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What skills do you need to be a VR storytelling professional?

Welcome back to episode 11 of my 31 Day Challenge, where I am answering your questions about creating a career or a business that you love and in today's episode, we're stepping slightly into the more creative realm, I'm answering the question, what technical skills do you need to be a VR storytelling professional? So we're going to be diving into that.


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Now this question, sounds like it should have like a really simple answer. What technical skills so you need to be a VR storytelling professional? Sounds like there should be just, you know, a checklist almost, telling you, you need this, this and this. But the truth is, the quite annoying truth is that this will change. The answer that I give in this podcast probably won't be the same in two years time. And hello, future listeners, if you're listening to this in 2021 or 2022, it's probably a very different landscape but as of right now, you my friend, listening in 2020, the technical skills that you need to be a VR storytelling professional, really depend on what kind of story or what kind of experience you're trying to give someone. I would argue that the number one thing, and it kind of implied in the title, right, the storytelling professional, the number one thing you need to be able to do is tell a good story. That's the first technical skill you need to learn and that doesn't necessarily have to be - oh, you need to be a script writer, or you need to be an expert in story structure. We as humans are natural storytellers. It's so ingrained in us, we've been doing it for millennia. So it's not necessarily that it's more understanding what kind of stories make compelling VR experiences. And I say this, not necessarily knowing the answer to what you know, what audiences want, or what makes a compelling story in VR, I’ve tried several pieces and you know, some people love the, some people hate them. Well, I don't know why they hate them, they would never say that to my face or anything, but you know, there's pieces that I've watched where I go, not sure that quite worked, or some pieces where I go, holy crap, yes! In fact, for those of you who follow me on Instagram, which if you don't, please do because I post a lot of updates there but I am a judge for the broadcast awards this year and I'm judging the category of the best VR experience and so I spent about maybe four hours in a headset yesterday and one of the pieces, which obviously I can't disclose necessarily which piece it was, but to me, technically, like…on a technical level, it wasn't mind blowingly brilliant, it wasn't anything like stepping into a headset and having a Pixar experience or a Ready Player One experience. Technically, there was nothing intrinsically new about what this piece was doing but the story - oh my god, the story, the heart in this piece, the the start, middle and end, the journey that it took me on, the kind of way that the music changed with the story and changed the tone was brilliant. It was a documentary piece, so for me, I always find that really interesting because I think a lot of people including myself, when I think storytelling, I generally think of more narrative based stuff, I think about you know, drama, but actually, I think right now anyway, the current landscape for storytelling pieces, some of the best pieces are actually more documentary based on reality. And I think that boils down to the fact that there was this great piece of advice that someone gave me once that said - the way that you can tell if a VR experience, if a story is meant to be told in VR, is if it answers these two questions, are you there and are you them? And I thought that was brilliant. I thought be there or be them. And maybe even both. That idea that, so much of telling a story in VR is about your environment and it's about the atmosphere of the location, the location itself becomes a character in your story and that's why I think for lots of experiences, at the moment, documentaries work really well. Especially this particular piece, which is a piece that is talking about a very, very specific place, and you are interacting with the people of that place, but the place itself is a character in the story. That itself is just just really powerful and so I think story, is and by nature, the number one skill that you need to have if you're going to be a VR, storytelling professional.


I think a lot of it is just going and seeing what's out there, and the thing is, we're so early on with VR storytelling as a medium and I won't give you the usual spiel of the fact that we are the early kind of cinema pioneers, but we are. But we're so early on that there's not you know, it's not like there's a mass amount of content to choose from. So therefore, I don't think you can make big broad decisions about what does and doesn't work genre wise in VR yet, because I don't think there's been enough experimentation, there's not been enough and there's not been enough examples of all the different genres to decide, you know, whether you need to specialise in any one particular thing. Anyway, that would be my number one thing; story. Tell a good story. Like, why are you telling this story in VR? And maybe even thinking about from that point of view, you know, what is the difference that this experience is going to be like in VR versus if I told this in any other format?


I am not one of those people that is going to tell you, you shouldn't do a piece in VR, unless for example it could have been just a traditional short film, but having it as a VR short film, and actually just completely changes your experience with it and it allows you to engage with the characters in the story in a totally different way. So just like Shakespeare can be experienced, as a play, as a film, as a song, as a poem. As you know, all these modern rap songs are just the stories of Shakespeare and can be told in lots of different ways. I think, if you've got a good enough story, then you can tell it in VR. For me, I love female driven or female character based dramas, whether that be more sci fi, dystopian, that's kind of my favourite kind of genre, but also just character driven independent dramas I guess, those things that really dig into human emotion and psychology, and the dynamics in relationships and stuff like that. So, I love those pieces but there's not really that many of those in VR. So hence, why the kind of narrative in the the original work that I do tends to look at that and tends to be based on that and the scripts that I write tend to be in that genre. Currently, I haven't really found any of the pieces, and I don't think my piece is there. So we can’t really say if certain genres working VR yet because it’s not quite there yet, but dammit, I'm going to keep experimenting with it. Because I know that ultimately, if it's a good story, people will enjoy it.mSo story, okay… I’ve banging on about that long enough.


Moving on…when it comes to like, actual technical skills, we're talking the actual practical things that you can do, I guess it really depends on what kind of VR experience you want to make. So if it's an interactive game, based on experience, then you should probably deep dive into Unity and you should learn the basics of unity. You should have an understanding of how that works, how game dynamics works and always, always, always put your audience first. That's the number one thing. And you know, when you're designing any kind of experience, when you're designing any story, think what do I want my audience to feel like? What do I want them to feel when they go into

the headset? What do I want them to feel throughout? What do I want them to feel when they take the headset off? So if you're a game designer, that's going to look a bit different to if you're a 360 filmmaker, but it's the same thing, right?


So okay, unity developer is different, you need a UX kind of brain as well because you really want to consider the user experience that's so imperative, they go hand in hand. I think it's pointless having the technical skills of a unity developer, if you don't understand the user experience side of things. So a way that you can kind of upscale on that kind of thing is…again, like going and watching some of the pieces that have been tremendously successful. For VR storytelling, the game based interactive content that I really love, are things like The Line. That's an incredible example of brilliant VR storytelling done well and the game and user kind of experience design has been just so spot on. Absolutely. Go check that one out.


On the 360 filmmaking side of things, I think the number one thing you should do, technically, is probably understand how to direct an audience's attention in 360. So I would get yourself a 360 camera and nice cheap, doesn't need to be high spec and start to understand what happens when you, you know, move actors around, or even just subjects or if you're in different places, like understand how your editing changes the audience's attention. Think of the camera as a person's head, that’s what I always say. You know, in the early days of 360, people were really aggressively against this idea - oh, no, just treat the camera like a camera and still to this day, there's 360 pieces where not much thought has been given to the fact that you know, you're jumping around in a scene, you're jumping and seeing different shots in the same room, it just makes no sense and from an audience point of view, it makes no sense and is disorientating, and that is an example of something that probably should have been maybe like a flat piece because it's not adding anything by being in VR. Whereas if you think about it, from the point of view, as soon as someone puts in a headset, this camera becomes someone's head. So treat it that way, you want to push boundaries and explore the dynamics of you know, personal space and perspective with the camera, but always respect that it’s someone's head and if you want to make them uncomfortable, then do it intentionally and know why you're doing it, rather than making them feel uneasy for not reason.


So there was like a couple of pieces in Tribeca this year, in the virtual cinema that did that really well, like there was this piece, and I'm forgetting the name of it. So I'm really sorry to the artists behind it but they basically brought to life, this famous painting, it was giant but I never really heard about it because I'm not really a massive arts geek, but there was this giant eating this character and anyway, you're the character (spoiler alert) and they played with perspective, because the giant kind of got closer and closer, and then you know, you're playing with a perspective of being this tiny little character in the hands of this giant. So that's a really good example of something where it's like, it's very intentional. You're intentionally meant to feel uncomfortable. You're intentionally playing with perspective. There's a reason for that.


This has been ramble, I know but number one story has to come first, it's so obvious, but it's so important. So story number one. And number two, understanding the audience's experience. Those are the two technical skills where you can build skills on top of those. So you could build the skill of being able to, you know, stitch 360 footage beautifully, or build a unity environment, like you can have all those practical skills but at the top of that pyramid needs to be good story, and good user experience. Those are the two key things, I can't tell you how many things I've seen at film festivals, where it's technically brilliant, you know, well, sometimes they're not even that technically brilliant, but no shade to anyone, you know, in particular, but in general, especially in the earlier days, but I say earlier days, like literally in the last few years, but you know, technology is what it is right? But some of them would be quite technically brilliant but then they would just like fall down because a you wouldn't know what you had to do, because they weren't user intuitive at all.

So have a think about that. I think if you're coming from a filmmaking background, you're probably more likely to be able to translate your experience into 360. First, and generally speaking, then you can progress on to be to do more interactive or game based stuff. If you're coming from a game background anyway, you've probably got a good understanding of some of those things anyway.

Yeah, so that's those, those are my general answers on what technical skills do you need to be a VR storytelling professional. If you've got a question or any follow up, or any

comments in general, I love hearing from you. Please reach out to me on social media, @alexmakesvr and you can email me alexmakesvr@gmail.com. If you want to sign up for the daily reminders of when these episodes go live, sign up for the newsletter below and with that, I will leave you have a great day wherever you are in the world. I love you very much and I'll speak to you tomorrow.

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