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Coming up with VR ideas (How to make a virtual reality film)

Hey friends and welcome back to the Alex Makes VR podcast. In today's episode ,it’s episode number two of my new mini series where I'm taking you behind the scenes of the making of my new VR drama, Bad News, which is a bit of a mouthful, isn't it? In today's episode, I want to talk about how I came up with the idea for Bad News, and some tips and tricks around how you can potentially think about ideas that will work in virtual reality. Spoiler alert, completely subjective at this point and these are just my opinions as someone that's been in the industry, and for a fair few years.

This is a full transcription of the podcast episode. Instead, you can listen to it here:

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A habit that I got into really early on in my career was writing digital notes of every idea that I've ever had. One of the beautiful things I think about growing up in the digital age is that is that I can time hop and see pretty much every idea that I've ever had for a film or TV show a character a bit of dialogue, a quote that's inspired me, my notes date back to 2014 and I believe when when iCloud became a thing, and all of a sudden, when you upgraded your phone, your notes kind of came with you. And so it's really fun. Actually, for this episode, I went back and looked at some of those ideas and even to this day, I'm like, actually, that would really work! That’s a really nice idea - go past me. But I guess like, it's funny seeing my myself grow up and see how my ideas, especially since being in the VR industry have developed and before I dive into the exact kind of time and and the notes or anything that I wrote, when I came up with the ideas for Bad News, I think it's important for me to talk about in general, what I think is important when considering an idea for VR.

The first thing I want to say is there are a lot of people in this industry that will discourage certain kinds of VR and I say that with love. And there's a lot of people that are like - well, this could have just been a normal film or like, you know, why is this even in VR? Like, what's the point? My opinion on that is, I understand the validity in that and I understand that, to some extent, everything in VR could be done as a traditional film, or a traditional game, or a traditional piece of theatre. You know, there's very few experiences in VR that could not be translated into some other medium. Only part, my personal belief on the subject is that we are so early on in this medium, that it would it would be stupid of us to not try everything. We need to throw as much as we can at the wall in as many different genres and as many different styles as we can to get that kind of qualitative feedback from audiences to see what works and I think where we are right now, we're about five or so years into VR as an artistic medium as a way of expressing artistic ideas or creating VR for entertainment purposes. And with that, I think there's definitely been a trend of stuff that is more likely to engage audiences and more likely cater to an audience that owns a VR headset. And so therefore, especially when it comes to the film festivals that showcase VR and the pieces that go straight to the Oculus store and the Vive port and, and steam all of these direct to consumer stores. It's no wonder that the trend has been that, you know, games and VR games kind of work best for the at home market and off experimental, usually very, very, very unique experiences that do well at festivals. Like it's no wonder, because those are the two audiences that are paying the most attention to this medium but to discount any kind of ideas at this point, would be silly and short sighted on our behalf because we are still so early on that we have no idea what could be the thing that goes on to blow up the industry. You know, it's a bit like, I know that this analogy comes up all the time, but it's a bit like Pokemon GO was for the AR and the geo tagging, or geo location, game based community or like what Fortnight has become to Generation Z. I’m generalising of course, but we don't know what's going to work until it works. So I would say to you, that if you've got an idea that you're really passionate about, regardless of whether you think it is quote, unquote, right for VR, I would really encourage you to follow that through and, and get feedback really early on from audiences. And for me, personally, when I was coming up with ideas, a lot of them were, inspired by kind of audience reactions to things. I remember really early on being acutely aware of audience's reactions. Anytime I was in a room where someone was doing VR, like, for example, I remember the first festival that Keyed Alike did, like my first project ever played out and it was in a group setting of about 30 people watching a series of films. And there was a conversation afterwards, about the pieces. And I thought it was really interesting, the factors that people were talking about, the things that got people's attention, the things that people liked, and didn't like, this was one of the earliest examples for me anyway, of knowing that just because you're using a 360 degree environment does not mean that you should have multiple things going on at the same time. Because actually, audiences especially cinema, passive audiences, you know, non interactive work, it can be really frustrating for them to have like FOMO, you know, fear of missing out, they kind of don't really know where to look. And that can be quite a frustrating experience.

So all of these tips and tricks were kind of like, that I've kind of developed over the years of being in this industry, have come from observing audiences, not only observing audiences in real life, which I've done a lot of, because, like I mentioned, in my first podcast, when I was talking about my journey into this, I've hosted a lot of VR cinemas, I've worked a lot with new audiences. So I can kind of get a sense of where people are at and what people are liking, what's sticking, but also having a look at the comments and the reviews on pieces online. So obviously, you have to take into consideration the kind of audiences that are experiencing certain pieces.

For example, the limit, was180. Well, I think it was a bit wider than 180. It wasn't a full 360 degree film, but it was more of a 180 piece by Robert Rodriguez, who is a super famous independent filmmaker, who, basically his career was launched at the Sundance Film Festival decades ago, I believe, at this point, not to age him too much. But you know, what was interesting is that was one of the first kind of mainstream filmmakers that dipped their toe into VR and so it was quite important, I thought it was quite an important statement that he was looking at this medium and it was fascinating reading the comments, not from industry professionals, because people in industry are going to have a very biassed opinion on anything but going straight to the consumer, seeing what audiences thought of it was really helpful, actually and he decided to do some quite questionable things with the camera work in that piece, which anyone that has been working in VR for for a while would know that it would be a recipe for disaster in terms of like creating that nausea, and creating that motion sickness. But obviously as a new person to VR, he didn't know that, so it's interesting to look at the audience feedback and see that, that is something that was coming up but also that people really liked some of the shots people liked from the story, some people were saying, you know, this is what I've been waiting, for this kind of content. Saying things like, I wish there was more of that, I wish that it was a series. So it was interesting getting that feedback because we can learn a lot from what audiences are saying about the pieces that are available.

Now, the difficult thing about coming up with ideas in VR right now is that everyone will be at a different stage when it comes to VR. Someone that's never ever, ever done any virtual reality before, is going to require and probably like a totally different kind of content than someone who has been in the industry for 5/10 years, you know, and this is what we're seeing, especially again, I keep coming back to it. But especially with the film festival showcases, it's little wonder that they are pushing hard into the experimental or slightly more abstract advanced technologies, like super kind of cutting edge stuff. Because those curators and the audience's that they built up the followings for that strand of the festival have grown with the medium. And so a simple 360 film is probably not going to engage someone that's been in the industry five years as it would a new film goer, a cinema goer, a non filmmaker. And even some of you listening who maybe haven't had that much hands on experience with VR, something like quite simple, something a bit more passive, something that guides you through the virtuality experience, or even just plays out in front of you and as a simple narrative, is probably going to be super engaging, compared to how it might feel after seeing loads of pieces and seeing and being a climatized to VR, within a few years. Do you know what I mean? So it's quite difficult, because you have to kind of come up with an idea and understand who you're aiming this piece at and one thing that I always talk about, and I talked about this on my main podcast a lot as well, is reverse engineering your audience. You have to understand, especially in a medium like VR, where there aren't the distribution channels available to you, unless you're going to go straight to the store, in which case, you know that you're going to a mainly gamer audience and it's really important for you to understand right up top who you're going after, with these pieces, right? So for me personally, when I came up with the idea for Bad News, I knew that I wanted to make a drama that appealed to someone that is very, very new to VR. Maybe this will be the first piece that they ever see, because I remember the first pieces that I ever saw in VR, and they were quite simple and they were scripted, and they were character LED and I really loved it. And that is what inspired me to get into this industry and it's almost like I want to recreate that for loads more people, I want to have my experience be the first thing that people see and that encourages them to explore the medium more. So I know for me, that is the audience I'm going after. Therefore, the kind of idea that I'm coming up with is not going to be room scale, more to use a sense, interactive one on one performance style showcase piece, I want my piece to be come in, sit down, you might want to look around, but realistically, the drama is mainly going to play out in front of you. And the idea is more about you embodying a character, it's about you stepping into the story and it's about you being complicit in the storyline. That was something I was really keen to explore with this next piece, Bad News because when I first started, you know, even just trying a simple rom com idea in 360 was enough for me to be really excited and really passionate about exploring this industry. But since I've gone on to make loads of different pieces that unfortunately, I'll never probably be able to show to people because they are commercial pieces that have been funded by corporates or brands, it's not the kind of stuff that you can then go and submit to festivals or anything. But I've learned loads over the years in working in this industry and one thing that still anchors my ideas is this idea of bringing in new audiences. So that's really important. The first thing you need to do is think about the audience that you are aiming your VR piece at. For example, I like to think of it in terms of a word my Mum said. She went to see 1917 and without even being prompted to do so, when she came out, she messaged me and says - oh, Alex, you know, had a lovely time at the cinema, but that film, it would have been so much better in VR. What does that say, that my 60 plus year old mother was saying to me - hey, I can imagine that that would have been great in VR?Because obviously, the whole point of that film is that you're following these characters, and I mean, I've not personally seen it, but I understand that it's kind of like a complicated one shot or it gives the illusion of being like a one shot where you're in the trenches with them, and you’re on the frontlines with them. And I thought that was really telling, that my Mum thought that. Imagine, if it actually felt like you were there?

That leads me on nicely to the next point, the best piece of advice I ever got around what works best in VR, especially when it comes to narrative pieces, especially when it comes to passive experiences, aka non interactive, most likely, 360 doesn't require you to walk around a space, doesn't require you to interact with anything, the best piece of advice I ever got, was the two ways you can think about it is be there or be them. It's about taking someone to a location, a new location, a new place that they've never been before, a new story world that they would never get to be because when someone put on a VR headset, they genuinely feel like they are there, they are stepping into the story. So be there, pick stories that lend themselves to locations, it's a bit of a wonky saying but the location itself becomes a character in the story you're telling. So it's really important to think about that. How are you going to make this piece, this parallel universe where someone can step in and feel like they are literally visiting this other planet for a little while? And obviously, people take that literally, and they think, oh, it needs to be in space or it needs to be in this like different dimension, it needs to be in this like, weird, acid trippy place that you would never ever be able to go to in your in your actual life. But for me, I think that just means like, build a different world, you know, let them step into a different place in time. And of course, the other side of that equation, be them and step into the shoes of a character. VR superpower is the fact that you can literally make someone, anyone, you can get someone to step into the shoes of someone else, literally. So much of my corporate and commercial work, which is all scripted mind you, because that is that's my niche, like that's my bread and butter, I'm translating experiences into scripted scenario based dramas with actors that play out. One of the superpowers that we've found, over the years of working on stuff like that is that it works best when you put someone in the shoes of someone else when an actor or a character in the piece directly interacts with you. That's the power of VR, to feel like you're engaged in the scenario and the difficulty is getting someone obviously to let go of the notion that they are themselves and really get them into embodying a character.

Around the time I came up with Bad News, was around the time that I was writing my TEDx talk and the way that I open my TEDx talk for those of you haven't listened to it, I talk about when I was a kid, I used to run around the house pretending to be Xena, the Warrior Princess. And this is something I've done my whole life, even now, as a 30 year old woman, I still do this. I still imagine myself in some of my favourite TV shows or music videos, you know, I feel like everyone listening can relate to that, you know, when you put a song on and then like in your head, you're there. Or you imagine the story, especially if you're creative. You absolutely do this, you know, you imagine yourself in the in the video. To me, that's what I envision for VR, that's the kind of storytelling power that this medium has that now you can step into the shoes of a character and so I knew that that was really important to me. I knew that for this next piece, I wanted to do a piece where you stepped into a character and you form an emotional bond with them, that you felt complicit in the actions that they were taking. And obviously, it's yet to be seen, because we've not made Bad News yet but I'm super excited to see if that translates over because that is absolutely my intention. I love it, when I do the art pieces where I feel part of the story. I remember Door Number One, It's a Hulu original VR piece, It’s interactive. So it's like a branch narrative, but you are a character at a school reunion, and you get up to mischief. And at one point, you're like smoking weed with Snoop Dogg, It’s a very entertaining piece and I remember watching that piece. And it was so funny, because the the character that you are is actually called Alex, one of the great things about having a unisex name. And what was really funny about that is it added this extra layer of connection for me to the story, because it felt like they were actually talking to me, it was a little bit harder to feel like I was a different character because it had my name. So I was just, I was just me. But I loved the novelty of actors talking to me, I love the novelty of, you know, feeling like I was actually in this American High School and getting to interact and who knows, in 10 years time, we might think that that notion is so novel, and so gimmicky. And that's fine, but where we are right now in the medium is that we have to explore everything. And so I would encourage you, if you're coming up with ideas that you don't know whether they would work in VR, I would maybe firstly, think about running them through that filter of…you know, does this give my audience the sense of being there or being them? Am I embodying character?am I stepping into a new place in time? Really think about that, really think about what you want your audience to feel. This was a massive thing that came from working with my script editor and I'll do a whole separate episode on writing the script for Bad News and working with a script editor but one thing that she kept hammering home to me was like - you need to think about the emotional journey that you're going to take your audience on and that goes for the script, that goes for the storyboards, but also, it's about creating that kind of atmosphere and thinking about - yeah, not only do I want someone to engage with this storyline, but I want them to feel something. And for me, this is where the origins of the idea for Bad News came from, right?

The idea for Bad News started as a series in my head. Okay, um, the series was going to be something along the lines of being stuck, I love the idea of like playing into the limitations of the technology. So when I came up with this idea, with this idea, I was thinking about, you know, a static audience, a passive audience as an audience member that couldn't physically move because they were in a three degrees of freedom headset, and they were sat in a swivel chair and so the very notion of them being stuck was, you know, they are stuck. So to me, it made sense to play into this idea, play into the limitations of the tech and build that into the story. So the idea would be that it would be like a series of characters who were all in a situation where they were stuck, physically, and metaphorically, because the whole point of this series would be to explore, you know, people feeling stuck in different times of their lives and it's still a series that I might revisit in the future. If you're listening, and that sounds like a really good idea, I wouldn't mind writing the script for that, reach out to me at alexmakesvr@gmail.com.

It's not something that I'm going to get around to anytime soon, but it's something I would be curious about producing, maybe but so that's where the original idea came from. It came from this idea of…you know, being stuck in life. Having to kind of have this feeling of feeling stuck and actually physically being stuck and how you would like interact with characters. That's where the first idea came from, and one of the scenarios that I came up with was this idea of having to tell someone, something really, really horrible, having to tell someone something so nasty, that you know, the kind of thing where you're having such a vile, emotional reaction that you genuinely feel like time slows down and everything stops, and you're frozen, you don't know what to do, because the person you're interacting with is either so angry or so emotional, or it's just such a specific kind of feeling. And I thought about that, then I closed my eyes and I started to imagine what that world would look like? What that scenario would look like?Can I play with speed? Maybe, actually you see a slow motion moment playing out in front of your eyes and not know what to do? How would I create that sense of heart palpitations? Frozen, not knowing what to do. Imagine, you're the reason this person is having such a violent thing, but you're the one that's frozen. And that, quite frankly, was the origin of Bad News. Because I thought about that notion, about the fact that it's a horrible, horrible thing to have to deliver Bad News, it's a horrible thing to have to tell someone, something that you really don't want to tell them. It's horrible to even watch people go through that when people get Bad News. And, you know, I've had several times in my adult life where I've had to witness someone really, really close to me getting some of the most horrible news. Whether it was the night that my grandma died, and I was there when my Mum got that phone call and I've been there for several people in my life where that's happened and you can't describe, I can't put into words like how that feels and I know anyone listening that's been through that will know exactly what I'm talking about. But you do feel frozen in time and so I thought about this dystopian future where maybe you wouldn't have to give Bad News because maybe you could outsource your bad news. Maybe you could take all of that pain and all of that horrible, gross feeling you get when you're the one having to tell someone something. Maybe you could outsource that in the future? And what would that look like? And I came up with this idea of an app, like an app company…like Uber, you know, an Uber or deliveroo but instead of delivering food or being a taxi service, they're delivering bad news. You could now pay someone to deliver your bad news for you. That was the idea and that is the idea. So the basis of Bad News is that you are a character, you are Tessa, a woman in her early 20s, who is pretty stuck in life, she has graduated into a really crappy economy where tech has destroyed a lot of industries, and therefore the only job she can get is working for this app that delivers bad news for a living and that's it. That's as much as I'm going to tell you about the idea, so far.

I'm sure that more details will slip as we go along in this series, but that’s where it kind of came from. From that feeling or being stuck, how can I translate that emotional feeling of feeling frozen in time? Then obviously, my dystopian sci fi drama kind of brain took over and elaborated on this world, and that is, that's the basis for Bad News.

So I hope this episode has been useful. I hope that you've taken away some helpful tips about your own ideas and how you might think about them and something I said, which I just want to come back to, when I was thinking about the idea of like closing my eyes and seeing it play out in front of me. I feel like, it sounds so obvious but if you've got an idea, do that…close your eyes, think about what that looks like. Think about it, feel it, feel it playing out in your mind because ultimately, that's all virtual reality is right? It's like fabricating a dream, It’s building a dream world, It's allowing someone to step into your imagination. So if you're thinking about ideas, just close your eyes, and think about it playing out and when you describe your ideas to other people, when you're going through the stages of pitching, always put them in the shoes of the person that will be experiencing the VR.

So when I pitched Bad News, I very much used the verbiage of “You are Tessa, an employee of Bad News, Inc. “ You know, I say that myself, even when I write my scripts because that is the difference with our medium. Whereas in traditional filmmaking, it's like, it would be like…this is Tessa, she's 25 and she’s doing this job or in VR. This is just the way that I personally think about it, but you really want someone to feel ownership over that character, you want them to feel like they actually are in that story in it, not just watching it, they are in it. So when you're pitching, when you're describing your ideas to friends, when you are writing your script or writing your ideas out, just think about the points of view that you're trying to get across. Just think about the point of view of the person experiencing the piece. And if it is your specific character, do that, write it from the point of view of that character, paint someone a picture, you know, paint it with your words. That's what we're doing, aren't we? As kind of writers, as script writers, we are trying to use our words to build the world before it's even been built. So that would be a really big tip that I would that I would give you.

But again, more on that when we get into the script writing process, which I'm sure will be in the next couple of episodes. If you enjoyed this episode, I would love to hear from you, like I say, sign up to the newsletter and shoot me an email because I do read all of them and if you want to follow the behind the scenes also on social media, I'm going to be posting a lot about it. You can follow me on any of the social media platforms Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and on @alexmakesvr on all of them.

So nice and simple to remember. Thank you very much for listening and I cannot wait to speak to you in the next one.

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