Vr: Chang­ing the story

3D World - - CONTENTS -

We hear from Jan Pinkava, Google ATAP di­rec­tor, about the in­no­va­tive Google Spot­light Sto­ries and how they of­fer a new, unique way of telling an en­gag­ing nar­ra­tive

Trevor Hogg speaks to Jan Pinkava about how Google Spot­light Sto­ries em­braces a new, in­no­va­tive way of craft­ing a nar­ra­tive

hen us­ing vir­tual re­al­ity as a tool for craft­ing en­ter­tain­ment ex­pe­ri­ences, the tried and tested process of sto­ry­telling is dis­rupted some­what by the fact that the au­di­ence is now firmly in con­trol of what they see and what di­rec­tion they take. It’s changed the game, and that’s some­thing that has to be at the fore­front of any VR cre­ator’s mind.

Col­lab­o­rat­ing with var­i­ous film­mak­ers to pro­duce di­verse con­tent that pushes the bound­aries of sto­ry­telling and tech­nol­ogy within the realm of vir­tual re­al­ity is the pri­mary ob­jec­tive of Os­car­win­ner and Google ATAP di­rec­tor Jan Pinkava, who cre­ated the first of the Google Spot­light Sto­ries four and a half years ago with

Windy Day. “VR is this im­mer­sive and po­ten­tially in­ter­ac­tive space that is push­ing at the edges of the cat­e­gories of what con­sti­tutes a story. Our fo­cus has been on try­ing to help sto­ry­tellers tell se­quen­tial sto­ries in this for­mat that have a be­gin­ning, mid­dle and an end. This ques­tion of what kind of story works and fits in VR is fas­ci­nat­ing. We’ve been learn­ing that through

the busi­ness of mak­ing shows. Now your au­di­ence is in­side the story world and what that means is that they sud­denly own the cam­era. If you’re in­ter­ested in telling a struc­tured nar­ra­tive you have to work harder to make sure that the au­di­ence gets the story you’re try­ing to tell in the right se­quence in or­der for it to make sense.”

Tech­nol­ogy can as­sist with the au­di­ence dis­trac­tion fac­tor so that im­por­tant story points are not missed. “You can have a ‘look at trig­ger’ at a point where the ac­tion pauses un­til you’re ac­tu­ally look­ing in that di­rec­tion, and car­ries on so that we can guar­an­tee you have wit­nessed that im­por­tant story event,” ex­plains Pinkava. “Then you can hope to struc­ture more sto­ries that make sense to the au­di­ence [whether] they are pay­ing at­ten­tion or dis­tracted… You try to cope with ev­ery­body’s dif­fer­ent ways of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the space that they’re in. But of course, the same old rules ap­ply. If you have a com­pelling idea that is well-pre­sented your au­di­ence is go­ing to pay at­ten­tion. It’s like if you’re a street ma­gi­cian or do­ing street theatre you’re gath­er­ing the at­ten­tion of the au­di­ence and then pre­sent­ing some­thing that they want to watch. That’s a chal­lenge for any kind of film­maker, and also in VR.”

Sto­ry­telling in VR is more like a stage play than film­mak­ing. “It turns out that peo­ple from live theatre take quickly to VR be­cause

“VR Of­fers A Sense Of Pres­ence, the idea that YOU’RE TRANS­PORTED to SOME­WHERE else” Jan Pinkava, Google ATAP di­rec­tor

they un­der­stand the busi­ness of pre­sent­ing a show in a space to an au­di­ence,” notes Pinkava. “One thing that VR seems to of­fer is this sense of pres­ence, the idea that you’re trans­ported to some­where else and it’s tempt­ing to say, ‘What if you are part of a story? What if you are not just an ob­server but an ac­tor in this story?’ That also comes from gam­ing, from hav­ing a sense of au­ton­omy in a scene and ac­tively do­ing some­thing. If you are given a first-per­son per­spec­tive of be­ing there then the ex­pe­ri­ence has to be de­liv­ered in such a way that it feels au­then­tic. You can do ev­ery­thing that the ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests that you can do. You ex­pect to be able to touch things, pick things up and look around; that means a whole other level of in­ter­ac­tiv­ity. It is then a ques­tion of, ‘Is that part of the story or a game? When do those things cross­over?’ Be­cause it is a new kind of thing it chal­lenges all of these cat­e­gories. Peo­ple start hav­ing to push on the edge of that. When is a game a story and when is story a game? It makes it an in­ter­est­ing ex­plo­ration.”

Google Spot­light Sto­ries tend to be told from the third-per­son per­spec­tive. “What you get is a dif­fer­ent sense of when you are in a VR sit­u­a­tion, even a stylised one,” ob­serves Pinkava. “For our show Pearl, we put you in the pas­sen­ger’s seat of this car and take you on a jour­ney with the fa­ther and daugh­ter for 20 years of their life. In the mo­bile ver­sion of that story we have you very much as a third-per­son cam­era in a space and you’re hov­er­ing above this stick shift in this old 1980s sedan. But when you’re in vir­tual re­al­ity and 360 de­grees of free­dom and you’re able to look around and move around a lit­tle bit, we found that was too con­strain­ing. Your sense of pres­ence meant much more and it felt un­com­fort­able to be hov­er­ing above the gearshift. We had to

put you in a seat of the car so that you could feel that your be­ing there had a rea­son, a ra­tio­nal.”

Vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences can vary when it comes to run­times. “If you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a show en­tirely with a VR head­set on then you can be in that space and look around, and de­pend­ing on the qual­ity of the show and how com­pelling it is maybe 20 min­utes is great,” re­marks Pinkava. “If you’re hold­ing up a mo­bile phone board to your face or just look­ing through the win­dow of the phone, you can’t hold some­thing to your face that long so it makes sense to think of a shorter for­mat. We’re deal­ing with a new film-like for­mat; the early days of cinema short films were the dom­i­nant form back in the day, and this is true again now. As peo­ple are ex­plor­ing how to present sto­ries in this form it makes sense to keep things short, sweet and easy to get from be­gin­ning to end with­out a huge in­vest­ment of time. It fits bet­ter with our busy mo­bile life­style these days. Ev­ery­one is dis­tracted. Ev­ery­one’s time is cut into shorter and shorter chunks. We want to present shows that are bite-size and can be ex­pe­ri­enced al­most on the fly wher­ever you have time to be. A story that is two to five min­utes long makes sense in so many dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. It’s a good idea to try to go in that di­rec­tion.”

Sound has a ma­jor role to play in telling vir­tual re­al­ity sto­ries. “We say in film­mak­ing that sound is half the show but it’s more than half in VR,” re­marks Pinkava. “From the per­spec­tive of putting you in a scene emo­tion­ally and guid­ing your at­ten­tion, sound is in­dis­pens­able. Am­bisonic bin­au­ral ren­der­ing pro­vides a true sur­round-sound en­vi­ron­ment.” Sounds are heard in cor­re­la­tion to where the au­dio source is rel­a­tive to the viewer. “The sonic land­scape that you’re in is richly re­al­is­tic and nat­u­ral. We can use it not only to in­form you as to where to look and what’s go­ing on, but also put you in the scene with all of the other tra­di­tional ways of mu­sic. You have a whole lay­ered set of pos­si­bil­i­ties with sound that come into their own in sur­round sound with VR. The next chal­lenge for full-on VR where you are able not just to look around but also move around the scene is to cre­ate sound de­signs that re­tain that au­then­tic sense of space.

“Ev­ery show we have pub­lished has been new in some way,” states Pinkava. “We can’t rest on our lau­rels and ex­pe­ri­ence and don’t want to say, ‘We’ve done one of these be­fore.’ The idea is to do some­thing we don’t know how to do each time. That means it is cor­re­spond­ingly dif­fi­cult and [there are] all kinds of prob­lems we hadn’t an­tic­i­pated, which is a point to push the tech­nol­ogy for­ward. What we are do­ing is de­vel­op­ing the tools and tech­niques and ideas of how to tell sto­ries in VR. Each show that we choose is slightly dif­fer­ent and has some new de­mand, ei­ther in the way it looks or sounds, the way the story is struc­tured or how in­ter­ac­tive it is. We’re con­stantly ex­pand­ing the ter­ri­tory bit by bit of what kind of sto­ries our

“SON Of JAGUAR WAS De­signed AS A ROOMSCALE VR ex­pe­ri­ence” rachid el Guerrab, tech­ni­cal project lead, GSS

tech­nol­ogy and VR sto­ry­telling as a con­cep­tual form can sup­port.”

Along with work­ing with Aard­man An­i­ma­tion (Spe­cial

De­liv­ery), Mark Oftedal (Buggy Night), Shan­non Tin­dle (On Ice), Pa­trick Os­borne (Pearl), Justin Lin (Help) and Felix Massie (Rain

or Shine), Google Spot­light Sto­ries has an up­com­ing new ti­tle called

Son of Jaguar by Jorge Gu­tier­rez who pre­vi­ously di­rected The Book

of Life. “Jorge has a very Mex­i­can story set in the world of lucha li­bre Mex­i­can wrestling,” states Pinkava. “We also have some more in­ter­nal ex­per­i­ments which in­cludes a beau­ti­ful show called Sonaria which is de­signed by Scot Stafford, our creative di­rec­tor of sound, and Kevin Dart’s Chro­mo­sphere in Los An­ge­les. It’s a fan­tasy jour­ney of var­i­ous crea­tures in a stylised world that al­most looks like stained glass. You’re go­ing from scene to scene with a sound de­sign that is tak­ing full ad­van­tage of the space around you in terms of the mu­sic, the sound ef­fects and the sense of at­mos­phere. It’s a rich ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­plo­ration of how much we can do with vir­tual re­al­ity sound. There’s another one which I am work­ing on with my old friend Mark Oftedal from Pixar days, which is an ex­plo­ration of how far we can go with in­ter­ac­tiv­ity be­fore some­thing turns from be­ing a story into a game.”

Each new show is a big chal­lenge. “Some­how if you do some­thing for a long pe­riod of time you feel like you get bet­ter and bet­ter at it,” ob­serves Pinkava. “Be­cause we keep push­ing on the edges of what we can do it doesn’t feel that way in this process. The thing to take away from all of this is that as this im­pres­sive and amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy is used and de­vel­ops it’s im­por­tant for us all to hold on to what telling a story re­ally is. What­ever the tech­nol­ogy or medium, we as au­di­ences still want story. We want peo­ple who put their time, en­ergy and tal­ent into a show to present us with some­thing de­light­ful and en­gag­ing that usu­ally has a be­gin­ning, mid­dle, end and a point to it. I don’t think story is go­ing away any time soon. It’s a fixed point in hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.” Sto­ries need to be driv­ing the tech­nol­ogy, not the other way around. “No amount of amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy is go­ing to save a bad story or undo a poorly struc­tured story. The story it­self is the core of ev­ery­thing and if you hold onto that you’ll be go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.” •

The Sonaria project was co-di­rected by Scot Stafford and an­i­ma­tion stu­dio Chro­mo­sphere.

Google Spot­light Sto­ries cover a range of me­dia, from the Cardboard to mo­bile de­vices

The de­liv­ery of a spe­cial set of sun­glasses re­sults in Ella damp­en­ing ev­ery­one’s spir­its when­ever she puts them on in Rain or Shine di­rected by Felix Massie.

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