Standing alone in the Pilbara desert, dusty and desolate sun-scorched land stretches out in every direction. Occasional kangaroos are the only signs of life in a vast, brown, natural nothingness.
But the peace is about to be shattered. An atomic bomb explodes somewhere in the distance, creating a monstrous mushroom cloud that rises into the sky as ash falls from above, showering me like rain.
I look up in awe and horror. I can almost see a figure of something otherworldly – a kind of mythical monster or spirit god – emerge from the smoky formation.
A few minutes later I take my headset off. This is a virtual reality film, a milestone VR production, in fact – the first in history to tell an Indigenous Australian story.
Collisions, which turned heads at last month’s Sundance film festival, was directed by acclaimed screen artist Lynette Wallworth. Her two-plus decades’ work in digital environments spans formats such as video installation, documentary, augmented reality and full-dome planetariums.
It recounts the real-life experiences of Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, an elder of Western Australia’s Martu people. His first encounter with western culture (in the 1950s) occurred when he witnessed an atomic test. It is from his perspective this story is told.
Wallworth was selected to make the film by Sundance’s New Frontiers Institute, who encouraged her to break new ground. To date VR films tend to be short and superfluous: floating down a computer-generated river, for example, or watching helicopter footage of a safari.
“Sundance is interested in narrative,” Wallworth says. “So they really want to know: can narrative exist in this form? If so, what might traditional film-makers be able to do with the technology?”
Certain film-making techniques are generally considered no-fly zones in VR, or at least have been until now. “Rule one, you can’t move the camera. Rule two, you can’t go any longer than 10 minutes. Rule three, your brain can’t handle scene-to-scene transitions. You have to fade in and out of black.”
The director, no stranger to hugely ambitious projects, set about breaking those rules. Altering the position of the camera or cutting between scenes may sound like simple things – indeed, these are basic elements of film grammar – but when applied to virtual reality they pose certain problems.
Cut between images or move the camera and people can get nauseous. If viewers were to watch a rapidly edited production in VR – let’s say, for the purposes of hypothetical masochism, a Transformers movie – they can expect to also see their most recent meal come back up.
But, says Wallworth: “That’s what people said at the beginning of cinema, that you can’t move the camera … In VR it’s not that you just can’t move the camera. It’s that there are some movements that are much more nauseating than others.”
Wallworth and her crew, who were invited into the community by Martu people, film on the ground, in vehicles and on drones. The camera moves but in extremely measured ways: the drone might go up and down very slowly, for example, thus not causing any detrimental or disorienting effects on audiences.
The director cuts between scenes, rather than the much more common use of dissolves and fades. She also incorporates voiceover narration, which was developed in consultation with the editor, Joe Bini, a long-time collaborator of Werner Herzog.
These elements combined – the movement of the camera, traditional cutting of sequences and use of a voiceover track – arguably make Collisions the first virtual reality film in history to use a broad palette of cinematic techniques. It undoubtedly marks the continuation of a rich history in milestone-making Australian screen pioneers (the world’s first feature film, after all, was the Victorian-made The Story of the Kelly Gang).
With several VR headsets on the market and many more to come, it’s an exciting time for a platform some of the world’s largest tech companies are betting big on. Conscious of how male-dominated mediums such as cinema and television evolved, Sundance is working to ingrain virtual reality with diverse talent from the beginning.
“For Sundance it’s like, let’s put women and people of colour in this field right at the start. Let’s give them this opportunity because it’s an emerging form,” says Wallworth. “With many new technologies there’s not a high percentage of women. Sundance wanted to support this new technology, bringing people to it who might otherwise wait years to get access.”
As virtual reality finds its feet, another conversation will invariably involve ethics. There are already virtual reality films on the market that enable viewers to visit desecrated war zones such as the heavily bombed city of Aleppo in Syria.
Wallworth says: “There are people jumping on planes as we speak, heading to disaster zones with a camera. They’re not journalists and they might not operate under any code of ethics.
“Protocols and ethics emerged from journalism, as they have around documentary film-making. Those discussions also need to be had around this form, because it can take you anywhere.”
Like any emerging digital medium there are various technical issues. Filming within 1.2 metres of a human subject, for example, is practically impossible to do in a way that doesn’t cause problems in the editing room, when a process known as “stitching” connects images from various cameras used. (Collisions was shot on a device made up of 16 Go-Pros.)
Because the technology captures 360-degree environments – thus filming in every direction – the director cannot simply walk behind the camera to avoid being included in the shot. Once “Action!” was called Wallworth and her crew hid behind bushes to escape being filmed, sometimes even got in cars and drove away.
Abiding by the well-worn movie mantra that one ought to save the best for last – or at least end with a bang – Collisions concludes spectacularly. From high in the air we watch Morgan perform “mosaic burning”, creating huge rings of fire that blaze across the desert.
The elder was keen to share this process with audiences. Collisions is, after all, a film rooted in his experiences. The director’s use of cutting-edge technology to illustrate them is likely to have a big impact on audiences.
I can still see those fires; I can still envision that mushroom cloud rising into the sky.
“Nobody knew about this story,” says Wallworth. “Now I don’t want them to forget it.”
• Collisions is showing at select festivals and events around the world and will open in Australia later in the year