April 16, 2019

What It's Like to Direct the First Scripted VR Series

One of the directors of 'Invisible,' the Samsung VR series from Doug Liman, discusses working at the newest cinematic frontier.

Doug Liman's Invisible was the first major scripted series designed specifically for 360-degree virtual reality. Now available to watch on JauntVR and SamsungVR, the five-episode supernatural drama tells the story of the Ashlands, a legacy New York family whose tentacles reach into the largest corporations and governments in the world. Although they control a large portion of the world’s economy, they lurk in society's shadows, thanks to a unique genetic ability that enables them to move around undetected. However, one genetic research lab is now determined to uncover exactly what gives the Ashlands their ability. Will it lead to their demise?

No Film School sat down with Michael Lukk Litwak, who directed multiple episodes of the series, to discuss the excitements, challenges, and frustrations associated with learning a new language of directing.

"Doug [Liman] wanted to bring on some younger directors who hadn't been as entrenched in feature filmmaking. Even though none of us had any VR experience, he just wanted some fresh perspectives in there."

No Film School: Directing the first-ever scripted VR TV series is a daunting challenge!

Michael Lukk Litwak: It was a crazy experience. There's a lot of rhetoric around VR. Everyone's sort of saying that the rules haven't been decided. That's true. There are so many factors that are still up in the air that will dictate how these rules are set.

For example, 90% of people watch 360 videos on their phone, so the question then is, "Do you compose your VR pieces for the phone, or do you compose it for the headset? What is the headset best used for? How do you think about the way that people are going to be watching your content? Who do you make it for?"

This is all similar to the way that independent filmmakers are thinking, "Do you compose for the big screen or do you compose for Netflix?" Because that's probably where your movie's going to end up anyway, right? Not to sound cynical, but it's just a fact. There are statistics to back it up. And that impacts your decisions in production, such as where you place the camera. Do you put it in the center of the room so that people can look around in 360 or do you put it in a corner so that people have a little bit less of a field of view?

Right now, on all the major VR headsets, you're tethered. You have a wire popping out of your head. That sort of restricts your mobility, unless you're in a swivel chair or you're standing. That also impacts where you place the camera.

NFS: How did you ultimately tackle these questions with Invisible?

Litwak: We decided to play with everything. We designed certain sequences knowing that people were going to be looking all around in the headset and other ones that were more so tailored to watching it on your computer or on a phone, where it's a little bit easier to see where everything is because it's sort of straight in front of you.

NFS: When you got the script treatment, what did it look like? 

Litwak: I was brought on relatively early into the development process. Doug Liman and Melissa [Wallack] had developed this idea a couple years beforehand, and had decided to turn it into this VR show. Doug wanted to bring on some younger directors to work with that hadn't been as entrenched in feature filmmaking. Even though none of us had any VR experience, he just wanted some fresh perspectives in there.

"Because VR is so tech-focused and the technology is such an important part of it, a lot of the talk of the story and the characters get lost in that."

We always knew Invisible was going to be about a family that has this special power and is struggling to retain control, and then we talked about different story variations. Part of Doug's process is that he likes to rewrite and rewrite and reiterate and reiterate. That's something that he's known for: his willingness to throw things out and start over. What's really cool about him and Melissa was they were both very open to new ideas and wouldn't hold onto things. They embraced the idea that we could try anything. Don't just do something because it's been done before!

NFS: You have to be that way in VR at this stage!

Litwak: Exactly. That was really awesome.

After we were brought on, we did a bunch of camera tests. We tested out the OZO. We tested out GoPro rigs with 5 cameras. We tested out movement with sliders. We tested out movement with wire rigs and Steadicam. We had a boot camp for a couple of months. What works with a high angle? What works with a low angle? What is the effect you get? What will make you nauseous and what won't make you nauseous? What can you pull off?

Once we had done some of that, new ideas started popping up in terms of, "Oh, what if we turned this sequence into a split-screen sequence that isn't 360?" That was one of the sequences that I helped design—the phone call sequence. It was a mini-breakthrough for us. Where we're like, "Oh, it doesn't always have to be 360. You can do 180. You can cut between two locations like that and it's actually interesting."

It also makes the production a lot easier because the most difficult part of shooting in 360 is that you can't really stand behind the camera. Since there's no live monitor you'd have to press record and then run into the other room and listen to see what had happened. Then you had to come back in afterward and be like, "So, did everything go okay?" 

'Invisible'

NFS: You have to trust your actors a lot. Did you have time for many takes?

Litwak: Yeah. I mean, we had so much to shoot and just not a lot of time. The other thing is it takes a lot longer to light it because you can't cheat anything when you're shooting 360. You can't just, like, pop a light up next to the camera for your key light. You have to really think about where you're putting your practical lamps, or what's lighting the windows that can't be seen from outside. Things take much longer to figure out. Because of that we really only had time for three or four takes for every shot. The schedule was just really packed.

NFS: How could you give notes to actors without seeing them?

Litwak: Well, we sort of talked with them about, "Hey, did you hit your marks? Do we need to do another one?" 

The other way is listening to the audio and seeing if they hit their lines right. Then, past that, you sort of have to just trust it. It's sort of like shooting film without a viewfinder. You don't find out whether you got it right until two weeks later once everything's been stitched and processed. So we would try things, and then adjust, and then repeat.

We shot a huge chunk of Invisible in one section and then we waited a couple of months and looked at it, edited it together, and saw what sort of pieces were missing. We were able to weave some storylines in and reshoot some of the things that we weren't happy with.

NFS: What was your rig?

Litwak: The JAUNT. That camera's awesome. They auto-stitch things for you. I mean, it's crazy because a lot of these cameras have minimum distances. You can't go right up to them.

"It's sort of like shooting film without a viewfinder. You don't find out whether you got it right until two weeks later once everything's been stitched and processed."

We also had a Theta on top for some shots. It's a 360-degree camera that you can hook up via wifi to your phone. You would strap that to the top of the JAUNT and then we would see what it looked like. The resolution's low. You can't really tell that much. The battery would go out. It just wasn't really an effective, scalable production tool.

But from the time we started shooting to the time we finished shooting, the technology and the camera had gotten even better. They had improved the algorithms. It had gotten more and more powerful. That's one fear I have—anything we shoot right now is going to be outdated in 6 to 12 months because things are moving so quickly. People are figuring out how to do this stuff so insanely fast.

NFS: What's an example of a challenging setup you devised in order to cover a scene?

Litwak: In the funeral scene in episode 3, we wanted to set up this giant rope or cable cam. We set up the camera on it, but it was very complicated because it had to move through this entire environment. You had to stay within a certain number of feet from the person operating it.

One of the funeral goers is actually one of the producers. He's operating the cable cam. Somebody else is blocking him. I think they did a good job of hiding it all, but we literally had 10 people hiding behind 10 different trees. As the camera was coming through the trees, everybody rotated around it. It sort of felt like filming a silent comedy. No one could say anything. Basically, we were hiding behind a rock in the background with binoculars just like, peeking over to see if everything had been going right.

'Invisible'

NFS: What was the most surprising thing that you weren't expecting to encounter in directing VR?

Litwak: It's almost surprising how similar it is to traditional storytelling even though, like I said, so much of the rhetoric is about how the language hasn't been developed. That's true, but at the end of the day, stories are stories, whether you tell them in TV or movies or web series or virtual reality. They're about characters that want something and try and get them and either succeed or fail and learn and change over time. That's not going to change regardless of what camera you shoot with.

"I think the art form will really blossom once independent filmmakers can get their hands on it."

In VR right now, there's a very high barrier for entry. This was a high-budget series. We had an amazing amount of toys to play with. We had some of the best technical experts that you could dream of working on this project. Right now, I think that's the biggest constraint—it takes a lot of time and money and technical expertise. If you don't know how to stitch your own materials, it's very hard to figure out how to even get into VR. 

I think the art form will really blossom once independent filmmakers can get their hands on it. That's exactly what happened when the 7D was invented, or the 5D was invented. You get lots of creative, interesting people that are all making stuff.

NFS: What about the mechanics of directing audience attention? A lot of VR directors use sound cues. Do you find that you were relying on sound?

Litwak: Definitely. We used several different techniques. I think this is actually something where it's similar to the way that filmmaking works. If you look at a Woody Allen movie, like Hannah and Her Sisters, that's very much staged like a play is. A lot of his movies are so much about the blocking that they could really just be taken and transported to a stage, but he finds a way to shoot them cinematically and make them interesting.

That's one of the tools we used. In a lot of the scenes that we shot with people, you have somebody entering and they cross frame and go somewhere else. You guide them with blocking or with movement or with action, or you can have an audio cue happen and then have somebody turn their head.

"People don't necessarily want to only look in one place, so it's harder to hold people's attention."

I think one of the things that's also important to keep in mind is that with film, you're guiding people's eyes. If you shoot a close-up on a bowl of soup, it's like, this is what you should be looking at. With VR, you're in a headset. You can look at the soup or you can look at somebody's face or you can look over to the picture on the wall that has nothing to do with the story. The fact of the matter is that most of the time people are going to be constantly looking around. That's actually one of the things I think that makes VR great for documentary and docu-style journalism. People don't necessarily want to only look in one place, so it's harder to hold people's attention.

Voiceover is something that has become a really effective tool. That's something that we use in the series to help guide the story, but also keep it visual. We sometimes took out lines of dialogue and replaced them with narration. But there were certain scenes that we cut out because we thought they felt too clunky in terms of exposition. Sometimes it was more effective to show people a location. Give them the experience of standing outside this mansion [instead of] telling them about some of the nuts and bolts of what exactly is going on at that point in the episode. 

NFS: As a director, did you feel like you were taking a leap of faith on this project?

Litwak: I think it's the same with anyone who works on movies—you try stuff out. Then you look at the footage, even if it's just on the monitor, and you can adjust. You give people notes and you see what's working and what's not working. For us, the process was much slower because we had to wait a couple weeks for the stitching to get done. So I guess I would say the hardest part was reviewing and adjusting. That's why the timeline was spread out so long. But I think that allowed us to learn from our mistakes.

I also think the nicest part of the whole experience was that everybody that was involved in the project knew that we were getting into something that didn't really have concrete answers. The attitude on set was involved was so open: "Alright, let's try this out. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't work." There wasn't the same sort of pressure as in normal movies and commercials. Also, everybody was at such a level playing field because nobody had done that much VR before. It was sort of a nice sort of refresher where nobody told us we couldn't do anything, and nobody told us what we were trying wasn't going to work because nobody knew for certain whether it would or wouldn't.

'Invisible'

NFS: Why did Invisible need to happen in VR? Would it have worked as a regular series? What's gained through this medium?

Litwak: I've developed ideas in my head that started out as features and then I realized were actually better as a TV show. Each medium brings its strengths and its weaknesses. 

I think with VR, immersiveness is the quality that you're looking for, that's going to separate it from other art forms. I think what makes something cinematic in VR is probably some of the same stuff that makes movies cinematic. Take Spielberg movies for example. He's a master of using rain in the background, using nature elements, and having movement. Really simple things like those Spielbergian drapes—how there's wind in the drapes in all the Spielberg movies. It's a simple touch that just makes things feel a little bit more alive. I think a lot of those tricks will translate to VR, but their effect is just going to be slightly different and potentially even more powerful.

NFS: Did you employ any of those techniques in the episode that you directed?

Litwak: Yeah. Basically, I'm credited as episode 2 director, but I directed scenes from 1, 3, and 4 as well. Things got shifted around a lot in editing, but one of the sequences I helped design was in episode 1, which was the newsreel sequence. For that, it was like, "How do we show this exposition of the family and do the normal cinematic cut to a news reporter reporting a death?" That's something that you've seen in a lot of movies—somebody sees breaking news on the TV. In this, we were like, "Why don't we do a matrix wall of them all around you so you see these people popping up in all these different languages telling you the same thing?" So it was a question of how do we take the news montage and transfer it into VR? It's basically the same story point, but it's just in a different form. VR is just a medium like any other. The thing is, right now, I don't think people want to spend more than 6 or 7 minutes in a headset.

I think VR is going to be huge for gaming. There's an interactivity with your environment that is going to be even more immersive now that you have a headset. It sort of can overload your senses and really put you in the center of things. 

Right now, there's so much content, and not a lot of it is story-based. A lot of it's just like, "I'm going to ride my bike down this mountain and it's going to be in 360." That's very cool and it should exist, but I think—

NFS: —it's not motivated.

Litwak: Yeah. You get the experience, but that only holds you over for, like, 30 seconds to a minute, especially if you aren't in a headset. 

I think you have to focus on what's most important: the story and the characters. That goes for all mediums. Because everything is so tech-focused and the technology is such an important part of VR, a lot of the talk of the story and the characters get lost in that.

Tangerine was shot on a cell phone and is amazing. That's because it's got interesting people in it.

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