​Don't confuse a hack director for a hacker-director.

Toronto filmmaker Elli Raynai considers himself among the latter, modifying virtual reality technology to make the kinds of movies that can really get into an audience's heads.

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Actor Nina Iordanova adjusts a bike helmet rigged with GoPro cameras. An Oculus VR headset is strapped to the back of the helmet to record her head movements, which are then fed into a laptop connected to a backpack she's wearing. (Irem Harnak)

A self-described "DIY micro-budget" filmmaker, the 37-year-old began exploring last year how he could harness the promise of VR-simulated environments for cinematic storytelling.

The problem? No reasonable tools existed for a small-time director to pull that off.

"This is a whole other medium. It has different rules," he said. "We didn't know how to do it."

So Raynai began attending VR meet-ups in Toronto. He met his filmmaking partner, Alexander Kondratskiy, a 26-year-old programmer. The duo decided quickly that they would have to build their own solutions.

"It was about hacking technology to try and make the most of it," Raynai said.

3D stereoscopic effects

The completed short, titled I Am You, runs 10 minutes and debuted this month at Toronto's Kaleidoscope interactive art crawl. 

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A screen grab from the 3D virtual reality film I Am You shows a stereoscopic view created by overlaying two GoPro camera views shooting from an inter-pupillary distance of 64 millimetres, mimicking an average distance between normal human eyes. (Courtesy Elli Raynai)

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A stereoscopic 3D effect was created by having the actors wear a helmet with two GoPro cameras shooting with an inter-pupillary distance of 64 millimetres. (Courtesy Elli Raynai)

It was filmed using a $500 Oculus Rift development kit from eBay, a bicycle helmet rigged with two GoPro cameras and some reverse-engineered gaming software.

The technical challenges of working with VR were unlike any other movie Raynai has made.

Even figuring out how to play back "dailies," or raw unedited footage, proved complicated.

"The way you watch VR is through a gaming engine," Raynai said.

Kondratskiy helped troubleshoot, writing a plug-in for the Unity gaming engine to support video playback using the open-source VLC media player.

"It's not something you would buy off the shelf and have people kind of plug and play," he said. "If we couldn't get video playback working for VR ourselves, then the project's dead."

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Actors Nina Iordanova and Andrew Pimento rehearse a scene from the Canadian indie short I Am You, which was filmed for the virtual reality Oculus headmount. The story involves a young couple who experiment with a new app that allows them to trade counsciousnesses. (Irem Harnak)

To create a truly stereoscopic 3D effect, Raynai and Kondratskiy calculated an ideal "inter-pupillary distance"of 64 millimetres between average users' eyes, then rigged two GoPros to a bicycle helmet to mimic normal human sight.

The two actors alternated wearing the helmet to achieve a first-person perspective.

"We strapped the Oculus to the back of the helmet, and we had a PC basically recording where the Oculus was oriented so we would know where the camera was looking while we were shooting the video," Kondratskiy explained.

A laptop in a backpack worn by the actors tracked their head movements, feeding data from the "inertial measurement unit" (or IMU) from the Oculus to the computer. 

'Looking through the characters' eyes'

"Funnily enough, that's how we came up with the title I Am You," Kondratskiy said.

According to the local VR community, I Am You represents Canada's first independent movie scripted and shot exclusively for a VR head-mounted display. 

"It was fantastic. I hadn't seen a film like that shot for VR before," said Stephan Tanguay, who watched the film on an Oculus Rift at Kaleidoscope.

"It's a pretty significant development when we're talking in terms of the film language in a story, and how you create a sense of immersion, as opposed to just watching an image."

Tanguay, a 3D game designer and VR enthusiast, was particularly interested in the stereoscopic effects and sense of depth perception that it gives to the viewer.

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A scene from the Virtual Reality film I Am You. The first half of the film gives the Oculus wearer the impression of being in a 360-degree movie theatre as the action happens on the screen. Viewers can turn their heads and look behind them, at the floor, or to the exit door at the side of the simulated cinema. (Courtesy Elli Raynai)

"It felt good. Like you were looking through the characters' eyes," he said of the movie, which tells the story of a young couple's experiments with a new app that allows them to switch consciousness.

"[Virtual reality] is an experimental medium, so we're in the very pioneering phase, where you'll see the highest amount of work nobody's tried before."

I Am You was shot for less than $3,000 in four days, but Hollywood is also convinced of VR's possibilities beyond the niche gaming scene.

HBO and Lion's Gate have signed deals for producing content for VR goggles.

The Sundance Film Festival featured a VR tent showcasing documentaries and experimental promos. New York's Tribeca Film Festival included a Storyscapes exhibit featuring VR "immersive creations" such as a walk through a maze in the dark.

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A participant at the Kalediscope art crawl event in Toronto previews the virtual reality film I Am You. The 10-minute short cost under $3,000 to make, and could be among the first independently made live-action films produced exclusively for a VR head-mounted display. (Elli Raynai)

As a marketing tool, VR has also been exploited by networks like Fox, which commissioned the Toronto firm Secret Location to create a CGI "installation" allowing viewers to experience a chase by the Headless Horseman, as part of a promotion for the supernatural TV series Sleepy Hollow.

Montreal VR studio Félix & Paul created a marketing tie-in for the Reese Witherspoon film Wild, transporting Oculus users into a new 360-degree scene from the movie.

Until now, though, Raynai and Kondratskiy don't know of anyone who has attempted a standalone indie film project in Canada that tells a scripted story using VR.

"I came to it from a narrative background to make a narrative story," Raynai said. "I'm not a commercial director. I'm a guy who's trying to make movies."

Now that their film is complete, Raynai and Konrayskiy plan to host a wider premiere in June at Toronto's Videofag cinema and performance lab. They also hope to get the film in front of programmers at Sundance, Tribeca, South by Southwest and other interactive festivals.

"VR is still in its early days, but there's a lot of excitement around the content that people are making," Raynai said.

"I'm hoping our film will stand a good chance of being featured."