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SOME THOUGHTS ON VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) STORYTELLING

The essence of storytelling is directing the attention of another. So what happens when the other has the power to direct his own attention?

SOME THOUGHTS ON VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) STORYTELLING

Virtual Reality (VR) is great for architectural models, geographical tours or visits to worlds we cannot normally see, like riding a scooter on the seafloor amidst a pod of whales. Storytelling is a different animal.

The essence of storytelling is being able to direct another person's attention. The storyteller must be in control. Otherwise it’s not storytelling; it’s conversation.

No one yet has much experience writing VR stories. I don't. But I do have some experience writing an interactive audience participation film.

Jim Henson was always interested in cutting-edge technologies. One of his last projects was going to be an interactive theatrical film. He asked me to write it. The technology was pretty simple: Two projectors would run simultaneously, one with the main track of the story, the other with an alternative track. A microphone in the theater would gauge audience response volume. It was established at the beginning of the film that the two main characters (detectives) could never agree with each other. It was also established that the audience was their third partner. The two detectives would always be arguing about what to do next. For example, during a car chase they came to a fork in the road. They couldn’t agree which way to go. After arguing about it, one of them looked into camera and asked, "What do you think? Should we turn left...or should we turn right?" Depending on how loud the audience responded to the questions the film would either continue on the main track or switch to the second projector. The character would indicate the chosen response by saying something like, "Okay, we’ll turn left". And the story would then take a different turn along with the car. It was anticipated that the ability of the audience to change the outcome of the film would draw them back into the theaters to see alternative versions. Unfortunately, Jim passed away before the film could be made. But I did learn a good deal about how to interact with and control the audience.

Film, like theater, has a small stage or screen. VR has 4-5 times more real estate than stage or screen. But only about 25-30% of that real estate can be seen well at any given time. To fully exploit the value of VR the storyteller must use the other 70-75%. The question is: How?

To reiterate: a storyteller must control the audience. In the case of VR, if you let the viewer decide where to look you have lost control as a storyteller or director. There may be times when this is okay, such as establishing shots or battle scenes, but the writer/director should still be in control as much as possible.

Take, for example, the opening invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan. If it was shot in VR it would be okay if the viewer looked around. But there are moments when Steven Spielberg obviously wants the viewer to look at something in particular, such as when Tom Hanks rises in shock from the water. If the viewer looks the other way, up at the cliffs above the beach, he misses crucial character reveal. For the most part, the invasion scene is excellent fodder for VR. But once the soldiers make a beachhead and begin to reveal story in dialogue there is no need for VR.

Directing the viewer’s attention is normally easy in film or theater. It’s done with the camera position, motion, lighting and sound/dialogue.

With VR the director must take more control if he wants to maintain control of the story. Again, it’s okay to let the viewer change his viewpoint, but it must be subtly controlled.

My father, Norman Maurer, invented 3-D comics back in 1953 with his partner, Joe Kubert. I wrote the first 3-D animated feature, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. My father and I both learned the same vital lesson: never let the technology overwhelm the message. 3-D comics and film in the 1950s were a short-lived fad because the technology of 3-D—having the images recede into or pop out of the pages and screens—was so intrusive that it overwhelmed the story. And above all else, audiences are interested in stories. Today’s 3-D movies are much subtler. They are an enhancement, like sound and color, rather than a gimmick. The days of pies and swords zooming at the camera  are over—hopefully. These gimmicks will get old very quickly if used with VR.

But some "gimmicks" will work. For example, startling someone by having another sneak up from behind is a normal occurrence of surprise. This could work great in VR horror. The key is to stay real. In life we normally face in the same direction most of the time: during conversation, at our desk, in a restaurant. Thus, stories about normal life don’t lend themselves to VR.

Video games are a no-brainer for VR. For example, with a first person shooter game the player can look all around for victims to shoot or shooters sniping at them. But this is not storytelling. It breaks the rule of controlling the viewer.

Choosing the best viewpoint is critical. Every time the viewer decides to "look around" on her own she is, by the fact of doing so, taking her attention off the story. Imagine watching an Indy 500 race from a viewpoint in the pits. Do you want the viewer turning around to look at the mechanics' shop behind him? Why? What's the point? But put the viewpoint in the driver’s seat of one of the cars and there is far more reason to look around, such as to see who’s on your tail or what happened to that car that just spun out and flew over your head.

If I were writing a VR film I would tell the story like a normal movie when normal things are happening, and only utilize/emphasize VR when the scenes are appropriate, like surprise, disruptive action, establishing scenes, walkthroughs, etc. If the story is compelling and directed properly the viewer should never be randomly looking about. His attention should be riveted on the story, action and dialogue. If there is something worth seeing in the environment the story should direct him to look at it.

This means that ideally VR storytelling should tell stories that lend themselves to VR. Plays turned into films with lots of conversations will not make good VR films. Personally, I never really enjoyed plays that were turned into movies because they never seemed to me to be effective use of cinema. Action films, on the other hand, would obviously lend themselves to VR, as would horror. Action-comedies could be fun. Imagine a VR pie fight. But caution! This takes us back to the gimmicky aspect of VR and will get tiresome quickly.

In today’s films it’s quite common for the director to keep his camera moving. But in VR if the director is moving the camera then she may overwhelm the viewer's viewpoint with motion within motion. What's the point of VR if the director is going to turn the viewpoint rather than the viewer. So it would seem that the camera should generally remain more static. But this goes against letting the director direct the viewer’s attention. These problems must be worked out through effective control and storytelling.

Storytelling began with just words. The listener was expected to provide the imagery in their minds. Then came theater. Then came film. Then came 3-D. Now comes VR. If you look at this progress you will see it is not expanding. It is circular. The ultimate goal is to recreate reality, which is what we started off with in the first place. I have often found it amusing that we put on VR headsets in an attempt to recreate perfect reality when all we have to do is take them off.

The next step after VR is to be plugged in, like in the movies Brainstorm and Total Recall. The writer/director will create a story world for us. But isn’t this what life is? Makes you wonder who and what we are. Isn't our body a VR set that allows us to view the physical universe in order to experience life?

So the only real value in VR is to give us experiences that we are not capable of having ourselves, or not likely to survive. This is further evidence of why a stage play does not make good VR. You can go to a theater and see it in R, so why bother with VR?

Reality (as in the real world) is not the key to effective VR. Experience (as in experiencing things we cannot easily do in the real world) is. Thus the key values of VR are unavailable experiences, heightened emotions, and heightened reality.

Interest is the #1 most important element of storytelling. People want to be interested. If you can keep someone's interest you don’t need to do anything else. This is the essence of good storytelling. And it is just as true with VR.

Revenant would make a great VR film. There are magnificent vistas for the viewer to look at and thrilling action scenes to take part in. Imagine for a moment that you are Leonardo DiCaprio’s silent partner when the bear attacks, only it was directed to also attack you. It would be hard not to duck and dodge as the bear tried to tear your head off. But again there is a problem with controlling the viewer. Do you watch the bear attack Leo? Or do you watch him attack you? Do you become Leo? If so, how do you cut back and forth? This breaks normal reality because the average person (absent an out of body experience) cannot watch himself from an external point of view. The moment the bear attacks you you are not Leo and become another person in the story. But Leo was alone. Should a VR film make the viewer a part of the story? If so, the viewer cannot talk back to the other characters. So that doesn't really work. This is why VR storytelling is at once unique and difficult. We are used to being a fly on the wall in movies. But if the fly can suddenly be attacked with a flyswatter it breaks our common storytelling reality. It changes from watching a story to actual present time experience.

I think the uniqueness of VR will wear off as it did with 3-D. 3-D interest peaked and ebbed because the audience got used to it and discovered that they really just want a good story. This is the same mistake animation producers often make thinking that beautiful animation will result in a successful film. It's not the animation that makes a successful film, nor 3-D or VR. It’s story, story, story.

Once the uniqueness of VR storytelling wears off I think audiences will revert to 2D. Consider the future. You’ve experienced VR storytelling. There's nothing new about it. You want to kick back and relax and watch a movie. Would you rather put on your headset or sit back with a bowl of popcorn and Coke and watch TV? I think VR will be like going to 3D movies. We'll only want them for those films that very specifically lend themselves to VR.

Then there is the question of communal experience. Going to the theater is a group experience. Even watching a movie on the couch with family is communal.

Do you  want to sit on the couch with your family, all wearing headsets? Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed everyone at the next table looking at their cell phones? Now imagine they’re all wearing VR headsets. What an interesting world we are creating. Who needs VR when life is this amusing?

Well, that’s my two and a half cents. Leave me some feedback. I’m curious to know what you think about how stories will be told through VR headsets. 

©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved