The University of Newcastle, Australia

Behind the big screen

How does the filmmaking industry keep up with the increasingly digitised world? That is what Dr Simon Weaving is examining through his research into virtual reality filmmaking and efforts to keep the cinema industry relevant in light of the increasing popularity of television streaming services.

Simon Weaving

Australia has highest cinema ticket prices in the world but also has the second highest per capita rate of cinema consumption, so there’s no doubt that as a whole Australians love movies. But dig a little deeper into the statistics and you find some worrying trends.

Dr Simon Weaving, a filmmaker and academic with the School of Creative Industries, says that, with the increasing use of television streaming services such as Stan and Netflix, the frequency with which people visit the cinema is dropping. This has left the film industry asking ‘how do we make going to the cinema a habit again rather than a one-off night out?’

“My background is in filmmaking and what I’ve discovered since becoming a film academic is that there is very little research done on this industry,” Dr Weaving said. “It’s one of those businesses where people mostly go by gut feeling and there’s not a lot of emphasis on deep research. My aim is to change that by developing a research network with key organisations within the Australian film industry. It’s an exciting initiative and one that I hope will create a research agenda that is really industry focused and will help solve the problem of the moment, which is when you can buy a ten dollar a month subscription service, why go to the cinema?” Dr Weaving asked.

Dr Weaving says that the unique features of going to a cinema are not being experienced by the younger generation who are more likely to ‘Netflix and chill’ on a Friday night than venture out to the local ‘flicks’.

“People over 25 tend to already have a cinema habit because they experienced it before the introduction of television streaming and most surveys show they still think cinema is the best place to watch a movie. But the younger generation don’t necessarily think that and see the cinema as a kind of old school way of experiencing films. Which raises the question of how does the movie industry drag itself away from its 1950s model of mass communication for film distribution, which is clearly no longer valid in a user experience connected world?’

“For a number of different film genres the shared experience of watching a film in a cinema becomes very important. There’s nothing like watching a comedy or horror film in a big cinema with other people. Through my research I want to make sure the younger generation maintain the understanding of the power of that shared experience and the unique nature of cinema.”

Dr Weaving is working with the lead players in the Australian film industry to shape a research agenda that delves into the challenges facing the industry today.

“One of the key things we are going to do is map the customer journey so the industry players understand that the customer is not just thinking ‘what movie do I want to go to and where is it on’; it’s much more involved than that,” Dr Weaving said.

“There’s some fabulous research showing that a key part of the cinema experience is about memory making. For a lot of people it’s the only time they can get out without their kids and for younger people it’s a chance to hang out in a space of their own with their friends. There are some powerful memories created in the cinema, for example many people have their first girlfriend/boyfriend date at the cinema. I want to understand the dynamics of the customer journey and their experience and how the industry can tap into that to influence customer decision making.”

Dr Weaving’s network plans to use Newcastle as a test bed for detailed market research with test audiences, questioning their attitudes and conducting focus groups to understand how they perceive cinema and to provide an alternative way of understanding the user experience.

“The industry uses a mass communication model which we think is out of date. We’re saying it’s much more complex than just making a product, communicating it to the audience and then they buy it. We’re saying let’s unpack that experience and really understand it.”

The new world of virtual reality

Emerging technology such as virtual reality is having an impact on the film industry and raises never before asked questions such as ‘how do you write a script for virtual reality when the audience is immersed in the scenario’ and ‘how do you direct for virtual reality when you can’t be on the set’?

It’s these types of questions Dr Weaving set out to answer in his virtual reality filmmaking research project that saw him create a movie called Entangled.  He says it was a fascinating experience that presented many challenges.

“All the traditional filmmaking rules change when you’re using virtual reality.Firstly you’ve got to work out why you’re making something with virtual reality - a lot of the VR movies I’ve seen are better suited to traditional filmmaking. Virtual reality is to do with total immersiveness. When the viewer puts on the headset they’re in the middle of your film and they can look wherever they want, you can’t control where the viewers gaze is going to be. In traditional filmmaking you can say I want you to look at this small detail or look at this wide shot, but in virtual reality this story-telling control disappears but is replaced with this wonderful ability to immerse someone in a more sensory way,” Dr Weaving said.

“In Entangled we developed a story where you are in placed right in the heart of the experience. At a technical level the camera has to be in the middle of the set and action takes place around it. That then means the director and camera operator can’t be on set, which poses lots of technical questions to consider alongside the bigger issue of working out the immersive story telling idea.”

Dr Weaving documented his experience of making the virtual reality film and will use this research to write a journal article on the emerging industry.

“Someone recently said to me ‘virtual reality filmmaking now is where the film industry was in 1912’. Everyone is still working out the best ways to do it and what processes to use.”

Neurophysics and filmmaking

Traditionally movies that are close to being finished are shown to test audiences who then fill out a questionnaire giving their impressions of the movie. Dr Weaving and his colleague Dr Marc Adam from the University of Newcastle are pioneering a significantly more scientific way to test audience reactions to films.

“We monitor the audience’s neurophysiology while they are watching the film, and use this data to help determine the audience’s emotional state. We can then compare this data to what the film maker was intending the audience to feel,” Dr Weaving said.

The duo recently piloted this process with a Hollywood short filmmaker who had a high-budget action short-film in postproduction.

“We got him to identify 10 moments of the film and what emotion he wanted to illicit from the audience at those points in time. We then hooked up our test subjects to the system and had them watch the film. We measured their neurophysical responses and also had them self report on their feelings.”

“The film maker found the feedback most amazing. We identified moments where the audience were feeling annoyed or frustrated rather than scared, which allowed the film maker to make changes and adjust the film to try and get the desired emotion from the audience.”

Dr Weaving has produced two publications from this research and is aiming to apply for funding to expand the research further onto a larger test group and longer film.

“One of the real questions that we need to clear up is how do you know what emotion a person’s heart rate or palm sweatiness equals? Does it equal fear or excitement? There aren’t direct correlations yet between neurophysiological outputs and emotions. We’re very interested in exploring this in more detail.”