Storytelling in VR - on Framing

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Grammatically speaking, a key difference between VR and traditional film is the absence of a frame in VR. This relates to the problem of pace and drama (discussed in a previous blog), insofar as the frame allows for editing – specifically, sequences of wide, medium and close-up shots that tell the story.

But cutting in VR is inherently problematic. Besides the viewer needing more time to adjust to their surroundings (imposing a slower pace on every scene) the mere act of cutting is often disorienting. A sudden change, even within a scene, may not map aesthetically onto the previous shot. Depending on where the viewer has been looking and the rate and direction of their head-movement, a change in perspective is likely to jar. Even when this is kept to a minimum, each cut necessarily imposes a new 360 degree view, meaning that the viewer will need to make sense of context all over again.

Another related problem is that of the close-up. In traditional film, key pieces of information are usually conveyed in close-ups – guns, tear-stained cheeks, etc. But there are no close-ups in VR (or even mid-shots), except as a side-effect of how the actors are blocked or objects placed within a scene. Here we are only talking about greater proximity to the camera, rather than a true close-up per se. For even if someone (or something) is positioned close enough to the front-facing lens so that the initial framing approximates a close-up (say, in size and detail), the shot is still, effectively, a wide-shot, just with something in the way (the foregrounded object). These kind of close-ups can feel obtrusive rather than revelatory.

All of which is why most VR films dispense with editing in the normal sense.

This lack of edit points has some unfortunate knock-on effects for production. For one thing, actors have to rehearse more intensively because their scenes play out over fewer, longer shots. In a complex scene with several actors, each actor has to nail the performance for the shot to be a success. The editor cannot hide weak moments by cutting to a reaction shot, for instance. In this respect, VR has much in common with theatre, as is often pointed out.

But crucially, even when the performers nail it, the resulting scenes still tend to lack pace and tension. Google Spotlight’s big budget action VR short ‘Help’, features a crash-landed alien monster on a rampage - a chase sequence replete with explosions and high-end CGI. But there is a perceptible absence of drama and energy. This is ironic since the immersion-in-a-world that is touted as the raison d'être of virtual reality is supposed to promote emotional engagement.

Conventional cinema, where key aspects of character and plot can be conveyed in visceral close-ups or medium shots that flash across the screen, still trumps VR when it comes to stirring the blood or sparking emotion.

To my mind, there are two solutions to this storytelling problem. One is to continue to use visual and audio cues to direct attention, enhanced by ever more elaborate sound design and exotic visual environments. The other is to find a way to return the ‘frame’ to the VR film, enabling something that approximates cinematic editing and thereby returning power to the editor and storyteller. This will be the subject of a later blog.