Oculus Story Studio’s mission is to inspire and educate VR storytellers. As part of this, we wanted to share five of the lessons we learned that came out of the mistakes we made while making our first virtual reality story, Lost.
These lessons are by no means rules set in stone; rather, they’re suggestions for others who are just beginning to learn the language and grammar of storytelling in VR.
Saschka Unseld presenting lessons learned while making Lost at the Tribeca Film Festival 2015.
Traditionally when hashing out a story, we edit together a storyboarded film reel to map out the actions and pacing. But when we used the same technique to map out the pacing in virtual reality, the story became rushed. All of the actions were happening too quickly for the audience to follow along.
In hindsight this makes a lot of sense. The density of information that is conveyed in film versus VR is clearly different.
That is why, rather than thinking about the story as a series of “actions” a character takes, we ended up thinking about the story as a series of “moments”. As an example: 1. We are alone in a dark forest 2. A massive robot hand searches the area 3. The hand sits down alone disappointed 4. The hand waits for something that approaches, etc…
We then paced these moments out in VR to make sure that we’re spending enough time in each moment so that the audience has time to comprehend each moment of our story. Structuring Lost through thinking of it as “moments” and not “actions” helped find the right pace without losing our story structure.
In early versions of Lost, the audience often noted that they were confused and overwhelmed when they first saw the forest. Being transported to a completely new environment can be startling, especially with such a rich and beautiful place.
In cinema, there is a clearly defined ritual before a film starts: we get settled into our seats, the lights dim, the curtains open, and we let go, ready to be taken elsewhere.
But in VR, no such ritual exists. We needed to find a ritual for “settling in and setting the scene”.
The first part of this was figuring out what would be the very first thing the audience would see. This “first thing” is something we now call “The In”. For Lost we wanted to find something that took the audience by the hand and step by step, led them into the world rather than of just dropping them directly into the set and risking to overwhelm them.
Our “In” in Lost became Fi the firefly. She is the first thing the audience sees, even before entering into the forest. This way we had something small, simple, and graspable that got people’s attention. Fi flies a bit to your left and to right so that the audience gets used to the concept of looking all around them. Only after Fi’s greeting do we open up to the setting our story takes place in, the mysterious forest at night.
One of the most powerful aspects of film is the total control over the shot. We talked endlessly about how to regain that control. How could we make sure the viewer always looks in the correct direction?
We tried guiding the audience’s view through audio cues. We had a bird fly by the viewer to capture their attention and guide their gaze towards a point in the scene. We also tried to design the set in a way that guides the viewer’s gaze to the right areas.
However, each time we implemented one of these dictatorial tools too heavy handedly, the storytelling started to feel forced, staged, and artificial.
Over time we stepped away from this sort of thinking. To embrace VR as its own unique medium, we have to let go of our almighty control of what the audience sees. Instead of instantly pushing the story onto the viewer, we take a step back for a while and let the viewer take part in discovering the story themselves. We call this “The Letting-Go”.
By not forcing the viewer to look somewhere and making the surroundings interesting in all directions, we incite the viewer’s curiosity in the world. And through this curiosity, have them take a more active role in experiencing the story. We give the audience time to look wherever they want and get used to where they are. Then, after 40 seconds or so, a time we felt was enough for most people to feel settled and relaxed, we start utilizing things like the bird to get the audience’s attention back. But by now, because we gave them time to settle in, they are willing to listen to us.
If only one thing happens in VR at any given time, as is the case in film, the world quickly starts to feel empty and strangely fake. In life there is rarely ever just one thing happening around us. To truly have a VR experience give us the sense of reality, and thus a sense of presence, we need to go beyond singular storytelling.
We eventually redefined the relationship between storyteller, listener, and the story itself. Even though time for the viewer unfolds in a linear fashion, the discovery of the story might not. This realization, of course, had big implications on staging and timing. It also sparked discussion around something we call “Spatial Story Density”.
In VR there should never be just one interesting story related thing to look at. Stories and storytelling should be as three dimensional as the space around us. At any given moment we need to make sure that there is a certain amount of density of story elements that fills that space.
We slightly did this in Lost with the details of the forest around you and the moon up in the sky. But in future project I want us to embrace this three dimensionality even more.
Telling stories in real-time CG is hard. Not just creatively but also technically. We are rendering approximately two 1Kx1K resolution frames (one per eye) at 90 frames per second. Whereas a single frame of a classical animated movie may take days to compute on a single computer, we need to compute our frames at one ninetieth of a second. Even the most advanced computers are barely able to do this today.
When Pixar made the first Toy Story they wisely choose to do only toys. No humans, hair, water, or cloth. They knew that doing these things at a high quality level was not yet possible, and they wanted to make sure they set themselves up for a project with achievable goals.
We did not do this. A complex environment like a forest might be achievable in animated films, but in VR it was a challenge that took more time from us to surmount than we had hoped. We had to restrict ourselves massively in order to make the experience smooth and still look good. In hindsight, a simpler environment would have saved us a lot of headache.
We are, of course, aware that we weren’t able to implement everything we learned while working on Lost. But to a certain extent this is beside the point of a first step. A first step is about learning, about discovering, about finishing, and then taking the lessons into the next project. Lost was Story Studio’s first step.
We hope that these lessons help other storytellers in taking their own first step into virtual reality.