Virtual Reality Storytelling – Is it Possible?

“RallyBound VR Experience” directed by Jessica Kantor.

Can you tell a story in VR? This is the question that Director, Producer, and Interactive Storyteller Jessica Kantor is focused on exploring. And from what she has discovered through her experimentations, the answer is yes. Often, when people put on a VR headset they expect some type of gimmick. But Jessica believes that it doesn’t have to be that way. She wants to inspire people to tell stories with VR and 360-degree video that capture the attention of audiences in new ways.

“Every story can be told in any medium, but how you tell the story changes,” says Jessica. “Different stories are suited for different mediums; but the story always comes first and how you tell it is second.”

“The Archer” created by Jessica Kantor, Matt Sundin, and Henrik Christoffersson.

Some of Jessica’s favorite VR and 360-degree work to date has come from others engaging in the same type of exploration as she is, including Jaunt, Felix & Paul and Within. Her advice to anyone wanting to explore this medium is to watch as much content as possible to not only see what can be done technically, but also how the medium impacts storytelling.

Jessica likens VR storytelling to a movement in live theater, where there is no stage and audiences follow the actors through the space where they are performing. The space and the world where the story takes place become more important than in a traditional performance. The same is true for VR and 360-degree projects versus traditional film.

“What’s most important in 360-degree and VR work is presence–making people feel like they are there,” says Jessica. “My goal is to design an experience where the technology falls away. It’s like when you’re reading a book and you don’t think about turning the pages because you’re so immersed in the story.”

Presence and agency

Making it easy for viewers to get lost in the story means not asking them to do complex tasks that pull them away. Jessica knows that filmmakers working in 360-degree and VR formats need to think about every detail of the worlds they are creating, and how those worlds affect their characters. “The laws of a world don’t have to follow the laws of our universe, but they need to be consistent,” she explains.

When creating a new project, Jessica considers many elements, from basic production design and location to sound, acting, editing, and camera placement. Sound can help drive a story and make it more immersive for viewers, while the edits must make logical sense so viewers don’t get lost. Decisions such as where to place a camera in terms of height and distance, as well as whether the camera moves or remains stationary, all affect the success of the story. If Jessica is designing something for the web she knows it can be cut more like a traditional video, while content designed for a headset requires more thought about camera placement.

“Be A T-Rex in Virtual Reality” for Vsauce2 starring Kevin Lieber. Directed by Jessica Kantor and produced by Two Bit Circus VR.

Equally important is the agency of the participant—what actions they can take when they’re in the world she’s created—and how to reward that agency with different story elements, such as branching narratives that guide them in different directions. In a 360-degree world, the viewer can only move their head and look around, while in virtual reality, the viewer is fully present in the virtual space and may even be able to walk around.

“Unconscious decision making is really important,” says Jessica. “We can trigger curiosity with sound, light, animation, or movement so viewers naturally turn in a certain direction. These elements can help guide people through the story. I want people to get the essence of a story, no matter what they decide to do and no matter what the medium.”

VR collective

Jessica is happy to be among a collective of people embarking on 360-degree and VR storytelling. It is important to her to not get too technical when talking with other creators. Instead, she talks about the approach to telling a story and equates the equipment back to the budget and the story.

“If a project will only live online, there’s no need to worry about stereoscopic,” she says. “I can get into the nitty gritty of the technical workflow, but all you really need to get started are a prosumer camera and Adobe Premiere Pro to make something beautiful.”

Jessica Kantor.

To date, Jessica’s VR work includes projects she’s done on her own, as well as branded content for clients. Her first live action 360-degree short film The Archer was programmed in the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival, Cucalorus Film Festival, and the Liege Webfest. Her next film, ASHES, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016.

“ASHES” directed by Jessica Kantor.

Most recently she’s worked on 360-degree music video for Hunter Hayes, as well as launching VR Dance Project with the support of Google’s JUMP start program. Currently Jessica is completing a piece of Oculus’ VR for Good program where she tells the story of Infinite Flow, an Inclusive Dance Company. Whether she’s working on 360-degree or VR projects, Jessica always works with Premiere Pro and uses Adobe After Effects for some titling.

“Fall From Grace” directed by Jessica Kantor as part of VR Dance Project.

“I’ve followed the evolution of the 360-degree features in Adobe Premiere Pro and love being able to rotate the sphere in 360 mode to make sure actions are matching when I want them to,” says Jessica.

Being a maverick in the space, Jessica is often invited to share her experience and ideas on Virtual Reality panels or in classroom settings. As more and more work is produced, she is embracing the opportunity to help shape and define the language and techniques for other creators stepping into this new and exciting medium.