Lights, camera… everyone hide behind a tree!
When David Alpert’s Skybound Entertainment shot an 11-part thriller series titled “Gone” in Los Angeles and the Sequoia National Forest this summer, things weren’t exactly like on other TV sets. The crew of up to 40 often found themselves scrambling to escape the camera, with writer / director JT Petty regularly crawling around on the floor to follow the action without being caught on film.
That’s because “Gone,” which is about a mother’s quest to find her vanished daughter, isn’t your regular TV show. Instead, it’s a virtual-reality thriller (VR) that has been exclusively produced for Samsung’s Gear VR headset, where the first episode is going to be available next Tuesday within Samsung’s Milk VR video app.
“Gone” was shot with a custom-built VR camera that captured video in 360 degrees, which made it necessary to hide crew and equipment whenever the camera was rolling. Scenes got shot in one take, there were no close-ups, and captured material was quickly stitched together within about half an hour on set, so that the team could preview it with their Gear VR headsets.
But “Gone” isn’t just a unique production, it also breaks ground by blending linear storytelling with the more interactive possibilities of VR. The show not only gives viewers the option to look around and explore all 360 degrees of every scene, but also to zoom in on so-called hotspots to unlock story details as the action unfolds.
These hotspots appear as visual cues throughout the show, and viewers who focus on them are, for the lack of a better phrase,. “sucked in” explore the scene from a different angle, giving them the ability to take a peek behind objects, or have a closer look at characters hanging out on the sidelines. “You are being challenged by things that appear in front of you,” said Samsung’s VP for content strategy Matt Apfel during a press preview of the show this week, adding: “You are on a bit of a scavenger hunt.”
Exploring these kinds of hotspots is interesting on its own, but “Gone” also utilizes them in a clever way to advance the story without making it too distracting. Hotspots are only available for a limited period of time, after which they disappear, and the videos-in-the-video that viewers can unlock by focusing on a hotspot actually progress at the same speed as the main plotline.
One example: In the first episode, a hotspot allows viewers to take a closer look at a suspicious van disappearing in the distance. Enter it early, and you get a better look than someone who takes a peek last second. In other words: Viewers can change their vantage point, but not slow down or manipulate time, which would take away from the dramatic moments of the thriller. Apfel said that his team likened the approach to teleportation, as opposed to time travel.
Bringing teleportation to filmmaking didn’t just require flexibility on part of the crew, but also a lot of technical innovation behind the scenes. Samsung Skybound worked with Venice-based VR startup Wevr on the VR production aspects, and the code for the app was being developed by a team at Samsung at the same time as the show was shot. “It looks like a video. It’s actually a software product as well,” said Wevr co-founder Anthony Batt.
In many ways, software development and production went hand in hand, even down to the question of how many hotspots to use. “Gone” wasn’t meant to be a multiple-choice adventure, and creatives had to make sure to not overwheml, the viewer while affording them enough freedom to explore. “Every hotspot had to be really thought out,” explained executive producer Rachel Skidmore from Skybound. And Apfel added: “We are not going to make this a ‘Where is Waldo?’.”
Still, viewers may need some time to get used to the show, which is one reason why it comes with a dedicated tutorial to explain the use of hotspots. But that learning curve goes both ways, as creatives still have to find out what actually works in VR, and how viewers react to their newfound freedom. Said Batt: “All the education that you got in production and filmmaking, you have to leave that at the door.”