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Ever wanted to become a movie character? This is what it's like*

*You may find yourself apologising to someone afterwards.

NO FEE Digital Biscuit 13 Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

FOR NEARLY 20 minutes recently, two TheJournal.ie reporters became entirely different people, genders and all… and one had to apologise to the other afterwards.

It was all because of The Doghouse, a Danish short film made specifically for the virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift. (Unsure what that is? See our explainer at the end of this article)

The Doghouse is a film installation, where five participants sit down at a table set for a traditional Danish dinner (no food included though, sorry), and immerse themselves in the action.

Each person chooses a character from the film, puts on the headset and headphones, and experiences the subtitled film through the character’s eyes. Quinton O’Reilly and Aoife Barry gave The Doghouse a shot. Here’s how we got on…

Life in The Doghouse

NO FEE Digital Biscuit 12 What's Aoife doing in this pic? Answers on a postcard. Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Quinton: Before we sat down and put on the headsets, one of the producers Mads Dambso encouraged us to choose a character that was the opposite of who we were. That automatically ruled out the youngest son (my childhood had made me an expert in that already) and since I didn’t act fast enough to choose the girlfriend, I ended up seeing the world through the eyes of middle-aged Danish lady, These are sentences I never thought I’d say in any capacity so you can probably imagine how weird the experience was.

Aoife: What character was I? Like Quinton, I went for a totally different experience and became the eldest son, a strapping young man in skinny jeans. So far, so different from my real life. Especially when you consider that Quinton was, for 17 minutes, my mother.

Quinton: While you’re really only experiencing a first-person viewpoint of that character, it feels more like an out-of-body experience, you know you’re not that person, but you are experiencing their view of the world and their words.

Aoife: I was a little unsure about trying Oculus Rift. I’m used to watching movies on a big screen, or computer screen. There’s always a comfortable sense of distance. What in earth would it be like being inside the film? There was, of course, only one way to find out. Strap the damn thing on my face and get it over with.

doghouse 1

Quinton: It’s strangely effective and while you could argue the same for any first-person game that’s ever been released, it’s the combination of VR that gives it depth and immerses you further. It’s not a full 360-degree video, more like 175-degrees at best, but it does feel all-encompassing as you take in your surroundings.

Aoife: As a viewer, it’s startling and exciting to actually be a character. It’s like the buzz you get when characters break the fourth wall. You feel like you’re breaking a rule, and it’s liberating. It was a little like watching the footage you see when someone straps a Go-Pro to their head (which is effectively what these actors did), but with more of a rounded view.

Quinton: As my character began making her way to the dining room and the other characters eating, the interaction became tense, mainly thanks to my character who berated and teased everyone except the youngest. That alone made me feel somewhat awkward and since I’m not exactly the confrontational type, the looks of discomfort and annoyance directed towards myself was strange.

Aoife: My character was annoyed with Quinton’s character, or rather, Mum, and thanks to the top-notch acting (fans of The Killing and Borgen, you know how ace Danish actors are, right?), it was all incredibly effective and tense. The film itself is a domestic story, and anyone who’s endured an awkward family dinner will most certainly empathise with the characters. So in that sense, it really did feel at times uncomfortably real.

Quinton: Since we were sitting at a basic dinner table (in real-life) we could hold the cutlery and wine glasses so we weren’t passive throughout the entire film. This was easier said than done as the disconnect between the film and real objects makes it difficult to find them in the first place – my character really, really liked wine – and my attempts to drink were scuppered by the Oculus Rift itself which I kept hitting off any time I brought it close to my mouth.

Aoife: Occasionally, the smell of Danish gravy and potatoes would waft in a warm cloud past my nostrils. This wasn’t some Oculus Rift trick (like I had hoped), but in fact a real-life meal being prepared near us. In any event, it certainly made me feel like I was tucking in with the family, although as a veggie I’d normally eschew, rather than chew, the meat.

doghouse gif 2

Quinton: Once the film was finished, we had a discussion about the film and filled in the blanks that each character experienced. Without spoiling too much of it, it involved having to apologise to Aoife for being a bad mother (that’s two sentences I never thought I’d say), and having to explain why the room was quiet when one character returned.

Aoife: Each character has a little section where they are not around most of, or any of, the other characters, so there’s a little part of the narrative missing from each of our experiences. You don’t get this with ‘normal’ films and it makes for a great post-viewing discussion. In fact, if it was absent, the whole experience would be lacking something quite integral.

Quinton: The other part that’s probably worth noting is the film is roughly 17 minutes long, and while it never happened to me before, my eyes were stinging a little after it. While the display gives the impression of depth, in reality, you are looking at a screen that’s placed closer to you than what you’re used to. It could have been a once-off in my case, but the warnings to take regular breaks when using it makes sense.

Aoife: While we’re on the subject of Oculus Rift and its technological voodoo, when your character moves, your brain says ‘hey, you’re moving!’ while your body yells ‘ah lads, no I’m not’. For some of us, that disagreement meant a lurching stomach and a feeling not unlike motion sickness. The only cure? Shut those eyes. Otherwise you risk losing your lunch.

Is this the future of film-making?

NO FEE Digital Biscuit 8 Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Quinton: If it is, there will have to be a number of developments first before it becomes the norm. As mentioned earlier, reducing or eliminating the strain on your eyes is a big ask since it’s difficult to create a truly immersive film if you have to take regular breaks from it.

Also, while I know very little about film production, I’m guessing that the amount of planning and headaches a 180-degree film, let alone a full 360-degree film, would contain makes it a tough prospect.

For now, it’s an experiment to see how far you can push a medium and what solutions you can come up with to bridge the gap. It may not be the future (yet), but the potential there is significant, and that alone is enough to push it forward.

Aoife: The producers, Mads Dambso and Lasse Andersen, told me afterwards that they don’t intend VR films to replace traditional cinema. But it is a wonderfully creative way of viewing a short film, and of really immersing yourself in the action. And while there wasn’t much actual ‘action’ in this film (mercifully for our stomachs), I do wonder what other scenarios would be effective using this mode of filming.

What about a murder mystery, or a spy thriller… or, hell, a romantic comedy? The potential is huge, and it also offers interactivity on two scales – the actual watching of the film, and the illuminating discussion with your fellow viewers afterwards.

It’s quite an intimate way to experience film withstrangers, while being on a different plane of virtual reality, man. Enjoy this in its small-scale, arthouse style, and await how it develops.

Oculus Rift explainer

- With additional reporting Aoife Barry

The Doghouse will be shown at the Digital Biscuit festival, which will run at Dublin’s Science Gallery from Wednesday 28 to Friday 30 January. Speakers will include David Chase and Michel Gondry.

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Quinton O'Reilly

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