2015 was the year of virtual reality: the technology that captures and creates environments in immersive 360-degree images. When Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus Rift in 2014, calling it “a new communication platform,” visual storytellers like myself were placed on notice.
So, I signed up for Made in NY Media Center’s one-day workshop, “Virtual Reality: Business, Production, and Distribution,” led by design studio datavized, looking for a comprehensive review of what I’d need to start thinking more concretely in this form. I knew that I’d be forced to abandon traditional film conventions—establishing shot, close-up, reaction shot, etc.—that filmmakers rely on to structure the viewer’s experience. With that structure stripped away, how do filmmakers get a grip on the narrative?
What I learned was that storytellers are figuring this out by trial and error—and it’s a big mess. But: that’s the fun part. Here were my main takeaways:
Limitations of VR: Hugh McGrory kicked off the workshop by highlighting the limitations of the current VR landscape: nearly every VR project out there right now is some kind of attempt at entertainment or escape. There are also, of course, the “empathy machine” efforts. McGrory made the case for thinking far beyond those limits.
Technical basics and challenges: Brian Chirls reviewed the technical basics and challenges of VR, how it only works well at the human scale (20-40 meter range), and the current limits of head tracking and acceleration, all of which have huge narrative implications.
Narrative: VR breaks down the fourth wall of dramatic narrative, resulting in what Matt Burdette coined the “Swayze effect”– the user, an unacknowledged character in a VR story, wanders lost, alone, and ignored (much like Patrick Swayze’s character in the movie Ghost). Creating an engaging story that doesn’t alienate users will require thoughtful negotiation of the relationship between narrative, environment, and the viewer.
Distribution: One of the most interesting distribution tools mentioned was web VR, which overrides the current audience problem by integrating browsers. Here’s the Web VR Starter Kit that Chirls created.
Inspiration: Chirls also presented a few case studies of successful VR uses: Oscar Raby’s Assent (2013), an autobiographical, surreal and very personal piece; and Strangers – A Moment with Patrick Wilson, by Felix and Paul (2014).
Theory: Caitlin Burns tackled the sensory implications of VR’s unique immersive powers — suggesting that VR has more in common with psychedelic studies than traditional filmmaking. New narrative devices and procedures must emerge to deliver VR experiences that challenge, but don’t harm, users.
Gear: The most popular VR camera right now is the 360Hero system, which uses several GoPros together in a rig. The rigs range from 7-GoPro systems to 14 GoPro systems.The more GoPros, the smoother the image. Note that these options require stitching in post. For a different 3D look, DepthKit—a system created by KitSplit member James George and his colleagues—is also an interesting option; read more about the DepthKit and get a sense of its
People are converging from a huge range of disciplines to work together on these challenges, so for those interested in learning more there are tons of great resources! There are 270 VR meetup groups, including The NYVR meet-up group which meets once a month; KitSplit partner Storycode, which often features great VR projects;, and there’s even a Women in VR group.
We’re all on equal footing when it comes to this adventure of developing the new language of VR. So be bold. No one knows more than you do. Let’s work together and start creating those big beautiful messes.