Directing Virtual Reality Film
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Having had a fair amount of experience in directing both corporate filmed projects and short narrative fiction films I found the leap to directing for Virtual Reality was a fascinating exercise in attempting to get the best from the limitations and peculiarities of the format.
It's not really practical in a short blog post to cover all the intricacies of directing VR films so here I'll cover some of the basics from a director's perspective.
The aim for the VR camera, as in any approach to filmmaking, is to be the viewer's surrogate eyes. However more than any other medium, VR absolutely immerses the viewer, placing them firmly in the heart of the action. The placement and motion of the camera is paramount to maintain the illusion in the viewer that they are "really" there. The overall psychology of a successful VR experience is based around delivering on three illusions - Place, Plausibility and Embodiment and this needs to be considered in relation to everything you do when planning and shooting a VR film.
VR cameras that provide the viewer with unnatural experiences can at the very least break these illusions, or at worst can quickly make viewers uncomfortable or nauseous. This is typically induced by camera movement but poor control of stereoscopic 3d when shooting or in post production can equally cause the viewer to develop headaches or nausea. This means that pans, tilts and dolly shots can be prone to problems and zooms are simply not an option, while convergence and z-depth placement must be carefully monitored for stereoscopic 3D content.
A first step for the VR film director is accept that you have much less control over the viewer than in traditional filmmaking - if the viewer chooses to look left, right, up or down at any moment they are in control of what they see. That doesn't mean your composition should lack a focal point - precisely the opposite: create a strong focal point where the action is happening and where you'd LIKE the viewer to look and put maximum effort unto directing their view to that point. Use lighting, set design, blocking of cast, even gentle camera movement* toward the focal point (or away in a horror perhaps) to keep the viewer looking where you want them to. To maintain the viewers interest make what is behind them less interesting and use subtle cues such as following the characters motion to rotate the viewer when you wish to do so.
From my own experience I'd typically not rotate the viewer by that much, I'd perhaps allow the focal point to move 15 - 20 degrees to either side of the starting point unless there was a specific narrative reason to have the user spin around 180 degrees. My assumption is anyone watching a VR film is sitting and anything much more than this subtle turn becomes cumbersome and should be reversed as quickly as possible.
*See more later on camera movement.
It's time for your VR close-up
Or perhaps not.
The next leap any experienced director has to make is to accept that the usual shot types you've typically used are out of the window - unless you're trying to create a psychedelic "Ant man" type experience that occurs when you place VR cameras too high or too low, you are going to need to adhere to the basics of "normal" human anatomy and head position.
In this case that means the shot should be around eye height, in relation to where the viewer should be. So if we want them sitting at a table then naturally this is a lower height than when they would be standing. If they are in a car the placement would be where the driver or passenger's head would naturally be. As with anything creative that's not to say you can't break the rules but when doing this you need to consider the plausibility illusion.
If, for example using the same car shot, you were driving in a car and you mounted the camera on the car roof why (and how) would your eyes be viewing it from just above the car? How did you stick your head through a solid metal car roof? Or if you positioned the camera on the centre of a dining table you need to ask yourself on what occasion would the viewer be located at head height on the middle of the table looking around at the other diners? Unless of course the viewer was the meal? (Horror fans stand by for my "You're The Meal" VR Experience.)
So VR camera placement is extremely important to help to sell the plausibility illusion.
Real VR vs Cinematic VR
My personal view is that the most powerful VR experiences place you in a location and allow you to experience it in as close an approximation to reality as can be had in a VR headset.
Whilst, like anyone else I'm sure, I love a dramatic drone shot flying over a stunning landscape, I feel in VR it doesn't quite work. To be flying like superman unsupported over a cityscape is impressive and definitely cinematic but breaks the VR illusion - you know you cannot do this nor would you "normally" have such a view so both plausibility and place illusions are adversely effected. The effect of this is to let your brain know you are watching a film, thus breaking the possible illusion that you are "in" that location.
Creatively you can often very easily resolve these issues working within the limitations. Perhaps in the example above if the viewer saw they were flying on a hang glider this may be a creative route to deliver a drone type 360 shot but provide some more natural context to the experience and would help to maintain the illusions.
Equally if you want someone to move why not introduce some other kind of vehicle so when the user looks to see why they are moving autonomously there is a logic to the experience. Whether this is riding a Segway in a mall, a quad bike over the hills or on some kind of virtual hovering space board on the moon this helps to sell the illusion.
Creating cinematic VR though is less about the specific shot and more the overall experience - you are placing your user at the heart of the film, central to the action and as such lighting, blocking and characters movement play a key part of the experience. And performance too of course.
Which brings us to another interesting point. Should the film acknowledge the viewer or does this break the fourth wall and the plausibility illusions just as much as any other cinematic trope?
Breaking VR's Fourth Wall
Having directed films where both occur I believe it comes down to the script.
In our film for Highland Spring the main character narrates his day as we follow him from shot to shot. In these shots he is peering out over the stunning Ochil Hills as we hear the tale unfold. If he stopped and suddenly looked at the camera (i.e. looked at the viewer) and spoke to them it would have felt very strange and possibly quite disconcerting.
On the other hand in the VR film I directed for The Real Mary King's Close in Edinburgh the central character is a young woman who's husband has been struck down with the plague. From the outset the emotionally charged character engages with the VR viewer talking to them as if they are standing right there in the Close in the 17th Century. This proved highly effective, engaging the viewers immediately into an emotional and eerie narrative.
In a third case though we had the experience where an extra accidentally looked into a camera during a shoot where the main focal characters had not. Strangely a number of viewers who spotted the extras brief look at the camera felt that this character had "spotted" them and found it quite an odd experience.
So perhaps the best approach is to adhere to one or the other but not to mix and match.
Reverse Engineering Typical Cinematic Shots in VR
Having established that we cannot really use traditional film shots in virtual reality films is there a way to try and create something similar to long shots, mid shots and close-ups?
One approach would be the blocking and framing of your VR shot. By placing the focal point, whether it's a person, an animal or an object a good distance from the viewer such that the focal object appears small in the view you can simulate a long shot.
Bringing the focal point closer to the camera such that it fills a larger part of the anticipated field of view could simulate a mid shot, and having this fill the field of view would deliver a similar experience to a close up.
Of course in reality this isn't that simple and creative solutions need to be applied. A typical close-up of a smoking gun from a noir thriller would require someone or something to hold the gun relatively close to the camera - but that could be a possibility.
Now is the time for VR Film
With the launch of the stunning quality Oculus Quest 2 with its ability to playback 8K VR video the quality of VR 360 3D film a consumer can view is better than ever and the dearth of well produced high quality content is obvious to anyone simply browsing the Oculus TV App.
Equally with the growth of the 360 VR camera technology you don't need hugely expensive high end kit either to shoot an amazing piece of VR - a camera as basic as the Insta360 One X2 can shoot tremendous footage for a very reasonable cost. Dip your toes in at this level and build experience; you can worry about higher resolutions and stereoscopic 3d content once you've got the budget to match.
VR Film's unique ability to immerse a viewer and to deliver a "real" experience has never been more powerful than now.
Andrew Murchie is a creative technology consultant based in Edinburgh, Scotland specialising in stereoscopic 3d virtual reality films. He has produced Virtual Reality films & experiences for clients including Kimberly-Clark, Kraft-Heinz, Loch Lomond Distillers, Highland Spring and Tennent Caledonian Breweries.