JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING – Time has helped nurture the virtual reality landscape from a novelty into a method of strengthening storytelling.
While storytellers have garnered a better understanding of how to work in the immersive medium and its maturing technologies, questions and challenges remain abundant.
In a session titled “Reality Check” on Wednesday (Sept. 27) at the 2017 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and Summit, a panel of industry executives who have invigorated the VR medium explored what challenges producers should be aware of when working with VR, as well as its societal impact.
Panel moderator Paul Baribault, VP of animation marketing & Disneynature at Walt Disney Studios, led the session into areas of immersive filmmaking which have, for the most part, been the bane of the VR industry.
The immersive technologies world encompasses many subgenres, with VR serving as a catchall term for 360-video, augmented reality, mixed reality and extended reality. But at the end of the day, experiential, immersive storytelling is at its core. If filmmakers can be smart and clever with how they approach storytelling, they can make the audience feel as though they’re in the driver’s seat.
So what are some of the biggest hurdles associated with immersive experiences?
“For us at Frontline, we’ve been excited about volumetric VR,” Carla Borras, director of digital video at PBS ‘Frontline’ says. “Room scale is creating a 3D space where you can move and walk around… you can get closer to an object and it mimics reality. There’s a deeper level of immersion to it. For something like that, which is super exciting, only a small fraction of the world will get to experience it. There’s a distribution issue there in a massive way.
Borras says that technology is the main hurdle of telling a good story right now. “It’s getting better every day, but it definitely is restraining storytellers and debilitating them in some ways.”
Social media platforms such have Facebook have done well to introduce a number of people to VR through the 360-video format. However, it hasn’t actively pushed people to seek out a more immersive experience because, in most cases, it requires being off the platform.
The challenge, says Malvina Martin, executive producer at Black Dot Films, lies in determining who the audience is and then building experiences for them.
“It’s a game changer because I don’t think traditional documentary wildlife filmmaking has really reached the audience that we, in this experience, can reach. Eleven million people watched [National Geographic's VR 360 experience Climbing Giants],” she explains. “It’s figuring out who that audience is and how do we bring these conservation and wildlife messages to that audience – that’s the challenge.”
But audiences are willing to accept this new medium with open arms. It’s a feat made easier when nearly every person in North America and Europe carries a smart phone in their pocket, capable of providing a deeper viewing experience.
The panel determined, however, that at some point audiences were turned off from the technology, as they felt it was a gimmick. They aren’t receiving enough incentive to return to worthwhile VR experiences.
While it’s easy for creators to blame the audiences for virtual reality’s missteps, it’s ultimately up to the filmmakers and storytellers to push that technology, notes Atlantic Productions CEO Anthony Geffen. “It’s about finding different ways to tell stories. Often times I see stuff that’s derivative and would work much better as a film,” he says “What this medium needs is exciting storytelling that people will go and watch. It’s as simple as that. We’ve got to create that content – if we push the storytelling, people will follow it the world over.”
For this immersive storytelling format to advance, creators will need the audience’s to accept the medium and technological advancements in both hardware and image quality. The first and foremost way VR and immersive storytelling can be taken seriously, says Geffen, is by ditching creation in the video space altogether and moving VR content onto gaming engines.
Another way, says Mitch Turnbull, a freelance director and producer, is by developing a BAFTA-like organization that brings together industry leaders to share their technical knowledge and services.
“I had a ridiculous situation with Cat Flight because we were working with Oculus where I was talking about camera frame rates, and they were thinking resolution as in refresh frame rates – completely cross-wired in terms of conversations,” she says.
“It would be fantastic if there was some sort of umbrella organization that was putting all of these things together. At the moment we’re all sort of firing off at all different angles.”
Photo courtesy of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival