What’s the Role of the Director in 360 Storytelling, Anyway?
A place for everyone and everyone in their place; the world of film production has always had a reassuringly rigid hierarchy. Developed by filmmakers coming home after the World Wars of the 20th Century, the flow of work is driven by a military precision. And sitting atop it all in their fancy folding chair, megaphone in hand, is the director. The advent of digital filmmaking techniques has meant that these clearly-defined roles have already started to blur and collapse into one another.
But as commercial production companies ramp up activity in the world of 360 storytelling – from immersive real-world experiences to more recent developments in virtual reality and augmented reality – the director’s position as the top dog, unilaterally driving home their singular vision is morphing into something much less clearly defined.
For one thing, the process of developing such projects tends to be much more iterative. Unique, strongly-held visions can come against biological constants like vertigo and motion sickness and audiences who just won’t do what you want them to. Many of the skills and conventions honed in film school have no place in VR or AR storytelling. Alongside the canon of Scorcese, Truffaut and Spielberg are names from newer media, like Telltale Games and Punchdrunk Theatre. Disciplines like games design, architecture, theatre and coding jostle with filmmaking for primacy.
The appetite for virtual reality is positively rapacious and the tantalising glimpses of Microsoft’s Hololens (which is slated to be available for release at the end of the year) mean that augmented reality is something the industry is going to have to figure out pretty sharpish.
So, the question is, where does the director fit into this new and fast-developing world of 360 storytelling? Will directors continue to head up 360 projects? Or is a new role emerging? LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Framestore’s Mike Woods, Nexus Interactive Arts EP Luke Ritchie, and UNIT9 directors Anrick Bregman and Gevorg Karensky to suss out the lay of the land…
LBB> Do you think ‘directors’ as we traditionally think of them have a role to play in developing VR and AR experiences and other 360 storytelling projects?
MW> It’s a strange thing. We often talk about why, in the filmmaking and commercial world, do you lead with the director’s name? It’s a personality‐led medium. Whereas the games industry, which makes more money than the film industry, you don’t see individuals’ names at the top of all the best‐selling games. It’s not about that. It’s about structure and risk and choice.
LR> Absolutely; but there’s also a steep learning process. Firstly no-one knows much about designing VR experiences, we’re all learning on the job. A traditional director tends to think about the viewer and how they’re feeling emotionally during that film experience. An interactive director thinks more about the “user” and what they’re doing or might want to do next. VR & AR is a little bit of both; the storytelling is still essential, but there’s no camera as you’ve given it to the user, therefore he or she has the ability to go anywhere they like. That requires some clever thinking about the user, but as I said, it’s all meaningless if users don’t care emotionally from the very beginning.
AB> I think the truly great experiences will come from directors and artists, working with a solid technology team to help them realise their vision. That has always been the magic formula, just like great cinematic entertainment was never made by visual effects teams alone. Great teams need a mission (director), and that mission needs a structure (screenplay) so all teams can translate the idea into action.
Most of the work being done now is really tech demos. And they serve a function - to explore what is possible - but they won’t get a larger mainstream audience excited. The biggest challenge we have in the VR industry is to have a huge diversity of stories to tell. That can only happen with you tell stories on a human level.
LBB> And if you do have a director on board, how does their role/position within the production team differ compared with, say, a straightforward linear piece of film?
LR> I think that’s something we’re still learning, but in many ways it doesn’t change at all; there’s still a story to tell and they’re still being given the role of designing that experience. The production team itself is of course different and we can take inspiration from the game industry here. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with a new kind of directorial team, that’s part filmmaker and part interactive director. The thought process for a traditional filmmaker is a big step change, but gradually the work is becoming more and more integrated so everyone is naturally getting better at anticipating the user. For me the exciting part about a traditional filmmaker taking on a VR project is the possibility of them being able to genuinely bring huge warmth and emotion to a very technology led platform.
AB> Just like with interactive stories generally, the process you follow and the challenges you encounter vary hugely from job to job. There are two sides to VR filmmaking that are fundamentally different, and both centre around the 360 degree aspect of the medium:
1. A VR film set is a very different beast compared to a normal film set. With a traditional film camera, you arrange several elements in front of the camera perfectly and then yell ‘action’. With VR filming, the set is all around the camera in 360 degrees. The viewer can look anywhere they like. All of the crew have to hide or be hidden. Same with your lights and audio recording equipment.
2. You of course also have a hugely different experience when it comes to the story. Traditional film is all about watching a story - you’re passive and you’re emotionally completely open to being there, but you’re also outside of it. With a 360 degree film, you as a viewer are active, and the story surrounds you. Your challenge is to go and explore. The story demands a response. The VR Director will have to make sure that the viewer’s ability to choose where to look doesn’t kill the story.
LBB> Giving up control of the camera to the viewer/user makes for a more immersive or interactive experience, but how can a director drive a story forward and make sure that the viewer doesn’t miss key story points or moments? Have we begun to iron out the difficulties of ‘giving up’ control of the camera?
LR> Projects like Bla Bla by Vincent Morisset and The Carp and The Seagull by Nexus Director Evan Boehm, potentially help us understand a solution to this problem through their clever use of interaction design.
Interaction design is absolutely crucial to VR, not in the traditional sense of pressing a button, but where you’re actually looking. The viewer will never miss a story point if you don’t want them to; you’re still in complete control. If the viewer is staring up at the sky whilst your lead character is about to the kiss the girl, no problem, we just pause them and the viewer can watch an Eagle dive across the scene instead. You can ensure that they follow the eagle until their eye line is back on the young couple and are able to pick up the story again The point is, we can design additional experiences that only happen in a particular moment i.e. you may never see the eagle, but still if the viewer is staring up at the sky and that wasn’t your intention, it can also be considered a design fail; at some point you’ve lost the viewer’s focus.
MW> It’s a massive, massive issue. It’s not even begun to be ironed out. People are so used to working with cameras. You can move the camera around, but VR is NOT a camera. VR is a person.
That’s what you’re doing. You’re putting someone somewhere so if you apply any of the rules of filmmaking… the pace of filmmaking is frenetic.
In a film you’re going through 27 locations at ridiculously hyper speeds, but people can’t cope with that in VR setting. If you start moving the camera around and not being smooth and gentle then people get sick instantly. If you have too much going on around you it’s bewildering and nothing makes sense, so how can you address that while still saying what you want to say? That’s the hardest thing. We learned that any movement of a camera that’s not really thought out can make you feel sick instantly; any change in the background environment or anything that doesn’t really happen in real life can throw your stomach.
AB> I don’t think that having control of the camera necessarily creates a more immersive experience, compared to traditional films or games. Films are hugely emotional experiences; you can have an audience of 100 people in a cinema crying in public because of what’s happening on screen. Think of Schindler’s List, or Dancer In The Dark. Those films rip your heart out. They absolutely left me shaken. And equally, games are hugely captivating, to the point where you realise it’s 4am, and you’ve been playing all night, and you didn’t even realize 6 hours went by.
So we as human beings definitely have the ability to mentally focus on that small rectangle and to forget about where we are and what is really around us. Our brain already does VR because we use our imagination when we’re watching a film.
In terms of VR, every director will have their own way to go about evoking emotions or creating immersion. Just like in cinema, with a hundred years of history. VR will be just as diverse, over time.
There are some ways in which you can make sure the viewer doesn’t miss story points. They are technical tricks, really, like making the camera move to what’s important. But I prefer to think about how the challenge for a VR filmmaking team is really about making things like the lighting, the actor’s performances, and overall set design facilitate the viewers gaze - many small details built into the world you create together which allow the viewer to intuitively understand what is important. Film making is never accidental.
GK> To me, VR is a blend of all our known mediums combined into a single one. It’s theatre, film, and a little bit of a video game. It’s an experience made for individuals to explore on their own, which consequently means every person sees a version that resembles their own personality. Because of this, I think Virtual Reality should be a bit more open, instead of being so restricted to specific details to move the plot forward. There are ways to direct attention towards an element, but unlike film, you cannot guarantee that it will be seen by the audience at that very moment. Also, this open nature style of it gives me a lot more room to experiment with. I like it.
LBB> I know a lot of the conversations that are happening at the moment, particularly with regards to AR and VR, are that the tech alone is not enough to create a meaningful experience that is about more than just novelty. This means, I guess, that storytelling is as important as it has ever been – but how do you balance this against the immersiveness that such platforms provide? And is a ‘director’ necessarily the best person to guide that story, or do you think we will see a specialist immersive storytelling directors/creative directors emerging as a distinct role in its own right?
LR> Good storytelling is and will always be critical to every great experience and as with all new technology, we’ve simply been given a new tool to use. One thing it does bring is immersion and right now it’s early days, but truthful immersion is possible and of course that’s a pretty great asset to have to tell stories. However, as with all tools we use, there’s a relationship, and VR is no different - if we use them for the wrong reasons, we regrettably usually find out at the end.
AB>What I notice about the VR work being done now isn’t that it is just tech alone, but that it is predominantly very short experiences. We’re making short stories, not long (feature-length) ones, because the effort is immense to do so. And as cinema lovers we are used to immersing ourselves in an hour-long Netflix episode, or a feature length film.
So let’s see how the format develops as a long-form storytelling format.
I don’t think that directors are necessarily the only storytellers. So much of what is amazing about your favourite films, for example, comes from the screenwriter. Or the lead actor, who sometimes makes a film. It’s much more than a director, it just depends on the film.
So I think we’ll see over time that some directors really take to the medium, but they will work alongside game makers and documentary filmmakers and educators.
Before VR can be labelled as a genuine storytelling medium, it needs to do more than prove its tech credentials or novelty factor - it needs to bring you to tears, whether through laughter or sadness.
AR is a very different beast, and needs to be considered as a different kind of challenge. The mixed-reality world of storytelling will take longer to develop I think because there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes in terms of technology, but also because you don’t have a blank canvas - the story would literally take place in your living room.
The potential of something like HoloLens is huge but as a storytelling medium we have some ways go to before we can understand how that medium will work exactly.
LBB> On a scale of creative technologist to luddite, how tech savvy does a director need to be before dipping his or her toe in this area? Is there no such thing as too much knowledge or can becoming too bogged down in the techy details cloud your vision?
MW> We’ve built a whole internal system that allows us to use games engines within Framestore, pretty much any talent that could work on a TV spot could work on these projects too. The back end has been sorted and it’s worked really well and the front end idea is that we’ve got creative directors and lead developers driving the projects, and development side of putting in cues and creating things for people to react to is massively important. We’ve learned quite a lot from the games industry – the more you look into this way of telling a story it’s just so right for this.
LR> Interactive storytelling is a different way of thinking, and so is the actual process of creating these experiences. Both are crucial to bringing a VR vision to life, but it’s not a question of being technical or able to code (although grasping the basics is easy, so there’s no excuse not to), it’s about knowing the craft and being confident enough to challenge its perceived boundaries.
Nexus Interactive Arts telling a different kind of story last Christmas, using a shop window, a bit of ingenuity and smartphones...
LBB> I’m guessing that some directors will take to the world of VR/AR/360 like a duck to water whereas others might be less into the idea… how easy is it to spot which directors might make the leap successfully?
AB> I think to make great content you need to understand your medium. A film director knows their lenses, to use just a simple example. And so a VR director will need technical knowledge to excel at this medium, and to be able to predict how what is happening on set will end up looking at the very end.
I heard a quote last week at FMX, I think it was from [Montreal-based directing duo and visual artists] Felix & Paul, saying that “the next best ever VR experience could be made by anyone at all, it really doesn’t take that much and all the tools you need are available for free on the web”. It’s an important message. I don’t believe that the traditional model of film director is the only way. Many people will gravitate towards VR and it is a much broader medium than film is.
LR> The proof, as always, is in the pudding. I don’t know how you spot talented directors because it is such a mysterious mix of talent, ambition, initiative and determination - as well as connections and a bit of luck.
But the medium will be defined by people who make stuff. It’s the same for all entertainment in the world, you need to get your work seen by people, otherwise you’re just on the sidelines looking in and pointing.
The traditional production company or post house model is evolving to accommodate and capitalise on new forms of storytelling. Are there more effective ways of structuring production teams or companies? How do you work and why?
LR> Let’s see where the industry is in a year! It’s certainly exciting and it’s been fun designing new experiences for these new platforms but it’s still too early to tell and to what scale advertising may adopt it. At Nexus and NIA (Nexus Interactive Arts) we perhaps have been fortunate in that we integrated 3D into the game engine pipeline a few years ago and subsequently this has made the transition into VR content easier. We still have a roster of talented filmmakers who have experience in commercial and interactive content and going forward we may see more of a hybrid approach, or that some of them simply get it and excel at it.
MW> We’ve stepped back from listing directors with our projects because it doesn’t work like that in the games world and we don’t think it’s going to work like that in the VR world. You can have a creative director or team working on how stories work but we’re also aware that if you have a strong opinion on something, as the director of the piece, once it goes into testing you’re observing virgins to the project coming in and experiencing it. If they’re not responding to the cues in your story then you have to change it.
It’s still completely the Wild West. We’re much more experienced now that we can predict the sort of issues that will come up throughout the process but we treat every project as if we’re starting again. We know what our weapons are, but it ultimately feels like these are still such early days that everybody is in the narrative exploration phase. We’re helping brands get some exposure while being at the forefront of something completely new. That’s what makes it so exciting.
HC> UNIT9 represents a diverse array of talent, not just directors but innovation architects, product designers, experience designers, software engineers and 3D artists. This hybrid model is adaptable to the many challenges of VR production. Directors continue to take the lead on storytelling, however because VR projects typically require UX design, product design, building haptic installations or bespoke camera assemblies, they tend to work very collaboratively with the other talent profiles UNIT9 represents.