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6 Things VR Storytellers Need to Know

by Joshua Yancey 5 years ago in how to / industry / list / movie / pop culture
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Cinema ate the stage. Will VR do the same to cinema?

If you’ve already figured this stuff out, then hurray for you! Also, you’re lying. Nobody has developed the language of the VR story yet. This is just a primer, briefly touching on the history of film and how it relates to VR and what that might mean for the future. If you’re interested, you can find a more in-depth look at that particular topic here.

In this version, I would like to give budding VR filmmakers a few things to keep in mind when sketching out their next film. Take this stuff with a grain of salt because, like I said, nobody has this figured out yet. The answer to cinema’s essence came from outside the tech itself, which is to say, it was more about philosophy than technology. It may well be that the same thing is needed to find the key to VR storytelling.

You may have a background in narrative films, but anyone picking up a VR camera now is an experimental filmmaker because there is no existing convention yet that you can follow. The points below are meant to merely give you some ideas when conducting your experiments and guide your conclusions. There’s no such thing as failure here. Every VR film has value because it is a step on the road to discovering how, or even if VR storytelling can take audiences further and farther than they’ve ever been.

1. Story will always come first.

VR is new enough that simple scenes presented in virtual reality are still pretty impressive. It’s VR! Even boring stuff is cool. But that wears off, as we all know. Modes of storytelling come and go, but stories themselves never change. They will always have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Everything must start with the story. Fancy new tech means nothing if the story it tells is boring the audience. A well-done puppet show will always be more entertaining than the slickest banal production. Make sure you have a good story first. The VR is there to support the story, not the other way around. If you don’t have a good story, get back to work. Tell it however you like, don’t even use words if you don’t want to, but tell your story. Don’t skip out on this.

What’s your favorite movie? You’re wrong. It’s The Holy Mountain. That’s an easy question, right? Even though you got it wrong, you did think of an answer and probably had good reasons for doing so. Now, what’s your favorite 3D movie? Can you think of one? If so, is the reason that you like it because of the 3D effect? Or the story.

VR is the new 3D. Don’t ruin it like they ruined 3D. They’ve been promising us 3D movies, for real, since the 50’s. They keep trying to figure out ways to make people buy 3D televisions for their home. They keep making 3D movies, and nobody seems to care. Nobody really buys the 3D TV, and if they do, they hardly ever use that feature. 3D brought nothing to storytelling. It didn’t enhance the story, merely the process of watching the story. That’s why it never caught on.

VR has the same “potential”. If film had never gained an advantage over stage plays, we’d all still be trekking down to the local playhouse every Friday night to see a live performance. Film exploded when it’s language was figured out because that allowed it to tell stories better. That’s it. Edits could tell a story in a way that words simply couldn’t. They could reach right in and tweak your chest by merely changing an image. Stage plays couldn’t compete.

2. The VR version of editing will be key.

I said before that the essence of cinema is editing. If you don’t know what that means, then read on, otherwise, skip ahead to the next section. Editing is what separated film from the stage. During a live performance, there are no edits, at least not the kind seen in film. In a play, the stage may fade to black and subtle rustlings in the darkness might herald a change to the actors or scenery. When the lights come up again, the audience now must take in this new scene and re-establish themselves in the world of the play.

In film, not only is this change instant, that speed allows for the story to be told purely through editing. Developed by Sergei Eisenstein who built on the work of Lev Kuleshov, editing, or montage theory, is the core of cinema. It is the telling of a story by placing of images one after the other. The famous example is of a close shot showing a man’s passive face. In the next shot, a bowl of soup. The audience will draw several conclusions from this based on their reading of his face. Does he want the soup? Is he hungry? Is he going to eat that soup?

In reality, that soup wasn’t even there. It was just a guy staring into a camera. This is the subtle power of editing. Who said he’s thinking about soup? Nobody. You just concluded that on your own. Editing, therefore, involves the audience in the story. Their prejudices and ideas become part of the filmmaker’s tools and they must participate, even unwittingly, in the process of storytelling.

If a story fails to involve the audience, the story fails. Academy Award winning writer/director Andrew Stanton’s first rule of film is “Make me care.” This is another way of saying, “Involve me. Get my emotions and mind involved in the story.” In film, editing is a powerful, if often overlooked tool. Whatever the VR version is (assuming there IS one) will have to be just as sublime, powerful, and new in order to push VR storytelling into the mainstream.

In the pursuit of this innovation, it is important to remember that editing happens, for the most part, externally to the camera. While it is possible to edit on the fly while shooting, this is rarely done. One set of artists shoot the film, and another kind of artist edits it. The technology of the camera is irrelevant. Image capture issues aside, you could just as easily edit film from 100 years ago as you could a digital image now. The camera was just the first part of the process.

So, too, might it be that the VR camera is just the first part of the process. Before film, editing had only ever really been used in books. Even the Bible employed editing, that’s how long it has been around. When thinking about your story, go outside of VR. Hell, go back to the Bible and look for something. The next great step in VR storytelling could come from almost literally anywhere. If it enhances the story, then you know you’re onto something.

3. Films are constrained.

Keep this constraint in mind when striking out to tell your VR story. You might think of films as being fairly free, but that’s only because you’re accustomed to seeing them doing things only one way because that is the way that works. If you saw a film that violated the 180° rule, for example, you would quickly become confused. The 180° is like the camera trying to preserve the proscenium of the stage.

The first narrative films were made by simply placing a film camera in front of stage and filming it as a stage play. They took the new thing and pointed it at the old thing. Nothing was stopping the camera from being placed on stage with the actors, so that was the next leap forward.

Now the audience was closer to the action than they had ever been, but there were new concerns. It took years before people realized that cutting into a scene with another scene could achieve fantastic results. I could alter time, change an emotion, but there were limits. If the camera crossed the imaginary 180° line that bisected the scene, audiences would lose track of the scene and become confused due to the angles. It’s one of those things you don’t notice because it’s not there. Hardly any films cross that line and most know what they’re doing when they employ that technique.

Keeping the camera oriented in that way pushes the viewer back into the audience just a bit. It brings them on stage, but only up to the fourth wall, pressing them right up against it but not letting them through. Remember this when you start blocking your VR project. The camera voluntarily constrains itself to aid the viewer. You might want to do something similar.

Having access to a 360° view is fun for some things, but it may not be the best way to tell a story. If the viewer constantly has to turn their chair to track the action, they may get exhausted and simply stop watching. Just because something can do 360°, doesn’t mean it has to, or at least, not the whole time. One of the last Harry Potter movies had only the epic fight scene in 3D, while the rest of the film was good ole fashioned 2D. Sometimes moderation is the answer.

Many times, VR filmmakers have made the mistake of thinking that “involving the viewer” means forcing them to interact physically with it. This could mean pressing buttons or simply turning their head. Now that you know there are more profound ways of involving the audience, don’t forget that films and plays, stories in general, are passive forms of entertainment.

I suspect this approach is driven by the fact that the earliest adopters of VR tech were gamers and gaming companies, which makes sense. Video game worlds were already open to exploration in 360°. It might be that combining the active approach of gaming with a more traditional sedentary approach is going to create the next form of storytelling. I suspect this is not actually the case. Stories offer us escape from our normal lives where we have to take action and make decisions. We want to sit in the dark and watch someone else do it for a change and films let us do that. If you choose to take this approach to your story, try to remember just how lazy most people are. I’ll give you an example.

Often when watching something on my VR headset, I will become aware that something is happening behind me. When I’m sitting in my office chair, it’s a simple process of spinning around to view it. On the other hand, when I’m on the couch, I have to get up, make sure I don’t hit my shins on the coffee table, then turn, see what it is, and then most often think to myself, “That was not worth getting up for.” (Yes, I’m very lazy.)

If there were a quick way to spin the camera around so I could see it without actually turning my head, I would prefer that. Imagine the D-pad most often found on VR controllers. If I could swipe to the right with just my thumb and spin the camera in the direction that I swiped, I would consider this a huge leap forward. It would simultaneously enable both my curiosity AND my laziness. Win, win!

4. New tools will need to be invented.

In this endeavor to tell new and exciting stories via VR, there will likely be no shortages of companies offering toys to help you do so. Be wary. When cinema began, the filmmakers themselves often had to invent new tools to do what they wanted to do. Consider the camera dolly.

Dolly shots are ubiquitous now, but before the invention of the camera, there was no such thing. Well, there was such a thing, but it was just used to move hay around, I guess. At its most basic, it’s a cart on wheels, after all, but put a camera on it, and new worlds open up.

The dolly allows for tracking shots, slow pushes into a scene, and just about anything else you could imagine. When I worked in film and television, I rarely ever saw the camera off of the dolly, even when it stayed still, the camera was usually set up on the dolly. That’s how useful the dolly is. Even when the camera isn’t rolling, you can just roll it to the next position.

When designing your VR story, look around your world and find the pieces that you need to make your story work. If you can’t, then build it. Filmmakers made their own toys back in the day, you can too. Keep in mind that this might not simply mean physically creating something. It might be that you need to write the code that allows you to do something no one has thought to enable yet, like the idea above about swiping. VR is obviously technical so the solutions to its dilemmas may be similarly technical in nature.

The main thing to keep in mind, once again, is the story. The dolly is incredibly useful for moving the camera around set, but it also enhances the story. A slow push in on an actor’s face who has just received some new information tells the audience that something is going on. We may not know what, but we know that this piece of information will be important later on. And we know this simply because the camera moved.

Such a simple trick, and yet it’s power to drive the story and involve the viewer is profound. As an experimental VR filmmaker, your job is to find the next innovation that does as much with as little.

5. Absolute freedom isn’t necessarily good.

We all know freedom isn’t free. It costs $1.05. It’s why terrorists hate America, right? Because we’re so free? Freedom is great, until it’s not. Consider the cautionary tale of No Man’s Sky.

When it was announced, the makers of No Man’s Sky promised gamers unfettered freedom across and entire galaxy populated with more planets than you could ever hope to visit, and gamers went apeshit. When it came out, they went apeshit again but for a different reason.

This article from Cracked sums it up rather nicely, “Absolute freedom means there’s nothing to do.” The audience needed guidance and instead were basically told, “We made the game. You figure it out.” In the case of Dark Souls, this can be exhilarating, but that’s because you have a very primal goal: don’t die.

The first crop of VR films seems to be trying to figure out how to give audiences something they may not want. Oculus Story Studio’s Henry, for example, tries to cue the viewer where to direct their gaze next by using a firefly. This seemed to be a tacit admission that there was too much freedom. When they released their next film, Lost, there was far less freedom. The fact that it still makes for a compelling film seems to imply that total freedom does in fact, suck. Incidentally, their list outlining what they learned about the VR story process can be found here.

Audiences want a lot from a story, but the first and most important is not freedom, it is to simply be entertained. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between how free the viewer is to explore and how entertaining that story must be. I would expect it to be along the lines of the more freedom you have, the more entertaining it needs to be, but I have no idea how that might work. In real life, it’s easy to see. Prisoners can be entertained by the simplest things, while a free person is easily bored despite having an entire world of entertainment at their fingertips.

Remember that stories are physically passive while being mentally active. There is also the flexibility to entertain multiple viewers at one time. An entire audience can sit in the dark and watch a film just as easily as a solitary figure can. Right now, VR can’t match that, but this is a whole nother story.

6. Get out there and film!

This is a very exciting time, both for VR enthusiasts and for storytellers. We get to watch as a new storytelling language is invented You, the person reading this, might be the one who cracks the code! Don’t be afraid of failure. There’s no such thing right now. It might a good thing that you don’t know what a shot/reverse shot is. Who knows? Just get out there and film.

Play around. Make mistakes. Waste time. In the process of doing so, you might spill the sugar into the wine and invent champagne. Be aware of the history of cinema, but not bound to it. You are doing something new. The old can help you, but ultimately, you will be, to an extent at least, destroying the old. Don’t expect too much help on that front. After all, as the saying goes, it wasn’t candlemakers who invented the light bulb.

Think about what a VR horror story might look like. Learn why comedies are lit and shot differently from dramas, and then apply those lessons to VR. Think about what an establishing shot would look like in VR. How might edits happen? Do you even need edits? Throw everything out, if you want, just make sure you know what you’re throwing out. You might need it later.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is this; No one has the right answers yet. If you are to be the one who finds them, you will need to be brave and overcome obstacles. You will face guardians and self-doubt. You will suffer setbacks, but in the end, you will tell your story. And you will become my hero.

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About the author

Joshua Yancey

I'm a story designer and writer from the US now living in the UK. I've worked in film and television for over ten years and now use the story lessons I learned to write compelling stories covering a range of topics.

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