It’s Not You, it’s Me – The Fly-on-the-Wall Documentary and Virtual Reality

By Katy Morrison – Producer at VRTOV . 

We talk a lot about Virtual Reality. What to make, how to make it, why we should be making this thing instead of that other thing. And yet while the promise of VR  —  be anywhere! Come face-to-face with anything or anyone!  —  is expansive, the conversation is not. Aside from the constant churning of the trains-and-empathy hyperbole machine and the next iteration of the CGI vs video pipeline wars, there’s a lot we’re not talking about.

For those of us who come from a documentary or narrative film background, some of these things can sit uncomfortably beside our training and traditions. But they are an essential part of this new medium, and it’s time we started letting them into the conversation.

One gap in the way we currently discuss VR was highlighted to me recently on reading this article: a review of Oculus Story Studio’s newest VR work, Henry.

Story Studio was created by Oculus to push narrative VR and they are probably the best-known, certainly the best resourced, of the studios in that space. To date they have premiered two shorts: Lost,  the story of a giant robot, and Henry, the tale of a hedgehog who loves balloons, with at least two more in the pipeline.

Now I haven’t tried Henry  — the price for living in Australia is only getting to try new work when you’re overseas  —  but I did experience Lost when it was launched earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It was being run on the then-new Crescent Bay prototype, which offered better positional tracking than previous versions of the Oculus Rift. With the Crescent Bay on, we were encouraged to lie down, turn around, crouch, sit  —  basically use our bodies any which way we wanted to while in the experience.

My overwhelming memory of Lost is of peeping out from under a bush in the corner of the forest clearing, watching as the giant robot who was looking for his lost hand loomed alarmingly above me. It’s a sensory memory more than a narrative one  —  I felt small and slightly nervous as the robot towered above  —  he might have been friendly but he was mostly just giant — but I also felt relieved that I was crouched down and hidden away in a safe spot amongst the foliage rather than in the middle of the clearing where I’d started out. My gestures were small, but I felt they made me part of the story, or at the very least gave me the impression that I was a part of its delivery.

So when I read The Verge’s article on Henry which basically bemoaned the fact that Story Studio, with its Pixar heritage, wasn’t creating experiences with ‘real humans’ in them, it left me feeling like something very fundamental is being overlooked in the way we currently discuss Virtual Reality.

Part of the article’s beef with Henry is its production pipeline  —  the writer isn’t a fan of computer animation, whether in VR or otherwise. ‘Why try to emulate the qualities of games and rides,’ she asks, ‘if you’re trying to continue a tradition of storytelling that for thousands of years has hinged on the appeal of watching people interact with each other?’

And it’s there that’s the rub  —  because there are people interacting in Henry, and Lost, and any type of VR experience. They’re just not the people we are used to.

To unpack what that means, we can look at the other example given in the article, one that was positioned as providing a more satisfying VR experience  —  Wild, The Experience. Wild, by Felix and Paul Studios, was made with video rather than CGI, and there are indeed ‘real people’  —  actors Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern  —  performing in it.

WILD, The Experience by Felix&Paul Studios

WILD, The Experience by Felix&Paul Studios

But beyond the surface layer, if we look at what the writer actually appreciated about Wild, we learn it was the feeling of a freedom she’s ‘almost too embarrassed’ to exercise. Sat between Dern and Witherspoon she can observe them, if she wants, intimately, up close, for a length of time that would never be possible in the real world. She can look this way or that, hold a gaze, or not. In other words, she likes what she can do. She has freedom to act. She has agency. And that’s exactly the point.

There’s always a real human in a Virtual Reality experience.
It’s you, the user.

It’s something that transcends the conversation about CGI and video. Just like I felt safe and hidden because of the choices I made and the way I used my body in Lost, that journalist felt free because of the way she used her body in Wild. The wrapper  —  whether it’s Reese Witherspoon’s face or a friendly giant robot, video or CGI  —  doesn’t matter.

Users of Virtual Reality are always an active participant in the story because at the bare minimum they get to dictate the camera movements by looking around. They get to control the frame. They have agency. They make choices. They aren’t just ‘watching people interact’, they are interacting. And what they take away from an experience  —  even if it’s simply ‘I felt weird because I got to stare heaps right at Reese Witherspoon and not look away like I would have if she were really there’  —  is the result of those choices, that interaction.

If that’s the starting point  —  the baseline upon which all other elements in an experience can be built, then it is my opinion that we need to start acknowledging this extra character in our stories. We need to develop their character as much as we develop the other characters. The arc, the journey that makes up the story, is also their arc.

For documentary, this poses a certain issue. As creatives in a new medium we can say what we like about not being influenced by media that has gone before, but if we label ourselves documentary makers then ignoring the traditions of documentary is impossible. And one of the many traditions is about making the filmmaker as invisible as possible, about letting the content speak for itself.

On the surface, so-called fly-on-the-wall documentary seems perfect for VR: you film a 360 degree environment, plonk the user down inside it, and away they go. They observe what they want to observe, look where they want to look. The distance between the subject and the viewer is less dictated than ever before by the choices of the director. Haven’t we created the ultimate fly-on-the-wall medium?

Some creators seem to think so. Many, perhaps most, of the virtual reality documentary works currently being made are of this model. Get a 360 degree camera rig, put it somewhere where access is difficult or dangerous  —  like a refugee camp or amongst a herd of wild animals. Then unleash the user to observe, like a fly-on-the-wall, as the action unfolds around them.

Never mind that even the filmmakers credited with inventing the fly-on-the-wall style didn’t embrace it, and never mind that all storytelling is a selective process. Let’s take that as read. The reason that this ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach is problematic in Virtual Reality is the user.

In fly-on-the-wall style Virtual Reality experiences we ignore the user, at the same time as the medium gives them power to act in our stories.

Plopped like a bobble-head into a world where they can look around but are to all intents and purposes not there, they find themselves weirdly ‘un-present’. Virtual Reality gives their body’s actions meaning, but we remove that meaning from the narrative. Their character is not there. But their body tells them that they are. It’s a strange feeling of dislocation that ensues.

I recently watched a well-received VR doc in this format set in a refugee camp. As I looked around inside the refugee family’s home and school, the feeling I had was of privilege, but the same kind of privilege I might feel if two people invited me to sit in the bedroom and watch them have sex. Privileged, sure, to be granted access to somewhere private. Privileged to observe something I wouldn’t normally get the chance to observe. But also intensely out-of-place. There’s nothing for me in the action that’s unfolding in front of me, I couldn’t help thinking as I looked around. I have no reason to be here.

We talk a lot about empathy in Virtual Reality, and especially in Virtual Reality for documentary, but I find it hard to see how we are generating empathy when we forget to consider one half of the narrative equation.

We’re all still learning the grammar of this new medium. But it may be that we have more to talk about than endless discussions on whether we use video or CGI; we need to talk about how we incorporate this essential new character into our stories.