How should or shouldn’t cinematic VR be used to tell stories?

A report and review of the VR days Europe ‘Ashes to Ashes’ premier

First of all: the VR days Europe were great. I met so many nice and interesting people this past weekend. I honestly feel I have gained some new friends and not just new people to work with. Also, from the insights we came up with in our many good discussions, I could have written at least five new blogs. Unfortunately, I have only time to write one, but I think this one comes close to the core of what this weekend was all about. At least for me.

Last Saturday evening, the cinematic VR production ‘Ashes to Ashes’ had its world premier at the VR days. The program said it would start at 9PM. A time at which me and 17 other people that had been to the expert sessions were just getting our food on the table. Half an hour late and having eaten way too fast, we arrived at the party. Until that moment we had no idea how they were going to show a 360 movie with so many people at once. They weren’t. As we arrived, we received a ticket with a time slot, with which we could watch the thing on a Samsung gear VR with 20 people at a time. My slot was at 10:45PM. If only I had known that before I started pushing my food down my throat.

It was a strange thing to be at a premier talking to both people who already had seen the film and people who had not. I also found out that talking with one of the directors is not the best way to avoid spoilers, as people are constantly coming up to him to react. Lucky for me, I have always been very good at putting my fingers in my ears and singing ‘lalala’. The good thing about having a late timeslot was that afterwards, I could talk to pretty much anyone without spoiling their experience.

The first thing I noticed while I was watching Ashes to Ashes was how good everything looked. The scenes were very well lit and the camera that was used (the one from Jaunt) is the best one out there at the moment. Also, the set dressing and the clothing was very well done. Not to mention the sound! I could also see very clearly that three different directors had been working on the piece. One theatre director (Ingejan Ligthart Schenk), one film director (Jamille van Wijngaarden) and one VR director (Steye Hallema). It was easy to spot the work of the theatre director. From the way they used the space, how they filmed everything in one shot and used different moving stage parts. Yet the idea of filming everything in one shot might just as well have come from VR director Steye. The hand of the film director was a bit harder to see. My guess is she had a lot to do with directing the actors, especially the children.

‘Ashes to Ashes’ shows the outside of their set as well as the inside

I do think the acting style for cinematic VR is something that could be developed further. In the case of Ashes to Ashes it made sense to take a big theatrical approach, because in the story they play actors who are playing a part in a cinematic VR experience. Actors playing actors. The only thing that bothered me is that when they ‘fell out of character’ they didn’t change acting styles. My feeling is that you should use a more realistic style in acting when you try to mimic reality.

Steye and I think a lot alike when it comes to using VR. It was therefore not difficult to spot his hand in this production. He is a master at making things that are absolutely relevant to the medium. He usually does this by addressing certain themes that relate strongly to the medium itself. The most powerful of those themes being recursion. This means the medium is referring to itself inside the story. I also use this often when writing or concepting for VR and I believe that it is a good way for a new medium to get to know itself. Because we use this a lot, Steye and I call ourselves the recursionists, as though we have started some sort of movement. We laugh about that idea. I am sure other contemporary cinematic VR makers use recursion too, although they might not overthink it as much as we do.

We also share a love for using VR to tell first person narratives

The weakest part of Ashes to Ashes for me was the script. This was originally written by Anne Barnhorn, who normally writes film. In film, I think the script might have worked out wonderfully, although it is hard to say because I have never read it. For VR however there was too much dialogue and too little happening around you. The directors fixed that by altering the script. They added another layer to it where stage parts move, crew is visible and actors suddenly play actors. It ended up being a great experiment and something we can all learn a lot from. On the other hand, it made things somewhat difficult and hard to follow. I think the movie could have done with a little less dialogue. Maybe next time a film writer and a VR writer could work on the story together from the start?

In a corner of the party there was another cinematic VR production being showed called ‘The Nightwatch’. This production was the complete opposite of Ashes to Ashes. It gave you as a viewer no time at all to look around or turn your head before the next shot. I have never seen such a fast montage in cinematic VR. It was well cut, because I didn’t miss anything that happened. That by itself is admirable, yet I could not think of a reason why this should have been made in VR. It was not relevant to the medium at all. This director made the most classic example of what a filmmaker would make using 360 video: an ennobled 3D movie. And didn’t 3D movies for home purposes flop?

‘Bwana Devil’ was the first movie made in 3D

Altogether, the main thing that made Ashes to Ashes such a success is the fact that it is out there, exploring the possibilities of the medium and pushing the medium forward. Let’s hope WeMakeVR and Jaunt keep making these kinds of productions. Ashes to Ashes has certainly made me hungry for more.

I hope you enjoyed reading my theories about VR storytelling. If you did, you might want to follow me so you can read the sequels. If you can’t wait, please check out some of my earlier blog posts. They are worth getting some new attention. Thank you!

Earlier posts:
VR storytelling blog #1 — The horseless carriage syndrome
VR storytelling blog #2 — How to make your story relevant to VR
VR storytelling blog #3 — Transparent immediacy
VR Storytelling blog #4 — This is what will create the imagery of VR
VR Storytelling blog #5 — Do we need totems in virtual reality?
VR games mature together with the technology, cinematic VR does not