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Virtual Reality Needs Storytellers

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In this article for UploadVR I talk to leading producers about the challenges and opportunities for telling stories in Virtual Reality.

We’re just beginning to figure out the potential of VR as a storytelling medium, so many of the rules, techniques and conventions we take for granted in filmmaking and theatre haven’t yet been tried, tested, or codified Click To Tweet

Virtual Reality has been talked about so much that it’s sometimes easy to forget how new the whole thing is. It’s also easy to miss out the fact that at its core, this isn’t a story about machines, but about people. Among all the new releases and the full-blown arms race around the latest hardware, we’re forgetting that what makes VR so exciting has as much to do with art as it does with science and tech.

A lot of the craft skills that visual arts professionals have developed over the years can be adapted or reinvented for VR Click To Tweet

Virtual worlds have been around for ages, as has this type of immersive technology. The real game changer is that now we’ve reached a place where the technology can be used to tell compelling stories that we can all consume.

Pioneering the New Age of Storytelling

“It’s important to remember that this is the equivalent of the 1900s in film,” says Luke Ritchie, Executive Producer at Nexus VR Studio. Based in London, they’re a division of independent creative studio Nexus, which has produced a host of award-winning works over the past 20 years and is now betting on VR content as the next big thing. He believes that we will look back at this time much like we now study the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat reel, which had audiences jumping out of their seats to get out of the way of the incoming train.

We’re only just beginning to figure out the potential of VR as a storytelling medium, so many of the rules, techniques and conventions that we take for granted in filmmaking and theatre, for example, haven’t yet been tried, tested, or codified. In sum, we need to get busy writing the VR rulebook.

But do we do this from scratch, or do we try and adapt existing techniques from familiar media? Both, believes Ritchie. VR is a unique medium with its own set of parameters, but a lot of the craft skills that visual arts professionals have developed over the years can be adapted or reinvented for it.

“Everyone is still learning,” says Nexus Founder and Creative Director Chris O’Reilly. “You have to rethink staging, art directing, lighting, and there’s a very different production pipeline so we had to do a lot of specific R&D around that. It is really important that things are challenged in that space. Some of the less interesting experiences in VR film have been merely where you have the ability to look around and there has been no creative development around the idea of telling a story in space.”

Among all the new releases and the full-blown arms race around the latest hardware, we’re forgetting that what makes VR so exciting has as much to do with art as it does with science and tech Click To Tweet

“Film is quite easy to check, you just play back. But in 360, as you’re looking in one direction something can be happening in another, so doing post checking on something like that can be quite tricky.” adds Ritchie “I think we’ll end up writing coding scripts that automatically check for things such as pixel alignments and things like that. The processes aren’t that dissimilar though, the main learning curve is in how to tell that story in 360.”

360 film scripting, for example, merges traditional film structure with those gamification mechanisms. O’Reilly shows me what this looked like for their newest film Rain or Shine, which is a Google Spotlight short being released later in the summer. There’s a grid showing a “golden thread” with each element of the core story surrounded by variable paths that allow for deviation and exploration by the viewer.

360 scripting merges traditional film structure with gamification Click To Tweet

The key to that type of scripting is shaping the narrative in such a way as to always guide the viewer/participant back to that “yellow brick road” even if they want to take the time to go down all the different paths available, exploring the peripheral elements and smelling the virtual roses to their hearts content.

“You might have a scripted story, but how do you know which characters to follow? You have to think outside the box.” Explains Ritchie. “In Rain or Shine we used this very directive soundscape where when you move away from the main action the music changes and starts to give you clues that you’re in a less critical story space, and characters can each have a different theme.”

Advantages of the Medium

As I watched a preview of the film, prompts guided me through the story without making me feel “herded”. At certain points in the narrative where the main storyline was supposed to unfold, a pigeon showed up which naturally made you want to follow it (although you could do so in your own time, or not at all) It reminded me of the Hansel and Gretel faerie tale where the children follow a trail of breadcrumbs to try and find their path through the woods (although in that particular story pigeons actually gets them lost by eating those breadcrumbs). Ritchie calls these “subconscious navigation devices,” and they are familiar to most gamers. Video game designers routinely use such mechanisms to give players a sense of mastery and agency where there are, in fact, only a finite number of options available to them.  “The whole objective of this type of narrative is to get you from A to B without you ever thinking you were headed for B in the first place,” concludes Ritchie.

Another thing Nexus did when designing that experience flow was speak to architects, adds O’Reilly, as they’re very good at corralling people through expansive open spaces.  Just think about how an airport naturally funnels you through the various stages of check-in, security, shopping, waiting and boarding, or how difficult it is to “go against the flow” when wandering around IKEA. That is essentially human experience flow by design, and it works just as well in the virtual world as the real one.

“We also spent a lot of time talking to people who worked on immersive theatre,” adds Ritchie. “Immersive theatre works in spaces, not scenes, and they already told stories in 360 space where they didn’t know where you were looking and you might be encountering the story in a different order than someone else, but they were still emotional experiences.”

The point he makes is that although new media and digital formats might seem closer to the heart of VR at first glance, once you delve into the production side it becomes clear that it has many more synergies with traditional storytelling mediums such as film and even theatre. Even in the inventing of new techniques, that physicality of the stage comes into play, as O’Reilly explains: “When dealing with a 360 space you come up against problems that you don’t have in traditional film such as “where do you put the crew?” So you have this crazy-sounding solution called “stacking” where you try and position people in a row with the tallest one in front and all the others behind, so you only have to paint one of them out of the scene.” He laughs as I suggest that they might start recruiting crew for VR productions taking into account their relative height and “stackability”.

Although new media formats might seem closer to VR at first glance, once you delve into the production side it becomes clear that it has more synergies with traditional storytelling mediums such as film and theatre Click To Tweet

Another recent example of this theatrical overlap is fabulous wonder.land, a Virtual Reality experience produced by the National Theatre in London to accompany their musical production inspired by Alice in Wonderland:

This article originally appeared on the UploadVR Website

 

 

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Alice Bonasio is a VR Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio and @techtrends_tech on Twitter.