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The Unlikely Tool Filmmakers Are Using that Many VR Experiences Lack

Bringing humanity and immediacy to virtual reality films.

by Catherine Chapman
20 July 2016, 4:30pm

The BBC shows what life is like above Earth in Home - An Immersive Spacewalk Experience. Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc | Fest.  

Virtual reality still has a long way to go, but as film directors and game developers continue to experiment with the technology, many think that the secret to take virtual experiences forward lies in theater. Much like VR, immersive theater—where audiences become active participants in the performance—creates escapist worlds, often replicating experiences where a user can take on a role as another. Hoping to become a player on the VR scene, the National Theatre (NT) in London has recently established an Immersive Storytelling Studio, a collaborative space for the creative industry, looking to experiment with dramatic storytelling using 360 and VR technologies, whether you are a filmmaker, writer, or theatrical director for fiction or nonfiction.  

“The theater makers that we’ve shown it to have just got it really quickly,” says Toby Coffrey, the Head of Digital Development at NT. “And some filmmakers are really going for it. It’s just going to take a period of time to see what works and what doesn’t. But we’ve noticed that a lot of people are obsessed with the tech and then much less effort goes into the storytelling. That’s why we particularly wanted to get involved.”

Journalism tackles solitary confinement in The Guardian’s 6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement. Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc | Fest.   

The Immersive Storytelling Studio’s first project, Home | Aamir, is a 360 verbatim documentary that follows a Sudanese man who has been living in the Calais Jungle refugee camp. Receiving its world premiere at Sheffield Doc|Fest, the piece used verbatim theater techniques by Surround Vision in Calais.

A virtual trip to Mars in Mars 2030, a VR experience made with NASA. Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc | Fest.  

Jane Gauntlet, a film and theater writer, mixes interactive theater methods with VR, bringing her experiences with epilepsy to an audience. Her latest project, In My Shoes, places a user in a café setting through an introductory film segment. Once the headset is on, the user finds themselves in a virtual version of the same café.

“The piece is designed so you are part of the experience from the minute you enter the venue,” says Gauntlet. “I wanted to put someone as close to being in my shoes as possible in a multi-sensory way.” In the 20-minute piece, an audience member sees Gauntlet’s hands as his/her own, often mimicking her movements by holding a menu or placing his/her hands flat down on the table. Physical temperatures and smells are also altered as the experience gets more intense, depicting what Gauntlet feels when she has an epileptic seizure.

A viewer sees through a refugees eyes in the NT’s VR experience Home | Aamir. Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc | Fest.  

“It’s an idea of combining what we’ve learnt through theater with new technology,” says Gauntlet. “When you’re designing interactive theater experiences you learn lots of ways to trick audiences into believing or feeling things. I think it’s that sort of technique that we’re trying to bring into the VR experience.” Gauntlet too believes that storytelling can get lost within the world of VR, hoping that as the novelty wears off, more attention will be paid to content, as opposed to technology.

“When you think of it as a theater piece, you don’t think about the headset and then aren’t reliant on the technology,” she says. “I think this can intensify audience experiences hugely, taking the focus back to audience experience and participation.”

A scene from Jane Gauntlet’s In My Shoes. Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc | Fest.   

To learn more about the Immersive Storytelling Studio click here

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