ACTING IN VR: first steps and bounces

“empathy” creation, I dream of mermaids. (tail by Hannah Mermaid)

DISCLAIMER: I write this post as an actress who loves the new challenges presented by VR because for once, I can show up on set and it’s ok for me to bring my inner nerd out with the lipgloss.

Welcome to 2016 — a stark set full of new promise ANDrequirements: bring your best

All shoots refer to content made with the readily available Izugar Z4X kits.

There are basically two types of actors who arrive on set: the ones who want to unmask the “wizard” and the ones who .. “meh”. The one type remain incognito in their trailer until exactly 5 seconds before they are needed, they are always looking down at their their ipod, their iphone, their juice cleanse manual.

The second category are the “closet nerd, inner child”: they ask for zombie make-up tips, pay attention to communication between DP and grips, creep the FX department on IG. This is the actor that loves the “magic”, the wizard and all of the craftsmanship.

They were worried at first I would be ok in the harness. Then they worried I would never get out of it.

Until VR, you could choose your acting style and still feel like you were “showing up” ready. This wasn’t theatre — you didn’t need to know all your lines at once or think of any one scene in one scary lump. There was room for detachment how much awareness you had to have about the model of camera. Film has always been just one POV at a time (and even multi-camera television is all one plane);it was always one flat “eye” watching at once. Less than 180 degrees.

On another actor’s close up, you could just vocalize your performance and get into a warm blanket when you were there just to be an “eye line”. Or you could just let your stand in take over during that long boring speech they had to deliver in your direction. You could “save it for the close up”. You could watch over the DPs shoulder and hang out at video village between the coverage. There was always the warm, comforting classic view of “crew” in a classic set: 1/2 of it belonged to the actors “acting” and the other part to the director and crew who were always within visual cue if you needed a nod of reassurance, a wave for a touch up.


Put down that mini sandwich!

Once that VR camera is planted, no one is safe “off camera” and no one is safe in “relax” mode. It’s like a cape that suddenly extends all around your car, that takes in every passenger and driver, the backseat, roof and your feet. This view extends the boundaries of the actors unsafe turbulent world like a spreading ink stain. It takes everything, it takes everybody.

that’s all that’s left of the “Crew” and “director”

Pause for a moment in real time.

Look up from your screen, and do a full spin around the place in which you’re standing. Your feet, the sky — all of this is “in this shot” together.

What does this mean to you, the actor?

You will notice a key difference the minute you walk on because it’s so disturbingly empty of the familiar signs you are “making a movie”.

GONE: The safe zone of the director’s “side”, that visible video village.

RIP: The many perch spots under the table that hide make-up and hair stylists hovering nearby to do last minute touch ups. They will still need to do them but from a distance (around the nearest corner usually).

Yeah, that FAKE hot air balloon ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

SAYONARA: “Cheating to camera?” WHICH camera? There is no roving eye line; just the other actor or your focus in the scene. Don’t even think about your “good side” — ALL of them are are playing in the roving spotlight.

ADIOS: The intimate caravan of assorted visual aids and assistants that tend to your every need, that accessible feed where a DP or assistant could leave a trail of stickers to help you land your mark every time. Also no more craftie putting your favorite tea out of the shot that you can reach and sip it between takes.

But who will hold our warm jackets when we are filming in the cold?

Don’t cry into your coffee. The trade off is actually awesome: you finally get to “strut and fret” in all directions at once.

Clearing the set of all visible crew is a big deal but it opens up your door for “freedom to move anywhere”. Never again will you hear, “So I know in real life your character wouldn’t move like this BUT this is your frame…” In an open set, your character is open to all kinds of new roaming and exploring.

And get ready to have your mind blown. You don’t need a reset for the “close up”. Instead you have to invent a way for your character to land closer to the camera for the relevant lines and moment.

Let’s observe some random “roaming”. One of my first camera tests (it’s LA, we do these beside pools on a roof of course, we were playing off the Victoria’s Secret release which was super boring:o)Goal was to play with distance and interaction:

*ideal for your phone where you can swipe around the space with your finger.

With all the challenges, great actors are going to really shine in this wild west, especially ones with many skill sets — many tools unused in your resume will suddenly be useful. The lazy or technically bad actors who cannot hit marks or memorize their lines will not belong here or like it.

When that camera unit goes on, (as when the curtain goes up), everything visible is “on”, there is one fluid scene: get it right or it’s wrong. Every line delivered has to work both as a wide shot and a close up. Every aspect of the “scene” must be known, rehearsed and memorized before you start..if you want to impart importance on one aspect or one line, it is YOUR movement that will indicate this.

The directors job too, to compliment this elaborate dance, has to be a lot more open to an actor’s input on how to get “from A to B” believably so the scene feels that much more organic and intimate. The director and actor relationship becomes that of a dancer and choreographer, an improv night and script revision, an architect and innovator. Neither of them will be doing as much sitting and waiting for things to get set up. A director who has never taken an acting class too will find themselves struggling to understand how to navigate in this.

Together you create a choreography and movement of each character and the “eyes” of the camera has to aid in the viewer’s experience of joy, intrigue, fear or wonder.

directors Doug Hannah and Nick Bicanic get their hands dirty, as they should

A few months ago at a CAA event about “women in tech”, someone observed that VR is the first medium that is instinctively both “feminine and masculine”. You have to craft a story of emotional depth but you need technological savvy in order to do it seamlessly.

Stop and think about that.

It means, should you get to wear the POV rig, that your performance is actually allowing someone to feel what it is to walk “a mile in your shoes.”

A really beautiful thing arises that is about to elevate the artistry and credibility of all the departments. The good ones will flourish, the best ones will innovate.

You will need to NERD out. Fast.

Learn the lingo: If you don’t understand the science behind it, you will struggle to move believably and organically through it. Add “stitch lines” and a “field of focus” to your vocabulary. The casting directors will have to choose actors who can arrive on set versed enough on the technical side to be able to perform engagingly within its required adjustments. Breathing within a pantheon of critical eyes from past mediums is a whole new level to your “craftsmanship”. I kind of think it means we get to show off the power of good acting again.

Come prepared, understand the terms and every person’s new role.

Ie: your production designer now has to think of a room or an area as a living breathing interactive space. No more fake chairs! The set decorators can consider places as an experience, not just partitions. This means they have to design or decorate cohesively. Within that design, your character’s movements have to happen in a way that feels organic and lend themselves to natural staging. Conversations with departments you never had much time with before are now going to help shape each other.

And the cinematographer who “paints with light” will either view this as the best showcase opportunity on the planet or the biggest headache… and this is what will set the new wave apart from the unwilling. Light sources will have to be disguised and re-invented… that idea of hiding a “mysterious source of light” in the dash of the car — nope! That brilliant floating orb in the park scene, nuh-uh… UNLESS you can incorporate it into some kind of naturally occuring fire fly that holds up in front of camera.

And these are just TWO of the departments affected.

It’s a lot to think about I know. Here’s some mind blowing research for you:

RVLVR founder and director Nick Bicanic’s very informative overview of VR as an emerging medium. This guy built wearable tech at age 15 (got a Young Nobel for it) and has been named as a Visionary to watch by Canada Goose; I feel lucky that I get to work with someone so passionate about immersive story telling.

Final note. Rehearsals will be everything.

You will either thrive or run away from VR acting.

But if you’re on set, you will no longer get to be passive at any point in time during the scene: everyone is sharing the same proximity and the same “take” together. No one gets to check their Tinder profile between set ups. You’re on, ON, always on.

It’s going to make you more precise and immersed as an actor. And simultaneously more aware of how to move in it in ways that capture your charisma. How could and WOULD this character move if there are no boundaries on where they can go?

I literally can’t wait to collaborate with a pyrotechnics team or a stunt crew. (seriously, send an email if interested)

It’s a LOT more tiring than getting to shoot it all in little chunks. “Hurry up and wait” is now “focus, rip your own dress and deliver perfection every time”.

On that first shoot we had no monitor attachment for the director to view: he would emerge after we finished our action and say, “Well, it sounded great. How did it feel?” and we would be left to evaluate our own feelings of the scene. By the second shoot, we were already moving towards more precision with a, “you didn’t land close enough to the camera,” and “the light source is only available in that area so stop only there.”

Because everyone is invested in this feeling “natural”, what you do in rehearsals will often involve “feeling out” the natural notes and key moments in a scene. You get to build it and feel it out together, to literally learn lines and design movement at the same time. I didn’t find I noticed the camera unit being there after a while but when we got to the point of landing in the eye lines, I did find myself hunting a little bit for my own marks on where to land (no more bright tape to help you with this).

You don’t just learn lines. You get to help design worlds.

If you love teamwork, you’re doing to adore how VR enables your “take” to be a part of the creation.

You will play. You will experiment. If you like to embrace the creative process, you will get to translate the traditional ways of “show me” in film to a deeper level of “help me feel”. This is the first time in a long time where your personal skills of communicating are actually going to matter just as much as your abilities to recite lines.

For me, that’s finally a chance to be all the things I really love that don’t usually get to co-exist all at once.

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