Enter the New World of Narrative VR Production, from Script to Post
Three members of award-winning production company Filmatics break down what it takes to execute a narrative short in virtual reality.
From scripting in six quadrants, stitching dailies on set, and editing VFX with unbroken masters, three creative team members from Filmatics sat down with No Film School to explain their first foray into VR. Elia Petridis (Director, Founder), Devin Embil (Digital Manager), and Zeynep Abes (VR Consultant) detailed their five month process making Eye for an Eye: A Séance in Virtual Reality in collaboration with Wevr for us. Learn about how they translated traditional filmmaking strategies into a 360 immersive viewing environment.
NFS: Do you guys have a background in VR? How did you get started in making a VR narrative?
Devin Embil: We come from a very traditional cinema, filmmaking background. The idea of doing something in VR was just expanding the medium of telling a story. We worked in collaboration with Wevr based in Venice.
Elia Petridis: My background is actually in features, music videos, and branded content as a director. I've also done work as a screenwriter for hire, and I came out of USC. So I was engaged by Wevr as a creative. The technical initiative that they gave us was this: we have a lot of VR content but what we really would like is to try a narrative piece with structure and characters and dialog and plot and see what it feels like in virtual reality. How does that work to make a film in VR that's not spectacle or but something where you actually use the medium?
I thought that was an interesting challenge. I went back and ideated, put it together and then went and pitched it.
We all agreed that has always been the screenplay's job: to get you to experience it before you shoot. Why should VR be any different?
NFS: So how different was the process of creating this VR film from your traditional narratives?
Embil: We followed a lot of traditional filmmaking elements, as far as going from ideation to writing the script, to casting, table read, location scouting—all the producing elements of a 2D feature or a short film. We just applied it into virtual reality. The only thing that was mainly different in pre-production was the script. It was written in a non-traditional way because we wanted to write in a way that you could kind of see it in VR, so Elia actually wrote it in color-coded form. What he did was he broke the screen up into quadrants, so there's actually 6 quadrants and we have the front, right, behind, left, up, and down. He color-coded it, so front was black, red, blue, green, up was orange. I think purple was down. I can send you that information, too. So when you're reading it, both action and dialogue and transitions, you kind of know where you'd be looking in relation to the camera.
Petridis: I like to keep in mind the top and the bottom, the sky and the floor, but we called it quadrants because they're shot with four cameras. One of the cameras captures the top and bottom because the field of view is so wide that they can capture the up and down. On paper, each has a different color so that you can choreograph your eye as you're reading the screenplay. You can experience the work before you shoot a frame. We all agreed that has always been the screenplay's job: to get you to experience it before you shoot. Why should VR be any different?
Embil: Most of the action does happen in front of you because you are naturally looking ahead for the majority of the film. Then, if the character speaks from behind or the bird crashes into the window, you know on the script, you're reading it, where the position would be.
NFS: What made you decide to make the camera a first-person POV?
Zeynep Abes: Well, one of things is a lot of VR films you won't be like a character there. You'll just be there watching it. Since this was a séance in virtual reality, we wanted to make the audience a member of the cast, so you would be making eye contact with the person who's talking to you and everything. It just adds a whole new element of immersion into it.
Embil: "Immersion" really gets thrown around a lot in VR. To be fully immersed, you need to be there and feel that you're there, and the character can relate to anyone that puts on the goggles: old, young, male, female. It's something that anyone can relate to, the whole idea of being more immersive adds to that.
Abes: When we were demoing it in the Hollywood VR Summit before SXSW, we used a round table and we decorated it just like what you saw in the VR film. You had people sitting at the table like this, when they were in their experience. It's like a whole new was of experiencing a medium, you know. That what makes VR so special. The fact that you can directly just put someone there, it's a whole new level.
Everything you see between the fade in and the fade out are all done like a play. If your actor is off the line or misses her mark or if anything goes wrong within that four or five minutes of the scene, you've got to shoot it over.
NFS: What are some differences for production when you're shooting 360 degrees?
Embil: It is interesting because especially with VR and 360 video, you have to clear out the room. You cannot really hide behind the camera. That's why as a filmmaker, I'm always like, "I'm behind the camera," but with VR, it's like, "I'm in another room."
NFS: “I'm across the street.”
Embil: Actually, for this case, Elia was under the table, holding a monitor and watching what was going on! We had 3 monitors for forward, left and right quadrants so he was able to view and give pointers.
You really have to clear out the room. You're there as a camera. We really have to make sure that nothing can be seen, no crew member in the back walking through around the house. Also, one thing that we kind of looked for were actors who could deliver long takes—that often means actors who come from a traditional theater background. Everything you see is a long take.
Petridis: Everything you see is a master shot. It's a static master. Everything you see between the fade in and the fade out are all done like a play. If your actor is off the line or misses her mark or if anything goes wrong within that four or five minutes of the scene, you've got to shoot it over. There are no edits to the piece. Everything you see was shot by three or four masters for each scene and they've chosen one master for each to work with. We're married to that. We cannot swap out master one and then cut to master two. You have to commit to one. The second thing is that for inclusion the characters address the camera directly. They break the fourth wall. They talk right into the lens as if it was another character in the room. The camera was quite big. They would look directly into the lens of the GoPro and talk to the GoPro.
Also, in an immersive film, you have to figure out how to manage things that are smaller challenges in 2D. Little things, like candles going out in a stagnant master. What's it like blowing out a candle in a static master? That's literally musical chairs where the actor will say a line and I'll yell "freeze" and then all the actors absolutely freeze like icicles and the first AD will run and blow out the candle, run back out and then I'll go action and then they'll unfreeze and continue the scene.
We shoot blank plates of the room with nothing in it so we'd have that as a back up, then we'd shoot like just the candle alone being blown out and being relit. Then we'd have to marry all those layers together. This is how you feel like the candle went out in an immersive space. It's cool because I don't think any two narrative pieces are the same and that's beautiful because it's always been about that. Every film presents its own problems and that really should be; that's what's really exciting.
Embil: We had a Wevr team come and stitch while we were on set. Just to see what it looks like, it was a very quick rough stitch. What we shot in the morning, we were able to check after lunch and saw what it looked like.
We've got blank plates of everything...Then the special effects guy and then your editors and your colorists, they have that safety net to go on. You can start doing frames within frames within frames of that immersive space.
NFS: How do you edit with special effects in VR? What is the post-process like?
Petridis: We had an editor and an assistant editor that assembled the masters together and then Wevr did the rough stitch in Premiere, I believe. Then that went off to post special effects. The ghosts, entering and exiting the space, were shot on the green screen. Then stitched in to the immersive space.
Embil: All the ghosts in the room at that moment are actual actors and they were either master rotoscoped out to make look like ghosts with the plate.
Petridis: Don't forget we've got blank plates of everything. We've got the room from every setup with nothing in it. That serves as sort of like our pizza crust. That's the pizza crust of the whole thing before you slice it or you put on your layer of tomatoes already and the olives. The pizza crust is an empty frame with nothing in it, an empty frame with four GoPros running all at once in the empty room with nothing, nothing, nothing in it. Then the special effects guy and then your editors and your colorists, they have that safety net to go on. You can start doing frames within frames within frames of that immersive space.
The technology is out there and it's available. More important than technology, it's about coming up with an idea.
NFS: For readers who are thinking of exploring their abilities within the medium of VR, what would be your advice?
Embil: You can get four GoPros and shoot a VR film; they're making rigs now. There's a lot of stitching solutions. We saw some people here at the expo, just like hey shoot a film, send it to us and we'll make it a VR piece. There's a bunch of VR cameras sold here where it's like you don't even need GoPros. Get a prosumer VR camera, shoot a movie, and do it. The technology is out there and it's available. More important than technology, it's about coming up with an idea. Searching for the wine to fill the empty bottles, and doing that.
A lot of filmmakers are trying to cross over into VR, just as another medium, like the whole idea of creating another way to tell a story and further the narrative. I personally don't think it'll ever replace film.
Petridis: It’s answering that important question, well does it have to be a film? Can't it be a play? Can't it be a short story? Film is expensive. The question you continue to ask yourself in VR is the same, does it deserve the medium? Why VR? Why can't it be a play? Why can't it be a short story? What is it about having the sextet around you that really allows the story to achieve its full potential? That's how you're going to get the wine. It doesn't have to be complex. It doesn't have to be expensive. But if it really uses the medium to deliver the message, that would be fantastic.