The possibilities for immersive storytelling are endless. Right now, we may be seeing a lot of 360 and virtual reality experiences that do little more than let us share the point of view of a race-car driver or jet-fighter pilot. But in the future, it will be increasingly possible to be immersed in experiences with fully developed characters, story arcs, and narrative threads. We’ll be able to live directly in a Star Wars movie or be the partner to a detective in a new Michael Connelly tale.
One company already investing in those experiences is Dimension Gate, a virtual-reality production studio that specializes in live-action cinematic content. Their 360° Horror Series on YouTube features immersive storytelling that’s already been experienced by millions of viewers. We spoke with Dimension Gate founder and filmmaker Ian Tuason about how he creates compelling immersive experiences and what other aspiring VR storytellers can do to create their own.
Create Story-Driven Emotional Connections
“Although the storytelling medium continues to change and evolve, that human desire to connect through story remains the same,” says Tuason about the possibilities of immersive experiences. “Without a story, a VR experience becomes a novelty.” 360 experiences still need compelling narratives, properly placed events to drive the story forward, and great characters. Without those elements, Tuason says, audiences can’t properly invest in a story. “As long as the VR experience allows viewers to spend time with likeable characters they can relate to, facing true-to-life trials and conflict, they’ll feel an emotional connection with these characters and root for them to succeed.”
Guide the Audience’s Attention
Because 360 video gives viewers the freedom to look wherever they want, when they want, there’s the risk that they might miss an important story event. That’s why immersive storytellers need to master how to guide audiences to look where you want them to. The key is cues. “Without directional audio and visual cues, the narrative will be lost,” says Tuason. The best way to cue an audience to look somewhere: “Binaural audio recordings, or 3D audio, are most effective in VR. The audio should also rotate along with the visuals, like a video game, for the optimal VR experience.” Use these tools and viewers won’t miss what you want them to see.
Give Them Some Freedom, Too
Guiding your audience doesn’t mean you should take all their freedom away. The opportunity to look and explore where you want is a big part of what’s so appealing about virtual reality in the first place. As a storyteller, you have to balance cueing viewers with allowing them to explore. To do that, you need to build both experiences into your story, says Tuason. “Depending on the scene, like the establishing shot of a room, I may want the audience to explore the VR space on their own, and allow them time to immerse themselves in that space. Then you kick in the cues to encourage viewers to use their autonomy to engage. As the story progresses, and characters are introduced, things always have to happen, or start happening. That will naturally guide the viewer toward the action.”
Use Genre to Amplify the Experience
Dimension Gate has done a lot of work in genres like horror and action, and that’s because the stakes and emotions involved make for great heightened immersive experiences. “The feeling of presence in a dangerous place or situation is amplified when a viewer is transported inside a gruesome horror scene or a violent shootout,” Tuason says. It can even take a familiar genre to new places. “Horror in VR evokes a new kind of fear — of the dangers that may or may not lie behind you. This adds an element of paranoia in the horror experience, driving viewers to spin around in their seat, constantly looking for scares.”
Rethink How You Write
One thing that really has to evolve with 360-degree storytelling is scriptwriting. Filmmakers will need to write not just what’s on screen, but what’s “off” screen, too. The key, Tuason says, is to think in 360 degrees as you write. “Be aware that you are creating the space around your audience. Write for the screen as you normally would for a movie or TV show — but remember that the screen wraps all the way around.”
Do, Experiment, Share
For those looking to become masters of VR storytelling, Tuason stresses the need for hands-on experience. “The technology to shoot VR is so accessible these days that aspiring immersive storytellers have no excuse not to go out and do it. Create experiences and get feedback. Find out what works and what doesn’t.” And because immersive storytelling rules are still being written, he also emphasizes the need to collaborate with others exploring the possibilities of the new medium. “Be sure to share your findings,” he says. “I’m a strong believer that we’re all in this together.”