Virtual Reality: A New Medium for Narrative?

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Can you imagine watching a live-action feature film in Virtual Reality? Well, not many people can – and that’s because it’s never been done before.

Though virtual reality seems to be the talk of the town these days, Hollywood has yet to show us its ability to either create the technology needed for a full-length film, or develop quality narratives to take VR from where it is now to the next level. Yes, VR is very much still in its infant stage, but it’s never too early as producers, studio execs and marketers alike to look ahead and position ourselves competitively with this new storytelling medium.

Some may criticize VR as just another gimmick intended to pique consumer interest in an ever more challenging entertainment landscape. The massive spike in user generated content over the last few years, coupled with alternative entertainment options (gaming, mobile apps, etc.) has pressured studios and companies to innovate and adapt. Traditional content producers are on the prowl for new ways to reach (paying) customers and capture their attention in a crowded marketplace. But is VR just a quick fix?

Well, it has been over the last year or two. Virtual Reality has predominantly been used as an “added value” experience to movie-goers. Take Paramount’s Interstellar VR experience for example. The studio layered promotions and experiential marketing in the film campaign by deploying a travelling exhibit that allowed fans to take a tour of the Endurance spacecraft using an Oculus Rift headset. Even Director Chris Nolan commented that, “it was just like being back on set.”

But that’s not enough. Sure visually appealing tours (whether it’s of a film set or a tourist destination like the “Iceland Experience”) are fun to watch, but these pieces fail to engage users past the short spectacle. The content being released for Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, and other headsets are caught somewhere between panoramic views and gamer experiences. In order to capitalize on virtual reality for entertainment, users need to be given something more: a narrative. And that’s what companies like Lithic VR have set out to do.

Matisse Tolin, Founder of Lithic VR, started his production company with one goal in mind: to leverage technology in a way that gives audiences an immersive experience unlike they’ve ever had before. “Lithic strives to pioneer live action VR by straying from gimmicky content that is overly aware of the new medium,” says Matisse. “Above all, we want to tell compelling stories with unique filmmakers.” That intention, coupled with a good script, visionary director, and small budget, lead to him producing a live-action dramatic short completely shot in VR – a first of its kind.

INTIMATE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1 is an edgy, original short that pioneers 360° storytelling, allowing users to experience the story like a fly on the wall. It’s one of the first VR narratives to utilize cinematic editing and a range of shots along with a lead performance by Micah Hauptman (EVEREST, HOMELAND), as well as dynamic binaural audio (meaning the sound shifts based on where the user is looking in the scene). INTIMATE STRANGERS premiered on Littlstar.com (a site catered to immersive 360° video and photos) and was subsequently released on all major VR platforms including: YouTube 360 and Vrideo. And above all – it’s fun and engaging to watch.

My first involvement with VR was as the Production Coordinator for this project. I immediately noticed that though virtual reality uses unique equipment and definitely provides a challenge in post (testing editors on their ability to mend stitch lines and sync the 3D audio), the process is not unlike traditional film production. You still need a cast and crew, a budget, artistic vision, and above all – a story. What projects like INTIMATE STRANGERS hope to achieve is remind counterparts in the industry of how important marrying VR with narrative is, while pushing the boundaries of entertainment technology. How so? Well one element of this short that I thought did a good job of that was a scene where the female lead recounts a dream she had while laying down on her bed. Interestingly enough, should the viewer choose to look up as she’s describing her vision, the live-action dream sequence actually plays on the ceiling above her! That wowed me, as well as others in the VR community, as a unique way to tell a story from several perspectives.

A VR experience with a powerful story is just the first step in a long journey that will take us from where entertainment is today, to the future of fully immersive film. Though INTIMATE STRANGERS is just under 8 minutes in length, it challenges our self-imposed rules and makes entertainment just a bit more real. Here’s to a future of storytelling where nothing is impossible.

VIEW/EXPERIENCE (You don’t need a headset, just your keyboard!)

Reem Hassani

About Reem Hassani

Though originally from Colorado, Reem spent much of her life living around the world in places including: the Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, New York City, and has travelled to many more. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2013 to pursue a career in film, she's worked in the marketing/publicity departments of studios including: Paramount Pictures, the Walt Disney Studios, and now STX Entertainment: the first large-scale motion picture studio to open in Hollywood in over 22 years. Her second passion however lies is in film production, where she's worked on projects shot in virtual reality for Oculus Rift, several independent shorts, and is a member of Wayes Entertainment: an all-female production company exploring the parody between modern gender roles in society. In her “spare time” Reem is developing a social media app with her sister, runs a blog documenting young Hollywood lifestyle and networking (www.HauteMafioso.com), and volunteers through local organizations.