'Everything you've known will be rewired' – How creatives can upskill for virtual reality

As VR grows in popularity, content creators across the marketing industry are learning new approaches to storytelling and collaborating in ways never seen previously to ensure their skills match up to a 360 future.

It’s been a long time coming but VR is finally making in-roads into the mainstream. Deloitte Global predicts that VR will have its first billion-dollar year in 2016, with about $700m in hardware sales – the remainder from content. And with Goldman Sachs predicting the market could be worth a heady $80bn by 2025, the opportunities are immense.

At the moment the money is heavily invested in gaming applications, but it is increasingly being touted as a valuable tool for brands, marketers, publishers and film-makers to connect with consumers. Brands such as Nike, BA, General Electrics, the Guardian and Chevrolet have set the bar high with immersive, original content, and more are set to follow.

The Deloitte report further states: “With regard to enterprise adoption of VR, we expect 2016 will be a year of experimentation, with a range of companies dabbling with using VR for sales and marketing purposes.” However, it cautions that such activities are likely to be “commercially insignificant” this year.

But what does the take-up of VR mean for the industry at large? Advertising agencies, production companies, creative studios and post-production houses are looking at how to thrive in a 360 future, and how skills and efficiencies might need to change or adapt.

Simon Gill, who joins Isobar UK as chief creative officer in June, believes that agencies who aren’t already experimenting with VR technology will soon be left behind. He says that although VR has been around for a “long, long time”, only now is it getting the critical and commercial traction that may make it a mainstream reality. “It has taken some time for the technology to catch up, particularly on the computer graphics side,” he adds.

Now, though, a number of tech and consumer giants are investing billions into making VR viable. From Google’s entry level Cardboard, which transforms a smartphone into a reader, to 360 videos on its YouTube platform, filming in the round is on the map. More sophisticated technology, such as Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift, allow consumers to enter worlds as never before.

Small, 360 cameras are affordable, even ones that shoot 360x180 spherical images, although the quality cannot yet match that of the more traditional professional set-ups.

Gill says that there is now no excuse for agencies not to dip their toes in the VR waters, to play around with the technology and learn what it means to create for a virtual, rather than linear, world. “You need to know how VR and 360 filming affects the senses and how you should take that forward,” he says. “Understanding how an individual is put into that world is something that every agency today needs to know.”

He believes there are two or three ways of taking VR forward for brands; at one end as a mass market proposition (albeit niche at present) exploiting the YouTube and Facebook platforms, to the ever-more complex “experiential” events held at car shows, exhibitions and pop-ups.

Simon Robinson, co-founder and chief scientist at The Foundry, says brands can learn much from the gaming industry, which is a “natural starting point” for the use of VR because it is such an immersive medium that lends itself to involving the viewer (or player) in the content.

Nike's 'Turkey 360' campaign by The Mill, Somesuch and Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam

He says: “Games creators have for a long time used visual effects skills, particularly in cut scenes, to make games more real. Now the tables are turning and VFX artists are beginning to use games engines to create interactive entertainment content.”

Collaboration is key to ensure skillsets are maximised in this burgeoning medium, however. While game developers are well placed because they are comfortable working in a medium where people can travel where they please, a blend of both gaming and filmmaking skillsets is needed, according to David Sheldon-Hicks, co-founder and executive creative director at Territory VR.

“Games companies don’t like to accept the fact that they’re not the best storytellers and I don’t think filmmakers want to accept the fact that this is a medium that isn’t best suited to them in some ways, but if you bring the two together you have the perfect blend for this medium.”

Carl Addy, creative director at The Mill, says VR skills are transferable, with its limitations and differences relatively easy to learn. But to take full advantage, directors must be comfortable with nonlinear narrative, interactive storytelling and “understanding the psychology of the viewer”.

Colleague Adam Grint, also a creative director at the VFX and creative content studio, says: “You need to understand how to exploit the medium – notice that placing someone inside a scene is quite different to them watching it from the outside.”

He suggests that theatrical direction bears a closer relationship to live action VR than traditional filmmaking.

Jessical Brillhart, principal filmmaker for VR at Google, is in agreement: “Directors need to work much differently with VR content. Everything you’ve known as a film director will be rewired.”

It is an entirely different medium with different rules that all come down to a visitor being present in a space – “that’s a huge responsibility for a creator to have”. The director’s ‘frame’ is irrelevant in this world – and creators have to be ok with losing that control, she adds.

Addy agrees. Because moments cannot be framed, a director has to build scenes that the viewer is immersed in and then direct performances with the viewer at the centre, using techniques other than camera language to draw attention to the narrative.

It is why director Sam Wrench, who worked with Samsung VR on a music video for British electronica band Years & Years, says the opportunities are endless, yet the narrative drive becomes ever more important. He believes the confinement involved in giving control back to the consumer actually forces filmmakers to be more creative: “You have to make that whole space amazing. You have to make it feel like there’s something going on in every corner.

“VR is a kind of reinvention of that in terms of what you can do and how the viewer experiences a story. In that there is an inherent risk that it could go wrong or people could miss the opportunity. Or perhaps the viewer has seen a couple of bad things so they don’t engage which is kind of what happened with 3D to some degree.”

For Gill, that sometimes means holding back rather than adding meaningless interactivity for “the sake of it”. So, a recent campaign for Chevrolet called ‘CoDriver’ put the viewer in the passenger seat, rather than behind the wheel – making it a more believable ride, particularly when combined with 3D positional sound recording and in-car vibration technology. Sports shoe brand Merrell meanwhile debuted ‘TrailScape’, the first ‘walk around’ commercial VR experience, created by Hill Holliday and designed by Framestore, to give people a sense of taking a thrilling mountainside hike. Both simple ideas, but executed to give viewers a taste of such real-life adventures.

It is why there is a need for even greater collaboration at the earliest stages of a VR project: engineers, filmmakers and idea originators should (and will) be in constant conversation. There is also a need for changes to workflow, particularly on managing the increased amount of data that comes with spherical and stereo imagery. Structural changes at The Mill have mostly been on the coding and real-time rendering sides of VR workflow, which current employees are adapting to as well.

Agencies, media owners, brands, post-houses and production companies need to be patient – and champion experimentation above all else. As Brillhart says: “Film had over a century to come up with a language. VR has barely had enough time to walk.”

This article first ran in The Drum's VR issue, published on 1 June.

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