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How Creative Decisions Can Blow Your VR Budget

In today's episode, I'm going to be talking about what creative decisions affect budgets in VR. This is going to be a good one. I know that it might sound like quite a dry topic but honestly, this is one of the biggest realisations I had when I was transitioning from a creative role into someone a producing role, especially when you start to work on your own projects. Understanding what costs money, and what decisions you make that will affect budgets is actually super important. In fact, the reason that I want to do an episode about this today is because just the other week, on a project that I'm working on at the moment, one creative decision cost production £35,000. So I'm going to be diving into all of this today.

Read on for the full transcription or listen to the podcast episode here

So this first part of the episode is going to be annoyingly vague, and I apologise up front. But I want to tell you this story, and as vague detail as possible, just because I feel like it does illustrate how important this subject is. So let me take you back two weeks ago. I finished what I deemed to be a really, really powerful script, I'm really excited about it. It's a commercial project. It's really NDA, and hence why I can't get into details about it but I'm really proud of this script. Everyone that's involved with the project, everyone who has read the script, they too have been quite moved by it. it's not just a traditional commercial drama, it's something that actually has a point, it’s got a purpose. And, dare I say, it's quite profound.

Okay, let me bring the ego down a couple of notches. So imagine my horror,

when, after being so proud of this work, I get on a call to discuss the production side of things and I'm on the call with the executive producers. We work out that one little and I can't again get into details, but I can't stress to you how tiny this detail is but this one decision I had made, was going to cost production an extra £35,000.

One decision, just one very minute detail, but £35,000 pound?

This is why this subject is so important…It's important because I feel like you can't possibly be able to go into a shoot, confident that you are going to bring value to every kind of person on that on that production, bring value to your client, because regardless of what you're doing, whether it's 360 photos, or high end virtual reality training or high end gameplay, whatever it is, you can't possibly bring the best value possible AND make sure that you are aligning and achieving the result that piece is supposed to have, if you don't understand the implications of the creative decisions you're making.

So normally, I get the argument from a lot of creative people saying - "oh, but you know, the director and the writer, they should just let them have their vision, let them know the story is king, let them have their creative decisions and vision, and let production worry about making it possible.” Now that is wonderful, what a beautiful world to live in. If that was the case, if every creative idea you had, every whim and detail that you wanted, you could because you had a production team and a production budget that was just infinite.

But more often than not for you and I, we will be constrained by budgets and especially if you're working in the B2B world, the business to business where you are working for another organisation. That organisation wants value for money, even if they want something that is inspiring and profound and all of these things that I genuinely believe this piece that I'm working on is - they still don't want to pay 35 grand for something that I mean, yes it's going to make it feel a little bit more realistic, but it doesn't have any bearing on what the piece is supposed to achieve. So when I think about when I direct and produce 360 pieces, some of the creative decisions that I think have impact on budgets, can be boiled down to three categories. And that is the location, the characters and the action. These are the three areas that you need to have in mind, when you are making your creative decisions. Keep in mind how those things will affect budget.

So for example, locations. If you're working with a client, and they would really love an extravagant feel and, in fact, let me give you an actual example, because that'll probably be more helpful. I remember when I first started working with hospices, to bring VR to hospice patients, for that escapism, for that mindfulness benefit. One of the things that they wanted was a VR experience of being on the beach.

Because naturally, when you are stuck in a hospital bed, nearing the end of your life, the farthest thing from that is sitting on a beautiful, sunny, sandy beach, listening to the waves. And if any of you have watched my TEDx Talk, this is the opening story that I tell. And the truth is that for a while, I thought - I want the most perfect beach in the world. I want this to be the most exotic, beautiful thing. I don't know, Indonesia? Or could I go to the Seychelles or somewhere where the beaches would be absolutely phenomenal. Just think about what the budget implications of that would be. Imagine how much I would have to spend to get over to those places, to get what I thought would be the absolute dream scenario. And then I kind of reined it in, and I thought, what does this need to achieve? This needs to be a stunning, gorgeous beach on a beautiful summer's day and as long as it's got that vibe to it, like Indonesia, Australia, just stunning beaches vibe, you know as long as it's got that, it's going to achieve its goal, right? Because anything is going to be better than being in this hospital bed for this person, so the key things that I need are a gorgeous blue sky summer's day. I need a really clean, quite empty, not too busy beach with gorgeous gold sand. That's all I need. Okay. Let me think what's going to work within my budget and my timeframe, because I don't have long to do this. And I don't, you know, not that it wouldn't have been worth spending thousands to go over to the Seychelles to do it but how can I do this in a way that's really affordable?

So funnily enough, I was chatting about the project to my auntie told me about a stunning beach in Wales, called Three Cliffs Bay. She said to me - “you will not believe this beach, Alex, it looks like it's been plucked out of the Caribbean.” So she showed me photos and sure enough, in these photos, I could not believe that this was in the UK. I blew my mind. Because I was never, my family never really did staycations when when I was younger, we never went to Cornwall or anywhere like that. So I've never really been to any decent UK beaches. I've only ever been to Skegness on a grey miserable day. That's what I think of when I think of English beaches. But all of a sudden, my auntie was presenting me with this option, you know, four hours down the road to get a cheap air b&b and as long as I got it on a really beautiful day, that would have done the job. So I did it. So sure enough, that's where I filmed that piece for the hospice and most people when they watch that piece, the hospice patients when they watch that, they don't really know, and they don't really care where it is, because it does the job right. And when they find out that it is in Wales, they were blown away. And the other element of it that I hadn't really even considered, was the the fact that, it was in the UK and for them it's more sentimental. Some of them actually had been to that coast before and they recognises the kind of area which was even more special. And it made me think about that creative decision. Because what I thought was this big idea, this vision of what paradise look likes, wasn’t the answer. Actually, when I scaled it back and considered the budget implications of things, funnily enough, it worked out that the creative decision I ended up making, ended up being some people's idea of paradise and actually achieved what it needed to achieve. So that's an example of location being something to consider how you can pick a location that achieves what you want it to achieve without breaking the bank.

And this can also go for things like dramas but when I write my original scripts for myself, like my dystopian dramas, like Bad News for example, I wrote the first draft of that script, imagining that I had no budget, and that I could use only locations that I had access to. So I've got, you know, a friend that has access to a bookshop, I've got friend that has access to music venues, I’ve got my house, my parents house, my friend's house, I've got kind of loose connection with a gym, so I could potentially have a gym scene and, so all of a sudden there’s options. So I'm starting to pull from being resourceful, thinking about all those people and all those places that I could probably have access to and for free, if absolutely necessary. If I'd had no budget, I would still be able to make this project. And I know that's not everyone's cup of tea, I know that most people don't like to think like that, as a creative, most people like to start big, and then cut things for the budget. And maybe that's right, but my personal preference is actually - you’re more likely to get it funded in the first place if you make it super accessible and super realistic. And again, I'm talking about, you out there, you don’t want to be pitching for years to get a project off the ground. If you want to actually make this your day job, if you want to actually be able to do this, and be able to do it regularly and you don't want to spend months after months of begging people for money or trying to get the right fit, finding a production company that will take a chance on your idea or whatever it might be, this is absolutely an avenue that I preach because I think for so long we've been sold this myth that as a creative, you should be able to just have a vision and be a visionary. And you know, what will be will be but that's such bullshit.

Like even, I've said this on a previous episode but even Martin Scorsese, one of the best film directors of all time, has all of the experience in the world of making huge amounts of money for movies, Even he took a decade to get his latest film funded, because it was such a risk, because it was so expensive to make. That film was the Irishman on Netflix and I watched a roundtable with the commissioning editor at Netflix who took a chance on it and they said the reason they took a chance on it, even though they knew that they weren't going to make any money off it was because they wanted somewhat of Martin Scorsese's calibre on their platform. Because to have a Martin Scorsese Netflix original was worth it to them, to be able to say, look, we are heavyweights in this. So isn't that interesting, even that was a business decision? Even the fact that movie studios wouldn't fund it, even though it's Martin Scorsese, the reason they did it is because it's a business decision at the end of the day, even though they knew they couldn't make money back off of it. So just bear that in mind when you're being sold this myth about being creative and you know, getting to just do whatever you want in a script, especially if you're not the one funding it. So that's locations and I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, but the other two just briefly are characters, so especially in 360 characters and action are kind of intertwined.

The more characters you have in a scene, obviously the more you're paying, in terms of actors fees, costume fees, makeup and wardrobe, transport, catering on set. You're also got more moving parts, so when you work on a project like - we did a project about a year ago, and in one scene, there was about a 30 extras, to make the scene really realistic and to make it feel full, and especially in 360, where it can sometimes feel quite bare.

And if you've not got the money to have, a beautiful set design, because obviously, it's not just a rectangle that you're now set dressing, it's the whole location that needs to be perfectly dressed for the project. Same thing goes with characters, you know, how many characters do you need for that scene? Well, if you've got 30 extras plus and then the two main characters that are in that scene, how much money is that costing? Not only how much money is that costing, but how long is it going to take to get that scene because obviously again, especially 360 and not having the luxury of cutting between takes. Having so many characters in a scene can be become really expensive. Because it's not just how many fees you're paying for all those actors to be there but it's also the amount of time that it takes to get that scene right. If in fact, again, similar story did a project where there was, I think, nine actors in a scene, It was about a four minute long scene, nine actors all had to perfectly deliver their lines, all in one take. And basically, one actor slips up the line slightly, so we have to do the take again. And then another actor slightly fluffs it or another actor forgets their line or another actor comes in too early or another actor forgets that they're on camera, and they're, you know, picking their nose, or something, but do you know what I mean? All of a sudden, now, it's not just the fact that you're paying for nine people and all the stuff that comes along with them and a whole crew that you now need for at least half a day to knock out that scene, because it's so long, and there's so many people involved, that actually it's a really hard scene to get right. So that becomes a creative decision.

I wrote that script for that particular thing and I do think in hindsight, I probably should have made that opening scene a little bit shorter and have had less characters speak. So maybe there's nine people in the scene, but only three of them speak so it's less likely that they'll mess up and we have to start over again, or it's less people to have to be perfectly on point with everything, because it's not even just if they mess up their lines, it's if you don't like the delivery of those lines, it's if the tone is slightly wrong, if it's those two actors aren't quite acting the right way against each other, that's slightly wrong. So all of a sudden, all these things, they start costing money in time. And actually on that project, we ended up having to pay actors over time because the scene went on, it took so many takes to get the scene right that we ended up going over the scheduled hours.

So it's these creative decisions that you need to be really careful of. So characters and actions, again, they kind of tie in together. I mean, those are just off the top of my head, you've also got things like…If you've got a scene in a car. Shooting a 360 scene in a car is an absolute pain in the ass. You have so much going on, like the person's point of view, to be the driver, you've got all of these different things that you really have to consider because all of these things have consequences. If you want to do a scene and you want the camera to be moving whilst also have multiple actors in a scene, delivering lines at a certain time, in a certain place, at a certain time of night. That is such a specific scene. And in my head, I can imagine how beautiful a scene like that might come together, but then I think -is it worth the two days of rehearsal, the crew time for all of that, the tech rehearse, or the creating of the specialised rig to make that scene possible, is it worth it? At time, I say no because we're still so early on in VR that things cost stupid amounts of money. And then no one really sees them, not on the scale that something like, you know, if you create a little film, and then you put some advertising budget, behind it on Facebook, or YouTube where potentially hundreds, thousands, millions of people can see it.

It just feels to me, it’s stupid to make creative decisions that cost 10s of thousands of pounds, when at the end of the day, you know that the piece won't be seen by a huge amount of people. And that's not to say that there aren't amazing creative pieces that are art and, you know, they are regarded as pushing the boundaries and the reason they were made and the reason it was worth spending all that money was just to test a theory but often, the pieces that those people are referring to, I just think you maybe could have achieved it on like a fifth of the budget though, if you had been savvy, if you'd really thought about what the point was, and what you were trying to communicate to an audience, I feel like maybe, maybe you could have spent that money on actually distributing your project marketing it getting out into the world.

And this is the constant balance that we have to tread as creative entrepreneurs, is because that's where we are right. Even if you're not interested in a career in the business stuff and you're purely interested in the creative side of things, even then, this should be front and centre for you. Because we're not living in a world anymore where, you know, it's one out of a million filmmakers gets a shot and that studio then throws stupid amounts of money at it and stupid amounts of money at the marketing and our career is made. We’re living in a world where we're doing micro everything, micro projects

on what we would consider in the industry with micro budgets.

If you consider that a feature film is considered a micro budget right up until I think it’s about 10 million to 20 million, that's still considered a micro budget feature, to my knowledge, or I could be wrong, it could be like up to a million or something. But it's still a stupid amount of money. You and I might consider a micro budget to be like, you know, £100 and a Gregg’s sausage roll for everyone who's taking part but I feel like the industry is calibrating differently now because of the age of user generated content. Everyone can be a filmmaker now because they got the equipment in their pocket. Because of that we are building the VR and 360 industry from that context. So we won't have the luxury of what the cinema pioneers had, which was spending stupid amounts of money and time, because you knew that at the end of the day, there were so few things for people to entertain themselves.

I feel like the takeaway message is please, please please understand the budget implications of your creative decisions because the truth is, even in entertainment, even if tomorrow, Netflix launched a VR originals department and they were looking to commission stuff, ultimately the final decision will always be made from a financial one.

Why does Netflix invest in certain shows and not others is because those shows bring people to the platform and people on the platform means they're paying subscription fees. It's a business at the end of the day.

I think if more creatives, more artists, more people that don't want to think about the business side of things, just opened their mind and started to understand the other points of view, to think about what implications their creative decisions make, they probably get more stuff made to be honest. So that's it. Those are my rambles.

Tell me about the projects that you're working on, and maybe any creative decision decisions that you realise you've made now, that would be completely financially unfeasible. I would love to hear those anecdotes. I would also love if you were already aware of this stuff and like, tell me about some times that you have changed your creative decision to fit a budget.

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