Storytelling in VR
Updated: Apr 17, 2021
A central problem for VR storytellers is how to advance the plot of a VR film when the audience has the freedom to look anywhere they please.
In real life, when we find ourselves in new surroundings, we look around, and the same is true in VR. Because VR is immersive, usually encompassing a 360 degree view, it takes several seconds (at least) to acclimatize to our virtual environment.
VR storytellers have responded by making scenes longer than in traditional film, choosing not to compress the action too much, and certainly not to commence each scene, as screenwriter William Goldman once suggested, as late as possible.
Instead, VR scenes typically play out in 360 degree ‘wide’ shots, often in real-time, with plenty of lead-in before the main action, so there’s time for the viewer to absorb the context of the scene, and not be distracted when important plot information is transmitted.
These shots are usually static because a moving camera in VR can result in motion sickness.
The result is long, slow, static shots that sacrifice pace and drama for orientation and comprehension.
Besides longer lead-in times, a second, related problem is how to ensure the viewer’s attention does not wander once the story-telling part of the scene has commenced. In the absence of a traditional frame, there's simply no telling where the VR user might be looking.
This challenge is usually resolved with the help of visual and audio cues, effectively guiding the viewer’s attention. Creaking doors, characters gasping and pointing, sudden shafts of light, or perhaps the curl of an animated brushstroke (as in the excellent Dear Angelica) are used to control our focus point, so we don’t miss important plot information.
To some extent, mise en scène (the arrangement of props and scenery) can perform the same function, creating ‘action areas’ for performance, sometimes accentuated by lighting, which likewise act as 'attractors' for our attention.
When there is no frame, the choice of location, camera position, lighting and set dressing all play a role in where the viewer looks, which is why the roles of Art Director, DOP and Director overlap to a greater degree in VR than in traditional film.
Such is the current state of visual grammar in VR film-making. But could there be alternative rules or grammatical principles, or even an entirely different grammar available to VR storytellers?
This will be the subject of future blog posts ...