The Entertainment Issue: Studio 360 – The pioneers who are making the first virtual-reality narratives

Pragmatic tips from WEVR and how to learn content production for a new medium.

Very exciting times.

“We’re at the Lumière-brothers stage—little experiments, like pointing the camera at a moving train and seeing what happens.”

Will V.R. be as transformative as the Internet? Anthony Batt, one of Wevr’s three founders and its head of content, didn’t hesitate:

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “It’s not a new way to watch movies, or a new gaming platform. It’s a new medium. How often do new mediums come along?”

The 2 words about VR everyone keeps hearing are: ‘empathy’ and ‘immersion’.

Some of Wevr’s projects are computer-animated, some are live action, and some combine both elements. they help directors unlearn much of what they know about two-dimensional films—or “flatties”.

A 360-degree camera rig picks up everything within view, including boom mikes, external lighting, and lingering crew members. It’s possible to remove such visual detritus in postproduction, but this adds time and expense.

Most V.R. experiences are viewed on phones,

“You can shoot with big, expensive lenses, but what’s the point?”

“A lot of tech people are talking a big game about V.R. right now. A lot of scholars, people way smarter than I am, are coming up with theories about it. And then a few people, including us, are just diving in and fucking doing it.”

VR “experiences,” as they’re often called, can be fictional or journalistic, narrative or open-ended. One of the main challenges for storytellers is learning to think in terms of spheres instead of rectangles.

Cinematic grammar no longer applies. There is no frame in which to compose a shot.

The viewer can look anywhere, so the director often adds subtle visual or auditory cues to indicate where to look, or to signal that the viewer’s gaze can wander without missing anything important.“Virtual-reality sickness” can kick in after about twenty minutes.

In “passive” V.R. experiences, you simply enjoy the ride; in “interactive” ones, the environment responds to your choices.

“The tech is advancing astoundingly quickly, but the storytellers are still catching up. Humans are good at picking up language, including visual language, but first it has to be invented.”

The audience is learning to watch V.R. while its makers are learning to make it.

As Julia Kaganskiy, who runs an art-and-technology incubator at the New Museum, put it,

 “We’re watching the semiotics come together in front of our eyes.”

Oculus Story Studio storytelling division of Oculus Rift and employs thirty people. Saschka Unseld, the studio’s creative director, prefers V.R. experiences in which the characters somehow acknowledge the viewer.

“If you aren’t ever acknowledged, it actually feels more artificial”.

New Frontier is the V.R. showcase at Sundance.

Chris Milk’s TED talk about VR proclaimed:

“Through this machine, we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected.”

Janet Murray, a professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, told me,

“I’m all for empathy—I’m just not sure people will stay engaged for very long unless it’s narratively compelling.”

The cinema’s unique contribution was ‘expressing the course of time within the frame.’ It’s early days, but according to James Kaelan, a director of both films and VR:

“the unique contribution of V.R. is going to be that it’s time plus space—cinema plus architecture.”