7 Insights from an Immersive Cinema Beginner

What is VR filmmaking? How can it differentiate from traditional cinema? How immersive could it be? Is it the future of film? As a film studies student at UC Berkeley, I joined the VR@Berkeley this spring with these burning questions in mind, and worked with the team of immersive cinema to find the answers. Through group research & presentations, experimental exercises, meet-up events, and interviews with professionals, here are some takeaways I have gathered over the semester on VR filmmaking :

  1. VR filmmaking is about designing an immersive experience. Therefore there are many factors taken into account that relates directly to the audience’s physical body response, such as nausea, dizziness, and claustrophobia. Therefore it is essential to reiterate on the work (“prototype”) and constantly test the user experience and update accordingly.
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VR storyboard example by Vincent McCurley

2. The space is the story. In VR film, the narrative does not only rely on the story the scripts entails, but more importantly, the spaces that it proceeds. The story is already happening as the audience starts looking around the space. Details in foregrounds, for example, are easily seen and given importance to by some viewers and not others, despite the creators’ planned intention. Since 360 film does not allow a focus point opposed to traditional filmmaking, it is expected that each viewer will have a customized and individual experience of the film. Therefore, location scouting as well as the placement of objects, characters, and plot details should be carefully considered and planned out for all possible stories and viewings.

3. Sense of embodiment channels the sense of immersion. VR filmmakers need to think of the camera as a being with an identity. If it is a person, how tall could he/she be? If it is an object, what movement is it allowed to have? Why is the audience positioned in this certain spot? What relationship do the characters have to him/her? It is only by solving these questions beforehand can the audience’s sense of embodiment be established and thus the sense of immersion.

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Illustration by Daniel Zender. via New Yorker

4. Build the user experience around the way it will be interacted with: in 6DoF or 3DoF. 6DoF (“6 Degrees of Freedom”), known as a“room-scale experience” is created digitally in game engines, has position tracking for interactivity and uses controllers in 3D space. The more accessible 360 cameras have 3DoF, which are only three types of rotational freedom:, roll, yaw and pitch. This means that most 360 videos are not completely VR, allowing free moving as in reality, instead the position of the virtual viewpoint is fixed and everything is always the same distance from the eyes. Because of such distinction, in 360 videosthe sense of immersion is actually deliberately constructed rather than taken as default.

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Rotation diagram via Packet 39

5. Space for breath and exploration. Derived from the previous notes, we should realize the importance of the audience’s reconciliation with the space for the constructed immersion. VR is not a medium for fast-paced actions or long conversations, since the audience might not catch the entire action or pay attention to the entire conversation.. In order to give the audience time to learn and sink in to the virtual world, we should reevaluate and optimize the in-between space both in temporal and spatial terms, through tactics such as slower narrative pace, smoother action movements, clearer sound design, etc.

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Inside #Chungking360: exploring rule breaking in VR to create an experiential film. via Perspectives VR

6. Be aware that in VR films we should not be certain that the audience will see any of the particular actions or events, as we can’t manipulate attention in the same way we can in “framed” visual mediums. 360 cinema still allows edits and cuts, but will be with different approaches from montage in filmmaking. We as creators should learn to retain the urge to frame a scene or construct a sequence, as a “shot” in VR is regarded as a “world”(Jessica Brillhart), with likely “points of interest” sprinkled throughout each world. Therefore, we should instead learn to guide the audience’s attention through the aid of visual and audio cues to lead POIs in 360 videos.

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Illustration via Packet 39

7. VR film is a discrete medium and should be regarded discreetly. In other others, it is not just a new type of movie or video game. We should apply native thinking that recognizes unique capabilities of the medium in mind rather than trying to force-fit legacy formats.

By: Helen Jiang


Vincent McCurley. “Storyboarding in Virtual Reality.” https://virtualrealitypop.com/storyboarding-in-virtual-reality-67d3438a2fb1

Jessica Brillhart. VR & Cinema — Google I/O 2016. https://youtu.be/t3xDgONMdlM

Mike Boland. “AR & VR Success Hinges on Native Thinking”. https://artillry.co/2017/09/20/ar-vr-success-factors-think-native-act-native/

Shachar “Vice” Weis. “3DOF, 6DOF, Roomscale VR, 360 Video And Everything In Between.” https://packet39.com/blog/2018/02/25/3dof-6dof-roomscale-vr-360-video-and-everything-in-between/

Perspectives VR. “Journalism 360: Do we really care?” https://medium.com/journalism360/journalism-360-do-we-really-care-ded20925f515

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