How can VR filmmakers keep focus on the narrative?

One of the biggest problems facing developers of material for virtual reality is how to keep users focused on the narrative.

Unlike more traditional media, where camera angle anchors the attention on a specific spot, VR viewers are free to survey the entire 360-degree environment.

And this presents a challenge for anyone working to create immersive experiences which provide users with a level of agency they’re just not used to, particularly in TV and film.

Game designers have dealt with this issue for years, creating entire settings which people can occupy and interact with. This gives them a head start in crafting products for a VR audience.

But many filmmakers are beginning to turn their attention toward virtual reality as a potential vehicle for cinema and television.

Bourne Identity director, Doug Liman, has just launched a five-episode miniseries called Invisible for which he’s apparently disregarded a great deal of accepted wisdom for working in VR.

The result is very disorienting. The jury is still out on whether devices which have been acceptable in more traditional media , like jump cuts and split screens, work in a VR setting.

Liman told The Verge: “There’s no reason my films can’t work as hard as VR does to hook an audience and never let them go.

“The thing that became most clear to me when we first shot the tests was that we had to rethink the way we were telling stories, because when you just take a traditional scripted scene out of any TV script or movie script and shoot it in VR, it’s going to be less compelling than what was shot in 2D.”

One of the big problems for filmmakers is that, unlike games which players can take many hours or even days to complete, they need to tell their stories within a matter of minutes.

Just think how many individual shots go into a single episode of your favourite programme. All the while, the audience’s attention is focussed directly on the action.

Now imagine giving viewers the opportunity to look around while a scene evolves. What happens when, as they’re turning to look behind them, the shot changes and they completely lose a sense of where they are?

Co-founder at software firm The Foundry, Simon Robinson, told TechRadar that filmmakers “can no longer pan from the left and right to the end of an image because there is no end of the image, they are having to think about sitting in a bubble instead”.

“People like the idea that when you put your headset on you feel as immersed as possible,” he added. “And any flaws in the material break that sense of immersion.”

So how to keep an audience focussed on the action? Perhaps sound is the key.

In a short promotional film for his VR animation Mad God, stop-motion legend, Phil Tippett, said: “It just meant changing how one approached the narrative because it took away all your editorial tools for telling a story but it gave you something else that was really pretty cool, which was being able to direct by the location of sound in the three-dimensional sphere.”

Meghan Neal at Motherboard recently posted a piece which seemed to agree. She wrote: “3D sound mimics the way we hear in real life, and is a crucial part of what makes a virtual environment realistic.

“Most recordings we listen to today are in stereo, panning between the left and right ear.

“But adding the aural dimension of depth is how the brain locates things in space, so you can hear sounds that appear to be coming from off in the distance, right up close, behind you, and in every direction in a 360-degree sphere.”

Google’s VR filmmaker, Jessica Brillhart, has started trying to visualise how filmmakers can make the leap from two dimensions to a 3D environment.

“Game designers understand that they’re creating an experiential hub for potential stories and not a direct one-to-one story,” she told an audience at last month’s EmTech MIT 2016 conference.

“They come up with a general idea and provide players with the means to discover the story on their own.

“VR filmmakers can learn from them, and from architects, who similarly build spaces that have conversations with people,” she says.

But some don’t envisage this happening quickly. Will McMaster, head of VR at Visualise, told TechRadar: “VR and 360 film content is not something you can just pour money into and it will magically be good.

“It’s going to take many years, maybe even decades, for content producers in VR to figure out the mechanics of how a story is told this way.”

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