One on one with VR storytellers

Virtual reality and 360 storytelling is a field full of a pioneers. There are no set boundaries, and most creators are figuring out the rules as they go. This makes the medium exciting, but also frustrating, especially for people who are just getting their feet wet in the industry. To give beginners a break from the endless VR forums and discussion boards, the Google News Lab sat down with VR professionals Nonny de la Peña, James Hall, Robert Hernandez, Sarah Hill and Marcelle Hopkins to get their take on 360 storytelling, from directing attention in the sphere to spatial audio.

VIDEO: Stories that lend themselves to VR

360 video is a great way to allow a viewer to step inside a story. However, certain stories work better in VR than others. Hernandez emphasizes purposefulness: “You want to do stories that justify the use of having the user look around and take in the space around them.” Hall recommends looking for places that have a “spectacular environment,” since “the location becomes a character.” Hill cautions storytellers not to limit their creativity: “Don’t think that every single story has to lend itself to 360 degrees. Challenge yourself as a storyteller.” She recommends exploring new ways to make different kinds of stories immersive.

VIDEO: Directing attention in VR

Because 360 stories happen all around the viewer, it can be pretty easy for a viewer to miss something important. That’s why the storyteller has to be sure to guide the audience through the piece. “You really have this conflict between storytellers and viewers in a way, because viewers, suddenly they have this great degree of freedom and they’re able to look all the way around the sphere, and that’s incredibly liberating,” Hill says. “But as a storyteller, that’s incredibly scary because for decades and decades, we’ve always used that fixed frame in order to guide the viewer’s attention.” Hopkins and Hernandez emphasize the importance of audio cues in directing the viewer’s attention to specific scenes. Hall advises storytellers to make the most of all of the space available to them. He adds, “If you’re watching people watch your VR piece, and they’re just staring in one place, you probably didn’t do a good job.”

VIDEO: Using audio in VR

Audio is an incredibly important aspect of immersion. “With virtual reality, sound is very spatial,” de la Peña says. “So if, in the real world, a rock would hit a river over there, well, in virtual reality, you can do the same thing. You can create sound that matches an action in a spatialized way.”

VIDEO: Problems in VR storytelling

If VR production is one thing, it’s messy. Just about everything can and probably will go wrong. One of the challenges that Hall faced was how to move the camera. “Typically, you might use a crane or a jib, but obviously in 360, you’re going to see that. So we had to build a custom, motion-controlled camera movement system to move the 360-degree camera through various environments.” Hernandez talks about the difficulty of stitching footage in postproduction. “There’s no beautiful solution there except for long hours and occasional tears.”

VIDEO: Advice to future VR storytellers

These storytellers have been in the virtual reality business for a while now, so they have a ton of advice to pass down. Hopkins urges beginners to experiment: “Break all the rules. In fact, there are no rules, so you don’t even have to worry about breaking them. But do what you think is crazy . . . because you’ll probably be surprised how different this medium is.” On a more technical note, de la Peña recommends locking the camera in one or more fixed positions to anchor the viewer inside the story; you can experiment with moving the camera later. Hall urges VR beginners to remember what’s important. “Storytelling is storytelling, and people want to see engaging stories,” he says. “Use the techniques that you would typically use to create and tell a story, and you’ll find that — hey — VR is not really different. It’s just you have a bigger palette. Instead of creating for a frame, you’re creating all around you.”

VIDEO: Last words of wisdom

Hernandez, Hopkins and Hall share some final insights. “What we should be doing is figuring out what storytelling techniques are native to VR. And once we figure that out, this is going to become something that we never even imagined,” says Hopkins.

Watch the full interviews on Journalism 360’s YouTube channel. To stay updated on the journeys of these VR pros, follow them on Twitter: @ImmersiveJourno, @filmjamie, @vrjournalism, @SarahMidMO and @marcellehopkins.