Telling Your Story in Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is here and it’s tipped by analysts Goldman Sachs to overtake the TV market in just 10 years (by 2025).

Earlier this year, Time Magazine said that the reason Virtual Reality is taking off is because of the wide range of industries, from travel to real estate, which are about to embrace it.

This raises a very important question and concern at the heart of the progressive writer and director: Can I still tell a traditional story using Virtual Reality (VR)?


One sector quick to embrace new techniques and technologies is advertising. Forever hoping to gain their brand the edge in public perception, advertisers are already experimenting. Adoption of VR by any brand that makes a half-decent attempt almost guarantees a flood of ‘early-entrant’ press. The United Arab Emirates airline Etihad Airways is one such company with its VR short film starring Nicole Kidman.

You might find their ‘making of’ video just as interesting.

VR is a completely immersive experience. By wearing a headset, you cover your eyes (and, increasingly, your ears) so that no outside distractions are possible.

Sensors in the headset track your movements and change your view accordingly. If you’re playing a game, you enter into a graphical world that has been created for you. Conversely, if you’re watching a movie then it’s a real world that has been filmed using a Virtual Reality camera or rig.

Virtual Reality is 3D fully realised. CNet has said that 3D is “closer to the grave than ever” with no longer any support in 2016 from the world’s largest TV maker, Samsung.

Perhaps the key lesson learned from the failed uptake of 3D is: if the technology doesn’t drastically reduce the viewer’s feeling of separation from the content, it will fail. 3D failed because it actually increased separation since expensive glasses were needed while still looking at a traditional screen ‘over there’.

On the contrary, Virtual Reality eliminates separation. The video below shows a classroom of kids react to a virtual expedition of the Seven Wonders of the World, using Google’s US$8 VR solution ‘Google Cardboard’. There is proof enough in this video to show the seismic shift that VR can have on engagement.

However, except for the tourist planning their next trip, pretty pictures alone don’t engage anyone for long. So how do we incorporate a story that will keep the user engaged in the same way as a traditional story in the cinema?

Google’s principle filmmaker for Virtual Reality, Jessica Brillhart, said of Virtual Reality,“There’s no ‘once upon a time’ anymore. There’s no inner world… we are [now] the builder of worlds”

The gaming industry has known about this for a long time, of creating worlds that allow an unprecedented level of user engagement. Where they have failed however, according to Steven Spielberg in 2013, is their inability to tell stories and make consumers care about the characters.

Which is precisely the opportunity for filmmakers. Where the gaming sector has failed, the writer and director will succeed, if they understand the technology.

So what does the filmmaker need to make Virtual Reality films and content?


1. Get a Virtual Reality camera or rig

The Nokia Ozo is a standout option but with a heavy price tag (USD$60,000 minus a USD$15,000 rebate if you submit content to Nokia). This camera has a gorgeous design mimicking the dimensions of a human skull. It has eight 2K cameras that overlap by 60% creating a seamless 3D/360º viewing angle, an integrated battery/media removable console to create a very simple workflow and eight built-in microphones for true stereoscopic audio.

This camera is ‘client-friendly’ because they can cable into the action in real time with a headset and also watch playback so they can script as they go and make changes quickly. Other worthy contenders in this niche market include Google Jump/Go Pro along with the Jaunt One.

Needless to say, with all these cameras, it is very important to read the reviews and user experiences. Data workflow, low-light lens performance and focus-controls all need to be assessed camera by camera and weighed against your intended use.

2. Learn the new language of VR

”In the gaming world the viewer would make a decision to go left and the game would go left. With cinematic VR storytelling you, the filmmaker, are in control. The viewer goes the way you have shot it.”
          Aliesha Staples

Aliesha Staples owns New Zealand VR production and rental house Staples Rentals which rents out the Nokia Ozo and trains technicians who come from around NZ and Australia. The company’s recently completed work on Harsh Reality for Auckland City Mission.

Staples says you set up a VR scene in exactly the same way as with a traditional camera setup but with two differences:

  • Watch what is going on in all directions. You can’t ignore what’s happening behind you.
  • Shoot your entire film on a wide angle lens. You can’t change lens sizes as that would be too jarring for the viewer. You move the camera and actors closer and further away as a substitute for changing out lenses.

Additional tips when filming with VR:

  • You can still move the camera through any environment – on land or air – yet it must be done smoothly with a gimbal or gyro. Any jerky motion is intensified many-fold when wearing a headset and can cause motion sickness. Similarly, the horizon must be perfectly level otherwise it will seem disorientating.
  • Placement of camera is important so it achieves maximum engagement for the viewer. The camera can either be a fly on the wall watching the action unfold around you, or it can be a character which adds a further level of engagement for the viewer when done intelligently.
  • Clever use of audio is needed to help orientate and guide the user. Total Cinema 360 has software which helps to place audio within a 360º space.
  • You have to hide the lights.
  • You can also shoot 180º x 2 and stick them together. This way you don’t have to hide as many things.

3. Understand the platform your VR content will play on

A real frustration and point of uncertainly for gamers – which may become an issue for filmmakers – is that the expensive wearable headsets (US$800 for HTC Vive, US$600 for Oculus Rift) might be locked to particular content. Which could mean that you, the filmmaker, has to decide which headset you will make your film or content for. Read The Platform War.

4. Consider how you will build user engagement

Consider the easily imagined scenario of a viewer looking in the wrong direction as the story continues behind their back. Solutions at this point include using binaural and directional audio clues to help the viewer knew what direction to look at, otherwise you are punishing them for their ‘ignorance’ of not knowing where to look and in the end they will punish you by quitting.

Jessica Brillhart, the Google filmmaker, addresses this problem with the concept of Probabilistic Experiential Editing. It’s basically making a calculated or intuitive guess as to where the user’s interest will gravitate. Once again, you can significantly influence this with spatial audio cues. You then build an experience round that aspect.

In the app Sisters: A Virtual Reality Ghost Story, (download it in iTunes or Android) you can see that the viewer is left in a constant state of unease as they never know what’s behind them. They soon learn that they move the story along as they themselves trigger it with their looks.

Let’s be clear, Virtual Reality is not Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR), an industry predicted to be even bigger than Virtual Reality, is different in that it enhances our existing life. It can use the same kind of headset technology but there is no story-telling. Rather, it’s a tool that aids your experience of real life. Think DIY tech to help make life easier.

One example of AR (if one ignores the inherent sexism) is a young woman wearing a headset trying to fix a plumbing issue in the bathroom, and her dad is videoing himself in real time from another location ‘showing’ her where everything goes. She can see both the bathroom as well as her dad, who is screened on the wall next to the faucet. He can even circle and use arrows in the 3D space to show where bits go.


VR is not 360 video. With 360 video you may have a larger viewing angle but you are still separated from the experience. You are not ‘there’. This doesn’t seem to detract from the impact of the message in this simulated car-crash for US telecommunications company AT&T.

nor from the enjoyment of this piece Staples Productions did for Six60 earlier this year.

Although it’s been twenty years in the making, and its rise has been well-documented, the suddenness of the full ecosystem supporting Virtual Reality has taken filmmakers and advertisers by surprise. However with a little research and exposure to one of the increasing number of VR cameras or rigs, telling powerful stories using VR might be simpler than you think; engaging viewers, consumers and learners in a whole new way, only dreamed about before.


Ande Schurr

Ande has been location sound recording for a decade. He is passionate about growth and writes articles for freelancers.