Digital Hollywood: Virtual Reality Tests Episodic Storytelling Formats

Defying the Nazis VR - H - 2016
Courtesy of VR Playhouse

A child disappears. A boatload of children are saved from the Nazis. Virtual reality, as it tests new models for storytelling, is venturing into some surprising subjects.

The results were on display at the Digital Hollywood conference, held this week at Los Angeles' Skirball Center, as the Television Academy's Interactive Peer Group presented six, unique virtual reality projects.

Gone, to cite one of the examples on display, is a 11-episode VR thriller from Skybound Entertainment with VR developer WEVR and Samsung that is intended to disturb the viewer as he or she experiences the panic of a couple whose child vanishes.

“The idea was to make you as uncomfortable as possible,” Skybound CEO Dave Alpert said of how the filmmakers tried to combine story with the potential of the technology. “Getting people to put on the goggles was hard,” he said of the model, adding that once they did, they lost the sense of time. “We got to increase the running time on a per-episode basis, since people who came back were willing to binge.” That upped the length of each episode from a few minutes to roughly 10 minutes.

Jen Dennis, executive producer of VR at RSA Films, shared similar observations based on interactive honoree The Martian VR Experience, produced by RSA, The VR Company and Twentieth Century Fox and its Fox Innovation Lab. She said viewers often lost track of time once they were in the experience — for instance, they would think 15 minutes had passed when it was actually 30 minutes.

Syfy’s futuristic police procedural Halycon — a “hybrid” with 10 episodes to view on Syfy linear channels and five VR episodes for the Oculus Rift — offered another approach to an episodic model.

Syfy also teamed with VFX house Digital Domain on the three-minute VR narrative Incorporated, based on executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Syfy series of the same name. Digital Domain VFX supervisor Aruna Inversin discussed the production challenges of bringing an episodic series to VR. “[Syfy] is learning just as we are,” he said. “It was a visual effects-driven shoot. It was a challenge.”

Producer Lori Kozlowski discussed Project Empathy, the VR series about the U.S. prison system, told by four affected individuals. She said the goal is “getting this is front of policy makers and having a social impact.”

On the documentary front, the session included Defying the Nazis VR, a companion to the documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War from Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky. Created by VR Playhouse for Time’s Life VR app, the filmmakers recreated a boat ride during which 27 children were rescued during World War II. “You hear the survivors' real voices recalling the experience … as you go through the VR experience with them,” said director Elijah Allan-Blitz.

Digital Hollywood concludes Friday.