Virtual Reality Reshapes Storytelling
Virtual reality costs a lot to create and it’s completely changing traditional forms of telling stories through film.
Late in 2015, Aardman partnered with Google for its Spotlight Stories, an opportunity for Google to show the endless possibilities with 360-degree video.
Aardman’s Christmas short film, ‘Special Delivery’, simply showed Santa attempting to deliver presents to a block of flats as he dodged the janitor.
Anybody who has a Google Cardboard headset, a compatible cell phone and the Google Spotlight Stories app was able to view the 4 minute short film. The short film is different though as the person watching it is in control of the story. He or she is able to view Santa delivering presents, the janitor chasing Santa throughout different buildings or view any of the sub plots that are going on as well. For Aardman, giving up control to the person watching meant completely rethinking they way stories are told from the start to the end.
Heather Wright, head of partner content at Aardman, said, “We’re very used to making content as engaging as possible for [when we] are in control. But in Special Delivery, the viewer was the camera. The key thing was pacing and timing, especially in comedy, that’s important for making it funny. We had to find a way to make characters engaging enough for people to want to stay with a character and follow their journey through.”
The person watching in Special Delivery has several choices, which is a big difference from the typical viewing experience. It also presents challenges to the viewer as he or she doesn’t want to miss the best plot and the director has to make sure that the viewer doesn’t lose interest while still understanding the main narrative of the story.
VR and 360-degree video are typically mentioned in regards to gaming. In a game, the viewer is able to control the action, in VR, the viewer is more like the camera and can decide which way the camera looks. Giving up control is worrisome for directors and brands, but one interesting thing is that virtual reality movies are better than traditional films as for being entertained multiple times. In a traditional film, it happens one way, every time, so people don’t want to necessarily watch the same film over and over again. In a VR film, people can view the film differently each time by checking out sub plots and other aspects of the story.
In addition to figuring out how to create more sub plots and storylines, Aardman also rethought how to tell jokes and how scenery is created when the person watching is in control. Wright said that comedy needed to be “slapstick” in Special Delivery. She said, “A more intimate gag is much harder to do in that environment.”
Another thing that has to be considered is that the screen is essentially right in the person’s face whose watching.
Dan Efergan, Aardman’s Digital Group Creative Director, said, “There’s a minimum amount of visual action you need to get across for emotion, or feeling. Because it’s spread through this wider environment, you need to add more density.”
This could be hard for some traditional film makers, however Aardman loves in jokes and adding additional reference, so this hasn’t been an especially hard feat for the company.
In Special Delivery, Aardman even added an interesting backstory for the janitor that’s in the film. Wright thinks that story telling will continue to become more sophisticated, especially with virtual reality that’s interactive. She said, “The viewer will need to be able to move around within the space, rather than being stuck in one space,” she says. “In a gaming environment, though the viewer stays still, the environment moves around you, so you can go to different worlds.” Of course a problem that arises is the large amount of scenery that has to be programmed for a moving viewer. And in a normal game, there’s a strong reason for someone to move. So in VR, it’s important that the experience is created to help drive the narrative while giving people options. Efergan said, “We started thinking moment by moment. During a moment, what is it you need to deliver? What point can you move [the viewer] along?”
Aardman is working on a project with the BBC that will come out later. Aardman has started to utilize theatrical storytelling techniques by using scenery to help tell a story.
Efergan said, “If you were standing, as the audience, on a corner, you might look left and see the bad guys running away. If you looked to your right, you would see the good guys coming, and you know they will meet.
That’s quite physical, architecturally-based storytelling.
Wright said, “A VR film also doesn’t allow for close-ups, because the viewer is in control of the camera, so a character’s thoughts and feelings need to be conveyed differently. “The set becomes much more critical.”
Efergan added, “You can’t cut to a drop of sweat to get sub-text. Whatever you’re doing, you have to do across a physical distance. If the character is too close to the viewer, it feels awkward.”
This new project with the BBC is to help explore the future of storytelling while examining the emotional “depth of view” throughout VR. One example is how the companies are examining how eye contact with a character might change the viewers feelings in regards to the story’s narrative.
It’s going to be available only on Oculus Rift and is going to help tell Syrian refugees’ stories as they travel through Greece and Turkey.
Efergan said, “It isn’t very Aardman at first glance. It isn’t humor and comedy, but it gave us a really interesting place to deal with emotion,” says Efergan of the project.