(PARK CITY, Utah) — Sundance Film Festival 2017 was all about virtual reality. It was everywhere, so if you think VR is still a thing of the future – think again. VR is here, and it needs screenwriters.
In a condo just off Main Street in Park City, I was lucky enough to participate in the VR experience Astroids!, a 360-degree animation. Astroids! is the sequel to Baobab Studios’ first VR project, Invasion!, that won tons of awards including Tribeca Film Festival’s 2016 “VR Selection of the Year” and featured the voice of Ethan Hawke.
Asteroids! is about a pair of cute aliens, Mac and Cheez (Elizabeth Banks), a Laurel and Hardy type duo, and their robot-dog sidekick, Peas. Because the story is interactive, I would take on the role of a helper robot that would be tasked to save one of the characters when asteroids hit the spaceship. It sounded like a lot of responsibility for someone who’s used to sitting in a theater seat and simply watching a movie while shoving popcorn in my face, but I was eager to give it a go.
In addition to donning VR goggles and headphones, I was given two Wii-like controllers to hold in each hand to help me interact with the other characters. The experience lasted a mere eight minutes, but seemed much longer, partly because I felt so immersed in this new world of an animated spaceship. Overall, it made me laugh numerous times and I can honestly say it was a blast.
Written and directed by Eric Darnell, the co-writer and co-director of Ants, and all the Madagascar movies, Asteroids! doesn’t just engage the participant physically (playing fetch with Cheez), but it engages the participant emotionally as well. There are actual stakes in the story – the survival of one of the characters – that depends on how the participant interacts. That’s where the screenwriting skills really kick in. Both Darnell and Baobab Studios CEO, Maureen Fan, say following a three-act structure is imperative.
“If you deviate from the three-act structure, your brain doesn’t release the chemicals the way it would otherwise. It’s literally in our DNA, so you release cortisol and oxytocin to help you bond with other people at certain points, and you have to follow that three-act structure to make it work,” says Fan.
“This is a time-based art form. It’s based on structure, pacing and rhythm and building to that emotional epiphany, just like every great script does,” adds Darnell.
According to Darnell, the main mission of Baobab Studios is to turn empathy into compassion and action. “We never want to have so many VR bells and whistles or gimmicks getting in the way of telling a story.”
As experienced of a screenwriter Darnell is, he admits there was a learning curve for writing VR. “We had to find a way to include the viewer in the process.”
A VR script is written in the second person. Directions would read, “You are walking onto a spaceship. You see Peas run up to you.”
Though it sounds like a simple shift, remember that a VR experience is 360-degrees and it’s up to the viewer to decide where to focus their attention. That can be a problem if the story depends on the viewer engaging with a particular character. Rather than say, “Now you’ll look at this,” they way they do in movies by cutting to close-up, Darnell wants to inspire the viewer to make the choice to look at the thing he wants the viewer to look at. He actually studied how magicians use misdirection to gather techniques to guide the viewer.
“You can’t really describe VR, you have to actually put that headset on. A certain percentage of it goes deep into our brain, I call it the reptile brain. When I stand on the edge of a building or cliff in VR, to this day, I’ve not been able to take a step, even though I know I’m standing in my office. My reptile brain says, ‘I’ve kept you alive this long, you’re not going to do that!’”
It’s not going to be the same experience of sitting with a large group of people in a movie theater, but there still could be some value – we just have to explore that.
With IMAX announcing that they will create half a dozen VR centers later this year, Darnell recommends screenwriters start exploring the world of VR now.
“For the price of a night out on the town, you can get a headset that will work with your phone so you can see what people are doing. Watch as much VR as you can so you can learn what types of stories work and what types don’t.”
Success in this genre comes down to the same things movies thrive on – engaging characters and a good story.
“We need storytellers. If you’re already a great screenwriter, you can figure out the tools to write for VR, but you have to have a foundation in story,” says Fan.
“Some people think you should only tell stories that can only be done in VR. But I think Shakespeare was pretty great. I’d love to see a Shakespeare VR,” says Darnell.
Hamlet’s father’s ghost in 360-degrees? Or the witches’ cauldron from Macbeth? It’ll happen, just wait.
Are you interested in writing VR, if so let us know. We’re just as curious as you are!
18 Replies to "Virtual Reality Is Here to Stay and It Needs Screenwriters"
jason chuyko February 4, 2017 (4:26 pm)
I own a Mobile App Development Company and started offering VR Apps to my celebrity clients. I bought a few devises and learned how to shoot and edit.
Being a screenwriter, I decided to ask one of my celebrity clients if they would be interested in starring in the first full featured Virtual Reality horror flick. They agreed and we are getting the Indiegogo campaign together now.
Also, since many people don’t know about VR and don’t want to spend the money, pre-purchase of the movie includes a VR headsets!
I would love the opportunity to screenwrite VR. The main thing the screenwriter and director have to remember is that the camera doesn’t follow the action around- everything is visible 360 so it has to be written from a directors view as well.
If interested in setting up a time to chat about me writing an amazing VR script or partnering with my current project, please reach out.
Diego F. Rojas February 4, 2017 (5:46 pm)
Amazing! I will be working here in Colombia with a small production company that wants to start doing these type of projects and although I have ample experience writing screenplays, small novels etc… I would love to be able to discuss how to handle these new writing territory.
Look forward to hearing from you,
Diego F. Rojas
Todd Lytle February 4, 2017 (9:26 pm)
We should connect.
Sandy Bass February 4, 2017 (4:58 pm)
I received my Masters of Fine Arts in screenwriting from Full Sail University -Florida in 2014 and have been hard at work writing ever since. I have written quite a few Screenplays and even before I received my Masters, I used the 2 other college degrees I have (BA in Advertising and a BA in screenwriting) to work with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould on the scripts for AMC’s Breaking Bad. (Just a note of interest. . .my house is the house next door to “Walter White’s” house!)
I would love to write for VR!!
Steve February 4, 2017 (6:05 pm)
Would love to see some legit scripts and find out where some legit producers are to start querying them before the stupidly disgusting flood of crappy queries pour in there.
D.K. Billins February 4, 2017 (7:37 pm)
I’m a recent college graduate (media/production/journalism) and writer who also happens to own an HTC Vive, so I get EXCITED hearing about things like this. As a new screenwriter who wants to combine my writing with technology, it’s a bit difficult to figure out how to break into an industry that, at least in part, doesn’t know it exists yet. I feel the same about esports, which is (technically) booming, but at the same time boiling over itself as it struggles to find revenue.
If I had decided to leave writing for business, VR theaters have certainly been on my mind for quite some time, so I laughed a little reading this.
Also, I live in Atlanta, GA, so if any local screenwriters see this, I would love to take you out for coffee and learn more about you and your work. Non-Georgians…I would love to hear from you too.
Sarah Demeestere February 4, 2017 (8:23 pm)
Thank you for this article. Yes, I too am very interested in writing for VR. My background is in improv acting, filmmaking, writing and mysticism. With VR, I get to put all of these crafts together. What I’d like to contribute to VR are story-experiences that help us expand in consciousness. I’m currently co-producing my first VR film project for the Venice Biennale. Looking forward to meeting and reading more of us.
carline francois February 4, 2017 (8:50 pm)
Interesting article. As a screenwriter this is a new genre worth knowing more about and exploring. Thank you for writing this article!
Tim February 4, 2017 (9:24 pm)
Interesting to know. Would there be a way to take a pre-existing script and revert it to VR?
Sarah Demeestere February 16, 2017 (5:37 pm)
Great question, Tim! I found some answers on this episode of Pilar’s podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/fr/podcast/489-writing-for-virtual-reality/id262077408?i=1000380201703&l=en&mt=2
Kenneth Clarke February 5, 2017 (12:52 am)
Hi from England. I would be interested to receive information on how to convert a script to VR
Missy February 5, 2017 (4:53 am)
I’d love to write a VR script. My son expressed interest in VR films about a year ago, and at first the concept was tough to grasp, but the article helps to clarify the aspects of VR films that initially seemed daunting. Thank you for sharing this.
Chris Willis February 5, 2017 (4:54 am)
I’ve been working on a pilot for a 360 degree series called American Riot. Writing in 360 degrees demands action and/or audio that draws the viewer (who is in the center of it all) from one point of view to another. If you think about a riot, from NYC draft riots in the 1860s, to the Kent State massacre in 1970, to Ferguson Missouri two summers ago, there is something going on wherever the viewer might look. There are a lot of directions to figure out, for example in live action 360 you can’t really make jump cuts. I figured out how to change camera positions, just not sure if the technology is up to it.
As a screenwriter I thrive on informed feedback, but I’m not sure how to find someone to critique a 360 script. Any ideas, let me know.
Sarah Demeestere February 16, 2017 (5:34 pm)
You may find a few elements to your inquiry on this episode of OnThePage podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/fr/podcast/489-writing-for-virtual-reality/id262077408?i=1000380201703&l=en&mt=2
It helped me a bit. Cheers!
Paul February 5, 2017 (2:19 pm)
I am wondering how is this that much different form any number of video games, except with the addition of VR goggles ?
I would think that the gaming industry will be heads up on this ahead of incoming screenwriters. Also this sidenote this brings to mind the very brief run of virtual reality thriller in the late nineties, The Matrix, The 13th Floor, Dark City, and Existenz, which actually might be the whole lot of them.
Tim Eaton February 5, 2017 (7:17 pm)
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-tesla-merciless-law-nature-rapidly-irresistibly-we-tim-eaton > If history, via “Tesla’s Tales”, can’t be used to help save the future then history isn’t worth a “bucket of warm spit.” imho – paraphrasing former VP, John Nance Garner
https://lnkd.in/gGNx7f9 > a “multi-platform TESLA-INSPIRED IP Constellation via: http://tinyurl.com/gs6d9ql
Elena Lyubarskaya February 9, 2017 (2:37 am)
Hi, I am a writer from Berlin and I am developing a TV-series that has a VR-experience at it’s heart . It is not about VR, but VR there is the best way to convey what my characters are experiencing. I’d love to read VR scripts and get in touch with producers who work in the field.
Keith Crosby April 12, 2017 (9:40 am)
Yes I would like to write VR. I haven’t started yet, but I will research and decide.