Rectangles of Light and the Magical Power of Immersive Storytelling

“To know what you know, and to know what you don’t know… is to know,” my 11th grade World History teacher used to relish in reminding me.

Well, Mrs. Davis, I know this: we need good stories.

We need to believe in something meaningful, and while our world gets more complicated, our meaning gets more obscure.

We need a vase to bloom the flower of empathy in our hearts. We need a space to smell its sweet aroma. We need a cord to connect us all. We need people to believe in, and visions of new worlds to hope for. All of which, stories generously provide through the vessel of the loving creator.

Story has, and will continue to, provide soulful sustenance to heal, challenge and inspire us. But good stories have more to prove, and more ground to cover in today’s world in order to get the wings they need to fly.

I get the sense — as a millennial living in the metropolitan city of Los Angeles — that people are feeling less and less human, and more and more confused. There’s a serious problem that has been downloaded into the consciousness of modern civilization. And now it’s time to upload some solutions.

So, Mrs. Davis, let me be the first to say there’s a lot I don’t know in the reflection that follows, but I’m going to focus on what I do know — what my experience has shown me, and what my intuition has been whispering to me about the mystical power of emotional, immersive storytelling through Virtual Reality.

Ethos.

I created an original narrative VR experience two years ago, and have since been observing reactions to it all around the world.

I’ve read articles, attended seminars, interviewed experts, and spoken on panels in major cities about it. I’ve performed thought-experiments about the future of storytelling late at night, alone in my room, accompanied by the obligatory meditation soundtrack and hot tea.

I have a feeling in my gut about all this, but I don’t have decades of technological experience or extensive historical research behind me, and honestly, not much life, in terms of years, behind me at all. My perspective is young, fresh, and rather untainted, and I recognize that as purely a positive.

16-year-old me hoisted up at the premiere of my first feature-length film, “The Medallion of Man.”

I’m a 23-year-old writer/director/producer who found his passion early and now owns a successful video production company in LA. I’ve written and directed 3 feature-length films, several award-winning shorts, and when I created this 5-minute VR experience the direction of my life quickly focused, and a new path opened before me.

I’m a middle-brow audience member. I love people, and I believe our world is inherently good. I believe we were created so that we may create, from a place of love.

I have a very specific way in which I want to help direct the future, and have cultivated an environment of immense support around me, which I am grateful for beyond words.

Those are my qualifications. That’s what I know.

Rectangles of light.

Whether or not VR specifically proliferates into a mass market, I am completely convinced that immersion on some level will be in all of our futures.

The concept of “screens” as our primary platform to interact with technology will evolve into immersive, interactive technology. It’s inevitable that the way we interact with tech, and the way tech interacts with us will be spherical, it will surround us, integrate into our lives — into us — and be more than mere rectangles of light.

As this paradigm shifts, audiences will expect to be absorbed in, and absorbed by stories in the same manner — not in rectangles in front of us, but in spheres orbiting us. So, as a director, I want to be learning the proper storytelling methods, the visual grammar, and the artistic craft of 360-degree storytelling.

Everything changes when your canvas becomes all visible space.

The silver and small screen are certainly not going away, but something else is definitely coming, and I am meeting it half-way.

Conducting the experiment.

“Hollywood is the only industry, even taking in soup companies, which does not have laboratories for the purpose of experimentation.”— Orson Welles.

I’m highly invested in the future of storytelling because I want to welcome audiences into my worlds in the most awe-inspiring, effective means possible.

I’ve never been a “medium” guy or a “platform” guy. Movies have been my love since I began forming memories, but as I’ve grown I’ve come to realize that I’m simply a story guy — in whatever form that might take.

So when I first tried on a VR headset in the summer of 2015, I was enthralled by the potential emotion which could be conveyed and felt through this experience-creating, storytelling tool.

I know VR has been around for a while, but let’s be honest, not like this.

Out of pure curiosity, I did what I do best: used the resources at my disposal to create something quickly, as an experiment (I rather enjoy being a scientist about art). I piqued the curiosity of a mentor-turned-producing-partner and now good friend, Don Zirpola, along with a classmate, Allie Gallo, and my brother-from-another-mother and business partner, Matt Law.

Together we set out to create a proof-of-concept for an original VR series, which I conceived, called AFTER.

We rounded out a team over the course of a few weeks, and before I knew it, we had sponsorships from prominent VR companies, the visual effects guidance from “9” director, Shane Acker, and a milieu of talented creatives to develop the computer-generated worlds necessary to tell the story.

Just like the films I made in my pre-pubescence, I didn’t know much about the how — for that, I relied heavily on this inspired team — I just knew the what and the why. I learned the rest along the way (a recurring theme in my life).

Part of our crew for AFTER Episode I: LUCY. That’s me in the headset.

Experiencing life after death.

In AFTER, the audience steps into the first-person point-of-view of a specific character (Lucy) who dies, and goes on to experience the first five-minutes of her afterlife.

Each episode of the 7-episode series is inspired by a different spiritual or cultural afterlife belief from around the world, bringing to life some of the oldest and most influential stories of humankind.

It’s the stories of the immense unanswered questions that intrigue me most — of mortality, spirituality, and all that is beyond this reality.

My father died when I was 10, and I’ve never shied away from exploring death in my work. My second feature film, NIGHT SIGHTS, which I wrote and directed between 11th and 12th grade, is an exploration of loved ones releasing souls of the passed-on to Heaven.

With AFTER, there was an opportunity for further exploration, an exploration not of those left behind, but of those departing.

Still from AFTER Episode I: LUCY.

With AFTER, our intention was to allow audiences to feel something intimate and emotional, explore an event they couldn’t normally experience in day-to-day life, and create something that cinema or other existing platforms couldn’t quite cater to — something that felt natural and organic, yet still foreign, just like this new VR technology.

We sought to cultivate an intimate space within people to explore death, while simultaneously build empathy between people by creating a global experience, where viewers could step within the spiritual beliefs of folks from all over the world.

By understanding what people believe after death (if they believe anything at all), I imagined audiences would gain empathy towards why people make the choices they do in life.

Still from AFTER Episode I: LUCY. Memories from life surrounding us on our way “up.” (VFX by Greg Peterson)

The experience (and experiment) proved to be a real success in its own right, moving many people to tears, sparking curiosities about the wonders of death, intriguing people about VR in general, and inspiring other creators.

It inspired me to continue working in this medium.

The youngest person who experienced AFTER was my 7-year-old niece, who whispered, in the saddest voice, “oh no… I’m dying.” The oldest was a 90-year-old woman who, after taking the headset off, simply sat and stared at me. I’m still curious about what she was thinking in that endless period of silence. She’s never wanted to share. I can only imagine.

Other reactions fell everywhere in between: happy tears, sad tears, elation, comfort, depression, boredom, fear, wonder, awe… you name it. I’ve sat in front of hundreds of people, one-on-one in most cases, and just watched. I observed their behaviors, their verbal reactions, both initial and over time, their body language, and even their breathing. I kept notes. I was insatiably curious.

First-hand, I observed the diverse relationships humans have with death.

The truly amazing part was bearing witness to the fact that a virtual experience helped people to feel something so real.

In that, I had hit the jackpot. This is a powerful tool.

Content is… king?

The magic trick of storytelling through visual mediums is changing. Sadly (to me), our belief in the “magic” has weakened, and our knowledge of the “trick” has advanced. The emotional resonance has thus become hollowed, and so too has the content itself.

And I’m not just referring to movies or television here. Movies are amazing, and television is addicting. Commercials are clever and branded content is witty. But put it all together and what do we have? The “c” word that, disguised as an antidote, is actually poisoning us: content for content’s sake.

We follow narratives and characters all. day. long. with content from Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Netflix, cable and cinemas.

The endless amount of content produced and released into our fragile world, void of true purpose, love or inspiration, may be dishing out information, illuminating new perspectives and promoting businesses, ideas and personalities — but coupled with a lack of mindfulness, a lack of intention, and a lack of love, is culminating to a bleak, over-saturated, ineffective white noise.

Everything is content. Everything is story, and so hardly anything feels like story. Everything is inundating us with information and new ways of living, but we don’t know why we want to live these new ways, and we don’t know what to do with all this information. I am convinced this is causing all the confusion. This is making us all feel a little less human.

To some, full-length films hold the same emotional weight as a 5-second comedic GIF. I realize I’m judging and projecting now—because maybe that’s all okay — “to each, her/his own”— but as a professional writer/director I’m honestly frustrated. However, I’m not hoping for days past.

As romantic as I may be about classic Aristotelian storytelling, I look to immersive storytelling, to Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR), with optimism, hope and excitement.

We have an opportunity now where people can be more mindful within story. We can be transported, lifted from our inundated lives, and placed into a pure form of existence, perhaps purer than the often messy, notification-driven, content-filled existence that has become normal life for so many.

And while we’re there, in this mindful palace — stay with me on this — we may return changed for the better.

See it different.

“Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.” — Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The times are exciting. Our tools are magical, and I get that they must consistently evolve and change (even though I went 8 months last year with a flip-phone as an experiment and felt happier, healthy and sharper…another story). But, it’s pointless to fix the limbs of a body, when there’s a problem with the heart.

Sunrises and sunsets, crisp wind on the face by the beach, pure oxygen in the mountains and buzzing bees in the front yard. Those things to me are real life, because they give a sense of grandness, of infinite, of connection to the natural world — a feeling in the heart. I personally don’t want to see a digital world, void of heart, take their place. I know I’m not alone. And it doesn’t have to. In fact, I think the opposite is possible.

Those elements of the natural world could become more appreciated, loved, taken care of, and savored than ever before. With immersion, we have the ability to create a powerful sense of perspective for change. We can create a sense of “real” for people whose lives almost feel “un-real,” constantly stuffed in rectangles of light, and a frenetic pacing of life.

There’s a way for people to “see it different” — the mission statement of my VR company.

As an example, the project Don and I are working on now is a first-person point-of-view cautionary tale of a child’s transition from playing outside to being handed an iPad for the first time. What does that feel like for today’s youth? Have we thought enough about it? Have we experienced it for ourselves?

It sounds enigmatic — to use technology to wake people from the mindlessness of technology — because, yes, it is. But it’s possible.

There’s a balance that exists, a duality, that I, and so many others are working to discover.

Still from AFTER Episode I: LUCY. Earth-rise from the moon.

Alchemists.

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” — C.S. Lewis

I can think of many ways that VR may be used in precarious ways, which would pull us further away from humanity and cosmic purpose, but I choose to focus my efforts on the empowering perspective, the wonder, and the awe that can be created by world-building and transporting our higher selves — the part that stories speak to — into inspired immersive universes.

Step into the shoes of the oppressed, of the subjugated, of the weak, of the powerful, of Mother Earth and of Father Sky, of life, and of death. Become that which we don’t know, empathize with an enemy, and familiarize with the foreign. In doing so, we will finally be able to understand, and finally be able to love unconditionally, the way we are meant to.

Just as AFTER gives us the opportunity to become intimate with death, so too does it allow us to become more intimate with life.

When the headset comes off, for a brief moment, we can take a breath, take a pause, take a moment to relish all that surrounds us in this beautiful blue world.

To experience is to learn, is to grow, is to cherish. And there is a tremendous amount to cherish around each and every one of us, if we honor ourselves with the opportunity and attitude to do so.

As my grandma always says, “don’t have a good day, make it a good day.”

If more artists can create experiences to help people admire the rapture of life when the “headset” comes off, I think we have witnessed story’s mightiest power. The most enchanting act of creation.

True alchemy. Transmuting something ordinary into something extraordinary. Metal into gold.

Virtual reality is here to improve our reality.

That’s what I’ll be working on. That’s what I know, Mrs. Davis.

All we need is more creators in the world to accept the mission.

Join me.