Storytelling in VR - The Paradox of Presence

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The goal for most VR practitioners is 'presence'. This is the feeling of being 'there', in other words being-in-a-world, which from a technical VR perspective means being immersed in 360 degrees of 3D information with ambisonic sound, and perhaps even a 4th dimension, such as touch or smell.

Yet despite these efforts, the emotional engagement produced by narrative VR remains, in general, less than in traditional film, where key aspects of character and plot can be conveyed in visceral close-ups or sequences of medium shots that inject pace and drama into a scene.

Somehow, when it comes to storytelling, presence comes up short.

In traditional cinema, one looks forward (toward the screen) and is told a story that plays out within a rectangular frame. By contrast, VR has been described as ‘reverse theater-in-the-round' with the viewer standing at the center of a 360° radius of action. The difference is profound.

In VR, the viewer feels in the scene, not apart from it, inhabiting something akin to a permanent point-of-view shot. Until something happens to contradict this sensation, the default narrative stance of VR is therefore 'first-person'. One feels like a participant in the story because one is literally 'there', and seemingly capable of doing the main things humans have done since time immemorial, which is to look around and investigate.

Many VR filmmakers play to this intuition, by having secondary characters address the viewer/camera, or by plot devices that treat the VR user’s point-of-view (the camera position) as an explicit point-of-view shot. Most VR films, for instance, play out at head height, simulating a human point-of-view. But even when the camera is raised or lowered, one still feels appreciably 'there' - a literal fly-on-the-wall.

From a narrative point-of-view, there are some problems with this. Firstly, in traditional cinema, a POV shot is never under one’s control. When a character addresses you, you cannot ‘look away’ as you can in a VR film. You can look away from the screen, of course, whilst seated inside the cinema theatre (effectively opting out of the movie) but this is not an option available to the VR user.

This sets up a basic cognitive dissonance that VR has yet to resolve, namely that one feels a physiological sense of presence at the same time as a mechanic of detachment that allows you to act (move/look) as if you were NOT truly present. In a VR film, one can ignore social interactions or significant plot points without any appreciable social cost, which is not like real life at all.

Moreover, this dissonance does not disappear when the VR filmmaker attempts to shift narrative stance from the first to the third person. Even as a fly-on-the-wall (or a mouse-on-the-floor), the viewer feels like a participant in the scene, albeit an invisible one. Some VR pundits talk about the Swayze or Ghost effect in VR, which is the feeling that one is a disembodied ghost, floating (usually at head height) in each scene, wondering why no one is looking in one’s direction.

Another factor contributing to this uneasy storytelling paradigm is the basic identification process with other characters. In a linear 2D film told in the third-person, one lives vicariously through the characters depicted. There is a clear sense of separation that allows for situations-in-extremis. One empathises with the hero. And although one experiences their trials and tribulations second-hand, their jeopardy – whether hanging from cliff-face or squaring off with an assassin - becomes our own, through well established psychological processes of empathy and identification.

But if we are watching the story unfold from a position that is simultaneously IN the story, we experience a strange conjunction of first- and third-person perspectives. We are ‘there’ and yet we cannot help or interact with the hero. We also may feel vulnerable ourselves – for what if we take a tumble off the cliff, or the assassin turns on us?

This dissonance works against engagement, rather than in its favour, promoting a kind of existential confusion that may actually inhibit empathy.

Presence therefore seems to carry these built-in contradictions. If one is there, capable of looking around, implicitly capable of agency, then why is no one acknowledging you? Or why, in a story that is purportedly unfolding in front of you, does one feel vulnerable and ‘in jeopardy’. Besides the lack of pace and drama that I have argued is principally due to restrictions on editing, VR is also bedeviled by this second storytelling problem, which may be described as the paradox of presence - being there but not being there.

The solution to this contradiction is to find a way to return an authentic third-person narrative perspective to VR. This idea is counter-intuitive, working at cross-purposes to the ideal of presence that guides so many VR storytellers. But stories are not ‘life’ – they are mediated experiences, and depend on detachment and vicarious identification with other characters (typically a central ‘hero’), or they are not stories at all.

This is not to say that a VR film should not contain moments of presence, merely that these should be used selectively, to emphasize and enhance the central story, with it’s archetypal hero’s journey. Key plot points and dramatic turning points (perhaps corresponding to a Jungian story structure with it's various gateways and transformations) are prime candidates for 'presence'.

In my next article, I will discuss how a new, hybrid form of VR might return the ‘frame’ to VR storytelling, achieving both an increase in pace, drama and jeopardy, while not sacrificing presence as a powerful phenomenon to be selectively employed.

Storytelling in VR - The Problem of Pacing

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A central problem for VR storytellers is how to advance the plot of a VR film when the audience has the freedom to look anywhere they please.

In real life, when we find ourselves in new surroundings, we look around, and the same is true in VR. Because VR is immersive, usually encompassing a 360 degree view, it takes several seconds (at least) to acclimatize to our virtual environment.

VR storytellers have responded by making scenes longer than in traditional film, choosing not to compress the action too much, and certainly not to commence each scene, as eminent screenwriter William Goldman once suggested, as late as possible.

Instead, VR scenes typically play out in 360 degree ‘wide’ shots, often in real-time, with plenty of lead-in before the main action, so there’s time for the viewer to absorb the context of the scene, and not be distracted when important plot information is transmitted.

These shots are usually static because a moving camera in VR can result in motion sickness.

The result is long, slow, static shots that sacrifice pace and drama for orientation and comprehension.

Besides longer lead-in times, a second, related problem is how to ensure the viewer’s attention does not wander once the story-telling part of the scene has commenced. In the absence of a traditional frame, there's simply no telling where the VR user might be looking.

This challenge is usually resolved with the help of visual and audio cues, effectively guiding the viewer’s attention. Creaking doors, characters gasping and pointing, sudden shafts of light, or perhaps the curl of an animated brushstroke (as in the excellent Dear Angelica) are used to control our focus point, so we don’t miss important plot information.

To some extent, mise en scène (the arrangement of props and scenery) can perform the same function, creating ‘action areas’ for performance, sometimes accentuated by lighting, which likewise act as 'attractors' for our attention.

When there is no frame, the choice of location, camera position, lighting and set dressing all play a role in where the viewer looks, which is why the roles of Art Director, DOP and Director overlap to a greater degree in VR than in traditional film.

Such is the current state of visual grammar in VR film-making. But could there be alternative rules or grammatical principles, or even an entirely different grammar available to VR storytellers?

This will be the subject of future blogs.

Some other entries

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Sentient Pictures is a full service content strategy consultancy and media production facilitator. Current and past clients include Unilever, Ford, SAB Miller, Tiger Brands, Primedia, Media 24 (SA), Joule, Red Skin Media, Oasis Aquila Housing, One Degree, Work Ready (UK) and FireID Payments (US).

The company specialises in content strategy and oversight of media content generation, including above-the-line campaigns, integrated web-based campaigns (display, search, social), content marketing, PR and mobile apps marketing.

Historically, the company has specialized in corporate communications and inbound marketing with a bias toward social business projects, charities, NGO's and causes.

About Steven Cholerton

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My background is in television broadcasting (directing & producing) and digital strategy consulting – specifically, conceiving and directing large multi-channel media projects, often with a strong video element, across a range of digital channels.

International clients include Unilever, Heineken, SAB Miller, Ford and Naspers.

I’ve also co-founded two technology startups (in mobile payments) leading interdisciplinary teams through the product lifecycle. Whether as a television practitioner, digital consultant or entrepreneur, I’m an advocate for customer-centric thinking, incorporating the proactive use of intelligent video content to engage and inspire.