Stage I: Concept
Mission To India VR is an interactive experience based on the true story “Mission To India” by George Lombardi, M.D. An immersive virtual reality adaptation of Dr. Lombardi’s story written & directed by Angeline Gragasin & David Negrin, the project is in partnership with The Moth and co-produced by Kokowa Inc.
STAGE I: Concept
My team and I knew we wanted to tell a story in virtual reality. But the VR experiences, VR games, and VR documentaries we’d seen so far were successful sensory experiences but mostly unsuccessful dramatic experiences. They weren’t great stories. They didn’t move us. We wanted to tell a great story in VR, not create a VR experience with a story.
One of my team’s earliest influences was “Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness”, A VR experience based on a true story using first person audio narration with an VR interpretation of the audio story. The story alone moved me, but the VR experience enhanced it. (e.g. The symphony of sound and visualization, the father’s children playing, the wind on the lake, the choir in the church.)
For me this was a eureka moment. The first person, audio narration, based on a true story helped overcome the abstraction of impressionistic, animated-VR but was bolstered and enhanced by the immersion and interactivity of virtual reality. The dramatic impact this produced was even greater than the audio story itself and substantially different from the live action documentary. It was a new experience, a different version of the story. It was a VR Film.
Animated VR or 360 Video?
From the beginning my team wanted to build an animated VR experience. We feel animated VR is where the magic is. 360 Video has a lot of potential for journalism and straight documentary, but for our dramatic purposes it had storytelling limitations. The dramatic moments in 360 VR seem to rely on transporting you to a new place and exploiting the drama of a few photographed moments. We wanted to create drama through an overarching story where we had much more control of the narrative.
Photorealistic or Impressionistic?
The challenge with animated VR is that photorealistic animation is too development intensive, expensive, and often has “uncanny valley” problems. Our team has sought out tools to make prototyping more efficient and find places for photorealism in our story. But we decided impressionistic, animated VR would be our main approach.
Write an original story or adapt a story?
My team and I are experienced writers and filmmakers and so we all had ideas for original short fiction/screenplays that we could adapt to a VR Film. But the more we went over them and started imagining their treatment in VR, the more they felt like dramatic video games or interactive, animated short films. Stories we’d have to write extremely well and translate to VR with lots of detail to succeed at. In short, original short stories seemed budget and execution dependent. So then we considered adapting true stories.
Where do we find influences and case studies?
Since there weren’t too many successful VR Films to guide us, we looked to other new media. I was inspired a lot by the renaissance in podcast storytelling including S-Town, with it’s deep character development, tight narrative, and beautiful imagery (that maze, those tattoos). I was also influenced by Sleep No More, the acclaimed immersive theater show I’ve seen several times in New York City. It manages to be totally open and immersive but include dramatically effective scripted story. (The sad lounge singer’s plight, the young servants having a secret interlude, the room of candy, and of course the great banquet.) Podcast storytelling and immersive theater storytelling provided a lot of answers in our search for the right balance of the myriad storytelling elements we wanted to use in our VR Film.
Do we tell a story with choices?
In addition to immersion, VR provides the opportunity to leverage interactivity for dramatic effect. The implicit immersion of VR simulation only adds to the drama (Once you get past technical issues like headset fatigue, motion sickness). But interactivity, at the story level, can create dramatic challenges. As every game designer knows, the more story choices, the more narrative branches, the more ‘choose your own adventures’ you have to build. On the other hand, a fully linear, non-interactive story would miss the opportunity to use the tools of VR to immerse our audience fully and tell deeper, more personalized versions of our story.
A bigger challenge we found with creating story choices is that great dramatic storytelling really requires timing. Dramatic storytelling requires a careful manipulation of the tempo of the story, of your audience’s attention, and even their eye line. The succinct set up of information with a timely payoff; a well architected posing of questions and clever ways of answering them in the right amount of time. In a VR Film, the non-linearity of story and openness of the world, threaten to defuse the emotional power of a narrative and its structure as a whole.
So we looked at our influences and other successful VR experiences to see how they dealt with the balance of story and interactivity. In the end, we determined that for emotionally relevant, cathartic storytelling, it is the immersion of VR that is most important. That some simple, manual, interactivity would foster immersion but narrative choices would dampen it. For this project, we decided on a combination of well guided interactive moments in the scenes that obey a single, overarching, linear narrative.
How do you adapt a true story to VR?
Using the paradigm from Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, we started looking for true, audio stories to adapt. And as soon as I thought about adapting true stories, I immediately thought of The Moth. I’ve been to Moth story slams in NYC and I’ve known them to be a magnanimous organization dedicated to the craft of story. Great storytelling, short stories (8-15m), both dramatic and poetic. But would they adapt well to VR?
My team and I jumped on their website and listened to dozens of Moth stories. True stories all, told by the persons they happened to, some dramatic and comedic, all short form, all well crafted, well edited and compelling.
We whittled it down to a short list, debated the merits of several amazing Moth stories, discussed preliminary ideas on how we might treat them in VR. Thinking about translating so many different stories to VR as I listened to them was illuminating. It helped me define the “criteria for a VR Film”. Not just for our project, but for all VR storytelling.
What kind of story demands VR?
For us, the bar for a successful VR Film was not just a successful adaptation, but to create a storytelling experience that exceeds the original.
My team came up with a well defined set of proprietary criteria for adapting a scripted story to VR. Some of the criteria included:
- A true story
- A compelling, charismatic speaker / subject
- Solid three act story structure
- Emotionally evocative, uplifting story
- Story beats that involve the senses organically
- Visually interesting and novel environments, transportative settings
- Poetic writing: metaphors, similes, magical realism, dreams (VR Opportunities)
- Active character choices involving physical action (Interactive opportunities)
- Small number of characters, between 4-6
- No longer than 10-15 minutes
Mission To India
Finally, we chose “Mission To India” by George Lombardi. This astounding tale fit our VR storytelling criteria and was a story my team was ecstatic to tell.