August 14, 2023

VR Stage and Screen: Change And Opportunity

As the labor strike in Hollywood rages on, a newer art form gains sophistication: VR film.

VR Stage and Screen: Change And Opportunity
A still from the VR film Ulterior Motives, directed by Ariel Emerald.

In the past six months, more films and immersive productions have been created, executed, won awards, and debuted at festivals. We don't update this round-up often due to how long it takes to create proper works--no one wants to rush a good director.

But as summer turns to fall, a look back can now see a greater picture forming of what's been accomplished so far.

Let's dive in.

Immersive Theatre Star Brendan A. Bradley Helps Lead The Charge With The Hollywood Labor Strike

Brendan A. Bradley has been an active member of the VR theatre scene for some time. Now, he's putting on his strike captain gear and hitting the streets to protest with WGA and SAG-AFTRA for better working conditions for its labor force. The Hollywood labor strike has been an eye-opening event for many, revealing the truth of working in entertainment, and showing just how little its employees receive in residuals and support.

Confused about what's going on? That's okay--Brendan's got you with some of the best explainer videos we've seen on the event:


The numbers don’t lie. #sagaftrastrong #sagaftrastrike #strikecaptain #strikecaptains #rollingstone

♬ Lo-fi hip hop - NAO-K

The creative community in VR has helped to amplify and sharpen the vision of so many talented people. It's amazing to see them turn around and continue to affect the rest of the world.

Speaking of SAG-AFTRA, they've been dipping into VR as well to ponder its usefulness:

SAG-AFTRA Discusses VR But Misses The Mark

On January 5th, SAG-AFTRA hosted a talk at the Consumer Electronics Show called Future Shock: Influencers and Actors in the Metaverse.  The hour-long discussion clumsily moved through several subjects pertaining to digital mediums, although the real gem of the conversation focused on how represented talent should appear in virtual space and what terms should be set for doing so.

Immersive artist and panelist Boo Wong, having worked with VRroom, naturally had the most pertinent things to say. The rest of the panel covered blockchain, although it doesn't seem to be evident to the panel how much of VR is actually not involved with crypto.

Our recommendations for SAG-AFTRA would be to revisit VR's most popular platforms after the labor strike is over. There is already an active theatre and film movement in virtual reality, and professional talent such as Chandler Riggs (Carl Grimes/The Walking Dead) have already interacted with the medium. There are actors who are members of SAG-AFTRA who work with VR for various projects (such as Brendan, in this article's first section!). Simply asking these actors for their opinions and recommendations would make for far better solutions, than stumbling through a Q&A session and talking predominantly about NFTs.

Immersive Plays Are Getting Even Better In Execution

Ferryman Collective is another major player in the virtual theatre space. Their spring production, Find WiiLii Ep 1: The Gate Crasher, has been featured at SXSW this past March.

Image courtesy: Ferryman Collective

Immersive theatre, which involves the audience in direct actions to experience performed narratives as a means of storytelling, can have hiccups in its execution in virtual reality, mostly around keeping a tight flow of conversation with groups of participants, addressing tech hiccups, and maintaining the pace of story as the play advances. When energy lags, the flow is lost and the audience's attention can drift away. This is a difficult thing to overcome with an audience as an immersive play advances.

Ferryman's latest execution of Find WiiLii manages to address these challenges and improve on the immersive experience of their productions. Ferryman's previous immersive play, Gumball Dreams, also held puzzles for the audience to complete as part of the story, but Find WiiLii keeps the interaction more linear so no one in the audience is waiting for too long for anyone else to catch up (although Gumball's on-on-one scenes where the audience gives personalized answers to special characters is also a great moment to experience).

The energy and pace of Find WiiLii is tightened, the music is even better than previous productions, and minigames have been cleverly inserted to flow better with the story and keep its audience on their feet. At the end, the audience can also choose how the play will conclude through their own actions. It feels so much like a choose your own adventure, that I personally think Find WiiLii should return yearly so more people can experience it.

With what I've seen and experienced this past year, immersive productions are improving in management and flow at an amazing rate. In the future, these theatre/film round-ups will splinter off to talk more about each discipline in depth, and hopefully speak with more performers who work to bring these productions to life.

If you'd like a deeper dive, we recommend checking out XRMust for their constant coverage of immersive performances, as well as this interview with Deirdre Lyons and Kent Bye at Voices of VR.

VR Film Picks Up Steam In Development

On the budding side of virtual performance, studios such as Archangel Film and Metacosm Studios are putting forward some pretty impressive movies.

They're bolstered by the support of channels like The Virtual Reality Show, hosted by longtime tech advocate and ever-cheerful personality, Phia. TVRS has been making videos and explainers about the virtual reality community for a long time, signal boosting spaces as needed and recording explainers about various subjects--literally everything from how to upload an avatar to VRChat, to the importance of the trans community in VR.

On the surface of mainstream tech news, channels such as TVRS are sorely underestimated. They have no idea how hosts such as Phia help to keep the VR community ticking. TVRS occasionally holds a community showcase where different aspects of virtual performance art are highlighted. With film, they've actually held a festival. This early support for budding VR filmmakers can be a huge boost for morale and extra followers.

Here are two films that are great examples of early efforts with VR cinema:

The Penrose Protocol, directed by Khangaluwu, starts off with a tense story of intrigue that leads into a philosophical conversation, with a pivotal fight for the finale. The fight is what we're focusing on here, because its execution shows new thought on how to translate the feeling of pain to the audience. In physical reality, "pain" is translated through sound effects of slaps, bones cracking, and other indications that a character has taken a pretty bad hit.

In VR, "pain" can also be when you might potentially not only break your limbs, but your expensive VR equipment as well. Penrose signals this pain by muffled sounds of hitting something, although it isn't determined if it's skin or a wall a limb is meeting. This can be interpreted by a VR user instinctively as "they hurt themselves or they're going to break some equipment", which can translate as painful either way. This ambiguous sound effect method has previously been utilized by VR Tiktokers in comedic context.

The pacing of the fight is also a nice improvement. Fight choreographer CrispyWisp should especially be commended on their dedication to a convincing sequence to bring about the movie's conclusion. While virtual film still has a way to go, these steps are impressive ones that show a lot of thought being put in with direction and performance.

One point of improvement is on line delivery. Penrose's voice actors should consider paraphrasing lines for a more intense delivery, rather than sticking to the script so closely. The dubbing is otherwise of excellent quality.

Ulterior Motives, directed by Ariel Emerald, is a thought experiment in early virtual film. It not only directly addresses the underground sex scene of social VR, but it also discusses why users seek out these connections in the first place. There's also a few great easter eggs: the film is laden with music created by producers who regularly perform in VR, and yet a line is sarcastically included by a reveler (played by Jayden Reyes) remarking that all DJs are alike. Reyes later commented that this line was delivered as improv. Regardless, that level of irony is the kind of detail more VR films need.

The pivotal scene, played by actors Maple and Felix Yung, is challenging because of its subject. It's hard to talk about vulnerable topics such as sex and relating to others, much less any online aspect of such an encounter. Because of this, the actors at first have to work their way through the lines. But by the second half of the scene, the pacing is fantastic and you can see the true potential of VR mocap and scripting. It's little moments like these in early film scenes which can be truly great to witness.

Other things brutally and honestly showcased in Ulterior Motives: excessive drinking and the pervasive loneliness of the digital party circuit. This is the kind of stuff that elicits strong reactions from audiences, but the fact that Ariel tackles it head-on might indicate what she's capable of directing in the future.

What All Of These Productions Need

Covering all three sections of virtual storytelling here is exhaustingly long, but this article was written in a particular way for a reason. There's something that all three of these performance disciplines are missing:

Each other.

Immersive plays can grow in scope, and even find new talent, by exploring the acting chops of those already tackling VR film. Need a dancer or fill-in for a big scene? Consider the character actors who are probably looking for work, or those dancers spotted in Ulterior Motives who already are proficient in redirected walking and body control. While Hollywood in physical reality abuses its labor and forsakes its talent in pursuit of another buck, there's a scene right here full of people who are eager to tell stories and gain new audiences. VR film isn't a moneymaker, but apparently, neither is being an actor anywhere else.

This is still an era where anyone can jump in, try out acting, and see if it's for them. They can build a portfolio of immersive performances, expand into voice work, and get to know the rest of the digital entertainment community. This is what SAG-AFTRA fails to see. This is the true potential of VR performance.

Want to make your VR film even more marketable? Get a dedicated person on your team to create original avatars, or simply retexture the ones you have until no one can tell where you got your assets from. The right overlays and fuzzing can turn any virtual production into a surreal arthouse film. Go beyond the Booth avatars (unless you are specifically trying to create an anime look or are filming something that takes place on a social VR platform), pick up a program like Character Creator, paint each avatar to look like a work of art, and suddenly you've got a film that will have people asking what program you animated it all in.

That's the power of VR as a film studio and immersive stage.

Stage, film, and even live-acted roleplay streams: these are all performance. VR encompassing it all means this is another Los Angeles. A chance to do it differently, a chance to get away from the threat of AI callously replicating its hardest workers and the corporate abuse that facilitates it all.

For now, anyway. But in these years, indie VR performance can truly make its mark. It's only a matter of time until the rest of the world becomes aware of it.