My Journey Into Immersive Storytelling (Making A Virtual Reality Film)
Updated: Feb 8
Hey friends, and welcome to the Alex Makes VR podcast. In today's episode, it is the first episode of my new series called Making A VR film. In this new series that I'm going to be doing, I'm going to take you behind the scenes of making my brand new VR drama, Bad News. Now for those of you who've heard me talk before about this project, this first episode is all going to be about context. So you might want to skip ahead to future episodes, where I'm going to be diving into things like my process of script writing, the process of script editing, budgeting, pre production, test, shooting, prototyping, everything that comes along with making a VR drama casting, you know, actual production and the post production process, the distribution, basically, this series is going to be almost like a bit of a diary entry, recording the process of creating my next VR drama.
This is a full transcription of the podcast episode. Subscribe and listen below:
So like I said, for episode one, I'm going to talk you through the context in which this drama came about and in order to give you that context, I need to give you a bit more information on me, for those of you who have been listening to the podcast for a while, I’m Alex Rühl, you know that and for those of you who don't know me, I am a creative, a filmmaker, a talker, and I specialise in immersive storytelling. This has been my specialism for the last few years now. Before I got into the virtual reality industry I was a traditional television producer and and then moved into advertising and a little bit in traditional advertising space before very quickly, moving into…well falling into the virtual reality industry by way of 360 filmmaking. And if this is your first time kind of hearing about these new tech's like, maybe you've just stumbled upon this, or maybe you've had a 360 films of VR filmmaking, but you don't really know too much about it, 360 filmmaking and creating virtual reality dramas, or documentaries, any kind of entertainment is a really, really new space. Virtual reality itself as a technology has obviously been around for quite a while now. The first recorded kind of consumer VR headset came out in the 90s but the concept of VR has been around since I believe, like the 50s, or 60s but it's only really been the last five years that we have seen VR and the immersive space really adopt an artistic language. When I jumped into the space back in 2015, that was my first kind of foray into creating film for virtual reality headsets. It was still a really, really new concept. This was around the time that the Oculus DK one or two was available, I believe, aka the developer kits. So before Oculus was even released as an actual product that a consumer could buy, only developers could access the technology because it was still so primitive. It was around the time that Samsung were releasing their Gear VR headset, which could be used by plugging in a Samsung phone. And it's funny, my headshot that I still use to this day across all of my social media platforms and on my website, I believe, is a photo of me holding a Samsung Gear VR to my head and I always think like I should probably update that, it’s a bit outdated, now. I'm hoping though that that eventually it will just become vintage, It’ll be like, you know, holding like the original iPhone or something. It will be a symbol of my dedication to this industry maybe. Anyway, that was a side tangent. But yeah, so it was around that era of those kind of headsets, the Google Cardboard headset, was just becoming available. People were starting to take notice and starting to look at how you could create for this medium and for me, that absolutely came in the form of filmmaking. I'd always been a filmmaker, I've always been interested in the visual medium. I wasn't coming to this from a gaming background. So it seemed natural to me that my way into this medium would be through filmmaking and the first real early kind of projects that I did in 360 I hadn't gotten ain't got a clue what I was doing. Not only did I not have a clue what I was doing, no one else seemed to have a clue what they were doing either. I remember being sent out on this shoot with this GoPro rig, for those of you who don't know, back in the day 360 cameras weren't all in one, it wasn't just like one unit or you press record and you know it beautifully just started recording on all the lenses, it didn't record to one SD card, it used to be that you have to you had to have GoPros or similar action cameras just stuck together on a 3d modelled rig, like not even a professional radio at that point , it was the freedom 360 rig, which was like a 3d printed rig and you would just have to, you'd have to press record on all the different GoPros and just hope that none of them were slightly on a jaunty angle, or hope that none of them crashed, or none of them overheated. Whilst filming, it was a real technical minefield to even produce any kind of 360 content, let alone create something that was, you know, in the realm of storytelling, creating a documentary or drama or something with any artistic merit, there were so many technical hurdles to jump over. But after being in the space for a good couple of years, exploring 360, I started to really understand what was and wasn't working in terms of VR filmmaking. And the way I did that was by making a load of crap, and showing it to loads of different people, and starting to see a pattern of what people started to resonate with, what parts of the projects I was making, were making people go - wow, that's amazing, or, you know, making them whip their head around to like, see what was going on behind them or you know, seeing people kind of light up when they, you know, got to a certain bit in a project or try and move out the way. And also not only by doing my own projects, but watching what was coming out in the space and consuming a lot of content, which admittedly, I have fallen a little bit behind on nowadays into 2021. As of recording this, I probably should go back to that but those days, I was just rapidly consuming everything that I could, I was watching pieces by Felix and Paul who were at the time and probably still are considered the masters of cinematic VR who do really very high production quality experiences, mainly in the documentary round, although they've done a couple of a couple of dramas. One of them most notably, was Miyubi, which was this great little drama, from the point of view of a toy robot that had been bought for a kid at Christmas and seeing that kid and that family grow up through the eyes of this robot that was kind of being forgotten, it very Toy Story esque. But ever since then, I kind of became obsessed with this idea of the potential of virtual reality as a storytelling medium, I started to think about all the different things that I had always wanted to do as a kid, like wanting to be my favourite TV characters, or wanting to, you know, experience a particular event or a particular kind of storyline, like through the eyes of a character, but also, maybe even being like a voyeur and just existing in a space with characters that I've loved and then came along with the Mr. Robot 360 experience a TV show that at the time I was really, really into, and I thought, oh my god, this is exactly what I've been looking for. Like I wanted this experience of kind of stepping into the world of an IP (intellectual property) that I was already really accustomed to and really loved and that experience was great and it kind of set me off on this path to explore immersive storytelling, virtual reality storytelling. Along the way, I've done many projects that have never seen the light of day. I've wrote many a script that have never kind of gone into production. But also along the way, I've done a lot of work that has kind of become fully fledged projects. My first piece Keyed Alike was a script that I had written originally not for VR, but after teaming up with the incredible Chloe Thomas, a brilliant director in television, teaming up with her and deciding to make Keyed Alike into a 360 drama and getting notable actors like Gemma Whelan and Natasha Kurama on board to to act in it. That was the first piece that I went from, right from the scripting process all the way through producing, pre production, actual production, obviously, post production, distribution, going on the festival circuit. That piece essentially meant that I could go on to talk about our challenges with that. I mean, it's a very, very simplistic VR drama. You are seeing through the point of well…it's kind of a bit of a spoiler of who you're seeing through the eyes of, but it's a very simple short film, where two characters are discussing the nature of love by a love lock gate and at the end, it's revealed who you are and you might think you're a voyeur throughout the whole thing, but if you pay attention to the script, you'd kind of understand by the end who you are. I'm trying to think if that piece is available anywhere, for those of you who want to go check that out, but anyway, that was my first kind of foray into the original projects in the VR space and then since then, I've gone on to create loads of different pieces, mainly for organisations and for global brands, who wanted to use narrative VR to engage employees in lots of different ways. Whether that be creating, like scenarios at work, that might engage people in the conversation around unconscious bias. I did a big piece with PwC, all around cybersecurity, which was so much fun where I basically wrote a script where you're, you can see through the eyes of three different characters; a big firm undergoing a cybersecurity attack, and you kind of go through the process of the panic and what would happen in that scenario of being under attack, and how that plays out and you make decisions interactively. So, you get to make decisions on how you're going to handle it and there's some brilliant scenes in that including a really fun scene that we did with 30 plus extras, who all came in to act as journalists, as as the CEO is being interrogated over her decision to either lie or not lie about the cybersecurity attack on the company. So really, really interesting projects that utilise the power of immersive storytelling, but just in kind of different ways.
I went on to help produce a drama project and interactive drama project called Playing God, which was all about putting you the user in the shoes of the captain of a spaceship undergoing a massive humanitarian crisis. That was an exploration of interactive storytelling, getting the user to be complicit in the storyline and that was a really amazing piece by the visual director, Ben Frederick's, who I worked with on that, and again, we did really awesome things with that ended up premiering at Cannes XR,
which is like the XR site at the Cannes Film Festival, and loads of things, just really, really exciting projects. Basically, I've rambled for far too long about my history. But that brings me to Bad News.
So along that journey, not only was I creating VR work, not only was I creating 360 stories, and exploring this new space as a way of telling stories, but along the way, I was also paying really close attention to how audiences were responding. As part of Keyed Alike distribution, I was asked to put on a pop up VR cinema in collaboration with the BFI, the British Film Institute for those of you who don't know what that is, and a local independent cinema, here in Leicester, which is where I'm from in the UK, called the Phoenix and, and off the back of that, that went down so well and I enjoyed so much getting hands on experience showing new audiences cinematic VR pieces that we went on to do a whole season of pop up VR cinemas back in 2018 and 2019. It ran throughout most of 2019 really. Off the back of that, I was asked by the BFI, the British Film Institute network, specifically, whether or not I was working on anything new and at the time, I was really considering what my next move was actually in VR, because I'd gotten to the point where I was doing loads of interesting projects and I was working on lots of cool different stuff and I was having this opportunity through my commercial and brand work to explore all the different facets of immersive storytelling, working on interactive pieces, you know, live action pieces, 360 pieces, recently completing like a big volumetric interactive piece. So exploring lots of different facets of creating stories for virtual reality, but I hadn't really paid any attention to my own personal projects. I hadn't written anything that I was really passionate about so when the BFI approached me to say - hey, what are you working on? I was like - you know what, there has been an idea kicking around in my head for a while and I don't have the script but this is the idea. And I pitched the BFI, this idea that I'd been kicking around, which kind of implemented all the things that I was learning over the last three years, all of those things that I'd taken from showcasing a lot of VR, the things that I really loved in immersive storytelling, aka, embodying a character, taking agency over this story, being almost complicit being pulled into the drama being complicit in the storyline. I'd kind of come up with this idea called Bad news, which is all about and I don't want to give too much away, although I probably will go into quite a few details throughout this series and hopefully, that's okay with you guys. I'm sure it will only make you more keen to watch it when it's finally done, rather than put you off because you know what's going to happen.
But anyway, the premise is that you are an employee of a dystopian like app where people can outsource their bad news, super simple premise but I loved this idea of putting audiences in really uncomfortable situations, and following a character, as she kind of goes on this own journey, where she's in this world, where people are so disconnected from each other, are so desensitised to telling people their shit, that she is tasked with telling people, their bad news, basically. So that brings me here.
So off the back of that, and off the back of the BFI being like - we love the idea and we're really keen to explore that, that sounds really interesting, would you like to submit a form or application for funding? And I was like - well, of course, yes, I would and they said - oh, by the way, we've never ever funded a virtual reality piece through this fund. Just FYI. Like it's never been done before. Because, it's just always been seen that virtual reality is more of maybe, like a game of technology, or if it's not a game based technology, maybe more of like a conceptual and traditional, like an art space. So Arts Council England in the UK, is more formally known for funding VR projects, the BFI hadn't really dipped a toe, so they kind of told me that up front. And I was like - okay, good to know. So I sat down with a friend of mine, Rebecca, who is a brilliant writer and someone that I'm constantly bouncing ideas back and forth with and someone that I can just….you know, like….sometimes it's really helpful to have creative partnerships where you just completely trust that person's instincts. You have the same sensibility, you have the same kind of outlook on life, but different enough to kind of bring different things to the project. So anyway, me and Rebecca sat down. We wrote this script together. I put in a formal application, and lo and behold, a few months later, I found out that it was going to officially be the first ever VR piece funded by the BFI network, which I'm still kind of like, I can't quite wrap my head around that and the kind of way that the execs told me was, you know…they were like, yep, you know, we're super excited to be funding this piece, this will set precedent going forward, potentially for whether or not they will continue to fund VR pieces. This will also set a precedent for how VR filmmakers can apply for this funding. This will open up so many avenues and be this new way that filmmakers can express their stories and that all comes down to this project being kind of a landmark piece, which as you can imagine, was not only very flattering, but also quite scary to wrap my head around. And again, still, to this day, I haven't quite wrapped my head around that there's a lot of pressure that comes with that but I am beyond honoured and I'm so excited for this journey and it's been already a pretty long journey, obviously, because of COVID.
So this piece was greenlit probably about a year ago now and everything was brought to a standstill with COVID but now it's picking up, that's why I'm starting this series about Bad News because it feels right now as I start to gear up, as I start to go through the process of redrafting the script, of going through the process of finalising budgets and going into the production process, it feels the right time to start talking about it now. And so that's where we are, that is the context on how this piece came into existence. Now, I'm absolutely not going to sit here and say that this piece is going to be
the best piece of VR drama that's ever you know ever been, it's still a very, very conservative budget for something that is, I would say as ambitious as what I'm doing and the key factor for me for this VR drama was, not only did I want something where you're seeing through the eyes of the character, I wanted something where you could actually take agency and ownership of the the story. So this piece will be voice activated, which I mean, my developers tell me, it's possible, but we haven't actually fully tried. So so much of this process is going to be trial and error, it's going to be looking at what camera work doesn't work. I did an episode of the main podcast a few weeks back called the biggest mistake VR creators make and in that I was talking about how you don't, most people don't consider the context in which people will be consuming the content. For me, this piece is absolutely being made to be experienced as a passive group VR piece, this is an experience that I want you to be able to do, at home, if you want to sat still on a sofa, I don't want you to have to necessarily have loads of space but it's also a piece that I would love to be shown in a traditional kind of venue like a cinema setting. So I'm definitely thinking about what that means in terms of 360 versus 180. Or, you know, very much utilising the forward space, I am not interested in making a piece that it uses a lot of space and that requires you to be fully active and I want to make a piece that the reason you're experiencing it in VR is because you are stepping into this new world, this fully dystopian realised world and you're stepping into the shoes of the character. That is why you're doing this MVR, not because I want you to be wandering around interacting with the environment, not because I want you to be twisting and turning and, you know, craning your neck, I want, I want this piece to be experienced as as many kind of widely passive scenarios as possible. And what I mean by that is, I don't want this to be a piece that you know, you can only have two people go through it at a time, because you need loads of space and I want it to be able to be rolled out on mobile. I want people, if they want to watch it, to be able to download an app on their phone and watch on a Google Cardboard headset and I know that I'm gonna get crucified for that because in the VR industry, people hate when people make experiences for cardboard because they see it as like, the lowest form of virtual reality and maybe that's true and maybe, of course, it's a spectrum but maybe the cardboard experience isn't as elite as you know, a fully six degrees of freedom, free roam, game based, or volumetrically captured narrative. But in my opinion, what's more important than that is bringing new audiences into the space? That’s what I'm interested in. I'm interested in telling narrative driven stories that will bring the average consumer in.
That's what we need in this space. I love the people that work in this industry and I've met so many amazing people and I've seen so many awesome pieces, but they are so niche, they are so high concept, they are not widely accessible. I want to make a piece that my grandma would have wanted to see, I want to make a piece that my brother would want to sit through, I want to make a piece that your average person that would go to the cinema to watch you know, bridesmaids, or who would sit at home and watch Riverdale, I want this piece to to speak to them. I want them to feel welcome in this space. I want them to feel like this piece is for them. This could be a first time VR experience, It is not for the advanced techie VR geeks that love and don't get me wrong, I’m one of those people too. I've got all the geekery, I've got all of the kit, I'm not saying it's a bad thing But there is a difference between making a piece for a first time audience versus a seasoned VR game for example. This is not a piece for them.
Now, what are the challenges with that? Well, creating a VR experience for a first time user during a global pandemic, when there is no real way to encourage first time experiences is going to be tough. Now don't get me wrong, this piece is not going to be ready before the end of 2021. So fingers crossed 2022 rolls around ready for distribution and maybe there will be more accessible channels for us to go down. Maybe there'll be venues open that we can put on pop up VR cinemas, maybe events will be back so I could like do little demos of it and maybe festivals will be back to being open and I can apply to different things and try and get it shown in those settings. That would be amazing, but I also want to build in a marketing strategy with this VR film, I want to build an audience as I go, hence doing the podcast, hence encouraging people to check out some of the more cardboard based mobile based VR experiences, because they're absolutely the gateway into the full fully realised virtual reality experiences that you can do.
I hope you enjoyed this little kind of background to the project, like I say every episode from here on out is most likely going to be a look at a specific aspects of the project that I'm working on. So I mean, to get you up to speed, I'm going to need to do an episode on probably the application process for the BFI. That would be interesting and the kind of detail that I went into in order to secure the funding and I could talk about the scripting process, the original scripting process. Because obviously now we have a version of the script or a script, although I am redrafting it, because we need the budget to stretch a little bit further, thanks to COVID. So it'll be a little bit more pared down than the original attempt but things like talking to my director of photography, Liz and talking with her about addressing, like the lighting, and making this piece as stylistically and cinematically enticing and engaging as possible, because that is one thing that I really regret not paying attention to, on many of my other projects, mainly because of budgets, but also because of timing, and lack of, I guess, resource over that kind of thing. But I'm really, really keen to lean into the dystopian genre with this piece, I'm really, really wanting to do vivid lighting setups, which is obviously a whole load of fun trying to do that in VR, because every light that you put into a VR project, you have to be prepared to do the post production work, to make sure that you're, you know, getting rid of them in post or hiding them in plain sight or using practical lights and that kind of thing. But me and Liz have been chatting back and forth and we'll probably do a whole episode together maybe about coming up with with the aesthetic of of the piece as well. So we could talk about that, we could talk about mood boarding we could talk about casting that's going to be coming up soon and scripting was a whole process that I went through at the beginning of last year. But obviously, again, because of COVID, that kind of got ground to a halt. So that's another subject we can talk about, I'm basically want to talk about every single aspect that goes into making this piece and by the time we finished it, and by the time it comes out, I hope that you feel so close to the project and maybe you could even almost visualise what it's going to be like before it's even out, which in a way is kind of a virtual reality, is it not your imagination? That's a subject for a different episode.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this first episode. Obviously, this was mainly just me rambling about the context of how this project came to be. There is so much that we're going to dive into in future episodes, reach out to me, let me know that you're following along for this journey. Reach out, let me know if there's anything in particular that you really, really, really want to hear about. I will also be documenting the process over on Instagram. My Instagram is @alexmakesvr to make it simple. I probably going to mention this also, occasionally in my newsletter so If you're not signed up to the newsletter, I send out tips and tricks every single week about creating a career or a business in the virtual reality industry. So that might be something that you're you might be interested in as well you can sign up to that alexmakesvr.com. So that's it from me this week. Thank you so much for tuning in. I'm so excited to share this journey with you. If you've got questions like I said, reach out and have a great day, wherever in the world you are.
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