a spectator with an emotionally satiated “dream,” where the subject and the space psychologically merge. There is a fundamentally new, unique specificity of VR immersions, unusual for classical arts; unlike traditional film, which appeals to mass consciousness in the auditorium as to a collective “interlocutor,” the demonstration of VR content is addressed to individual, personal self-sensation. The subject’s focus while watching removes the depth of personality: “What is more important: the film heroes or myself (my emotional state among these heroes and circumstances)?”

We may then single out three thematic psychological constructs in the spectator’s self-definition inside the VR space: What do I see? What do I feel? Who do I feel myself? From the point of view of terms, this chain can be defined as “Visuality–Sensitivity–Role.” It is the accentuation of the “I” of the spectator inside the VR film that makes the artistic language of this format qualitatively original, up-to-date, and having high potential for further practical plans.

* * *

Undoubtedly, the VR format is now passing the testing stage for both its creators’ artistic abilities and the cognitive potential of lovers of such experiments. By analyzing the spectators’ demand and interest we may state that the modern audience is in favor of transitioning from the model “I-observer,” as it used to be in the epoch of analog mass media, to the state of “I-participant” that is now possible thanks to digital technologies—with the current individual’s state based on dynamics of sensations, namely “I find myself,” “I am passing,” “I am interacting.” However, it is difficult to foretell what direction the development of the modern filmmaking industry will take considering adaptation of modern tendencies—especially in the area of VR technologies, which is inevitably connected with cognitive psychology and modeling human conscience. The axiological questions of further modernization of the cinema industry due to introduction of visual effects and virtual artifacts also remain unanswered. By pursuing outward technological attractiveness, will we be able to preserve inner depth and morally oriented spiritual values? The main question remains directed to worldview criteria and future support for spectators. In the digital age these problems, claiming for discussions, disturb many film scholars, as they require a profound and truly “immersive” approach of academic research in the area of innovative modeling audiovisual works.





1 Hume D. Sobranieye sochineniy v dvuh tomah. Т.1 [Collected Works in 2 volumes. v.1]. – Мoscow: Thought, 1996. P. 54

2 Heilig M.L. El Cine del Futuro: The Cinema of the Future. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992. P. 284.

3 This device named Sensorama became the world first virtual simulator.

4 Gibson J.J. Ecologicheskiy podhod k zritelnomu vospriyatiyu [The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception]. – Мoscow: Progress, 1988. P. 263.

5 Metz Ch. Voobrashaemoye oznachayshee. Psychoanalis i kino. [Imaginary meaning. Psychoanalysis and Cinema] – SPb.: Izd. Evropeyskogo universiteta v Sankt-Peterburge, 2013. P. 123.

6 Ibid. P. 132.

7 Ibid. P. 145.

8 Ibid. Pр. 150-155.

9 Jung C.G. Vospominaniya, snovideniya, razmishleniya [Memories, dreams, reflections]. — Mn.: ООО Harvest, 2003. — 496 p.

10 Shorokhova T. Go and Lool: cruel virtual reality of Alejandro González Iñarritu // Kinopoisk.ru // URL: https://www.kinopoisk.ru/article/2961433/ (accessed: 20.04.2019) (In Russ.).


About the authors

Vasily N. Novikov


Author for correspondence.
Email: vestnik-vgik@vgik.info

Post-Graduate Student

Russian Federation


  1. Gibson J.J. (1988). Ecologicheskiy podhod k zritelnomu vospriyatiyu [The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception]. – М.: Progress, 1988. – 464 с.
  2. Heidegger М. (1993). Vremya I bitiye: Statiyi I vistupleniya: Per. s nemezkogo [The Time and Being: Articles and Speeches]. – М.: Respublika, 1993. – 447 p.
  3. Metz K. (2913). Voobrashaemoye oznachayshee. Psychoanalis i kino. [Imaginary meaning. Psychoanalysis and Cinema] – SPb.: Izd. Evropeyskogo universiteta c Sankt-Peterburge, 2013. – 337 p.
  4. Hume D. (1996). Sobranieye sochineniy v dvuh tomah. Т.1 [Collected Works in 2 volumes. v.1] – М.: Thought, 1996. – 735 p.
  5. Jung C.G. (2003). Vospominaniya, snovideniya, razmishleniya [Memories, dreams, reflections]. — Mn.: ООО Harvest, 2003. — 496 p.
  6. Heilig M.L. (1992). El Cine del Futuro: The Cinema of the Future. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992. – 294 p.

Supplementary files

Supplementary Files
1. Новиков В.Н. Фото автора

Download (356KB)
2. Artistic interactive VR quest ‘‘ The Psycho ’’

Download (73KB)
3. A shot from the VR trailer for the film “Time of the First” (2017), directed by Dmitry Kiselev

Download (93KB)
4. VR film “The Story of a Jester” (2016), directed by Alexey Bystritsky

Download (116KB)
5. A.G. Inyarritu and E. Lyubetski at the premiere of his VR film “Flesh and Sand” (2017). At the Cannes International Film Festival, the film won an Oscar

Download (117KB)



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