Insights EDU

Narrative VR Filmmaking: Lessons Learned from Eleven Eleven

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Mehrad Noori | VR/AR Producer | NBC Universal

11 Oct 2019 | 7 min read

Eleven Eleven is an original narrative experience that was built for VR and AR. 

It’s a science-fiction tale that transports you to a foreign planet where six main characters are fighting the clock in a real-time countdown – of 11 minutes and 11 seconds – to the end of the world. Users are transported right into the middle of the character’s stories as they face what could be their final moments. It’s an incredibly immersive, exciting, and escapist piece of entertainment that represents an attempt to change how we think about storytelling in XR and narrative VR filmmaking as a whole.  

Virtual and augmented reality offers audiences a shift in perspective and agency that has the potential to allow infinite possibilities in how they consume a single piece of content. We wanted to harness this potential and combine it with the things we love most about TV, movies, and games to create a new type of entertainment experience. 

With narrative VR filmmaking, why look through the window when you can be in the room? 

The Multi-linear Narrative

Before there were any characters and plotlines, there were diagrams and prototypes. From the outset, our primary goal was to develop a new format for narrative storytelling designed specifically for VR and AR that used these technologies to their maximum potential. When developing Eleven Eleven, we maintained that storytelling should always be informed by and predicated upon the capabilities of immersive technology, leveraging the interactivity and immersiveness of VR is crucial for high-quality narrative VR filmmaking. 

“From the outset, our primary goal was to develop a new format for narrative storytelling designed specifically for VR and AR that used these technologies to their maximum potential.”

Stepping back from traditional structures found in television and film, we started with a blank slate to make unbiased decisions that were best suited for the medium. Rather than adapting familiar formats like episodic series, we focused on creating a new structure that takes full advantage of the sense of presence and perspective that is so unique to VR and AR. 

It became clear early on that this tangible feeling of time and space lent itself to creating a real- time experience with a universal timeline that connects all the characters and events within it. There were many parallels with immersive theatre, so we drew inspiration from productions like Sleep No More and Secret Cinema, which feature multiple storylines running simultaneously for audiences to follow. We wanted our experience to play out in the same way, with our audience and our characters sharing a common environment while the clock ticks along in real-time, without cuts or edits. 

However, unlike immersive theatre, VR and AR gave us an additional tool not found in the real world – the ability to manipulate time and space. In our virtual world we can rewind and fast- forward time to see things again from new vantage points. With narrative VR filmmaking, we can teleport long distances to follow the action instantaneously, and we can change the scale of our environment to gain perspectives never seen before. 

These abilities allowed us to create a multilinear narrative that braids together several storylines into a singular structure. Each one of these storylines is intricately woven with the others to create narrative crossovers. Though the viewer could never see them all in one playthrough, they are given the tools required to watch the action repeatedly in order to follow all the narratives and discover how they are all connected. 

Passive vs Active Viewing

Once we had the format, we next designed a user experience that was robust enough for the audience to take control, all while being seamless and intuitive enough so as not to distract from the story itself. 

Immersive content offers a more active experience than traditional media. Whether watching a 360 video or playing a real-time game, the viewer is inherently required to choose their perspective at all times. The creator can try to influence this perspective, but ultimately the viewer decides where to focus their attention. 

Providing the user with the ability to choose their own experience was incredibly exciting to us, but we recognized that sometimes the user may still want a more passive, lean-back entertainment experience. We aimed to provide tools that cater to both of these preferences by offering different modes to view the story, accessibility underlined many of the decisions we made with Eleven Eleven, informing the entire narrative VR filmmaking and production process. 

We set the default to the most passive experience possible, which we call “Story Mode.” In this setting, the user selects a character and is then taken on a curated journey through their story with no further input required. 

Alternatively, for those who want a more active role in their viewing, we offer “Explore Mode,” a setting that allows users to detach from a character and free-roam the environment to view the action from any position and any angle.

A snapshot of narrative VR filmmaking ins and outs

By actively choosing their viewing perspective, the user is able to navigate the world and discover the simultaneous stories playing out around them at their own pace. We incentivize the user to search for these stories by designing them in a way that rewards exploration. For example, when in “Story Mode” a character may have their back to the user hiding the fact they were secretly up to something nefarious, a simple but effective narrative VR filmmaking technique. But in “Explore Mode,” the user can rewind and repeat the sequence from a different position to discover exactly what took place. The story is always there, but it’s up to the user to find it. 

Making It Worth It

From an audio-visual experience perspective, the state of television and cinema has never been stronger. Simply providing a 360 view of the action isn’t enough to make an experience stand out against big budget shows and movies that have become so grand in scale, they can be referred to as “immersive entertainment in their own right. So we challenged ourselves to find new ways to view and interact with the narrative that could not be possible in other mediums, which led to two of our favorite features in Eleven Eleven

The first is “Goddess Mode,” a third viewing setting which allows the user to change the scale of the environment in order to view everything in miniature. This is more than just a bird’s eye view – the shift in proportions between the user and the environment leads to the feeling of watching a doll house come to life, with the user able to change their perspective drastically just by moving their head a few inches.

narrative VR filmmaking - being inside the story rather than just watching the story from far away

We started out thinking it would be a fun way to watch the stories unfold, but we soon found that it also provided an incredibly intuitive and natural navigation mechanism. By allowing the user to get a quick overview of where all the characters are, they can choose exactly where they want to go without the need for a menu or heads up display.

The second is our approach to music. In traditional film, the audience only sees one frame at a time, allowing a composer to know exactly what tone to hit with the score for any given moment. In our experience, we never know where the user will be looking or standing, so we had to develop a musical system that allows for dynamic viewing.

We incorporated a “Spatial Score” which attaches individual soundtracks to each character and changes the volume for the user based on their proximity to each character. Every track is composed in divisible tempos and relative keys so that each character’s score intertwines seamlessly with the others’ as the user navigates between stories. This allows the user to essentially live mix the music, and ensures that every experience will not only be unique visually, but aurally as well. 

When it comes to narrative VR filmmaking, it was important for us to spend a lot of time developing our musical system for dynamic viewing, we needed to perfect the Spatial Score because so much emotional resonance is derived from the music of the experience and specific audio cues.

In combining these elements into a single experience and utilising our skills in narrative VR filmmaking, we offer an entertainment format that is unique to immersive technologies. The ability to alter your perspective of a narrative but not its outcome blurs the line between narrative storytelling and gaming, allowing users to be an active observer without necessarily having to be an agent of change. We believe this has the potential to scale across other genres and industries, and that it will help inform the next paradigm shift in how we consume content. 

About the author:

Mehrad is the Creator & Executive Producer of Eleven Eleven, official selection of SXSW 2019, 76th Venice Film Festival and the third annual VR Awards. Currently, Mehrad is working as a VR/AR Producer at NBC Universal.