Storytelling in Virtual Reality (VR): Trends and Complexities

VR is so immersive and takes you to another place. It is all around you. It’s not, ‘what do you want to watch?’ It’s, ‘where do you want to go?’ The conversation around VR, particularly from a business point of view is of course, how far can it grow? There’s a lot of enthusiasm about creative investment in it and the kinds of storytelling and there’s challenges there. But of course the big question is, how many devices are out there? How big is that audience? How quick is it growing? And, where is that tipping point for it becoming mass? At the moment we’ve got 80 million devices in the market worldwide. To be considered mass it needs to be 500 million. That’s moving incredibly fast. We’re now starting to see some networks commission VR content absolutely in parallel with the TV show that goes with it. So it’s the VR spin off of the TV series or it’s the VR extension of the feature film The conversation at C21 was all about, where’s the original content? And, where are the stories that you could tell in VR, that you couldn’t tell elsewhere? There was certainly a consensus about episodic storytelling in VR and it’s seen as a medium, not just creatively and in terms of audience experience, but in simple economics, where the business model makes the most sense, if you can get people to commit to coming back. What is it that makes this a returnable medium? And through that you open up business models of season passes and subscriptions to seasons and episodes over time. VR is a very intense experience. The intensity of the experience is very high. I think it will always demand a full saturation, which might naturally speak to shorter limitations. The future is wide open. At the moment there tends to be talk of episodic series, 5-6 episodes as being a bit of a sweet spot and 10 minute, or so, episodes. And at least for the next couple years, I think that will probably hold true. You really have to go into a live-action VR shoot assuming, every shot is a VFX shot. The complexities are of, not just shooting a 4K frame or an 8K cinema frame, but of shooting six times that, to shoot in six directions at once and then wrangling all that data. So the technical implications of shooting something in 360 are quite profound. All screen arts are a negotiation between art and commerce, but VR really feels like they’re mixing very well because, you’ve got to consider the storytelling implications, the audience experience, physically and emotionally where they’re going to go, at the same time as how that then affects the business model of, How long is an episode? How many episodes tell the story? How you’re going to distribute it? There’s no medium that really demands those two things be integrated quite like VR. You’re definitely seeing, from a technical point of view, and a creative point of view, it’s documentary that is leading the way on What might the role of the audience be? How might we interact with this? Where can we put a 360 camera? What interesting spaces are there to explore? When you can walk with David Attenborough with the dinosaurs, you’re in a kind of VR nirvana that we’ve always wanted and just couldn’t have until now. I think narrative VR makers would do well to watch what happens in Doco, to really understand how the mechanics of VR work, and this certainly came out in the conversations at C21, is if we’re going to make fiction-narrative content we certainly have to be aware of genre and form and all the dramatic lessons of the past, but if we’re looking for antecedence, they’re mostly going to be in the Doco space. About what you can and can’t do in VR, or what what really works, and where those boundaries are. It seems to be factual that’s setting that pace.

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