Virtual Reality: New Medium, New Rules for and entirely new way of storytelling

Virtual Reality: New Medium, New Rules is not a new concept.

In 1987, the American philosophy writer, computer scientist, visual artist, and composer of classical music Jaron Lanier created the term ‘virtual reality’. In fact, visual simulators have been in existence for over seventy years.

In case you haven’t noticed, virtual reality is swamping media channels. During a hiatus in the 1990’s while the film industry courted 3D, three companies kept developing VR: Disney, NASA and the American military. VR finally exploded onto the scene and leapt from geek-dom to mainstream on November 5 2015 when the New York Times launched the NYTVR app populated by innovative work by VR creative.

Suddenly VR was front and centre…

Virtual Reality: New Medium, New Rules

Most filmmakers approaching VR for the first time bring their existing skillsets with them. Many don’t work – as the basic principles for the creation of VR are different from the old-school rules for making ‘flatties’.

Here are ten principals we teach and demonstrate at Raindance Film Festival, both in our VR training programme and at these three events during the festival.

1. A Whole New Medium

There are several different types of experiences broadly labelled VR. Understanding the difference will help you understand the technology, and also the types of language you should employ as a filmmaker.

360° video

Usually 360° video is a passive experience where the viewer enters a narrative created by the filmmaker. Unlike stories directed within a frame, 360 films have the ability to deliver immersion and a felt presence inside the story. Many experienced 360 filmmakers have already started to introduce light interactions that allow the viewer to either choose a path within the story or to interact with an object or a character.

VR or Virtual Reality

VR is a term that describes a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person, ‘the experiencer’. The experiencer becomes immersed in the environment of the virtual world and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects, perform a series of actions or interact with characters. VR creators become world builders by building simulated worlds and narratives within computer-generated environments. Development tools that are needed to create such simulated worlds are game engines such as Unity or Unreal. Game designers have used game engines which are used by game designers to create video games for years.

AR or Augmented Reality

AR experiences allow the viewer to layer a computer-generated virtual layer on top of the real world by using a smartphone or a tablet. Popular examples are location-based AR games such as Pokémon Go, or AR apps such as Snapchat. Earlier this year Apple announced their ‘ARKit’ development tools for developers, and many creators are now building amazing narrative-based AR experiences for iPhone. A notable example is Augmented Reality’s A-ha Moment.

MR or Mixed Reality

Mixed Reality is an overlay of simulated content on the real world that is anchored to and interacts with the real world. Unlike AR, the key characteristic of MR is that the simulated content reacts to changes in the real world in real time.

2. VR Storytelling is influenced theatre in the round

360° video is created by a single image capture device with different cameras pointing front and back, up and down. The simplest cameras have two wide angle lenses facing front and back.

Here is where it get’s interesting. In traditional filmmaking, the actors can stand in one position and the camera can move around them. Think of the opening scene in reservoir dogs where the camera circles the gangster’s table, moving around and around, and drawing the audience into the scene. In 360/VR it’s the other way around. The camera sits in the centre and the actors move around, usually in four quadrants.

Does this happen to remind you of theatre in the round? Or so-called immersive theatre? Storytellers for this new medium are naturally drawn to the methods and techniques their theatrical colleagues employ.

3. Theatre in the round is as old as the hills

Immersive Theatre isn’t new. Nor is so-called hybrid media.

Way back in ancient Rome, audience members trekking to the Coliseum were met by minstrels wearing the show costumes a kilometre from the stadium.

As a kid in Toronto, I played ball hockey on the street wearing jerseys of our favourite Toronto Maple Leaf. I was always Number 27 Frank Mahovolich – the classy ‘Big M’. And whenever I scored a goal my mates would yell ‘Mahavolich Shoots! He Scores’. Then we would all troop to a friends house and watch the real Mahovolich play with the Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada.

The techniques of storytelling in the round are all around us. The creative opportunity for creative is to learn from the past, to assimilate techniques from different story mediums and then harness these to the new advances technology has given visual story telling.

4. Leave the cinematic rules of flatties behind

When cinema was born, there was unlimited content that would fit the flat screen: theatre from proscenium arches. With this amazing birth of cinema was developed a whole technique and school of thought about performance, production, post-production and marketing.

Here’s the difference with 360/VR and all the other types of immersive and augmented reality equipment. Unlike cinema, there is still very little, virtually no content for the new tech.

5. Learn from music composers

One of the challenges VR filmmakers have is how to write the scripts. Do you write a traditional movie script, with the different angles notated? Along the lines of 0-90 degrees, 9-180 degrees, 180-270 degrees and 270–360 degrees and so on?

Mike Figgis made a fascinating film Time Code in which 4 cameras in different locations ran simultaneously. His script was written on musical score sheets – one stave per camera. As a musician, Mike used the musical bars to designate minutes so all four cameras could sync. If on viewing the rushes he noticed it was out of sync, he could tell Saffron Burrows to say her dialogue on minute 26 instead of minute 27.

Virtual Reality: New Medium, New Rules

6. Focusing the action

One of the common error we have noticed at Raindance VR training is how flattie filmmakers rush the opening of their VR movies. Remember the diffeerence between a flattie and 360 film. In a flattie the audience can quickly assimilate the scene. But in VR the viewer needs time to assimilate to the environment created. Don’t rush the story. Let it settle and percolate. As a creator you have the power to decvde what the experience sees first.

This diagramme might be one way to notate how the action starts and then moves around the environment.

VR: New Medium New Rules

7. Learn to stitch

This is a really important difference between a flattie and a 360° film. In a traditional film we cut between cameras. We use master shots, medium and close-up shopts. Cutaways are also a big part of editing a flattie.

But in the virtual world where the camera sees everything, usually from at least two and as many as two dozen cameras – all running simultaneously. Where they overlap, an editor needs to carefully stitch the different cameras together so the viewer perceives a seamless view.

This means VR creators need to understand blocking. For example when an actor crosses a stitch line. Lighting is important too. In 360° filmVR we use diegetic light. In traditional film we use non-diegetic light.

What is diegetic light?

8. Omni-directional sound

In a flattie the sound is generated by voices and sound effects on the screen. We use sounds coming from the left and right channels.

In VR sound can come from anywhere. Just as in real life, a bang from behind us causes us to turn to the sound. In making VR we can record the sound and then in the edit decide in which quadrant the sound is louder.

9. The theatrical experience

Watching a VR experience has so far been largely is essentially a solitary experience, contrary to the group experience of watching a movie in the cinema.

Two developments in VR exhibition are challenging our traditional expectations of cinema.

Firstly is the rise of the interactive film pioneered by the interactive movie Late Shift.

In the theatrical version of Late Shift the audience takes decisions on behalf of the protagonist via their smartphones and based on majority votes while the film keeps running seamlessly. The participative cinema event offers a unique experience and can exclusively be attended in selected cinemas and at festivals.

Secondly is the rise of the VR Arcade like the one at Raindance where individuals buy a time slot, like in a movie theatre. Instead of one movie, people join a group of others, each with a headset. They can then select from a menu of experiences to enjoy until their time runs out. We have discovered at Raindance that audience members love to mingle at the end of their time slot and discuss the different experiences with each other.

Virtual Reality: New Medium, New Rules

10. Stories that are suited to VR

When cinema was invented over a hundred years ago, content was essentially transferred from the proscenium arch stage to the flat screen. With the advent of 360° film we have found that there is still very little content that readily fits this new technology. Unsurprisingly gaming has used the technology to great advantage.

Certain types of story forms are readily adapted to 360° film and VRVr. News and documentary , for example. The Battle for Falluja, a documentary experience by the New York Times, puts you right in the middle of a gun battle.

The key advantage of 360° film is how it places the viewer right into the story intensifying the emotion.

Fade Out: The Wild Wild World of VR

Thomas Edison’s Boxers and the Lumiere Brothers earliest films seem crude and clumsy today. But that is exactly where VR is today. As cinema techniques developed and flourished so to will VR continue to expand and develop. It would be a good idea to follow the work of Jaron Lanier – except he has no social media at all!

As the technical aspects of VR develop so too will the creators discover new and exciting ways to work with this amazing new technology. Cinema developed because the technology was put in hands of artists. We call these artists filmmakers. Will our technology companies intrust artists with their new babies? And if so, what will we label the artists creating VR?



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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