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Pair of Filmmakers Take Virtual Reality Storytelling to New Places

As demonstrated by the passion of thousands of geeks, filmmakers and executives who crowded the VRLA expo in downtown Los Angles on May 4-5, virtual reality may well be emerging as the next hot storytelling technology.

To be sure, VR’s road is still a bumpy one. Some filmmakers, including Steven Soderbergh, have expressed doubts about the tech being useful for longer narratives. By contrast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences symbolically gave its seal of approval to the format by awarding “Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible),” created by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a special Oscar at the Governors Awards in November.

Among helmers taking virtual reality a step further are Angel Manuel Soto and Nora Kirkpatrick.

Soto, a Puerto Rican director who’s work-ed mainly on shorts and documentaries, helmed VR short “Dinner Party,” an immersive experience based on the avowed alien abduction in 1961 of Betty and Barney Hill, a story widely reported at the time. The mixed-race couple — Barney, a black postal employee, and his wife, Betty, a white social worker — was rare in those days.

“I thought this was a cool way to put people in a place to experience ideas about race and privilege,” Soto says. “With VR, you can’t look away. You see that many of the experiences of their abduction are influenced by race. I wanted people to understand what it means to be brown in America.”

“Dinner Party” was an official selection at Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes for 2018. The short was produced by Skybound Entertainment, RYOT Films and Telexist VR, and developed at Sundance’s 2017 New Frontier Lab.

Kirkpatrick, an actress, producer and director who’s part of the team behind Hulu’s five-part VR sketch comedy “Virtually Mike and Nora,” will soon premiere “Door No. 1” for the network. The narrative, choose-your-own-adventure VR comedy takes viewers on a journey through a 10-year school reunion. Snoop Dogg makes an appearance in the project and tries to entice viewers to take the path that involves him.

Kirkpatrick, who created the project exclusively for Hulu as an advertiser-integrated VR series, says she loved the opportunity to bring more comedic experiences to VR: “I like to make people uncomfortable, and that’s a lot of what comedy is about. You feel uncomfortable for the character you’re watching because they feel awkward or out of place or embarrassed.” With VR, she adds, the discomfort rises because the viewer doesn’t have any distractions. “You can’t be on the phone or your iPad or really doing anything else; you have to focus on the experience,” she says. “This is exciting, because it’s hard to get someone’s complete attention now.”

According to Kirkpatrick, “Door No. 1” had a budget of less than $1 million and also had corporate sponsorship from Nissan. Since VR content is still in its infancy and post-production remains time-consuming and costly, the helmer credits Hulu for being open-minded enough to take a chance on a new medium in which it’s still unclear how a show will be received — or even experienced — by the people who view it.

Soto also notes that there are considerable barriers when working in VR, ranging from generating funding to securing the kinds of cameras that work for VR shoots to educating actors about how to work in the format — which is often more like live theatrical acting than acting for film or TV.

“My experience with theater and traditional filmmaking helped me,” says Soto. “The blocking when you’re making VR is very important because you’re not going to cut or take breaks the way you usually would; it has to be perfect for the whole thing to work like you hope it will. But it’s all worth it for what you learn. I think working in VR has made me a better director and storyteller.”

The equipment for VR continues to evolve. The relatively affordable Vuze+virtual-reality camera, released last month, will further democratize the format. It has built-in features that allow just about anyone to shoot immersive content, and comes with custom lenses and an advanced audio system.

“I think I’ll always go back and forth between VR and other projects,” says Kirkpatrick. “I don’t think VR will take the place of film or TV … but there are things you can do with it that don’t work anywhere else. … That’s exciting for someone who wants to take chances.”

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