PARK CITY — It’s more than a front-row seat to the Battle of Antietam.
A soldier to your left reloads his musket, crouching behind a crooked tree. Turning your head, you see more men in uniform perch on branches and riverbanks behind you, springing to life when enemy soldiers pour over the embankment and bullets start to fly.
A still from "My Brother's Keeper," a virtual reality short film being shown at the Sundance Film Festival. | PBS
The scene is from “My Brother’s Keeper,” a virtual reality short film released by PBS Digital Studios on Jan. 20 that tells the story of two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. Inspired by the PBS drama “Mercy Street,” which kicked off its second season Jan. 22, the film included more than 150 Civil War re-enactors and is the first virtual reality film shot at 120 frames per second, which allows for true slow-motion effects.
The film premiered at VR on the Mountain, an exhibit sponsored by HTC Vive, which, along with other creators like Oculus and YouTube, showcased their VR projects in Park City this week. The official Sundance Festival also highlighted trends in virtual reality this year, introducing the VR Palace, a ticketed venue where festivalgoers can don headsets and headphones and immerse themselves in 20 VR selections.
The section is called VR Experiences, and as the name suggests, many of the projects can’t quite be called films. In “Life of Us,” for example, two people in headsets interact in a 3D world as lifeforms — first fish, then dinosaurs, then apes, humans and robots — as an animated evolution of the world unfolds around them.
The VR offerings at Park City this week fall in a spectrum of interactivity, highlighting the possibilities of the new medium. At one end are VR films like “My Brother’s Keeper” that stick to a scripted narrative, adapting tried-and-true cinematic techniques for a new medium. At the other end are video game-inspired experiences that give audiences choices and put them in the driver’s seat of their own stories.
An image from "Life of Us" by Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin and Pharrell Williams. | Sundance Institute
The buzzword among some VR creators is “agency” — giving consumers choices in how a story plays out and power to interact with the VR environment. Research shows millennial consumers value experiences over material things, and interactive experiences are tailored for them.
But agency can be in tension with the traditional idea of a well-crafted narrative that delivers an emotional truth or unexpected twist. If audiences are increasingly at the center of driving their own entertainment experiences, what does that mean for artists with a message to deliver?
Immersing the audience
Shooting a film in virtual reality is different at every stage of the process, starting with the screenplay, said Brian Seth Hurst, chief storyteller at StoryTech Immersive, which co-produced the film.
“Instead of just a regular screenplay, it's like a combination of novel and prose and screenplay. We needed to let them know what viewers were going to feel, what was going to be beside them, what they were going to see, how the camera was going to move,” he said.
Virtual reality calls for longer shots, too.
A still from "Zero Days" by Yasmin Elayat, Elie Zananiri and Scatter, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experiences at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. | Sundance Institute
“You can't do quick cuts. You can't throw people off balance. You have to be able to direct a person's attention to the right spot so they're witnessing what you want them to witness,” said Don R. Wilcox, executive producer of the film for PBS Digital Studios.
In fact, there are moments in “My Brother’s Keeper” where the field of vision narrows from 360 degrees to 180 degrees in order to focus viewers on particular things, like the interaction between the two brothers.
But the point, Hurst said, is for viewers to be immersed in the story and forget about the technology.
“We are about making sure the technology serves the story, not the other way around,” he said. “A lot of the pieces you’ve seen are people experimenting with the technology and, in my opinion, maybe enamored of it and trying to figure it out. But we knew how important the story was, and that’s what came first in this.”
“Dear Angelica,” an animated VR short film produced by Oculus Story Studio, is as much a meditation as a movie.
Swirling animations unfold around, above and below a viewer standing suspended in darkness. Neon pink words write themselves in the air, spinning, rising and falling as a woman’s voice reads a letter from a daughter to her recently deceased mother: “I’ve been watching all your movies again. … I miss you.”
Illustrator Wesley Allsbrook worked for seven months wearing a VR headset and drawing the scenes with a digital paintbrush in 360-degree virtual reality. The story takes readers through a whirling montage of memories that viewers can walk, squat and twist to look at from different angles, evoking a dreamlike sense of grief and remembering.
A still from "Dear Angelica" by Saschka Unseld. | Sundance Institute
Like other VR experiences showcased in the Sundance VR palace this year, “Dear Angelica” is short — less than 15 minutes. It gives readers agency to look at the images from different angles and notice different things, but not to manipulate the story.
“Life of Us,” by Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin, Pharrell Williams and Megan Ellison, gives more agency: Viewers can hurl small monkeys at each other or spill papers from a briefcase using handheld controllers. They can also talk to each other, their voices distorted like they’ve just inhaled helium from a balloon, and the final scene is a dance party to a new song by Williams where they can see each others’ moves.
Even that isn’t as much agency as people have in some live experiences such as escape rooms, in which groups of people solve puzzles to get out of a locked room, or immersive theater, which takes place across multiple rooms and floors with actors performing simultaneous scenes while audience members wander or follow actors as they choose.
Some creators suggest future VR projects look to live experiences for lessons on how to make storytelling more collaborative and participatory. The key is to have moments where audiences can make choices and moments when actors move the show along, said Jon Braver, creator of interactive theater company Delusion, at a panel on the future of storytelling in the digital age sponsored by PepsiCo.
“You have to have so much trust in your audience,” he said.
Nate Martin, co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first escape room company in the U.S., said storytellers need to stop thinking in terms of telling a story to an “audience of one” and ponder what it means to have multiple audience members interacting with each other. Escape rooms, for example, “create an environment where the players create the experience themselves. We create the architecture and then we get out of the way,” he said.
“It’s very uncomfortable for a lot of traditional filmmakers to think in these terms of moments between (people) that have nothing to do with the amazing story and great narrative and awesome characters,” said Martin.
That said, every story has a different goal, said Michael Cruz, director of digital programming for Skybound Entertainment. If the goal is to educate people about history, for example, a passive medium like film might be more appropriate.
Audiences also have different moods, he said. “There are times when … I don't want it to talk to me and I don't want to interact with it and I don't want to make any choices. I just want to lay there with Chinese food and Netflix. And there are other times where I want to play a Telltale game and I want to be challenged, or I want to get immersed in a VR thing,” he said.
A new canvas
Wilcox said he could see a future where PBS might create a branching story and allow users more control over how it moves forward. “But I would need to be really thoughtful about that and not make it too much like just a 3D-rendered game environment where they can run around and do goofy stuff,” he said.
“There will be places where you could meet halfway,” Hurst agreed. “But in the end, it’s all about the story. … I don't think that changes with any medium. Good storytelling is good storytelling. You’ve got to be careful and not overplay your hand.”
“My Brother’s Keeper” will be available Jan. 27 on every available VR or 360 platform, Wilcox said, including Facebook, which supports 360 video that users can manipulate by dragging to move the frame and see more. The goal is to reach as many people as possible at a time when VR is on the verge of becoming mainstream.
“I think it's moving a lot faster than anybody thinks. But it's only going to move faster with great storytelling. Consumers will be turned off by bad stories. I consider it to be my responsibility to tell great stories — to use the technology to tell stories that people will love and want to be a part of,” Hurst said.
“It's not going to go the way of 3D-TV,” Wilcox said. “There's something here, and as people learn how to use it it will be part of our media experience. …
“We're witnessing the birth of a new medium, truly, and it's an incredible new creative canvas.”