VR Visionaries: Here Be Dragons

Oculus Blog
Posted by Oculus VR
November 21, 2017

At Oculus Connect, we announced Dispatch, an innovative episodic series that takes you inside the world and mind of a small-town police dispatcher. Today, we’re excited to share that the first three episodes of the latest experience from Here Be Dragons are now available on Rift and Gear VR!

With a uniquely minimalist art style and heavy emphasis on audio, Dispatch (starring Martin Starr) breaks new ground for artistic creation in VR. We sat down with Here Be Dragons Writer & Director Edward Robles to learn more.

What motivated you to tell Dispatch’s story from the perspective of a police dispatcher?

Edward Robles: I’ve always been attracted to the fledgling detective—the character who is not a professional, way out of their depth, and trying their best despite any formal know-how. I got to thinking about police dispatchers about nine or 10 years ago as a potential fit for the fledgling detective trope. The dispatcher is an intermediary, a go-between, but the intensity of the calls can be so present and alarming that it triggers physical responses—sweaty palms, release of adrenaline, and so on. For someone to feel so close yet be so far, so powerless, it’s just a fascinating exploration I wanted to undertake.

To that point, Dispatch deals with some fairly heavy subject matter. How does your stylized approach to visuals help people navigate the story?

ER: From word go, I was intent on creating something minimalist, reducing the details of everyday life to the most evocative. The main thesis of Dispatch is that our dispatcher sees with sound. Everything Ted hears is visualized in his imagination, so we were married to audio-triggered visuals from the start.

Beyond that, I wanted to stay true to the elasticity of the imagination. Things change, shift, evolve, and contradict. It’s an emotional world, not a logical one, free from the bounds of physics. We wanted to represent the revisions, scale changes, and discoveries of Ted’s imagination in a clear and thrilling way.

On the subject of heavy subject matter, yes, Dispatch features some pretty brutal scenes. We did our best to portray those scenes in an authentic way, but we were quick to lean on the side of seeing less. The audio, provided by my sound designer Matt Yocum, is so incredibly vivid and sharp that to marry it with graphic images would’ve overloaded the viewer. We were keen to let audio lead the way very often.

How did you use the immersive nature of VR to your advantage from a directorial perspective?

ER: I’ve been fortunate and privileged to have a lot of traditional (read: flat) narrative experience, and my formal education was in cinematography, so I’ve always been concerned with composition and attention. Cinema is, at its core, sequential pictorial information. I approached Dispatch with the same intent: to tell a story, convey information clearly, and not overwhelm the viewer. To that end, we pulled back a lot of detail and created vast swaths of negative space in order to direct the viewer’s attention to one specific thing.

I approached every scene in Dispatch as a filmmaker would approach a single take in traditional film. How are we creating flow, transferring interest and attention, and propelling things forward? The absolute benefit of VR over traditional media is that I had a fully realized canvas that my audience was inside of. That’s just something you can’t do with any other medium. I’d routinely push the viewer through a moment, or circle something around them—not to be gimmicky, but instead to use their physical responses (head turning, etc.) to drive suspense and tension in the scene.

One scene stands out—in Episode 2, at Trevor’s home, when Franklin stalks around his house banging on all the doors and windows. It’s slow, controlled rotation paired with an invisible camera move. Those actions, paired with incredible audio from Matt and a mind-blowing score from Kyle Woods, creates a sense of presence and immersion that feels Hitchcockian or like something out of a De Palma movie, but it’s heightened in a way that the frame could never provide.

How does Dispatch differ from your previous work in VR?

ER: A lot, and not at all. Some of the first projects I co-wrote were Catatonic and Mule with Guy Shelmerdine, so I’ve always had the stomach for horror and tension. But when I joined Here Be Dragons, I quickly transitioned to the great documentary work the company was creating in the early days—Clouds Over Sidra and the other United Nations pieces. I was fortunate to work alongside Justin Denton and Joe Chen on the Ghost in the Shell experience, and that was my first foray into game engine storytelling.

Dispatch differs from a lot of the work I’ve been a part of (and have seen in the VR ecosystem) in that it’s very aggressive episodic storytelling. Many of the scenes are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fast, about as fast as scenes might play out in traditional media. And that’s what I was most interested in: creating something propulsive, thrilling, and unrelenting.

What was it like to work with Martin Starr? What does it mean to have a cult figure with an established fan base attached to a VR project?

ER: Martin was incredible to work with. He was endlessly inquisitive, attentive to every note or thought, and a great collaborator. He has so much curiosity toward the medium, and he was quick to hop on board with the project. I never really thought long and hard about how Martin’s previous works might shape perceptions on Dispatch. He and I were always concerned with the character, and how we can make the story as rich and layered as possible.

In hindsight, I just consider myself lucky that he and our other incredible cast members (Beth Grant, Matt Bush, Julianna Guill, Graham Shiels, Samuel Stricklen, Kelly Jenrette, Lauren Weedman, and the inimitable Ned Vaughn) saw something in the project and were so willing to bring their talents to something new for them.

Did you encounter any creative and/or technical challenges while working in VR?

ER: Yeah, big and little challenges every day. This was the biggest game engine project I’d taken on, and I had to quickly recalibrate my brain on how to direct. With traditional media or live-action VR capture, so much work goes into prep, aligning all the stars for a perfect shoot day. But with game engine creation, it’s all iterative—kind of like sculpting, though I’ve never sculpted anything in my life. I just imagine sculpting being a good analog.

What would you point to as the most memorable moment in the development process?

ER: I’d say recording the actors’ voices was the most stand-out moment for me. We packed Martin and the rest of the cast in a sound booth for an entire day and recorded all four episodes. Per Martin’s request, we recorded in order. Not only was it a great idea that affected the mood and output of the actors, I was also able to hear the increase in tension and desperation in their voices. I wanted each episode to be more intense than the last, and I really heard it come to life in that room. By Episode 3, during the car chase, everyone in the room was on the edge of their seat as Martin and Kelly brought the scene to life. I mean, people had tears in their eyes. I’d heard of moments like that on set, but I had never experienced it before. So happy to check that box, and I hope to check it again and again in the future.

If people take one thing away from the experience of Dispatch, what do you hope that would be and why?

ER: That you can tell aggressive, complex, nuanced, propulsive, unrelenting stories in VR. Also, you don’t need 100% of the sphere 100% of the time. Think carefully, plan sparingly, and don’t be afraid of negative space. The sphere is a canvas that we paint on with time.

How do you think VR will continue to impact episodic content (and the arts more broadly) in 2018 and beyond?

ER: Every time I’ve mused about the future of VR, I’ve been wrong. It’s such an exciting, electric, pulsing medium to work in. I can tell you what I’d like to see, though: more episodic and long-form content that pushes the boundaries of pace, rhythm, excitement, and suspense.

What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?

ER: I’ve got things cooking. Dragons is never a dull place.

Thanks for the insights, Ed. We can’t wait to hear more about the next Here Be Dragons project.

Try Episode 1 of Dispatch for free on Rift and Gear VR, or grab the full four episodes for $2.99 USD. You can binge-watch the first three now, and stay tuned for the cliffhanger finale!

— The Oculus Team