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Developing story structure & characters (how to make a virtual reality film)

Welcome back to the Alex Makes VR podcast. Today is episode number three of my series ‘How To Make A Virtual Reality Film’ where we are talking about all of the steps that go into making a virtual reality film, go figure. In today's episode we're kind of building on from last week last week, we talked about how to come up with ideas for VR projects, and how to know if your idea is suitable for VR and in this week, we're going to talk about how you turn that idea into something tangible. How do you start to flesh out that idea, and come up with a fully fledged story? What's the next step if you've

got an idea? What's next in the process? So we'll talk about all of that in today's episode.

This is a full transcript of the episode. Alternatively you can listen to the podcast here:

Before we dive into that, though, if you have any questions that come up during this process, I've had loads of people reach out already, it's been phenomenal hearing from you guys, if you've got any specific questions about the topic of making a VR film, I would love to hear from you. You can reach out to me on any social media platform, it's @alexmakesvr and you can also sign up to my newsletter, I send out newsletters every Monday with tips and tricks on how to create virtual reality projects, and also how to build a business or a career in this industry, to sustain yourself while you're making your projects. So if you want to sign up for that you can do so www.alexmakesvr.com.

So you've got your idea, It’s been plaguing you all week, or you've just thought of it this morning, but you are so inspired by this idea that you want to get it out of your head and onto paper. What's the next step? How do you start to flesh that idea out? Now this step is going to be slightly different for everyone, people are going to have their own different ways of approaching this, you could be the kind of person that has so much clarity and so much detail in your head of what this idea is, that you could go straight to script writing, you could literally just flesh out a first draft and work from there. If you're that kind of person. Fantastic. Go for it. I'm absolutely not that kind of person, I need way more detail, I need to flesh out all the individual scenes, I need to really work on the overview of the story before I can dive in, to have that kind of granular detail and dialogue added to a scene. So what I would suggest you do, once you've got your idea, the key thing is to think about who are the key characters in this story.

Now most of you listening, if you're in the same position as me, you will be making a short film. Because there isn't really that many long VR films at the moment, the longest is kind of 40 minutes and even that is quite long. For passive VR experiences, most VR films are between 10 and 20 minutes, if they aren't interactive, or you know a game that you can play. If you’re creating a passive VR film, which is what we're talking about in this series, then you're most likely making a short film and if you're making a short film, you want to keep your characters to a minimum. Okay, because you don't have a lot of time to build rapport between characters, you don't have a lot of time to flesh out story and backstory, which is what kind of connects you to characters. So really keep your characters to a minimum. For me, that's always been kind of one or two. So I always have the main character, that you are usually in the shoes of that you're kind of seeing the points of view of and one other character that acts as a bit of a narrative device to help steer the story, but also kind of helps us establish who we are as a person because you can't really unless you're going to do the whole thing through voiceover, it's quite difficult to get to know who your main character is without another character to be kind of asking those questions. Or you know that other characters personality shows or sheds light on parts of your main characters personality. So, for me, I always generally have two main characters, but you can do what you want. Obviously, this is just my personal preference but I would definitely start by writing out who those characters are and flesh them out, flesh them out and make them three dimensional. Just because you've got a short space of time to communicate a story idea doesn't mean that you can't take the time to understand who your characters are. So me, I really like to think about in depth, who those characters are…like stupid things like, you know, what kind of accounts would they follow on Instagram? What would their YouTube recommended feed look like? Stuff like that, because that to me really helps me when it comes to getting in the head of that character and writing from their point of view and the kind of dialogue that they would say. Usually those characters are based very loosely on people that I know or they are taken from maybe influencers or people that I consume a lot of content. So that, I’ve got a frame of reference basically be again, you do what you want, but I would definitely suggest jumping in from the I've got an idea in my head. The next step I would dive into is, who are the main characters? And the next step is what does this world look like? So if you're setting it in a parallel universe, or a futuristic dystopia, like I do, or like I am doing with Bad News, or if it's a period piece that is set in a different time, be sure to have a think about that and have a think about how that location, that world that you're setting it, how that is going to affect the story? You know, are there different rules for this world? If it's a fantasy, or sci fi or something that is so far from our reality, like, what are the rules of this universe? What are the rules of this world, that you could dive into? Details that you could potentially bring up in the script to kind of flesh out what this world looks like and then the most important step, and this is really the main step between coming up with the idea, and fleshing out the first draft of the script, the main step is coming up with your story structure.

Now, for me with Bad News, I knew instantly what I wanted the storyline to be. I knew in my head, what I wanted some of the scenes to be and I knew what I wanted the piece to end on. I knew what we were building to and I'm not going to say it on this podcast, not at least in this episode, maybe I will in future episodes because it is twist. It's not really a twist, but it is kind of like the climax of the piece. I knew I wanted that scene to look, like I knew what the what would happen in that scene. I could even think I could hear in my head, like what some of that dialogue might even sound like. So from there, I basically knew where I wanted to get to, I just didn't know how I was going to get there. So what I did was sat down with Rebecca, who is my co writer on Bad News, and we fleshed out what was going to happen in every scene and bear in mind, you know, whether you've got 10/15/20 minutes to do this in, you know, roughly, if you're going to spend, you know, anywhere from 10 seconds to 1 minute per scene and bear in mind, you don't necessarily want really, really, really short scenes in VR, because it can be quite disorientating, if you're like cutting really fast between scenes, just from from personal kind of anecdotal experience, seeing those kind of films, and showing films to many audiences. So you want to think about like, say, for example, you know, most of my scenes I think, are between kind of 20 seconds, some of them are short, because there are a couple of montage bits but most of them are quite long, because there's like prolonged bits of dialogue between two characters. So I can pinpoint - okay, I need like, three landmark scenes that are going to be kind of checking in with our main character, propelling the story forward by checking in with like, what she's doing and her evolution as the story is going on? So we're probably going to have, you know, three scenes like that, and then bam, the climax is going to be this and in between there, I want to build out the details of her job, where her heads are, how she’s a climatized to this new job that she's got and so that's where I start to think about…okay, these scenes would kind of go between those two first landmark scenes. So we go from, you know, meeting the character being introduced to her, we understand that there's kind of a problem that’s going to be revealed later in the script and between that scene, in the middle scene where it's all kind of coming to a bit of a climax, I need to populate with, you know, certain scenes that give us a bit of comic relief. But also give us context to not only, as the main character, but the world that we've built. So what did those scenes look like? I start to flesh them out and for me, I love to add a little bit of like dark comedy in there. So I know I want, you know, a scene that involves a certain kind of person, or a certain kind of interaction, something would be quite funny just to kind of lighten things up before you plough with the drama. So once I've kind of done that, and once you've done that with your idea, what you'll have is, you'll have a kind of bit of an overview of not only what your story looks like and what the main story beats are, but you've also got a good idea of what those scenes look like. And that's really helpful, it's really helpful to have that because if you are an independent producer, if you are going to be creating this yourself, if you're not going to go after money, if you're not going to pitch for private money, or for grants or anything like that, you will have a good idea at this point, what’s realistic. You will know, and this is what I love to do even when I'm pitching for money, I like to think, If I couldn't get money, you know, how could I make this seem doable on a budget? So although I might want a populated, you know, an overly populated pub for this scene, what do I have access to? Well, actually, I do have access to a local microbrewery that I'm that our mates when I could probably use that worse come towards, COVID probably not going to allow me to kind of, you know, budget wise, probably not going to allow me to have loads of people in this pub, but how could I write that scene, that it would work, If I didn't have money? I could set it there.

What else do I have access to? Well, you know, and there are people that will tell you to not to, and to kind of pare down your idea and think about budget at this stage but I think those people are idiots, and I think that they are living in a fantasy world where they get a golden goose to lay an egg for them every time they shoot out an idea. And that's probably not going to be 99% of you listening to this, unfortunately and it's not me, I know that this piece that I'm talking about is funded, but 99% of the work that I've done previously, has not had funding, or if it has had funding, it's like a very miniscule amount. But yeah, so I would always write from the point of view of, if I didn't have money, how could I make this happen? What locations are going to be feasible? What's going to be practical?

So whilst you can flesh out your story, structure exactly how you want it and exactly how you envision it if money wasn't an issue? Definitely, if you're an indie producer, who wants to make this regardless, and you don't want to wait around for years to try and find money, definitely have an idea in your head of how you could shape those scenes without money. You know, who could you use? What props do you have? What locations do you have access to? All of that kind of good stuff that's going to allow you to get to, you know, make this piece regardless of whether you get investors or not. So that's kind of it. Once you've gone through that process, you fleshed out your characters, you fleshed out your world and the details of that world and you've started to flesh out what those scenes look like, the story structure, what are the main beats? I don’t know whether I've mentioned this already, but if you haven't read ‘Save The Cat’ which is a popular screenwriting book, or if you haven't read about the hero's journey, if you don't know what either of those are, definitely go Google them, go watch a YouTube review. If you don't want to buy them or the hero's journey, there's loads of information about that available online and that gives you a good idea of just basic story structure.

For short films, it's really important that you don't try and pack in too much and I think this is probably where we get into the territory of like, conceptual VR films being very popular. And you'll notice that and I did a whole episode about this the other week about how VR films aren't actually that popular with film festivals, surprisingly, and what I mean by that, I mean, a lot of the work being shown is more kind of abstract visual arts, like concept heavy projects rather than character driven, scripted stories. And that is probably because it's really expensive to be able to have a fully fleshed story and actually, with most short films, you are kind of exploring an idea because you don't really have that much time to build a rapport or, you know, establish a connection with a character, you're really exploring one idea and you're doing that through a scripted kind of exchange, I guess, between characters is the kind of nice way to put it, I guess. But we are definitely lacking in story based content, it's the kind of thing that the average person would like to watch, the kind of thing that you would see on Netflix, the kind of thing you would watch, you know, on Amazon Prime, like just good old fashioned stories. And I don't mean that to throw any kind of shade at creators working in this field, because there are phenomenal people working and phenomenal pieces being created, but there's not a lot of this kind of content and it probably is down to the lack of budgets. But I really believe that if you can have a good idea of your story structure, if you've got a good idea, and how you want the story to end up, you know, what you want the climax to be, what the point of the pieces, and you spend a bit of time fleshing out your characters, really focusing in on one or two characters, that’s it for a short film and you're really going to be off to a great, great start. So once you've fleshed out those scenes, then you can start to think about, you know, you can start to drill down into those scenes, what specifically is happening in those scenes and this is where you can almost start to flesh out your script without script writing. Like, not so much from my original pieces but when I do a lot of corporate kind of drama work, I will literally go through those scenes and write out everything that happens. And the reason I would do that for corporate drama and I haven't necessarily historically done it for original entertainment based pieces is because before I go and put pen to paper, before I go and slog my guts off over a script, I need the person paying for it, too to know, everything that's happening in that scene, because I don't want to go and write 10 pages and If I've missed some details, and actually thinking about out loud, it's really translatable to what I'm talking about with fleshing out an idea by writing out everything that happens in a scene. You know, for example, a scene in Bad News is so difficult to know, like how much detail to give away, but okay, let me tell you about like one particular scene in Bad News. It’s not particularly a pivotal scene, it's just one of the many scenes, but you've got Tessa, the main character delivering some bad news to just a bit of a skis ball dude that's being fired from his job and so what I would do in that scene is I would write down, you know, this scene involves Tessa and Jared. Jared is this you know, he's this kind of man who's going to be played by this kind of person and in this scene, we are showing this, so we are showing that Tessa, is uncomfortable. This is her first time on the job, she like fumbles her words, she doesn't really fire him very well, he kind of gets a bit confused as to whether she's hitting on him or whether he's being fired and it all kind of goes up in a in a blaze of glory. And he we cut to a slow motion of him kind of throwing things around the room, whilst we hear her kind of internalising what's just happened. So that is kind of like the kind of level of detail that I would maybe go into when I'm fleshing out a scene, because then when it comes to actually writing that script, I've got so much to go on already. I've already got an idea in my head of what that looks like, I've already got an idea of what the location is, I almost know what some of the camerawork is, I've got the descriptive stuff down, it's just now adding the dialogue to that scene. So that could be really helpful.

I'm going to cut this episode here, because there's so much more we could talk about, but I feel like it's all gonna start bleeding into the next episode, which will be about kind of the script writing process. So I'm going to leave it here if you found this helpful, or useful information. I would love to hear from you. You can share the episode by taking a screenshot of it right now on the podcast platform you're listening to and sharing on social media and tag me because that lets me know that you're enjoying the episode it helps get the word out and if you want to DM me and let me know any of your thoughts on any of this. I would also love to hear from you at @alexmakesvr on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn and that's it. I will speak to you next week my friend. Have a great day.

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