Insights EDU

Nuances of Documentary Storytelling in Virtual Reality

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Alex Harz

26 Nov 2021 | 5 min read

Feature Image Source: Alex Harz / The Quest LLC

What is it like to tell a story in 1st-person VR while on a 52 day Quest to try to reach the 29,032 foot / 8849-meter Summit of Planet Earth…Mt. Everest?

There is no literature, there are no reference points, and very little guidance to help with this difficult filmmaking undertaking when we took on the task of making THE QUEST: Everest VR Experience a “real-life virtual reality”…

63 days in Nepal and 63 hours of 2D + VR footage later, I am humbly honored to have not only successfully scaled arguably the most iconic mountain and recognizable natural landmark in the world but also grateful to have been able to successfully produce a one-of-a-kind adventure-based virtual reality experience from this lifechanging endeavour.

And though ‘THE QUEST: Everest VR’ shares numerous similarities with its simultaneously shot sister project, ‘THE QUEST: Nepal’ 2D Documentary, VR adventure film production is without a doubt a distinctively different creative undertaking with it its own set of challenges. Perhaps some of the most valuable insights we were able to gain from the production of ‘THE QUEST: Everest VR’ fell into 2 main categories; Technical and Creative/End User.

Image Source: Alex Harz / The Quest LLC

Technical:

Camera Positioning 

When shooting an adventure film, whenever possible, every shot should be considered and laid out. Where should the camera(s) be to capture what action and what subject matter at what time? In the 2D world, this can often be storyboarded, diagramed, visualized or written out. However, when filming and displaying in 360/VR, this is not necessarily the case because the camera itself becomes a physical part of the shooting environment. Filming 360 action means you can’t easily hide cameras & cameramen, audio and production crew behind a 90 or 180-degree frame of view. Unless the intention is to purposely break the cinematic “4th Wall”, one must carefully consider how to get the action, content and overall shot(s) needed to tell the scene properly without revealing the production elements of the shoot.

Lighting

As is the case with cameras and additional crew, production lighting also does not have the benefit of easily hiding out of view from a 360-degree field of capture, and therefore artificial lighting to help illuminate a subject, highlight scenery or enhance image quality may not be a feasible option?

Image Source: Alex Harz / The Quest LLC

Audio

Because humans hear in a spatial manner, 360 audio reference points can be very important when telling stories in VR. Ideally, visual immersion should be accompanied by similar audio engagement. Thus, how to best record audio to help enhance the overall viewer experience needs to be carefully taken into consideration given the complexity of audio in a spherical environment?

Tech

And though VR and AR technologies continue to progress nicely, the gadgets & tools available to this medium of storytelling aren’t nearly as vast as for traditional linear filmmaking; from camera + audio setups to editing techniques and everything in between.

Image Source: Alex Harz / The Quest LLC

Creative / End User:

Story Perspective

How do you want to have the audience immerse themselves into the story? Do you want them to be a third-person witness to the real-life action unfolding in front of them or do you want them to be a direct first-person participant in it? This is something we gave considerable consideration to when filming ‘THE QUEST: Everest VR’ and ultimately decided to attempt a 1st-person approach, because we wanted to provide the viewer with the closest possible experience of what it is like to climb Mt. Everest without having to leave the safety of their living room, classroom, local arcade, exhibition hall, etc. Like in a first-person or over-the-shoulder shooter style video game, we hope one will feel like they are actually climbing Everest directly vs. watching the grandeur unfold from afar.

Camera Orientation & Focus 

In the 2D world, where the camera is facing and bringing focal attention usually drives the visual narrative. When should we stay on wide or medium camera angles to establish the location, the scene or the action going on vs. cutting to close-ups shots for additional detail or emotional heightening and vice versa? These are creative choices and part of the fine art of filmmaking. 360 definitely has a different cinematic M/O than linear, for the camera is often at the same distance & focal perspective, and usually allows for the audience to have visual liberty to look where they want at their own discretion. Thus, the VR filmmaker has to figure out the best way to help “guide” the audience through the story via suggestive camera orientation and or audio ques, but yet with visual flexibility in mind.

Image Source: Alex Harz / The Quest LLC

Shot Length

Normally, holding a 2D shot for 20 – 45 seconds would be far too long in modern filmmaking. However, VR provides way more visual information and freedom of view than linear ever can, so we need to give the audience time to take it all in. So how long should a 360 shot be before cutting away to a new scene, since we can’t force the audience to specifically see what we want them to take in at the exact specific time?  Personally, I feel the VR filmmaker should break the customary guidelines on cinematic timing, and when in doubt, opt for longer as being actually better. 

Runtime

Like in traditional documentaries, the runtime is a very important creative component and a fine balancing act for telling the story…too long can be too slow, too short may be unfulfilled. But unlike 2D, virtual reality and AR do not have standardized runtimes and add the additional complexity of “time under the headset” factors, such as, what is the perfect length for telling a story without over immersing an audience with too much neurological stimulation or motion sensitivity? Furthermore, should one break up the story into episodes or keep it as one continuous experience, taking headset factors into consideration and the various exhibition formats available (ie. Educational, LBE, at-home, etc)? We ultimately chose a 26-minute runtime for ‘THE QUEST: Everest VR’, and to offer it in a multi-episodic version as well as a long-form version for increased end-user flexibility.

Virtual Reality’s learning curve can be steep, its unfamiliar production techniques can be challenging and what it may lose in camera, audio, shooting and editing options, is made up for 100-fold by its bountiful immersion, true realism and delightful authenticity. It is a medium with massive storytelling potential, can make a tremendous impact, and like global exploration, calls me to unravel the awesome possibilities!

About the author:

Being born in Spain, living in Germany, and spending most of my summers in Europe after moving to the United States, the desire to experience the wonderful landscapes and cultures of our world was entrenched in me early on. My upbringing and extensive travels have also taught me that it doesn't matter what language you speak, how much money you make, what job you have or what religion you believe in, there are only 2 kinds of people in this world...good or bad.

Passionate about filmmaking & adventure, with a love for being on either side of the camera, I have been fortunate enough to have developed a fairly well-versed set of acting, production, writing, directing and communication skills over the years. Combined with a solid foundation in international business, marketing, PR and event management, I try to utilize this broad range of experience to enhance & maximize the potential of the projects I am involved in. From feature films to documentaries, from improvised comedy & radio to international sports marketing, I take great joy in working on a wide range of original projects.

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