VR for storytelling – Developing Experiences That Feel More Real

VR for storytelling – Developing Experiences That Feel More Real

Stefan Grambart

To kick off our SDCVR campaign, we’re focusing on VR for storytelling – how VR can be used to enhance movies, tv shows and tell immersive stories. We spoke with Stefan Grambart, creative director at Secret Location to learn more about what it takes to be a successful VR storyteller.

In 2013, I led the creative team at Secret Location on our first VR installation project. This was in the early days of VR’s revival, so there wasn’t an established knowledge base we could draw from— we had to rely on our own ingenuity and creativity to overcome the challenges we uncovered. That’s a tough path to forge, but also exciting!

Virtual reality isn’t just an extension on television or videogames. Historically, it’s more like going from radio to film – it’s a whole new medium, complete with the unique challenges and opportunities presented by such a shift.

There was a lot of trial and error involved, covering every aspect of our project – including our story. The visual language of cinematography has a tendency to fall apart in the frameless environment of VR, so we were constantly reimagining our script. For instance, the close-up shots that can add a sense of drama feel invasive and uncomfortable in VR. We had to emphasize tension through sound, atmosphere and dialog alone.

It’s important for developers to ensure that the whole environment tells the story. In this respect, one of the key tools we created was the 360º Storyboard. Taking a page from my background in animation, these boards allowed us to look at the experience from a holistic viewpoint. The entire environment was designed to convey the thematic beats of the story. That way, the audience would never lose the plot or feel like they were missing out— even if they weren’t directly facing our characters.

Secondly, developers should strive to keep interactivity and audience participation at the core of the experience. VR is changing the way audiences expect to engage with characters, stories and the world around them. That sense of presence that comes so naturally in VR leads the audience to question their identity and agency within VR, so developers need to focus on creating a convincing environment. But “convincing” doesn’t necessarily mean “most realistic”— there’s an optimal balance between visual fidelity and interactivity. Investing fully in the one at the cost of the other dispels the illusion. Finding that balance in your project takes a lot of testing, but can make a huge difference.

With that first VR project at Secret Location, we improved with each iteration. Ultimately, we got to see it all come together at Comic-Con in 2014, and were recognized with the first ever Emmy® Award for a virtual reality project. Definitely a career highlight.

So, as you can imagine, VR development can be an incredibly rewarding career— but it’s not an easy road. It takes determination to weather the setbacks and failure that come with exploring new territory. In a nascent field like VR, new problems are popping up every day. But these challenges also bring exciting opportunities to develop pioneering experiences previously only dreamt of.