Creating Emotionally Transformative VR Experiences
Virtual reality (VR) is a powerful new form of storytelling that’s making waves in the video industry. VR City is one company that is embracing this new medium in both documentary and commercial projects. Its Company Directors Darren Emerson and Ashley Cowan both got their start at MTV before founding their own company East City Films, specializing in live music, multi-camera music videos, and branded content. They were later joined by Conan Roberts, also an alum of MTV, who took on the role of Head of Post Production.
In early 2015, the team embarked on its first VR documentary project, Witness 360: 7/7, a film about the July 7, 2005 London bombings. The film played at many international film festivals, including IDFA, Docville, the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival, and Cannes Marche du Film. Its success led the team to set up VR City as a separate company focusing on telling stories using VR.
Adobe: Tell about your first VR project, Witness 360: 7/7.
Emerson: Until recently there hasn’t been that much funding for commercial VR projects so we decided to do something documentary led. We were inspired by Clouds over Sidra, a VR documentary directed by Gabo Arora, which opened our minds to what could be done with the new medium.
We wanted to do something around the 10-year anniversary of the London bombings so we reached out to survivors groups and found a contributor, Jacqui Putnam, who was fantastic at articulating her own story. The first part of the film consists of reconstructions of the events of that day, and the second part is an emotional reimagining of Jacqui’s headspace during the aftermath of the bomb and the years following when she’s recovering. We focused on taking people to an emotional place where viewers could bring their subjective narrative to the story.
Adobe: What else have you done in the VR space?
Emerson: Our second VR documentary, Invisible, is about indefinite detention in the UK. It immerses audiences in abstract reconstructions and metaphorical portrayal of detainees who’ve lived through the uncertainty and despair of the UK’s immigration detention system. It is divided into three acts: going into detention, what’s it like in detention, and coming out of detention and the lasting effects of the experience.
We also made a film with Jude Law for the launch of the Lexus RX that captured the excitement and glamour of the vehicle. Journalists covering the car’s launch experienced what it’s like to be a Hollywood star, from being pursued by the paparazzi and walking the red carpet to seeing themselves in a movie premiere and hanging out with Jude Law. It was a huge challenge but a lot of fun at the same time.
Adobe: What are the components of your production and post-production workflows?
Roberts: We film with GoPro rigs that traditionally use six or seven GoPro arrays. We’re also starting to use back to back modified GoPros with really wide fisheye lenses for certain shots and environments. We use Autopano Video Pro (AVP) and Autopano Giga to stitch the rushes together and create proxy files that we then take into Adobe Premiere Pro CC to start building the story.
After we’ve nailed down a picture cut, we go back into AVP to tidy up some stitches and export high-resolution Cineform files that we take into Adobe After Effects CC. We have each camera as a separate layer in After Effects and we can create masks, make adjustments, and paint out the camera rigs, tripods, and sound equipment using Mettle Skybox plugins. Finally, we come back into Premiere Pro, relink everything to the high-resolution stitches, do a color grade in Premiere Pro with the Lumetri Color panel, and add any final sharpening or Mettle plugin effects.
Adobe: Why is the emotional aspect so important to you with VR?
Emerson: We have a saying at VR city, “In everything we do, for brand or documentary, we want to create an emotionally transformative experience.” Putting on a headset and seeing really good VR content can create memories, whether viewers are connecting to a survivor of a bombing or feeling an association with a brand that is really cool. It’s about storytelling and the narrative journey. Everything we do is imbued with that sensibility.
Adobe: How do you think through creating a VR film?
Emerson: Our VR work often involves reimagining places or creating environments that evoke feelings rather than being completely literal with our storytelling. For example, in Invisible we transformed an empty room into an otherworldly underwater environment to create the feeling of being trapped. The detainee’s voice is represented by waveforms, which also supports the theme of the film which is loss of identity.
Adobe: How is your commercial VR work different from your documentary VR work?
Emerson: We take a similar approach with our brand work, but there are different constraints and people we need to report to. For the Lexus project, we had 10 camera rigs running at the same time, which equates to around 70 GoPros. We recorded a live event, which was quite tricky in terms of marking where everyone was located. Lexus is also used to a fast-paced style, but that doesn’t work with VR. The cuts need to be slow so people can get oriented when the scene changes. We had to find a balance between telling the story quickly without making it jarring for the viewer.
Adobe: How important is audio in VR work?
Emerson: Sound is a vital part of VR. In both Invisible and Witness 360:7/7 the audio and atmosphere were major guides to shooting and creating the structure of the films. Narration works very well in VR, guiding viewers and grounding them. We also use techniques such as Spatial Sound to help direct viewers’ attention. With VR, different sounds coming from the right, left, or behind you really increase the feeling of being immersed in a story.
Roberts: With Invisible Darren had audio tracks of interviews with detainees and we cut all of the audio first. We had music, effects, and all of the atmosphere in the first audio cut before we had any pictures. It was a new and interesting way of working and once we had that basis it was easy to imagine how it was going to cut.
Adobe: What do you like about creating VR projects?
Emerson: Each project is unique and we feel like we’re creating a new language. It involves a lot of experimentation and not everything is going to work. One of the things I love about VR is the mistakes; even if you fail trying to do something another idea might come out of it. When you’ve edited something and you put it into the headset and try it out for the first time it feels completely different and changes the way you think about what you shoot in the first place.
Roberts: When someone is in a headset with headphones on they’re fully engaged with what they’re watching and listening to. As filmmakers, we can give people a sense of being cut off from the outside world and immersed in a virtual reality world, which is really cool.
Adobe: What’s next for VR City?
Darren: September is looking big. We’ll be making two pilots for the BBC, working on a big brand film, filming set of Friends in VR, and doing a documentary about the Danish Red Cross. We’re constantly pitching, doing development, and trying new things.
See here to view and learn more about VR City’s film “Indefinite” on The New York Times.
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