Will VR Storytelling Ever Work?

In a January 11th, 2016 post, veteran VR creator Mike Woods (he's a director of Framestore’s digital department, with lots of experience making short heavily-branded VR pieces) put VR storytelling on blast: "Many of my VR projects have started earnestly as VR ‘stories’, but ultimately descended into something akin to voyeuristic explorations, full of audio or action cues designed to attract your attention to one part of the world, so that we can deliver something we feel is key. This is problematic to say the least. And always brings up the most frustrating of questions. What’s the point of doing this in VR? Wouldn’t this be better served in 16:9? I ask every new VR content maker to ask themselves this question on a regular basis."

Mike Woods is asking the provocative questions that many VR skeptics are asking.

How will storytelling work on VR?

If the user feels immersed, won't the lack of real interactivity become a problem?

And what about linear story?

If you're designing an experience AND you're going to dole out pieces of information in a way that gives every user the same sense of plot at the same place every time, why are we even talking about VR? 

Isn't an experience where information is conveyed by an authorial voice (a director? an auteur?) - capturing a moment or look and presenting those moments in a linear way - better served in 16:9?

Why must your experience be VR? Is the individual user actually interacting with the story an essential ingredient? Or a distraction? 

What's the point of VR anyway? Is it just a gimmick to sell more new hardware?

Why is VR good for storytellers? Don't storytellers need beginnings and endings and plot turning points? 

When was it decided that a 360-view was more important than the elements of structure that seem to exist to underpin theme (in the sense of meaning) and deeper emotional connection? 

What about VR responds to the needs of the greatest storytellers across the vast global history of dramatic literature?

These questions aren't unique to VR. Mike Woods uses an example from immersive theater (an example I know well, because a former student of mine, Cesar Hawas, is one of the producers of Sleep No More): "Sleep No More is dazzling, and thoroughly recommended by me. But it hasn’t caused all of Broadway to rip up what they’re doing and follow suit. In fact upon leaving Sleep No More the conversations around me were similar. People loved the “experience” but didn’t have a clue what was going on with the “story.”"

Isn't knowing "what was going on" an essential part of appreciating story?

Perhaps VR will change (expand?) our definition of motion picture story.

Will there come a time when VR can offer "experiences" that rival the emotional journeys our best stories can engender?

Tough questions.

Perhaps impossible to answer until we've all got our VR headsets and played with them for a few days or years.

But Mike Woods does drill down on one point that I think deserves more consideration right now - even before the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive ship to users.

To some of us (those with unreasonably high hopes for interactivity?), the current version of Netflix still can feel like a "kludge." 

As a consumer, I love the convenience of ordering almost any movie I want and having it stream. 

But as a filmmaker? 

Netflix can feel like a disappointment.

Is the internet really just a better tool for targeting and delivering the old forms of content? 

Really Netflix? 90 minute films, conventionally-structured serialized dramas, and reruns of TV episodes? Is that the best you have for our mobile devices? Really? 

When you think about it, isn't watching an hour-long episode of House of Cards on an iPhone a bit like this?

As Mike Woods writes: "Whoever could have imagined with all the amazing early interactive web experiments and promise of a participatory internet, that we’d be left with the mass adoption of Netflix 15 years later. How terribly boring and disappointing. What a waste of story interaction. Let’s hope the similar gold rush around VR does not take it down the same path."

Maybe today's audience is right (I've been told they usually are). But to me (and apparently Mike Woods as well) it seems a shame that a shiny new engine like the internet is still shackled to Old World forms like broadcast TV-length episodes. 

Is Netflix going to pivot yet again?

Perhaps we are still seeing a service in transition.

But now that they are a global streaming company - perhaps Netflix will stop evolving and simply settle for using the internet as a "dumb pipe" for delivering Old World video.

To me? It seems counter-intuitive that the content has not changed substantially, while the engine for delivering the content has rapidly evolved into a super-smart-and-super-stealthy tool for tracking audience whims.

Is targeted delivery of Old World content (e.g., stars and cliff-hangers and plots built around timely disclosure of coincidences, etc.) the best that we can expect? 

Or will online content soon become unimaginably different from 20th century filmmaking (e.g., films as different from House of Cards - as abstract expressionist paintings are from 19th century realistic portraits)?

How much longer will backwards-looking designers - building in all sorts of unnecessary elements from the Old World - be the only ones deciding the shape of our New World motion pictures?

Will the mobile web and VR headsets unlock an interactive type of motion picture content that moves and enthralls us in entirely new ways - and yet that still feels and satisfies like our greatest stories?

Or will we simply be passive users watching Old World movies with a few extra-ultra-3D-360 gimmicks tossed in to justify the expense of our VR headsets? 

I, for one, have come too far to settle for the awful drive-in movie theater VR experience at the top of this post. 

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