Originally posted on ITP’s Directing Virtual Reality class blog

My classmates Jomo and Aimee’s presentation on “Cinematography in VR” last week left me thinking a lot about how environmental lighting can be leveraged to create a richer immersive experience in VR.

This still from Paris, Texas stuck out to me in particular. I find myself wanting more of the space than this frame can capture- I want to be able to look around, to be there. Jomo mentioned that the filmmakers wrapped green cellophane over the fluorescent lights at the gas station to create this otherworldly contrast, adding that VR filmmakers could get better at manipulating and utilizing light.

I started thinking about films that use the dumbfounding effect of ambient light to slow down pacing and highlight the textures of a space. Days of Heaven uses the golden hour to draw out existential prairie scenes that feel effortless to watch.

Looking back at the successful immersive documentary VR films we’ve discussed all semester, I’m now struck by the ubiquity of the golden hour, or horizontal light in general, in outdoor spaces.

Here’s The Displaced, for example:

A newer film, NYT’s 10 Shots Across the Border tells the story of José Antonio, a Mexican teen who was walking to his mom’s house when he was fatally shot through the US/Mexico dividing wall by a US border patrol agent. The film leverages horizontal light in nearly every scene to establish a sense of immersion.

Here’s the first frame of the film, an aerial shot which establishes where the scene of interest takes place. This opening shot is filmed during the golden hour, which serves the dual purpose of evenly lighting the focal point of interest below, and illuminating the level at which the viewer is situated, especially the helicopter behind the viewer, to provide transparency and establish safety, allowing the viewer to orient themselves in this 360 space.

Shots on the ground– of José Antonio’s house, of the wall itself– are filmed during the golden hour or in horizontal light from streetlamps. Both types of light cast long shadows over the space, across any one field of view. This prompts the user to look around, creates a sense of immersion and make the viewer feel connected to the space.

The exception is the place where José Antonio was shot, which is filmed in a harsher, more direct light. It’s illuminated from the side, enough to see it clearly, but it’s not romantic or interesting. In this light the scene is flat and washed out. As a result, it feels hard to connect to this space. This perspective is that of the US Border Patrol– a lens established by being driven around by them at the same height at roughly the same light just before cutting to this shot. It’s hard to have empathy for the person who sees the world in this unromantic light.

Warm light helps the viewer to slow down and feel comfortable. Placed horizontally, it casts long shadows that encourage the viewer to look around past the view of the frame and highlight the dynamic textures of the space. Whether the rule of horizontal light in documentary VR film is emerging or already standard, its value is huge in helping a viewer feel immersed in an outdoor space.

But now the illusion is ruined for me, and every film looks the same.