VRTOV producer Katy Morrison on creating VR content

Australian virtual reality (VR) focussed digital production company called VRTOV. In recent years VR has extended its reach beyond the gaming world as a platform for storytelling and entertainment content. As a designer in this genre, Morrison shares with Screen Africa how the medium has the potential to offer audiences a unique immersive experience.

How is VR changing the way people experience films?

Virtual reality is changing the way that people experience all types of content – from films, to games, to health applications and corporate training. What I see as the difference that virtual reality offers is that it requires the audience to be active in the way they consume the content. They literally can’t sit like a couch potato – they have to move, they have to look around in order to experience the story. I think that simple factor will have a tremendous effect on the way that storytellers craft narratives for virtual reality, and for audiences, it means that whatever content they are watching – it’s something that exists in that form only for them. No one else will see the story exactly that way, because no one else will look at exactly the same points they did, in the same order, for exactly the same amount of time. It’s a very personal medium.

How does this affect the audience’s relationship with characters?

There’s a lot of talk about ’empathy’ in VR, and people tend to lend VR this magical ability to generate empathy just because it’s VR. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think that what VR gives you is a sense of yourself within a story or a narrative – so I think it’s less about an ability to empathise with other characters, and more about an ability to imagine yourself there with them.

How does this affect the filmmakers approach to storytelling? Would scenes or characters be featured or framed differently to how they are traditionally in films?

We are all still discovering what things work in VR and what things don’t work, and I think we’ll definitely go through a period of inventing ‘rules’ that someone then breaks and we all realise its brilliant and we wonder why we ever had that rule in the first place – like talking in movies.

What I think at the moment we’re learning to do, is to imagine our stories less as films, and more as theatre plays where the audience member is on stage along with the actors. So things that we take for granted in cinema, like jump cuts and close ups, are things that don’t necessarily translate to VR. Instead of a close up to indicate an emotional moment, we have to do it another way, a more theatrical way, through intensity of performance, or changes of the lighting and music.

What are some footage requirements when producing VR content?

I work with content that is generated from 3D scans, put together in a piece of software that people use to make computer games. It’s a completely different way of working to filming something for TV or cinema, even though that’s my background.

How would a filmmaker go about creating a virtual reality film?

There are a couple of methods of creating VR content. One is the fully 3D method, like the one that we use. As a documentary studio we still capture our story from reality – but instead of using a camera we use a 3D scanner and then bring all of our scans into a game engine such as Unity and create a fully 3D space where the story takes place. Our audience member is then able to inhabit that space in the VR experience – and because the experience is made in a game engine, we can give them quite a lot of autonomy. They can, if we want, move around where they want to, perhaps interact with the environment or change things. These are things that we could never do with traditional films, so it’s quite an exciting way of working.

The other way of making VR content is using an array of cameras that point in all directions – think of a ball of GoPros. You then take all that footage and stitch it together into a sphere that the audience member stands in the centre of, once they are inside the VR experience. They take the place that the ball of cameras took during filming, and they are able to see what the cameras saw.

What are some of the necessary tools and equipment needed for creating this kind of content?

We use 3D scanners, photographic cameras and game development software. All of which is quite affordable and nowhere near the outlay required for a broadcast standard video camera, for example.

Are there any technical challenges in this new medium?

Lots! But the most interesting challenges are not the technical ones. Rather, they are about the language – like what kinds of stories can we tell in VR, and how best to tell them.

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