Rules for Shooting the New Frontier of Storytelling: Virtual Reality

Published on in Miscellaneous

This year is the year that Virtual Reality goes mainstream.

Samsung’s Gear VR has hit the market with a slew of competing technologies soon to follow. Oculus Rift started taking pre-orders for its headset with a rollout planned for March. Society is at the dawn of an enormous technological leap that will change how we think, interact, and go about our lives. 

Stories are the backbone of every society. The most compelling modern form of storytelling, found in nearly every country, is film. We are drawn to these stories and the communal experiences associated with the ways we consume this medium. 

It is a way for us to be entertained, a way to expand our understanding, and most importantly a way to evoke empathy. When you look at what is happening in the wild west of VR filmmaking, you begin to realize the implications of this new technology and the power it has to help filmmakers tell more compelling, empathetic and immersive stories.

You might be enthusiastically thinking, “Sign me up!”.  Before you jump in head first, you need to know that the rules of traditional storytelling go out the window in a virtual reality world.  This new medium requires a significant amount of planning and a refined, hyper focused understanding of how to physically direct and produce a project. The individuals that thrive in traditional filmmaking might struggle to adapt to the new challenges associated with a fully immersive environment. 

Determine what cameras you'll need.

As a Virtual Reality filmmaker, you start off by thinking differently about the basic approach to telling a story. Creating a more immersive story means digging deeper into the purpose, immersion, focus and molding those basic elements together in an organic and compelling way. A VR filmmaker is tasked with capturing the essence of an environment in a full 360 degrees. Multiple cameras are required for this medium meaning you need to make an investment in new equipment – or make some strategic friends. There are a few cameras on the market with varying degrees of quality.  Find one that works for you and your price point.

Now you have a camera and planned out your shots, what about location? 

Traditionally, film productions have made use of sets that fit within the camera frame. Now, you have to think about a bigger environment. Facades are irrelevant when your audience has the ability to explore their world. What existing locations lend themselves to your story? A strong set designer will help you add immersion to the environment by creating a cohesive, engaging space. All elements are fair game for interaction making the tiniest item or object vitally important.

How will you light the set? 

Consider natural lighting versus using lighting equipment and removing it during post-production. These types of decisions need to be thought out since they impact the shooting schedule and the overall budget.

Now that you have determined the elements of the physical environment, you have to think about how to capture the audiences’ attention.

There are various techniques that you can use to engage the viewer’s focus. Filmmakers have to play with our instinctive reaction to movement as a cue. When you see something out of the corner of your eye you tend to shift your focus in that direction. Limiting the viewing angle or pausing the narrative if the focus shifts pasts a specific angle are all tools used by VR filmmakers to nudge the user’s attention to a specific point and move the story forward.

Perspective is key, because it will affect your approach to filming.

Do you want the user to be a character in the story or will the user be a fly on the wall watching events unfold. Traditionally, filmmakers have used close-ups to add emphasis or intimacy, but in this new medium you have to re-think how you create those moments. Moving the perspective (camera) is unnatural, visually distracting, and potentially nausea-inducing. Think about ways in which you can achieve the same effect without moving the camera.

Gevorg Karensky, Founder of Bipolar ID, recommends bringing the actors closer to the camera, which is more natural when the user controls the environment. This is one of the issues that you’ll have to work with in a VR environment until developers can determine how to best mitigate the negative effects of movement. 

Once you have figured out the physical production side, you have to put together the elements, moments and shots into an engaging story.

The post-production process is more time and expertise intensive. You are working with much larger amounts of audio and visual data because of the added cameras. Editing largely happens in a 2D world. Meaning you spend more time editing cuts, stitching images together, digitally removing equipment from scenes and color correcting. As the technology develops, editing in VR will become more commonplace making it cheaper, faster and more efficient. The technology is still evolving meaning that filmmakers will have to work with the tools that are currently available. 

While much work exists to create standards and shape the future of VR filmmaking, the most exciting idea is the freedom that you have to explore new ways to tell better, more immersive stories. The ability to draw the audience in is unparalleled, but at the end of the day what matters most is story. This technology is simply one more tool in a filmmakers toolkit, albeit the coolest one.

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