Writing for VR

Recently I wrote a short VR film called Utopia 6. It was commissioned by production company Breaking Fourth  as one of their VR shorts. My background is in playwriting so this was a new medium for me and I was keen to explore the question of how you might write a compelling narrative for VR.

When I met with the team at Breaking Fourth they wanted to create a short VR film with a strong storyline and characters, combining storytelling and VR. I had very limited experience of VR so trying on the headset and watching a selection of films in VR was the first step. It’s an incredibly immersive experience, once you put on the headset you are completely transported into a different world, I found it thrilling. I was also surprised at how uninhibited I felt, there I was sitting in the middle of a busy and bright VR studio on a swivel chair but I was totally absorbed in the 360 set that surrounded me.

Creators David Kaskel and Nathan Miller already had a story concept about two architects giving a presentation of a modern city that would literally grow around us and they showed me basic models of skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks in VR to give me an idea of what the city could look like. In playwriting terms this is almost like knowing the set and an idea for a story and then developing the characters and plot and narrative in that setting which is an interesting approach. We thought about the relation of the viewers (audience) to the story and what I like about the story concept is the architects are giving a presentation to a group of investors and so the viewers are playing the role of the investors and immersed in the drama.

One of the challenges of the piece was that we would hear the actor’s voices without seeing them, so the dialogue needed to be active and create a sense of movement through the actors’ voices. We were lucky to work with wonderful actors- Elizabeth Boag, Georgina White and George Longworth who have very colourful and expressive voices and were a joy to work with.

Recording Utopia 6 with Georgina White, George Longworth and Elizabeth Boag.
Recording Utopia 6 with Georgina White, George Longworth and Elizabeth Boag.

It was helpful for me to draw a parallel between site-specific plays, stories that are written for specific theatrical spaces and the play I was writing for a VR city. My dialogue had to work dramatically with the VR city that was being created; I was interested in the tension between the setting and the storyline. So I wanted the city to be a futuristic utopian city, one that is so beautiful and stunning it simply blows you away to see but will also be a divisive city for a privileged minority.

“200 years from now, the world has been ravaged by environmental disasters and war. Just 1% percent of the population live in protected cities, built and run by the Utopia Life Corporation.
Utopia 6 is the latest city design from this company.”

So after script development meetings with David and Nathan and a series of drafts, we agreed on the characters- Anna, the principal architect and our protagonist, a complex woman who needs the presentation to be a huge success. Her assistant Bea is a former refugee and a spirited, likeable young woman but her naive tampering with the presentation leads to conflict with Anna. Thirdly Sam, Anna’s son, who is troubled with making a choice between living with his successful mum or rebel dad. Early on we had a reading with professional actors which helped to develop the script, from there I tightened up the plot and dialogue and then we had a fun day of rehearsals and recording the audio with the actors. After that, for me it was a case of waiting to see what the team would create visually…

Utopia 6

The last chapter in my journey was seeing the finished film, it’s always exciting to see your words come alive but this was thrilling; Utopia 6 looks stunning, the colours are so vivid and entrancing. One of the incredible things about VR is that you can constantly look around and explore the space in 360 degrees, look up and down and swivel around in your chair to look behind you, there is so much detail to see. As a viewer of Utopia 6 you move through the space very fluidly so the setting is constantly changing. The symbols of our story suddenly appear:

BEA           A series of streams weave around the city-

like a maze of gurgling ribbons organically shifting in the sunlight, around/ and around.

I don’t want to give the film away but there are some visual delights I hope you enjoy, an iconic statue of our protagonist, a detailed park scene, a ride up to Anna’s apartment in a solar powered vehicle and then suddenly it’s nighttime and the stars come out…
It’s been fascinating to approach VR from a storytelling perspective using a narrative and characterisation. I think VR could have a real universal appeal for all ages and that idea hasn’t really been tapped into yet, we’re just at the beginning, the possibilities are endless. For me, one of the most exciting parts of VR is that we can reach new worlds and immerse ourselves in stories from the comfort of our own home and swivel chair. It makes drama more accessible and I’m all for that. Secondly it has the potential to create new forms of storytelling. Writers are always grappling with the form in which to tell their stories and VR has unlimited possibilities, it’s a new form, it’s totally immersive, a place to investigate new experiences, explore new kinds of journeys, jump around in multiple universes – that’s definitely worth celebrating and developing.

Utopia 6 is produced by Breaking Fourth and due for release soon.


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