Uncovering the Grammar of VR with Saschka Unseld

The emerging master of virtual reality storytelling, Saschka Unseld, is back again. As always, he delivers practical insights for the evolving art form of real-time storytelling, gleaned from his experience as the creative director of Oculus Story Studio.

So far, the studio has released two short form experiences, Lost and Henry. The latter was intended to be a comedy, but as Unseld explains, it was difficult to keep if from being a tragedy:

With Henry, for example what we did, we thought, “Okay, let’s try to tell a comedy — typical slapstick kind of animated character comedy.”

The final film turned out to be more sad than funny. If you would cut it as a film, exactly the same thing, you would have a lot of laughs. But in VR, you don’t. If someone falls on their face right next to you, it’s not funny.

In cinema. you have something like the fourth wall, which means there is this wall between the story and the world and the audience. In VR, there is no such thing as a fourth wall, because in VR you are right there with the characters in the world.

It might seem counterintuitive, but what Unseld is saying is that literal and figurative distance is what enables our emotional reaction to characters in cinematic experiences. The intimacy of VR creates new challenges for certain kinds of emotional storytelling. We must find ways to observe while also being “in” the scene.

The unstated implications of this are profound. VR almost forces an empathic response to a character’s situation. In film, that empathy is the highest goal — and achieving it is usually the result of masterful direction. In VR, though, there are times when empathy must be dialed back in order to achieve a desired reaction.

Building vs editing

Also, it’s worth noting that Unseld uses the word “build” instead of “cut” or “edit” when describing an earlier version of Henry: “We had an early build of Henry, when Henry never looked at you,” he says.

“Build” is a software development term roughly equating to a version. I point this out because what Oculus Story Studio is doing is creating real-time experiences that are just as much software-driven as they are story driven. They are not, in other words, editing a film and hitting a render button.

As I’ve argued earlier, this seemingly small distinction is crucial. It means that every viewer has a different experience of a project, one shaped by their own curiosity and sense of pacing. The experiences react to the viewer — and vice versa — forming an emotional feedback loop that is radically different than traditional filmmaking.

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About the author

Justin Cone

/ justincone.com
Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer, F5 and The Motion Awards. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.

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  • A new door opens for creators with VR, and it all seems really cool and engaging and it takes the storytelling craft to a whole new level, true.
    But as a human, I can only see how we’re becoming a bunch of apes with high end toys. We use our time, intelligence and effort to create things that do very little for humanity.
    The process of developing and implementing new technologies is way faster than our ability to embrace them and use them responsibly.
    People are getting worse at interacting with other people and we look for love and friendship in phone apps.
    Is this really the path we want to follow? Buying and creating and buying and creating and buying again the latest toy to escape reality and/or blur its limits? Technology is increasingly becoming a true competitor for drugs.

    • I see the point you’re making, but have you seen Clouds Over Sidra on a VR device? Feels like an excellent example of using our time, intelligence, and effort to actually do something for humanity.

      I’d never seen inside a refugee camp, much less felt like I WAS inside a refugee camp, but watching Clouds on a GearVR not only left me teary-eyed, but evoked an incredible amount of empathy and a desire to do something about a bad situation other humans are facing.

      I wonder if people had the same reaction that you do to VR when the first films came out as opposed to a book or traditional theater?

      VR is, amongst other things, a medium to accomplish the very human act of telling a story. It is admittedly a very individual medium in it’s current incarnation, but I don’t personally see the advancement of display technology as a harbinger of our collective loss of humanity. It feels like something to be cognizant of, but not something to bemoan and reject reactively.

      That’s just two cents from a guy that had an “Oh. Wow. This is a big deal.” moment watching Clouds Over Sidra and sees a lot of promise in VR as a medium. It’s not that technology doesn’t affect the way that we live, but this particular one doesn’t feel like a step down a dark path to me. Quite the opposite.