Becoming George Lucas for VR

Your actors are clay, props are paper. Film your VR design in under 10 minutes and no coding required!!

Thoughtful, stoic, and ready to capture the Dark Lord in action.

As a designer, figuring out how to quickly and effectively communicate a concept or idea up front matters. Up to now, you probably have been thinking about and building products in the 2D space. All the while aspiring young engineers and designers have built Australia’s next national park entirely in Minecraft. So, let’s learn from some of the best story tellers. Movie makers!

Well yeah, I watched Star Wars IV-VI (skipped over I-III for obvious reasons), but how can I possibly try to become George Lucas?! There is no try, my friend. You will do. We will cover how we wrote a script, cast (err … made) our actors, produced props and filmed. What you get is something a bit like this video.

First ask yourself, is this something that needs to be in a movie format? This may be an immediate yes, but if you don’t know ask yourself the following questions …

  • Do you find that you are acting out your scenes for others to explain the concept? Asking others to imagine is often difficult when something does not exist or you are waving your hands around.
  • Are you getting eyebrows raised when you talk about your big idea? Perhaps you have your idea on a post it, but people just don’t get it. Visualizing is left open to each person and how they view your explanation in their mind.
  • Do you want to test if the concept or many concepts have value without hours of developing in Unity? Having a bias for action and producing with materials to help achieve “good enough” saves massive amounts of time. Spending minutes hacking clay and Legos is way cheaper than several days in Unity attacking thousands of triangles.

If you are a yes on each, let’s keep going!

First let’s assume that you have a concept in mind you are wanting to communicate with others at a higher level of detail. If you still need to work out the big idea try these VR concept sketching sheets fellow trouble maker Saara Kamppari made. With this in hand you are ready to take Hollywood by storm.

Now, there are a few key steps to getting your concept off paper and onto the screen.

Write your script

Every film maker starts with a plan. That plan takes shape in the form of a storyboard. This is perhaps the most ubiquitous tool in move making. Your storyboard is the guide for filming and capturing the key moments. More importantly it allows you to “fill in the middle” by flagging transitions from one moment to the next.

Use the VR storyboard sketch sheets to build out the script. You are trying to answer how this flow works. At this stage, perfection is not the goal. Aim for good enough. If it doesn’t seem right once it hits the paper, pull out another storyboard sheet and explore another way. In this example, we were exploring how an architect might go about designing a home spatially with our Van Gogh Architect storyboard.

The Van Gogh Architect storyboard

Build your set

So, we don’t really have the budget that George Lucas gets to play with. So, yes, you will also be the set builder as well. Much like the Western facade Hollywood sets in a studio backlot somewhere, we will do the same. Simply start with our favorite shape, the triorama. If it needs trees, mountains or a sunset simply pen it in. For our triorama, we used 11X17 tabloid paper for a larger backdrop.

Simple instructions for making a triorama. Hollywood set in 30 seconds. Thanks Lakeshore Learning.

Cast your actors

Now onto the talent. We are going to be taking a first person perspective here. So, start by slamming some clay down, cut out a paper craft person or grab a Lego person. Once you have your material of choice give your actor eyes by placing a small web cam or 360 camera where the scene starts.

Webcam-head Clay Man saves on budget. Lego and paper people also work well.


Now for the props to help give your actors the tools they need to tell the story. Using paper, scissors, a hole punch and Legos, quickly sketch out the UI elements that are intended to be interacted with in your scene. The scene has varying levels of proximity to the user. What is in reach of the hands vs. what is out of reach or informational. As you work through placing down the props onto the scene, you will find out what should be within reach and what is further away.

Here we like white or clear Legos to give the impression that a UI is floating. Notice that we had a few yellow Legos that were distracting to defining the interaction.

This act of building helps answer questions like what should something look like, where should it be placed, how does it work from moment to moment.

Cameras … lights … ACTION!!!

Alright George, now it’s time to start filming. As you see we chose to use two cameras to capture a first person perspective and another to capture the entire scene. The first person POV helped us to instantly show not only what our actor was seeing, but also that the port into that world is extremely small. Keep this in mind when you are designing as drawing attention to items not in view means that you will need to employ techniques like sound and visual direction.

The scene POV allowed us to think through what was actually on and off the stage as well as what is in front of, behind or to the left and right of the person. It will become immediately obvious what should be within reach or further into the horizon.

In total this took about 10 minutes to mock up and film. Now get a friend to be the play the actor and have them follow the script. Hit record and remember you are the system shuffling items on and off stage. Aim for good enough. You most likely will need a couple takes to get to one that captures and communicates the idea best.

Keep in mind the following.

  • Film if it needs to be shared over time, helps express the idea more clearly and costs less than developing it out.
  • The act of building helps answer questions like what should something look like and where should it be placed.
  • Not looking for perfection … aim for good enough.

Happy film making! Please share links to your sets and movies out in the comments below.