Whilst investigating narrative possibilities within mixed reality and immersive environments and 360 spherical films, I can’t help but see the similarities with early 20th century cinema. With this nascent spherical medium people are experimenting and attempting to work out possible ways of storytelling. Chris milk, CEO of VR studio Within (formerly VRSE), has likened these first steps into the 360 environment to the Lumiere Brothers 1895 first motion picture showing with their short piece ‘Arrival of a train’, people in the audience thought the train was coming towards them and ran out of the cinema.
Milk includes a homage to this in one of his first VR pieces, a showcase of sorts called ‘Evolution of Verse’ where a train comes headlong at the viewer. The standout of this piece though being the foetus reaching out to touch you.
Early Russian cinema was instrumental in pushing the envelope of this new 20th century medium, and Dziga Vertov’s silent documentary – Man with a movie camera (1929) was instrumental in this, called the ’Greatest documentary ever made’, it has no story and no actors.
From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The film is primarily famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, dutch (Deutsch) angles, extreme close ups, tracking shots, backwards footage, stop-motion animation and self-reflexive visuals (at one point it features a split-screen tracking shot; the sides have opposite Dutch angles).
Vertov, and his wife Elizevata Svilova were members of a collective of Soviet filmmakers in 1920s Russia called Kinoks (cinema-eyes). From 1922 to 1923 they published a number of manifestos in avant-garde journals which clarified the Kinoks’ position. The Kinoks rejected “staged” cinema with its stars, plots, props and studio shooting.
Vertov. Kinoks: A revolution.
You–filmmakers, you directors and artists with nothing to do,
all you confused cameramen and writers scattered throughout the
A friendly warning;
Don’t hide your heads like ostriches.
Raise your eyes,
Look around you–
It’s obvious to me
as to any child
the guts of strong sensations
are tumbling out
of cinema’s belly,
ripped open on the reef of revoultion.
See them dragging along,
leaving a bloody trail on the earth
that quivers with horror and disgust.
It’s all over.
Kino-Eye, p. 13
Another interesting early 20th century filmaker/theorist was again a Russian, Lev Kuleshov, he carried out what is called the Kuleshov experiment. It is a film editing (montage) effect by which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation.
Kuleshov edited a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine’s face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief or desire, respectively. The footage of Mosjoukine was actually the same shot each time.
As this seems to have turned into a piece on early 20th century Russian cinema I may as well mention Sergei Eisinstein’s 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin, the famous Odessa Steps sequence featured below.