Check out this Chaplin video The Fireman:
This movie came out in 1916. It is now the year 2020. Exactly 104 years will have passed come this June. The film is just as good.
Nobody cares that it’s in black and white and that it has all these flickering specs riddled across the screen. In fact, sometimes people add this effect deliberately to give their video charm. Can you imagine that? Degrading the quality as a stylistic choice? That doesn’t make any sense.
Why don’t we care about the quality when we watch Chaplin’s movie? Is it because we know he was using the best quality he had at the time? Is it because we intellectually respect that this was the start of cinema as we know it? Maybe. But I think it’s even more simple than all of that.
It’s because Chaplin rocks.
Chaplin movies are entertaining. They tell a compelling story and they engage us the whole time because of the content. That’s why they succeeded early on, and that’s why they succeed even now when we have much higher resolution and fidelity.
Think about when you watch an old SNL sketch. My favorites are from season one with John Belushi. Yet the quality is SO BAD. It doesn’t matter. When we see human beings up on stage doing very human things communicating very human messages, we don’t give a fuck what it looks like. My friend Tatanka puts it this way:
“It’s not about the medium, it’s about the message.”
If you have Janis Joplin screaming herself hoarse into an old-fangled scratchy microphone, we don’t even see the microphone, we don’t even see the scratchiness. We see the themes and the concepts and the images she’s passionately depicting for us. We see her NEED to make this song, we see her WHY.
We don’t care if there’s a screen door between us and our little kids in the backyard. We just see the kids. When we talk with somebody on the phone, we don’t really even see the phone. We just say, “I talked with so and so this morning.” The medium is blatantly visible but we choose to ignore it. We know it’s there. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a vessel.
When you try to hide the vessel and make the audience believe what they are seeing is real, that’s when you get push-back. That’s when you get naysayers and hecklers. (That’s when having to pull the trigger instead of actually holding a cup feels hokey.) Some magicians often tell me that they find it hard performing for people because everyone always heckles. Yeah, no shit. When you bring out a weird plastic box that you clearly bought from a magic shop and then try and tell everyone it’s a completely ordinary box and are trying to make your audience think that it’s actually ordinary, you are out of your right mind if you think somebody’s not going to say, “Hey wait, that doesn’t really look normal.” If you say, “Hey I’m about to show you a magic trick using this thing I bought from a magic store” people are much more likely to say, “Okay,” and sit back, and just enjoy the spectacle. They’re actually eager to witness the impossible. All that content message stuff pumping through this gimmicky plastic vessel. It’s not about the medium it’s about the message.
So many times people try to make their audience think the VR experience is real. I got news for you: Nobody who first had to put a headset on is going to think the virtual world is real. No matter how good the resolution is. Yes, the headset adds a level of immersive-ness and yes it is very easy to forget you have a headset on (re: not using controllers to interrupt the experience) but even if VR was extremely high quality and you could smell and touch things, the fact remains that people will know the whole way through, in the back of their head, that they are watching a contrived experience.
This is why I love seeing improv shows where they use zero props. There’s nothing more magical than when an actor on stage is playing a character and mimes that he’s holding a phone or a shovel, and then uses the invisible prop so realistically that we almost believe it exists. When we leave the show, it’s literally as if we saw the shovel in his hand. In fact, years later, some people might even mis-remember him as actually having a shovel on stage.
“Remember that time we saw that show and the guy was hit in the head with a shovel and started rolling into the audience.” Nobody would ever really respond by saying, “You mean the pretend shovel?” They’d likely just roll with it. “Oh yeah, what a great show.”
It’s also like when you’re watching a cartoon and the dad is reading a newspaper but there’s no actual text on the newspaper. It’s just a bunch of shaded box shapes with black scribble lines, but yet it somehow really does look like he’s reading the newspaper, and nobody ever calls it out, like “Hey that’s not a real newspaper!” because it’s not about the friggin newspaper. It’s a fucking cartoon show. It’s not even real life. It’s about whatever the story is that’s being conveyed through this cartoon vessel. This medium.
All this to say that the quality and resolution of VR headsets should be FAR from a DETERRENT to produce good VR content. The resolution is actually pretty fucking great on the latest Oculus products. Even your iPhone in a cardboard headset should be a fairly successful vessel for you to articulate your ideas using this medium.
Take a lesson from Charlie Chaplin — the guy who had to build his own sets in order to be conservative with his budget because nobody wanted to work with him — just fucking do it.
People want to watch VR, that’s why millions of them bought headsets.
Back in the day when cinema first came out, they had little stations on the street in America where you could insert a quarter and put your eyes up to the lenses and watch a 20-second or five minute film of China. This was just a one-take shot on the street in China with people buzzing around you. This was most people’s first encounter with movies. It’s very much like all those 360-degree YouTube clips of “standing in Time Square” or “sitting in a forrest” or even “China” — we’re in the such early, primitive stages of this medium it’s absolutely ridiculous. Just imagine where it will be 100 years from now.