Interview: Doug Liman On The Making Of 'Invisible'

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Interview: Doug Liman On The Making Of 'Invisible'
October 27, 2016

Virtual reality filmmaking is in its infancy, but for Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, there are already too many rules. The press release for Invisible, a five-episode action series that officially premieres today, lists a whole string of guidelines it’s disregarded: don’t cut too much, don’t move the camera, place shots at a natural height for the viewer. For a VR series, Invisible is downright frenetic, complete with chase sequences, shots-within-shots, and frequent shifts in location, from a Haitian village to a Brooklyn restaurant.
 
Invisible follows a rich family called the Ashlands, some of whom have the titular power of invisibility. When the Ashland patriarch dies mysteriously, his granddaughter Tatiana (The Night Of’s Sofia Black-D’elia) must uncover the plot behind his murder, while taking over his company herself. The roughly half-hour first season, penned byDallas Buyers Club screenwriter Melisa Wallack, leaves a lot unresolved. But it remains one of the most ambitious pieces of VR video so far, in a landscape that’s still dominated by documentary filmmaking, advertising tie-ins, and virtual tourism. Last week, we spoke to Liman about why Invisible works, how it’s changed the way he sees filmmaking, and how making a movie in VR feels like shooting in the days of Super 8.
 
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
 
Q: I saw Invisible earlier this week, and I’ve heard it was streamlined significantly during production. I’m wondering how it’s evolved since you started shooting it.
 
I mean, Invisible's been evolving since we shot tests over a year ago, six months before we started shooting the series. So we had our first pass of the script from Melissa Wallack, who is a brilliant writer, and I had actor friends come in, and we brought in a crew and we shot some of the scenes in VR — not that they were ever intended to be in the series, it was all for test purposes.
 
We knew there’d be a steep learning curve, because it wasn’t like we could point to something out there and go, “We’re going to try to do it like that.” Which suits me perfectly, because my main approach to making movies is, a lot of times when you crew up a movie and you’re pitching it to a studio, they want to know, what movie is it like? And I’m usually telling them what it’s not going to be like. It’s one of my strengths to sort of go into projects with a pretty open mind of where it could end up, and very specific ideas of what it’s not going to be. And Invisibledefinitely required that kind of mindset, because what I’d seen in other people’s scripted VR, and in our tests, were a lot of things I didn’t want this series to be.
 
The thing that became most clear to me when we first shot the tests was that we had to rethink the way we were telling stories, because when you just take a traditional scripted scene out of any TV script or movie script and shoot it in VR, it’s going to be less compelling than what was shot in 2D. You’ll feel like you’re watching a video of a play. VR should be more emotionally involving, but that doesn’t happen automatically by just taking a VR camera and sticking it onto what would be a traditionally blocked scene for 2D.
 
To keep the audience engaged and involved, we also needed the story to jump around more than we thought it would have to. Your enjoyment of the world actually increased by dramatically changing environments, by going from Haiti to a hospital room to a farmhouse, and not staying in any one place too long. Because at a certain point you feel like you’ve explored your world, and I think like a great meal, you want to leave people hungry.
 
I turned to Melissa Wallack after a test, and I said, “We have to work way harder in VR than we’ve ever had to do in 2D to make the audience hungry, because they’re going to have to search the frame to find the story. The characters are going to have to be more compelling, and more quickly compelling, than what you’re used to in film and television, where you can have a slow burn and get to know somebody. We’re going to have to just grab people immediately and hook them and keep them hooked.”
 
Q: The pacing still feels strange to me when I think of it as a film, but I’ve found it works a lot better when I imagine it as a comic.
 
[Producer Julina Tatlock] and I actually were first talking about doing Invisible as a graphic novel, as a comic book. So it evolved from a comic book concept to VR.
 
Q: In video games with player choices, you’re often encouraged to go back and play things over until you’ve seen all the possible options. Is that how you imagine people watching this?
 
If you look at my movies, they’re pretty densely packed, such that they not only hold up to a second viewing, they’re oftentimes better the second time you watch them. So I’ve always thought about crafting stories that could hold up to multiple viewings, and so VR obviously fits right into that. The audience has a level of control, when you watchInvisible, that nothing in 2D can give you. The overall climax of the series will work no matter how you get there, and the climax of each episode will work no matter how you get there, but no two viewings of an episode will ever be the same.
 
But like my movies, I don’t require you to watch it a second time. It’s rewarding if you watch it a second time, but the real rewarding thing about VR is the sense of liberation you have watching it the first time. You have this sense that anything’s possible. So I almost in VR might encourage people to only watch it once, so your mind can sort of imagine the other possibilities had you looked a different way.
 
Q: What about the other way around? When you’re shooting, do you take into account the fact that you can see where exactly viewers are looking?
 
We were doing that while we were editing. As we were bringing people in to watch it, we weren’t just getting their verbal feedback, we were very much tracking where they were looking and when they were looking, and that became part of our institutional knowledge.
 
You know, I’m used to testing my things where you just sort of feel the audience. But this is a whole other thing, because you actually see right where their eyes are looking. It’s sort of fun. You feel like you’re playing god, because you are in a way — you’re creating a world for somebody, a world in which they can then play.
 
Q: How much do you still feel like you’re running into technological limits in VR?
 
I started out making films when I was really young, in Super 8 and 16mm and even 35mm, where technical limits were part of the process — something that’s just not there for somebody today who maybe starts making a film on their iPhone. So I think that armed me particularly well to deal with the challenges that VR posed.
 
The first two days of the shoot, there was no way to actually see what you were shooting. You could eventually see rough stitches; maybe in the afternoon you could see part of a shot that you shot that morning. So this sort of delayed gratification — people just won’t know what know what it was like to shoot, when you took pictures on film and then you had to send it off to be processed, you didn’t get to see your pictures for a week. And you had to have a certain level of faith and trust that you got the picture without knowing you had it, and that very much was prevalent every step along the way in VR.
 
Q: What will you take from VR back to film and television?
 
There’s no reason my films can’t work as hard as VR does to hook an audience and never let them go, so I think that that it turns the volume up a little bit on storytelling. The same way when I was doing commercials and then I went and shot Go, and Go has a level of pace that is unlike any of my other movies. I think this kind of need to make the audience hungry for the story and for the characters, I loved, and that will never leave me, and it will be in everything I do from this point forward.
 
Invisible is currently available through Samsung’s Gear VR video service, as well as through the Jaunt website and Jaunt’s app for Android, iOS, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive. It will be launching later on Condé Nast Entertainment’s video platform, The Scene.

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