VR: Now starring Hollywood actors under your control
Pairing top actors with a team of interactive-video pros, "Broken Night" lets you direct the action of one couple's life-and-death night.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Watch this: "Broken Night" is VR that lets you play puppetmaster
For a virtual reality experience that probes a fractured mind, "Broken Night" does a good job putting tricky pieces together.
The experience, set to be showcased Saturday at the Cannes film festival's VR-heavy Next program, explores a woman's trauma-skewed memories as she recounts a crime to a detective. The viewer, grappling alongside her to figure out what really happened, chooses which of her memories to follow.
But more than its plot twists, "Broken Night" provides a peek at something fresh for virtual reality: what it feels like when the makers already know what they're doing. "Broken Night" combines a team from Eko, the most experienced company at making interactive live video, with actors Emily Mortimer ("The Newsroom," "Shutter Island") and Alessandro Nivola ("American Hustle," HBO's current "The Wizard of Lies"), some of the most talented actors to flex real muscle in VR yet.
VR, which uses headsets to make viewers feel transported into the middle of a story, is one of technology's hottest trends, attracting huge investments by giants like Facebook and Google. But one of the snags holding back VR's popular appeal has been a shortage of captivating content. The main hurdle for VR filmmakers in the past two years was simply to create experiences that didn't make you sick or blow the feeling of "being there." With that hurdle cleared, "Broken Night" shows what it can feel like when the acting and the interactivity are handled by experts too.
"This seems more like real life then either movie-making or the theater," Nivola said during an interview.
Mortimer and the "weird robot"
"Broken Night" was the first stab at virtual reality for both Mortimer and Nivola, who play the fighting couple of the film and who are also married in real life.
Acting in VR felt like it had touchstones in other kinds of performance but ultimately no true analog, Mortimer said.
In typical movies and television shows, actors play out their characters with the reality of filmmaking -- directors, camera operators and an army of other support personnel standing around silently chewing their gum -- filling up the other half of the room. With VR, however, everyone except the actors must evacuate as soon as the camera starts rolling, because it usually requires filming in 360 degrees. That leaves the actors literally on their own.
It felt like being "left alone with this weird robot," Mortimer said in the same interview, but the setup had some partial familiarities. It reminded her a bit of performing in a Woody Allen film, with a director who rarely gives actors a detailed sense of where the camera will be. (Mortimer was in Allen's 2005 thriller "Match Point.") VR also felt exposing like theater, she said, because of a similar feeling of standing in front of the audience with nowhere to hide.
Hollywood actors have braved VR before. In late 2014 -- way back when the only "headset" an average person could try was Google Cardboard -- Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and Oscar nominee Laura Dern appeared in a three-minute VR short linked to their film "Wild." Last year "Mr. Robot" cast members acted out a backstory to their USA Network series in VR, and Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender made a cameo in an "Assassin's Creed" experience.
Hollywood actors have largely appeared in VR as a sideshow to a traditional film or series. Until "Broken Night," none has taken on the kind of complexity of plot with original characters as Mortimer and Nivola did.
But removing the artificial trappings of a typical shoot heightened the feeling of reality, the pair agreed.
"You're not tailoring the size of your performance to the size of the shot. All you can do is just play the scene in as real a way as you know how," Nivola said.
Mortimer nodded. "It felt more like being that character in a real world. We got that feeling ... it was just you and me," she said to her husband.
Virtual-reality stories typically exist between two poles: Those you play like games and those you sit back and experience like a film. As filmmakers have begun experimenting with more interactivity in VR, filmlike experiences have been creeping into the realm of games.
"Broken Night," for instance, offers viewers the chance to choose between branching plot points. At a juncture point, the characters split from one couple into two. With only a few seconds to choose, the action will follow whichever couple holds your gaze. The complex nature of such storytelling is where Eko comes in.
The company, previously known as Interlude, first rose in public awareness in 2013 with a widely seen revival of Bob Dylan's classic "Like a Rolling Stone." That video allowed viewers to flip among 16 channels of different actors and reality-TV stars lip-syncing Dylan's lyrics while going about their normal routines. Since then, the company has continued to create interactive music videos, film shorts and commercials that give viewers choices.
Alex Vlack, the writer of "Broken Night" and vice president of creative at Eko, said the company's years of making interactive stories have ingrained "deep beliefs" about what interactivity can and should do.
"In these early days of VR, you hear a lot of live-action VR projects described as interactive, but only because you can look around ... or you can move your hands," he said. "But is it doing anything to the story? When we say interactive storytelling, we don't mean just the ability to observe differently. We mean the ability to actually affect the story as it's unfolding."
As a result, you don't play "Broken Night" like a game, with objectives to hit before you can advance. It unfurls like life does, giving you a limited time to decide which course to take before the rest of the action moves on -- and sweeps you along with it.
Vlack said Eko hopes more live-action VR projects embrace interactive storytelling, which has been rare so far.
"It's not because the world is full of unambitious creators in VR. It's just a new medium, and it's really hard," he said. "This is proof that it can be done."
Corrected May 22 at 5 p.m. PT: The network that runs "Mr. Robot" is USA, not FX.