Re-visiting the Future of Content

A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to be one of the winners of a ‘Future of Content’ R&D competition, with a 360 film idea that we called ‘Echo Chamber’. The brief was to investigate how immersive media could be used to imaginatively engage audiences. The commissioning team were particularly interested in the notion of immersion acting as a ‘shortcut to empathy’; with the notion that harder to reach (younger) audiences might be tempted to engage with harder to tackle topics by being submerged in the story.

Our project ‘Echo Chamber’ was a short drama that focused on two people’s experience of dementia. Chromatrope produced the film, and we worked with the fantastic writer/director Glen Travis, a great production team and some wonderful actors, to put together the film. We created in-motion storyboards; unique sound designs; filmed on location for four days; edited in Soho for three weeks; and pushed out something that addressed some of the (uniquely) fundamental issues relating to creating drama in 360.

The commission enabled us (and we hope the client) to learn a great deal about 360 video production, and the technical and editorial challenges and opportunities that the medium brings with it. As a team we took our responsibilities to the enquiry and innovation aspects of the project pretty seriously. We thought and wrote a lot at the time about what we were discovering, and passed on these insights to our BBC clients who were funding us to do the work. We subsequently presented our findings to the BBC, National Film and Television School and the Pervasive Media Studio.

 With a bit of water under the bridge, and with the benefit of hindsight, I thought it would be interesting to revisit and reflect on some of what we discovered and wrote about at the time. We’d love to know what you think too, so please get in touch if you’d like to have a conversation.

 The Immersion Equals Empathy Conundrum

During the production I wrote a piece titled ‘Oiling the Empathy Machine’ that pondered the seemingly unavoidable chestnut that ‘immersion equals empathy’. Filmmaker Chris Milk in a TED talk famously described VR as an empathy machine and this notion became a pithy, high concept way for filmmakers and producers to sell their wares to increasingly sweaty advertisers and broadcasters. ‘Immersion = empathy’ was repeated all over the place by journalists and commentators. A more empathetic world seemed to be a great idea! VR’s purpose seemed to have been found and all we had to do was wear goggles to make the world a better place. Having shown our film to people, we did see that the experience was generating empathy, but we were sceptical about how much of a short cut the immersion could truly provide.

At the time we concluded that, as Simone Weil stated, ‘the most important modern philosophical problem is attention’. It seemed then that it was attention within media experiences alongside the compelling qualities of the media itself, that held the key to generating empathy. My view now is that the experiential journey that viewers can be taken on by (the best) immersive experiences combined with the unwavering attention they are more likely to be giving the media – can – combine into something powerfully empathic. Recent research suggests that some VR viewers are more likely (than linear media viewers) to take “political or social action” after viewing - so that’s good news.

There’s a famous and almost certainly apocryphal story of how cinema audiences in 1895 fled in terror from the Lumière brothers 50″ film of a train (silently) thundering towards them. Whether or not the story is true, it demonstrates our belief and hope in the visceral power of media to create impact, make us feel and care and in turn act. Immersion still has a place in the toolkit of ever filmmaker and experience creator to generate experience and attention and illicit engagement and perhaps empathy, but I still stand by my assertion that to claim immersion as shortcut to empathy is almost certainly bogus.

Production Nitty Gritty

A couple of years ago, when we first embarked on the live action 360 drama journey, some we spoke to suggested that we were crazy to consider it. It seems that filming drama in 360 is known to be notoriously difficult, with the formal constraints of having to use cameras that can only really capture the action in mid-shot, and the renegade behaviour of viewers who might just look the ‘wrong way’. In approaching the production we also wanted to explore what it would be like to create a live action drama on a tight budget, delivered to Google cardboard, therefore maximizing access to the film. We were stacking up a range of challenges to overcome, or at least in a research and development context to tackle and learn from.

I wrote at the that time, that we had faith in ‘innovation happening at the edges where creative opportunity meets constraint’. This was true, but also led to some sleepless nights as the actual constraints of what we could do within budget became apparent. We’d originally hoped to use binaural sound to push and pull audience attention, but our chosen platform meant a stereo mix at best, so we were also limited to some extent with what we could do with sound.

Directing the actors brought another series of challenges with a camera rig shooting in 360 degrees, and the physical space of the set having to be cleared of any crew. The director who would ordinarily be present on the other side of the cameras also had to be absent. This led to a very different way of working across the production, and was characterised by a calmness and trust between crew and actors which was separately commented upon by many of those involved. This relationship was very much down to the professionalism of the actors and the director, and relied on very clear communication and a preparedness to try and re-try different approaches.

With no live view of what we were shooting we had to work against the script and the constraints of the technology on set to ensure that we were getting what we needed for the edit, as well as shots which wouldn’t be so distorted that we would need weeks of post-production to fix them. We found that the handy little Ricoh Theta S camera could be placed into the scene to provide a live view via an app of the shots that we were likely to get. The Theta also proved useful as we tried out various camera rigs and set ups for the in-car shots – yes, we have shot 360 inside a car, which was also according to current thinking a bit bonkers.

360 tech doesn’t seem to have moved on massively since we shot our film. The prices have come down on some of the semi-pro cameras, but the biggest players seem to be backing away from 360 and VR with Google shutting up shop with Jump and its VR studios to instead focus on AR, although Facebook are still betting (a little bit) on the persuasive powers of VR to bend our minds to their fiendish purposes.

Liminality and All That Jazz

We spent a lot of time thinking about liminality and how to make the most of the transitions between shots or scenes. Liminality is the state of ‘in-betweenness’ where one is underway within a ritual or experience, but not yet complete – literally ‘on the threshold’. In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather than watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’. This means that the rarely considered fade has to become something a bit more ‘immersive’ and can become a useful narrative and experiential device. We looked hard into the formal craft implications of 360 and pondered deeply what we could do.

We began to imagine how transitions could become important liminal spaces within the film. During the production we spent a lovely afternoon with our friends at Aardman Animations, considering some approaches including ones that they borrowed from the visual iconography of video games – the eye blink – and which they used to powerful effect in their film ‘We Wait’.

In the end we had far more to worry about that what was happening between the shots but I do wish we’d have a bit more time and space (and money) to really think about the ‘ritual’ aspects of immersive media. I have got a few ideas that I’m interested in exploring in this area, which also blend with ideas about how spaces for reflection and healing can be generated for viewers, so if anyone wants to give me a bag of money, I have some dynamite thoughts on how to spend it for (with) you :)

 The ’Theatre’ of VR

In tackling the production with imagination and panache (is anyone reading this) we referenced theatre production almost more than film and TV in putting the project together. I had taken my daughter to see the really amazing Sleeping Beauty production at Sadlers Wells. In the production the baby and toddler Aurora is brought to life by three black clad puppeteers. The willing suspension of disbelief in the audience was total and we sat there really wanting to believe in what we were seeing. This effect was enhanced when with a classic bit of misdirection the puppet Aurora changed in front of our eyes (we were looking the other way) into the real dancer. These totally compelling tricks and techniques drove the story along, charmed the audience and drew real gasps and chuckles.

We pondered the impact of some of these techniques on our own production. What would it be like is Erin’s neurological decline was represented by figures (invisible to her) hiding objects and adjusting her environment as she tries to navigate a changing reality? We thought about incorporating highly stylised performance styles; an almost kabuki like series of actions to represent repetition, habit, practice and then the corresponding disruption and loss of those elements in someone with dementia.

In the end we discovered that producing 360/VR films was a predictably very different experience to creating traditional linear films or TV. The cameras we used to shoot the drama formally restricted the types of shot that it was possible for us to get. The drama focussed on essentially two characters, so the subtle interplay between our actors and the ways that they respond to one another and their environment was particularly important. But shooting in 360 meant no close ups, and no longs shots because the closer you are the more the image distorts and the further way you are the less you’re going to see. Mid shots work best, but resulted in an arguably rather uniform visual texture.

I would like to play with blended real world and immersive experiences that allow for the viewer to be theatrically engaged with and directed into an immersive narrative. It could be fascinating to mediate and guide the viewers experience, and give them direction (and permission) to invest themselves fully.

 Designing Magnets – Pushing and Pulling Attention Inside Immersive Experiences

During the production I became mildly obsessed with the notion of how to direct viewer attention and spent a lot of time on the concept of ‘designing magnets’. Ten years ago I was lucky enough to see Elan Lee speak at the ETech conference on the topic of ‘Designing Magnets: Connecting with Audiences in the Wired Age’. Elan focused on the techniques he was experimenting with and applying to attracting and repelling audience attention in the ARG world. Essentially Elan’s talk described ways to draw people towards and away from the story elements, real world activities and experiences that you’re designing for them. Elan’s talk was really exciting, stayed with me and we ended up working together on a development project which I commissioned.

360 and VR had the same level of hype and opportunity attached to it as ARG’s did back then. What makes them similar is the offer of both the strength and depth of engagement with audiences/viewers. In 360/VR the viewer is able to look around and experience the virtual world in a similar way to the way they experience their own real world. This agency is creatively a great opportunity in so many ways as viewers are likely to be more immersed in the story and combined with sound design they experience an intense visual and audio sensation, with a correspondingly intense emotional and engagement response.

Looking back at what I wrote then, I think I was a bit naïve to believe that, ‘the trick is in not thinking of viewer attention as the ‘right way or wrong way but in designing magnets to push and pull people towards and away from amazing and memorable experiences ’. Hmmm – all well and good when it’s an R&D commission that relatively few will see. Somewhat different when your brand is dropping hundreds of thousands on something and they want some guaranteed eyeballs on it.

So those are the thoughts revisited. I love the idea of immersion and hat it can achieve in storytelling, particularly where the stories, for some audiences are a ‘harder tell’. I’m writing up some new ideas and treatments, and am still looking for the right time and place to tell some of them - and always happy to share what we learned on our journey.

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