Aardman on the challenges of telling stories in virtual reality

Filmmakers are by nature control freaks and we like to be able to direct the precise way stories are told. Getting this right is what we spend our lives trying to do, it’s how we achieve maximum engagement.

We lay out the journey of our stories so that the viewers see all the right shots in the right order and for the appropriate length of time. We decide when we’re going to cut to a reaction shot to emphasize understanding, or create empathy between characters, or the precise timing of shots needed to land a joke. We decide how long an action sequence needs to be or how the shots are framed to build drama and tension. VR strips us almost all of those familiar tricks of the trade.

At Aardman we recently delivered our first 360-degree story, ‘Special Delivery’, to Google Spotlight Stories and we are in the throes of delivering our second piece to the BBC as I write. Here are some of the things we have learned so far.

The ‘Special Delivery’ concept was inspired by Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ so the viewer is an observer sitting at a fixed point in space, like a fixed camera. We found that although it was technically possible for us to take of control the camera at specific times if we wanted to, it was more confusing for the viewer if we did that, because alternating between giving and taking control, was changing the new rules. They weren’t sure where they were suddenly or whether or not they could move on their own. So with the exception of the opening title, we left all the control with the viewer.

As we could no longer cut to reaction shots, the environment had to be cheated so that the set was designed with a section that came closer to the camera so that the characters came closer to you physically or the action contrived in some way to have them ‘fly’ near the camera, if you want them to make a point. More like a theatre set.

We did have some new toys though and trigger points were one of the main ones. These allow action to be ‘triggered’ only when the viewer is looking at it, but also to ‘hang’ if you’re not looking at, so the story waits for you. We think of it as sliding plates of action which are constantly adjusting. It works the same with the sound.

VR is finding many applications using video so why would you choose an animated route I hear you asking? The answer is that with a video, you can’t interact with the precise movements and reactions of the characters. For example, using a real-time engine with animated characters, you can have the protagonists react and look directly at you the minute you look at them and so you feel more naturally connected, your eyes lock and you are truly part of the same story. The engagement is potentially deeper. We have tested this idea out on our BBC project which will be revealed at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in a couple of weeks.

Everyone is talking about the UN’s ‘Clouds over Sidra’ piece at the moment made by VRSE. Told from the point of view of Sidra, a 12 year old Syrian girl, the viewer is an embedded observer. Sometimes she talks directly to us and at others she narrates. It packs an emotional punch because it allows us to get much closer to the story in an uninterrupted way, for a longer period of time, which is a more authentic way of understanding the story. It challenges the way we look at news and current events with the VR adding a level of immersion not previously possible.

It’s still early days for VR storytelling and there is still a ton of learning and experimentation going on. However one of the main problems with it is accessibility. The Google tech is interesting because it it’s viewable in 360 degrees on a phone which democratises the experience. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of Facebook and Oculus partnership and whether or not they stay in headsets or move to mobile too.

The production costs will undoubtedly come down but I can only see it becoming a mainstream entertainment platform, when the audience coalesces around one or two systems. There are too many players fighting for space at the moment. As content producers and distributors we will always be going for the largest audience.

Heather Wright is executive producer and head of partner content at Aardman

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