360 VR: A Brave New World

By Morgan Buxton for WRIT 420

Note: Sources are hyperlinked*

As an adrenaline junkie, I am particularly drawn to horror films. In fact, the first thing that I did after receiving my Habor VR headset in the mail was download an app called “VR Terror 360” to my phone. From there, I spent close to two hours walking into walls and annoying my roommates by shrieking every time something startled me—walking into a monster in your living room is far freakier than having him jump out at you from your television screen. Here is what I learned from my first VR 360 experience:

  1. It’s not that bad.
  2. Virtual reality has significantly altered the classic framework of           filmmaking.

As a writer, this got me thinking. Virtual reality films don’t only alter the way we write movies, they alter the way we watch them. In a two-dimensional world, watching television is viewed as a pastime. People say, “I want to relax tonight, let’s stay in and watch a movie,” but you never hear anyone shout, “I want to do something fun, let’s watch TV!” In a three-dimensional world, however, that response becomes a possibility.

One thing that I noticed when I started research for this project is that most movies are boring in VR. I don’t say this to knock VR filmmaking, I say it because it’s true. Virtual reality explores a new medium of filmmaking that has yet to prove successful. Those who are attempting to navigate its waters are entering into a brave new world of filmmaking.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’ve chosen to analyze Netflix’s 360 trailer for Stranger Things, a 2D sci-fi series about a group of preteens trying to solve their town’s deepest mysteries. The two-minute teaser, which mirrors a scene from the series, takes us through a mother’s dimly-lit home as she attempts to locate her son. The experience goes like this: With the mother, we burst through the darkness in search of her son. Around us, the floor creaks and something brushes against the wall—someone is behind us, we’re sure of it. We go to turn around but the phone rings, so we step toward it and answer. It’s her son! “Mom,” he says, “It’s behind you.” We turn around and there “it” is. Insert shriek (coming from your, of course). The end.

As you might be able to tell by my 360 film choice, it is slim pickings for narrative VR films. Most virtual reality experiences are documentaries or animations with limited narrative. This is due to the fact that world-building plays such a huge role in 360 films. The Stranger Things teaser is an example of a VR experience that I enjoy because the stakes are high. From the start, I am immersed in the characters’ world. The dark room, the couch with cushions astray, the flickering lights that surround me—it all feels so real. When the mother picks up the phone receiver, I feel connected to her actions. I wonder, “Will we ever find her son or will whatever’s chasing us get to him first?” I become involved in the world that the character’s stakes became my own. This is not to say that people don’t connect with the characters in two-dimensional films as well—otherwise, most of us wouldn’t watch television at all. Simply, the experience is different. It is far more immersive and has a way of directly involving us in the characters’ situations, which helps viewers interpret character actions and reactions the film. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we literally get the chance to walk in their shoes.

While setting plays a large role in VR filmmaking, it lacks some of the advantages of setting in 2D films. In two-dimensional films, let’s call them “flatties,” stylistic framing ensures a shot contains its necessary components. Scenes are shot to incorporate the proper lighting, props, and character actions and reactions. Since the viewers in 3D films are in control of what they see and when they see it, incorporating these aspects isn’t always possible, and, if it is possible, specific details are often overlooked. This does not always have to be a bad thing, though. It may give viewers a reason to view a film again, and if the it is interesting and engaging enough, this can be a positive experience.

As we push forward on this project, I am interested to learn new techniques that we can use to engage viewers in 360 films. I was pondering the fact that some people miss out on the happenings of VR films because they are looking elsewhere when I remembered the sound cues in the Stranger Things trailer. At one point in the teaser, we hear a mysterious sound, which we are inclined to explore, but the phone rings, which draws our attention elsewhere. This builds tension leading into the big reveal that the creature—whatever it might be—has been in the house with us the entire time, and though we might have expected that, the tense circumstance leading up to that moment make for a good payoff. Sound cues can play a big part in engaging an audience, especially in a 360 narrative, which demands attention in so many ways.  One thing we have going for us in our script is that we have so many characters interacting with Stacey in a short amount of time, so there is lots to look at always. Here is an article about binaural audio and how it was used in the 360 film Henry to enhance the viewing experience.

Moving forward, I am also curious about character interactions with the camera. I know we had talked about breaking the fourth wall in class, and I’m wondering how far we can push that as we film. Is there ever a chance for a character to speak directly to the camera as if it were Stacey? That way, viewers would experience first-hand what it feels like to be as alienated as she is. I imagine the camera in the middle of Stacey and Glen with an opportunity to see both of their faces in the midst of their standoff. That way, viewers will have to spin around to get a real sense of the world—and, better yet, they will feel as though they are right in the centre of the conflict.

Based on my experiences with VR, I find that tension is its most engaging aspect. The higher the tension, the more likely I am to want to explore the world of which I am temporarily a part. It is definitely possible to incorporate tension into the world of our film. VR filmmaking is part of a brave new world—but we are brave new souls.

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