A New Wave for Storytelling — Virtual Reality
The first time I watched a movie in virtual reality, I will never forget the immediate sense of awe that we had bravely entered a new frontier of storytelling.
I was whisked away to a beach where it felt like I was standing right at the point where waves crashed into the sand, and just like our natural world, could see all around in any direction of my choosing within this creation. An endless sea of to my left, the intersection of water and sand straight ahead…the beach and houses off in the distance to my right, fluffy clouds and late afternoon sky up above. And because the camera rig was held at a stationary point the entire time, it was as if I was standing stationary at that spot — I found myself not moving my feet, but swiveling my neck around either shoulder as much as I could to see what was behind me. My mind was telling me I was there, standing ON that beach.
The story was about a person that had drifted too far out into the water, and a woman desperately rushing out trying to save them. I honestly couldn’t say much more about the plot than that because something about the storyline wasn’t connecting with me to hold my attention — and in the moment, I didn’t care a connection with the story wasn’t happening because I was content just gazing all about.
But when I thought about the experience afterwards, it felt strange that despite some frantic action taking place around me that would normally have me tense, the whole scene felt soothing. I was just standing still, hearing the rhythmic crashing waves, the seagulls, and gazing out into the horizon where water met sky. It was perplexing, and evident this was a whole new form of a story I had never experienced before.
I feel lucky to be part of the conception of something that happens once in a generation if we are lucky — a new medium taking shape before our eyes. The potential of virtual and augmented reality is the type of awakening like audio over radio waves, sound and color in film, TV sets in households, where the medium demands a whole new approach to storytelling.
However, if you build it, that doesn’t mean they will come — cool new technology only brings in early adopters, whereas content and stories that people want to engage with is what drives change. Connected TV was available for years, but it took Netflix’s capability to stream movies and shows that people desire to watch to drive adoption.
Because VR/AR is indeed in its infancy, the technology does not come without its challenges and distractions for users. Headsets are bulky, it gets sweaty and foggy in the headsets if you wear them longer than 15 minutes, users are too tethered and wired, it is a solitary experience, and there is sometimes poor rendering of image due to the immense computing power needed to properly display these realities. What is unique about this new medium unlike others of the past though is that the largest tech giants are driving its charge, thus I have ultimate confidence that all these hardware/software issues and annoyances will have solutions within a few years.
What needs to happen most to bring the masses in is we, as storytellers, need to treat VR/AR as its own medium, that deserves its own rules, to be able to craft compelling stories. We need to adapt beyond on one end, the “look, we can create worlds where you can see all around!” pieces, and on the other end, treating VR like it is film and using traditional filmmaking techniques.
This doesn’t necessitate having to treat VR film as if it must be 1st person, active. There will undoubtedly be a place for stories where user decisions drive the outcome, but based on viewing habits for television and movies, I argue that audiences will largely want to be a fly on the wall, and be within the story rather than directing it.
My bet is that with increasing usage, VR audiences will become adept enough that they will not be constantly entranced by the worlds created around them, but begin to quickly take note of their environment and focus on the story unfolding to them if it is compelling enough. Imagine feeling like you are mere inches from Rey’s next Star Wars light sabre fight, or next confrontation in Game of Thrones with enough tension to break glass, I doubt you will be choosing to stare off into the Irish countryside.
However, the main challenge is we will not be able to use the tried-and-true, traditional methods of filmmaking to guide viewer attention for the VR/AR medium. We can no longer utilize the best of many takes of varying acting performance, angles, and camera movement to create one ultimate sequence, because all that classic editing does not work in VR/AR — it jars the viewer by giving them the sensation that they are teleporting or floating, rendering less control for the filmmaker over directing where and how the audience views their story.
Because cutting between shots within a scene will no longer be a good experience for the viewer, I believe the utmost emphasis must be placed on movement of the camera rig to evoke emotion.
We must think in circles — moving in and around the subjects of action, with meticulous attention to speed of movement, to garner desired reactions from the viewer. This will have to be like following a GPS map route, though, because all the changes of movement and speed must be planned, guided and followed through for an entire scene.
Simultaneously, there will be ever-increased perfection needed from actors, because they will need to be consistently on point for both an entire sequence from beginning to end, and with their full bodies because their entire performance will be viewable — in a conversation for example, viewers will be able to choose who and what they view, unlike traditional film where bits and pieces are selected from cuts.
Therefore, VR filmmakers will face the challenge of planning and perfecting an entire sequence in each take within a story they design, with both the action in front of the camera and the crew behind the camera.
The unprecedented potential for storytelling with this medium will be worth the challenge though because this medium has the capability to uniquely combine the worlds of both film and theatre at their best. Within VR creations, viewers possess the ability to focus on whatever they please like theatre, and you cannot help but feel you are right there with the action. Like the beauty of film, people are being taken to a different world with all its sights and sounds, and carefully accompanied music and effects.
At its best, virtual and augmented reality allows storytellers to bring an audience into their imagination, a power we have never experienced before.