“It’s not storytelling.” That’s what Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull said about virtual reality to The Guardian. “Linear narrative is an artfully-directed telling of a story,” he added. “You’re not just wandering around in the world.”
It’s hard to disagree when you think about some of the technical challenges involved with VR filmmaking. How will viewers follow a story if they are able to look wherever they want? How will a director make scene cuts without making the user sick?
Where are we now with VR?
A range of hardware is already available or set for release. These range from the €15 euro Google cardboard to the $900 HTC Vive.
The gaming industry is leading the way in the VR world, there are already VR theme parks where you can be fully immersed in a virtual world with added effects like wind or heat.
The adult film industry is also a VR trailblazer, just as it has been in the past technologies like VHS.
There are currently three main versions of VR: 1) 3D renderings used in gaming 2) Cinematic VR 3) 360° videos (several flat videos stitched together to create a spherical image).
Deep Inc’s Thomas Wallner, creator of VR documentary Edge of Space, believes he has the answer. At MIPTV, a TV and digital content event held in Cannes, he called it ‘forced perspective’ – a term his team itself coined. “Forced perspective gives you some control as a filmmaker to actually show the audience an optimised view of what they’re supposed to see… This is very, very important for narrative.”
One way of doing this is with carefully positioned cuts that naturally direct the gaze towards the focal point of the next shot. “We’ve been doing this for years,” said Wallner. “It’s so seamless nobody actually noticed we were doing it… the viewer doesn’t feel manipulated.”
A big challenge is that too many, or badly timed, cuts can quickly make users feel nauseous. The key is keeping the action where people are most likely to focus. The Edge of Space was able to do it effectively through analysis of some 28 million user gaze points.
For Deep Inc there was another very simple tactic for encouraging viewers to look in a particular direction: start to darken one side of the screen and people naturally turn towards the light, and hence, the action.
In an article on Gigaom.com Signe Brewster described another creative scene transition in an animation VR narrative: “The two characters rocket into the air on their jets of confetti and then explode. Your eyes follow the confetti back to Earth, where the two are once again staring into each other’s eyes. It’s a scene cut without an actual scene cut.”
However for Vast Media’s Matthias Puschmann the prospect of the viewer turning away from the action is not so worrying. He explained by telling Euronews about one of his personal experiences with VR: “I was placed in a boutique, a grocery store. I looked around, checked out what was around me and all of a sudden somebody was shot behind me. First off, it scared the hell out of me. By the time I had actually looked around the guy shooting had already run out of the store. I completely missed the entire scene. At the same time it felt very real, I felt like a bystander that missed it happening, but still it was an experience of being part of that story.”
So, sound, lighting and the action itself serve as tools for VR filmmakers to guide viewers around the film. The most important thing is understanding where your audience is likely to be looking. But in the end isn’t the freedom of the viewing experience the whole point of VR? So what if the viewer misses part of the action. Part of the beauty of VR is that you can repeat the experience, each time noticing a new detail of your environment.
Thomas Wallner admitted that the question of how much freedom viewers should have is still up for debate: “Sometimes when there’s too much story it destroys the experience, and when there isn’t enough story, there isn’t enough context. Everyone has to decide what to be in that continuum. There are no rules; they’re being written now.”
What is the future for VR?
Matthias Puschmann doesn’t worry about a dystopian future of families sitting in living rooms wearing VR headsets. “I don’t think that VR headsets will replace traditional forms of consuming media,” he said. “We will still have big screens that we will watch films and series on but it’s a complementary medium that provides completely new interactive possibilities.”
The seeming solitariness of a VR experience has been a challenge for developers. Putting the images seen by the headset wearer onto a TV goes some way to making it a group experience that is akin to playing the Wii.
For Thomas Wallner the future of storytelling with VR is an exciting prospect: “We should not be held back by the fact that the medium isn’t perfect yet… When, years down the line, the resolution is better and everything is stereoscopic and holographic and I don’t know what, we’ll still need the vocabulary that we invent today.”
Watch our full chat with Matthias Puschmann