360 Storytelling and the Illusion of Choice

Magicians and filmmakers create illusions to entertain.

In the film “The Matrix,” Neo is faced with a choice. It’s obvious which one he is going to choose, right?
As storytellers, we can use craft to engage our audience, and as we add agency the challenge only becomes harder.

There are many similarities between directing a 360 video and the mechanics of a magic trick. Both magicians and filmmakers create illusions that captivate an audience in order to entertain.

In 360 filmmaking, we are faced with the unique problem of giving the audience agency over where to look and what frames to focus on. While we can implement obvious directed elements such as arrows, narrowing the field of view, or even pausing the entire experience until the audience has looked where we want them to, I think there is real power if you are able to use the craft of storytelling in order to have the audience swept up in the magic of the story and never miss a beat.

I call this “The Illusion of Choice” because while the audience has the belief that they can look any where they wish (and indeed they can) the hope is that you’ve done your job as a storyteller well enough that they look where they need to look when they need to look there and explore the world when the director allows.

Magic tricks are built in the same way. Take this one: http://www.magicmgmt.com/gary/something/

Now, although you can choose any number (the power and belief that you had a choice) the self working number trick will lead you to the same result each and every time. In this way, it is a ‘forced’ choice that’s well hidden. Most people will go along with the fun, because they are there to be entertained and want to play along.

When I direct narrative 360 videos, I try to employ several techniques in order to maintain the feeling of presence, while at the same time making sure each of the story beats I need my audience to understand are given the proper attention.

Before we begin, let me define the three pillars of what makes for good storytelling. Careful attention paid to these will ensure that your audience is never bored and you never lose them.

  1. Memorable characters. Nobody wants to watch regular people. And what is a regular person any way? We are all interesting human beings, but when creating a film, we only have a few moments to get to know our characters, so we want to know the most interesting thing about them. I’d argue that memorable characters are ones we can relate to and root for or against.
  2. Conflict. I’m always left speechless at how often this isn’t brought up. Simply put, there is no story without conflict. Life is full of conflict, so make it interesting! It’s simply not enough to be on Mars or riding on the back of a dragon. We should know what the stakes are and what the conflict of the plot is. To boil it down, why are we picking this moment to capture?
  3. Emotional resonance. Or better put, how we can relate and care about the material. The best stories are the ones that strike a chord in our hearts. Whether they make us laugh or cry, that connection is what brings the audience in any medium fully immersed. Without emotional resonance, it is going to be really hard to capture 100% of their attention. If you have memorable characters and you have conflict, chances are your story will resonate on an emotional level, but it’s worth putting this out there so that when crafting the story, you always ask whether or not it makes you feel some thing.
Note: I used to put structure on this list, but recently took it off after seeing Sleep No More in New York City. I do think that structured stories make the job of a director much easier to hold the audience attention, but seeing Sleep No More opened my eyes to how immersive theater can still tell a great story and keep me engaged, even if I had no idea what the f- was going on during those 3 hours. However, I had enough mystery and the characters and emotion were so compelling that I stayed with it and felt like it really made an impact on me. If you are working in 360 and don’t know about immersive theater, get researching!

Once you have the elements of a great story, it’s important that you deliver to the audience the needed information to follow along. That’s where the following techniques come into play in a medium where the audience does indeed have the agency to look in a completely different direction than the director intends.

USE THE SET

Think hard about the location in where you want to film. I like to think of 360 storytelling as “storytelling by location,” because a character’s environment can say so much about the person. It’s one of the most important tools we have. By placing interesting objects near or far, it is possible to create a sense of depth and drive attention to different points in the world. I like sometimes to use framing devices such as windows or doors to help frame up action. Also, if I need to focus my attention on the front half, I’ll put the camera towards a wall so that my FOV is restricted by the set.

Cars are a great example of using a set to give people a place to look. When in a car, we naturally want to face forward. In this scene, we placed action on the television that’s framed up by the window, giving us a nice vantage point for the interesting moment in the scene.

USE YOUR ACTORS

The actions and blocking of actors are a great way to entice an audience to look where you need them to. When thinking of blocking, think of movement in the scene. People are naturally drawn to movement and this is a way that you can guide the audience’s gaze (but please be more creative than the overused walking shot). Eye direction is another key tool. Actors looking towards a certain direction cast attention and energy which the audience can pick up and use as clues as to where to look. For a particularly effective moment of connection, have the actor make eye contact with the camera.

The fact is that, as human beings, we’re naturally looking for the subtle clues other humans give us as to what is most important or interesting to pay attention to. It is the job of the director, if he or she needs to “force” attention to simply design that event as the most interesting moment in the space.

In this scene for Paranormal Activity, we’ve put the characters in the center, but two of them are looking up at the ceiling. At this moment, most people also look up to see what they are looking at.

USE SOUND

Sound is very often referenced as a key storytelling tool in 360 video that helps direct audience attention. It’s true, if you can place a loud bang that the audience hears to the right, they are apt to look in that direction. Having spatial audio is crucial towards making the experience feel real and embody the sense of presence that makes cinematic VR so immersive. It does work to help ground people in the space by using the geometry of where people and sound effects are placed. I find it incredibly helpful if I’m watching a piece and hear somebody talking in my left ear, I’ll turn to the left and see where that sound is coming from.

That being said, I’d caution against using sound as the only way to drive attention. I’ve found the effectiveness of using audio to drive attention is much less than expected. Sure, it works, but you need to have a visual cue to back it up, and it takes the audience a bit to process the sound and where it’s coming from, so it tends to be a slow way to drive attention.

GIVE THE AUDIENCE A PERSPECTIVE

This is my number one tip for tricking the audience into playing into your illusion of choice. By defining who the audience is, so many other creative decisions are easily made to create a cohesive storytelling experience.

I’ll break it down like this. Have you every walked into a room or a party where nobody acknowledges you or looks at you? How long do you stay? Now, maybe that’s the effect you want to deliver to your audience, and that’s perfectly ok. But if it isn’t, then maybe being a 3rd person ghost character isn’t going to work for your story.

My theory is that people want to role-play. At least with entertaining content, they want to be somebody other than themselves, for a while. This is the escapism that drives modern cinema! I’ve found that if I set up the rules of the story so that people know “who” they are supposed to be, they’ll pick up on the clues and cues I use to help drive them to look and pay attention to the narrative dramatic beats I need to communicate in order for my storytelling to be effective.

Perhaps our most famous example of this technique is the film I directed for GoPro called “Fowl Seas” where you are a bird in a cage. It was a fun technique that not only allowed us to hide all the stitch seams behind the cage, but also directed all attention towards the audience. The bird isn’t the protagonist, but rather a story motivated observer of the crazy about to unfold. And yes, that’s me as a pirate on the right.

WHAT ABOUT INTERACTIVE STORIES?

Interactive storytelling feels like it’s all the rage right now in the VR community. I think people are looking for some technical reason to compensate for the lack of great characters, interesting conflict, and emotional resonance. I think VR projects like Dear Angelica proves that compelling linear storytelling works in VR, but I also agree that it would be limiting to not take advantage of the unique features of the medium to drive forward new techniques in storytelling. That is a post for another time, but I want to leave you with this main point:

The best storytellers are also the best illusionists. They transport you inside your imagination to incredible new worlds, make you feel emotional about people you’ve never actually met, and leave you changed as a human being. With 360 storytelling, we finally have some agency over where we’re looking and this is a powerful way to feel like we’re in control, and thereby making it feel more real. But those story beats that illusionists use are expertly crafted and rehearsed over and over again so that we hang on every word of a character’s monologue. As storytellers, we can also use craft to engage our audience and as we add agency, the challenge only becomes harder.

By remembering the pillars of story and techniques used to keep an audience engaged, it does’t matter how much choice they believe they have, because the storyteller never lets them wander off, even for a moment.


++++++++++++++
Get fresh insights, news and analysis with CinematicVR’s newsletter, delivered to your inbox with l♥ve, every 2 weeks. Sign up now!
++++++++++++++++