Virtual Reality Cinema

Virtual Reality Cinema
Written by Anne McKinnon

Virtual Reality is a new medium intended for new types of interactive and immersive cinematic experiences. When the unique storytelling dynamics that are afforded to the immersive medium are properly entertained, it becomes transformative, and a premium entertainment experience.

At Tribeca Film Festival immersive, Fable, The Virtual Beings Company,  presented Wolves in the Walls- a VR experience based on the story by Neil Gaiman. Suddenly working in 3D to bring the story to life, it was no longer just about animation.

“The book never represented the audience, so we needed to come up with a way to understand why is the audience in this story?” said Pete Billington, Co-Founder and Director at Fable.

In this experience, you become Lucy’s imagination. The eight-year-old main character draws your eyes, your hands, and she makes you her imaginary friend.  “Now when you ask why are we telling the story in virtual reality, it’s because this is the only place where you can be inside an eight-year-old child’s imagination and see the world the way that she feels the world,” said Billington.

It’s easy to forget as an adult that the world is a big place for a child. The team at Fable used the ability to manipulate space to remind the audience that turning off the lights can make a room feel tense and twisted, and that adults can seem 10 feet tall or 1000 ft away when angry.

VR doesn’t have to feel like the real world. “We have hundreds of years of understanding how to manipulate your emotions,” said Billington, and fully immersing the audience in an audiovisual experience can play with synesthesia to make it a full sensory and emotional experience.

This medium can transport us somewhere else, even to another time. Wolves in the Wall brings an audience to the playfulness, curiosity and imagination of youth, while also appealing to the adult sense of responsibility. Lucy, the eight-year-old girl, is trusting you to make good decisions to make it through the conflict in the story. As the story progresses, these choices become more important because she can say, “remember, you did this thing and that’s why we’re here right now,” said Billington.

The team at Fable studio paid attention to detail. Our mind understands the environment to be real via perception of the senses. What does it feel like to have a wolf breathe on the back of your neck? What does it sound like to listen against a wall with a glass to overhear a conversation on the other side? Every interaction for Wolves in the Wall had to be made using the hands in consideration of the touch controllers.

“Every time we make a decision to do that, whether it’s moving to see something, offering, taking, picking something up, moving something- it always has to be at the service of connecting either to Lucy, or advancing story,” said Billington. It could also be imagined  this has to do with the expenses involved in making a three year VR project. None and all expenses had to be saved.

In chapter one, the audience makes between 10 to 12 choices, or any mixture of these in the interactive experience that lasts about 20 minutes. “The differentiation between a game and what we are doing is that the game will wait for you to make a very specific choice and the character will almost become robotic. Instead of that, we want to make it feel like you’re with a friend. So she says here, take this, okay, you’re not going to take it, let me put it down.” All these dynamics have to move fluidly regardless of choice, and to make it feel as if these choices matter. Just as with real interactions, it must happen in an improvisational and organic nature.

Coming from the Oculus Story Studio, Billington Co-founded Fable with Executive Producer Edward Saatchi. He’d never worked directly with technology like this before, but since no one really had, it was acceptable to take the risk. It was only scaling back for other people that was necessary when these individuals weren’t ready to accept that what the studio planned, could actually happen.

This is why Wolves in the Wall is a fable that teaches on more levels than a moral to the story. The team spent three years trying, failing and experimenting to bring the story to life. At the core of the experience is Unreal Engine. Over the course of three years, they added a lot of “Fable” to the software. Maya is their primary animation tool, and Photoshop was their texture tool. Beyond software, sound played a critical role. Just like in a film, it’s at least half of the experience, and maybe even more in virtual reality, said Billington. Spatialised audio is a really untapped part of VR, and a part of making it a premium experience.

“My personal opinion is that we did it in the wrong order. If you look at every technology that I grew up with, we always had a premium experience, followed by a home experience. We had a cinema, and then we had a VCR, or a LaserDisc or DVD player, we had an arcade game. So you had this image of what it could be. And then you were willing to accept what it was for now. I really do think that we rushed virtual reality to the consumer when we should have focused on the location based version for just a little while, just so the world understood,” he said.

Right now, the best way to experience Wolves in the Wall is at Tribeca, but one day it will live on a home entertainment store, and they must take that into consideration. The Fable team has Lucy persist through the credits, presenting a crayon to yours truly, as an opportunity for you to write your name in an acting role and to transition out of the experience.

When presented at events, Fable makes it a serious business to offer an intimate experience with Wolves in the Walls. “The worst thing that happens in VR is you just take off the headset and someone is just there saying ‘next,'” said Billington. It’s taking the most immersive and emotional ride to a jolting dead end, as if the experience never did really exist. Especially an audience of whom many are trying VR for the first time, the experience can be overwhelming. It takes time to absorb the new virtual world- with characters and a place that feel anything but virtual.

Financially, as a three year project and with the current VR consumer market and distribution, was the experience worth the investment? As an experimental piece that investigates a character with AI and long term memory, “if we can start heading in that direction, and make memory the core foundation of what we pursue as relates to character, then all of this work will be justified,” said Billington.  People like Game of Thrones and these longer formats because over the course of many seasons, their relationship with the characters grows stronger. “You are more surprised when the character does something unexpected because you’re starting to get attached to them,” said Billington. You can learn more about the Lucy project here.

On a personal level, Billington recounts a moment when a real character physically crouched down to the virtual character. It means that everything they’ve set up at the right moments have worked to make both characters arrive exactly where they do, when they do. “It’s powerful to have a group of people work together in an unknown space, and see something work,” he said.

Billington says there’s something fascinating about each medium whether it’s a text based conversation, AR, VR or a 2D medium. Down the line, when there is a persistent character that remembers you, and knows you, it could almost be said that they become a character in your story with real influence and impact in real world interactions.

This immersive-fable asks: What would it be like to interact, have a relationship, and go on a quest with a character inside a VR movie? What if one day, this is the other way around and the character has a relationship and a quest in your world.

Food for thought.

Interview by Benjamin de Wit, Festival Founder and Director of VR Days Europe.