"We're leveraging several thousand years of history and classical storytelling. It's kind of our DNA."
Many filmmakers are skeptical about virtual reality's ability to convey a story like a traditional film can. There are no shots. There are no cuts. So how can it? Some Sundance filmmakers found success this year by employing a time-tested cinematic technique: a traditional character arc.
At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul Studios unveiled their 40 minute VR comedy Miyubi and Maureen Fan, Kane Lee, and Eric Darnell (Madagascar) of Baobab Studios premiered their animated VR film, ASTEROIDS! They joined a panel discussion titled Pushing the Creative Frontiers in VR Filmmaking to share what they have figured out. Below are our biggest takeaways on how and why you should consider merging VR with a traditional story arc.
Create a VR three-act structure by mimicking the human brain
At the premiere of ASTEROIDS! (an alien space journey where you can play with your pet robot dog), Eric Darnell, the director behind DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar films, told No Film School that story structure is crucial to VR.
"While storytelling may vary from film to television to theater to literature, there's always this overarching structure," said Darnell. "The toolkit is different in each medium, but they're serving the same higher goal. That's how I look at it here. We're leveraging several thousand years of history and classical storytelling. It's kind of our DNA. We have a different toolkit, but we keep our eyes on the prize of having a great story and telling it well. And having likeable characters."
"You release cortisol, a stress hormone, or oxytocin, a love hormone, at certain times that mimic the three-act structure."
During the panel discussion, Fan added that the three-act structure in VR may even stem from a biological need. "Your body releases chemicals at certain moments during a movie," said Fan. "You release cortisol, a stress hormone, or oxytocin, a love hormone, at certain times that mimic the three-act structure. We have to pay attention to that." Kane agreed. "Story evolved into our DNA for a reason."
Use disruption to prevent VR performances from going stale
Something about the immersive environment of VR can make the acting seem...bad! Terrible acting is prevalent in narrative VR these days, which can make it difficult to relate to the characters. There's a reason for that, according to Paul Raphaël, and a way to try to avoid it.
"VR comes with more verisimilitude," said Raphaël. "With film there is more abstraction from reality because of cutting between different shots at different lenses. Because VR is closer to what you see in reality, you are more critical of what you are seeing. You can detect any false notes and fakeness. The best way we've found to counter this is to leave space for mistakes when you are writing." Lajeunesse added to his collaborator's assertions. "On Miyubi, we would tell actors to disrupt the scene, so everyone has an authentic reaction. We strategically added some errors that can't be faked."
"Because VR is closer to what you see in reality, you are more critical of what you are seeing. You can detect any false notes and fakeness."
Script & storyboard with 360 in mind
All the creators agreed emphatically that new solutions were needed to write for narrative VR with a proper story arc.
"In fiction VR, we write like cinema," said Lajeunesse, whose film Miyubi places the viewer into the perspective toy robot in a tumultuous 1980s family home. "The difference is we take away the lexicon of cinema. When ready, we transfer the story to a 360 storyboard. We do a birds' eye view, we animate little dots, and craft the staging this way. That's a form of writing for us."
Keep your mind open to interactivity, even if it doesn't fully work yet
Let's face it, a lot of VR interactivity feels a little hokey right now. But that could be changing.
"We want to merge game and film in the right way," said Fan, who comes from a gaming background. "When you're playing a game, right away you think, what does the game-maker want me to do now? We don't want that. So we looked into science of how to connect you to a character. We started with a robot dog who will mirror you, to get you to bond with it. "
Paul Raphaël agreed that there are difficulties at this stage. "We hadn't jumped into [interactivity] earlier because of the chasm between game and story. You get the feeling you are in a game, where these are the rules of game. So it doesn't effect experience in the right way. Not to mention, the minute you let the viewer do things, the viewer wants to do everything."
How important could nailing immersion and interactivity be to the future of film?
"Kids growing up with this immersion will naturally will get used to it and want all their content to be like this," concluded Lajeunesse. "If that happens, 25 years into the future, media that is not immersive or interactive may not exist." Added Raphaël, "It might not replace it altogether, but it will certainly cannibalize it."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
This article makes me wonder if early prose writers bragged about how "in a few hundred years, poetry won't exist."
I mean, VR and filmmaking are two different art forms. Sure, they're both visual. But one's sculpture and the other's painting. It's not like one has to dominate the other. Let's add VR to the canon like we have video games. Doesn't mean film will die away as a consequence.
You get the sense, listening to VR advocates, that they overestimate the power of their medium. Don't get me wrong; VR is amazing. But it is not fundamentally more emotional or powerful than film.
VR makers say things like, "When you can interact with a story, it feels more personal, more emotional, like you're part of the story and it's being told uniquely to you."
This sounds good and makes sense on the face of it. But I don't think the human brain really works that way. I think stories can feel just as personal and powerful when we are SHOWN them, rather than being forced INTO them. This has certainly been my experience in the cinema, and with VR so far.
Statements like "Kids growing up with this immersion will naturally will get used to it and want all their content to be like this" strike me as begging the question. How do you know this? What makes you think that, across the board and given the choice, a kid--or anyone--prefers interactive stories to stories they're shown?
I can think of a few problems with VR as a medium that film solves. The obvious one being, when you're watching VR, you've always got to wonder whether you've seen the whole thing. Was there something behind you that eluded you? Have you really experienced the whole story? Or for another example, take convenience. Just how often does any of us find it pleasant to give up our eyes? At home, late, when the kids are asleep? Maybe? Or, finally and perhaps most obviously--VR is not a shared experience. When my wife and I are casting about for something to do on a Wednesday evening, I don't know that VR will come to mind. There's something about "you watch the right corner and I'll watch the left" that isn't so much relaxing as it is taxing.
Music doesn't become better if you're asked to hum some of the notes. Sculpture isn't BETTER than painting, just because you can choose your perspective. We like to be told a story, just as much as we like to experience one.
One art form doesn't have to dominate the other. They're just different. And that's ok.
February 15, 2017 at 10:47AM, Edited February 15, 10:59AM
Well said. Keeping things in perspective seems to be harder and harder for humans.
February 15, 2017 at 11:43AM
Thanks for writing this article!
I've been going back and forth between film and coding to make a living, and there is way more organic overlap than most people realize. An great place to look at for this sort of stuff is where you've had very mixed media for a long time - museums, concerts, exhibitions... that sort of things where you want to tell a story and use film at a high level but alongside other stuff simultaneously and not just as a gimmick but to significantly enhance the experience.
That niche has traditionally been just that - a niche... but what's interesting to me is why it has been such a small market. I think the main reason is accessibility... to pull those kinds of creations off usually requires significant custom work. You can book a concert hall but to justify building a custom set for a one night show you need a really big name to sell tickets. It's a financial thing.
I think the cool thing about VR is that it brings some of that customization into the home... and learning from the mixed media world - what we've seen is that you can really blow people's socks off with like short bursts of content, but for long periods of time it kinda lands back on more traditional routes.
I dunno - just my thoughts, I'm looking forward to playing around in this space :)
February 16, 2017 at 2:39AM, Edited February 16, 2:39AM
All art is interactive. That is the beauty of it. The magic is created in the space between the viewer and the object (film, novel, painting etc). The best art leaves space for the viewer. VR will not take over the world but it will add another colour to the spectrum of methods for telling stories.
February 16, 2017 at 5:12AM