4 things every creative should consider before kicking off VR production

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Firstborn using a drone to capture a bee's eye view for Patrón.
Firstborn using a drone to capture a bee's eye view for Patrón.

VR is unlike any storytelling medium to come before it. Firstborn's SVP of content development offers tips to advertising creatives testing the virtual waters

It’s going to be a revealing year for VR. For the first time ever, the technology will be widely available for a mass consumer audience, and we’ll finally see if adoption rates match expectations. 

As an immersive content creator, you’re in a unique position to define and evolve how stories are told in VR — and to shape people’s perception of the platform. There’s a good chance those people will be experiencing VR for the first time, so it’s got to be awesome. No pressure, right? Fear not. Even though there’s a lot of lackluster VR content out there, there’s also some really great content, and a lot to learn from both.  

From one immersive content creator to another, these guidelines will help you create the best VR experience from concept to completion.

Classic film techniques won’t cut it
It sounds obvious, but in the VR space an immersed user can look in any direction, at any time. This has profound implications on the way stories get told. In traditional filmmaking, a director has the luxury of showing viewers exactly what they want them to see in frame — no more, no less. Tons of tricks and techniques have been refined over the last century to help guide the viewer’s focus and elicit an emotional response.

In VR, this is completely different. Since the immersed user can look anywhere they want, you need to draw their focus in different ways using varying forms of motivation. By understanding innate human behavior, you can sometimes anticipate the VR user’s movements. But you will need to use motion and sound to get them to look where you want and when. 

There’s nothing worse than a VR experience where users only look in one direction. A good way to avoid this is through testing. Watch people try your experience early on in production. Do they move their head and look around? Or do they only stay focused in one area? When exactly do they look around? What motivates them to explore different areas? How does this drive your story? From these observations you can go on to refine the experience and make sure you are using the medium to its fullest potential to tell your story.

Stop, find a new way to collaborate, and listen
We know that the most impactful storytelling is created through collaboration. Madison Avenue got it right when they created the first copywriter and art director duos. Digital shops then expanded upon that to include strategists, designers and technologists.

We now have to pivot again and embrace a new model of collaboration between creatives, technologists and a multi-disciplinary content production team. This makes for an interesting dynamic, because your talent will likely come from different industry backgrounds — whether gaming, film or digital — and will need to quickly find a common language to co-create. At Firstborn, these teams sit side by side for the entire life cycle of any VR production to ensure fluid communication.

In this context, the role of the technologist and the production team go far beyond execution. Their unique perspectives should be tapped early on in the concept phase to strengthen and shape the story by leveraging new capabilities and pushing the boundaries of the technology. Remember, you’re creating an entirely new kind of immersive experience, so the traditional, compartmentalized content workflow will not suffice. 

Embrace the new
VR technology is changing at a rapid pace. It’s one of the reasons why it’s such an exciting medium. In fact, chances are, by the time you complete your VR experience, new technology and workflows will be available that weren’t there at the onset. For example, when we created our first VR experience two years ago, we not only had to design and 3D-print a camera rig to accommodate the production, we also had to write our own code to enable binaural audio. In addition, we hacked together our own software to render out the images in stereoscopic 360 and taped together an on-set, three-monitor system to review a wider field of view during filming.

By the time we finished the experience, new camera rigs and monitors were already being announced, as were solves for integrating more complex audio and rendering. You need to keep your eye on emerging VR technology and be prepared to embrace it the moment it becomes available. The good news is that you don’t have to be a specialist in all trades and can pick the right partners to keep you on track. Changing your approach mid-way through production is never ideal, but it could be exactly what you need to enhance the experience. If you wait for the technology to be perfect, you’ll be late to the game. 

Your marketing objectives should drive your platform choice
The platform you choose should depend on your final goal for the project. For instance, if you want your experience to be educational, you may want to create a passive, on-rails experience captured through live action and visual effects, as you then have all the benefits of film and pre-rendered graphics to help you achieve something that looks as realistic as possible. On the other hand, if you are aiming to deliver entertainment, you might want to look into creating an interactive experience through a gaming engine like Unity or Unreal. This approach lets you create a more open and explore-able world with fully interactive triggers. 

Distribution is also an important consideration. The downside to creating within a gaming engine is that you are more limited in hardware delivery options, since fully interactive experiences are heavier and cannot yet run on a mobile device. While sharing your experience on a headset like Google Cardboard, which is inexpensive and has been shipped to over 5 million people to date, can potentially give your content a larger reach, it also offers less comfort and visual quality. Building a custom player or app so your content can be displayed on any device or platform is a great option to ensure your experiences achieve your desired results.

When creating your VR experience, keep in mind what you’re asking of your audience. You’re basically saying, "Hey you, busy consumer. Please put down your phone, turn off your TV, close your eyes and ears to everything that’s going on around you and give me two minutes of your absolute, undivided attention." That’s a big ask, and there’s no other content medium out there that demands this level of pure attention from a consumer.

A great VR experience can be life-changing, and anything short of that could leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. Or worse, a negative impression of your brand. Gone are the days of brands getting credit for being innovative just because they make a VR experience. It has to make an impact. Stick to these guidelines, be open to new ways of working and realize this is like no medium you’ve ever worked in, and your experience will be remembered for the right reasons.

Alex Krawitz is SVP of content development at Firstborn.

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