Helping filmmakers realize the full potential of VR storytelling

An interview with Mirada technical director Andrew Cochrane

Figuring out how content creators can and should approach storytelling in a virtual environment is something I’ve explored in the past, as the interest in VR continues to build on both sides of the camera. It represents a completely new way to tell and experience a story, and the storytellers at Mirada are at the forefront of establishing how that’s going to work. andyc

Recently, Mirada partnered with Headcase and ad agency Digital Kitchen to create an immersive VR experience to promote season two of FX’s hit horror drama “The Strain”. Mirada Technical Director Andrew Cochrane was intimately involved in that process, and we wanted to talk with him to find out more about the experience and what it means for more traditional media & entertainment professionals.

In the interview below, Andrews discusses how this technology influences storytelling, what the development process looks like, where someone interested in learning about VR should begin and plenty more.


ProVideo Coalition: The VR pipeline and capabilities at Mirada span immersive storytelling, incorporating 360º filming, spherical CG and visual effects, just to name a few. These things have the potential to completely change the way content creators approach storytelling, don’t they?

Andrew Cochrane: Yes, absolutely! We have a mantra that Mirada lives at the intersection of storytelling and technology, and everything we do embodies this. We believe very firmly that technology is the key to unlocking new ways to tell and experience stories, and we experiment with everything we can get our hands on. We try to push some new tech forward on every project, but not just for nerdy reasons, it’s because we want to be telling great stories and telling them in a completely new way. I think we are just at the very beginning of what is possible in VR, and we see a long exciting road ahead filled with endless experimentation and advancements.


With that in mind, how do you see these new approaches impacting an audience and their expectations?

Most people experiencing VR right now are experiencing it for the very first time. Their expectations vary wildly, and there is a big difference between someone who works in VR creation and a member of the general public. We aim for the general public, so we’re very careful in how the story starts and ends, and how we present the “rules” of each experience, and making sure that they are able to enjoy it without spending half the time wondering “what am I supposed to be doing?”

As VR literacy increases in the viewing public, we are going to be able to be a little more aggressive with our narratives and make some bigger leaps, but for now we are introducing the medium as much as we are advancing storytelling in it, so we are very focused on making sure that a novice viewer does not get overwhelmed or lost.


How do you see mobile phones being part of this experience?

VR is extremely exciting, and there is a lot of incredible hardware just over the horizon that is going to fundamentally change the types of stories we can tell and the ways that audiences will experience them. BUT we are very pragmatic about reality vs. promise.

Right now, Cardboard (mobile phone + cheap headset) is the only way that real, normal people can experience VR. There are GearVR’s in the world but not hundreds of thousands, and there are installations at events but not everyone gets to go to CES or Comic-Con et al. So for us, mobile is the only type of VR that actually exists as a viable consumer-ready experience. We think that it is going to be the case well into 2016, as the console and PC-based systems are going to take a while to reach any kind of volume to be a mainstream medium. If you want a lot of people to see your content, mobile is the only way to go right now.


Is the software and hardware you’re using technology that media & entertainment professionals will be familiar with?

The processes are very familiar to traditional media creation, but the tools and the under-the-hood pipeline are not. We can shoot, edit, conform, color, do CG and VFX and cleanup and make matte paintings and do sound design… all the capabilities we have in making a commercial or a film or music video are all there, and the terminology is the same for those working with us. But the science of making stereo spherical video is certainly a foreign one, and it is one that requires a new “set of eyes” – a new way of thinking and viewing and making creative decisions. We try to keep the technical under the hood and out of the way so that we can work with our brand, agency, network, and studio collaborators on ground that is comfortable and familiar to them, and to help them navigate the parts that are new and unfamiliar so they can make informed decisions and feel confident that they will get the result they are hoping for.

TheStrainVR Scene

Let’s talk about one of your more recent projects. How did the idea to create an immersive VR experience to promote season two of FX’s hit horror drama “The Strain” come about?

The initial idea came from FX, as they wanted to create something big at Comic-Con to get fans excited about the start of Season 2. They knew that they wanted to try to do something in VR so they needed an experience developed to hit those goals.

We worked closely with Headcase to refine the initial approach to make sure that the viewer was fully immersed and felt like an active participant in the experience, which included the addition of subjective effects to simulate being injured / drugged as the story starts. FX knew that the best way to grab fans is to make them feel included, and nothing accomplishes that better than a first-person experience, especially a VR story like this.


What do the initial stages of a project like this look like? In terms of concepts and how the creative ideas come together, is it similar to the initial stages of a film or TV project?

In a lot of ways, this project followed a familiar development process for anyone who creates filmed content. There was a script, pre-production, location scouting, camera prep… all the normal stages. But of course, since the camera is an array of 17 lenses that can see in every direction, and the viewer is going to see it in a VR headset, there were a lot of narrative and technical considerations that you don’t normally have to worry about when filming something.

Locations were selected based on what would help tell the desired story while staying inside the technical constraints of such a shoot. We knew what would work, so it was a matter of staging everything so that lights could be hidden, camera motion was not hindered, and production design was able to properly dress the enormous warehouse areas in every direction. And of course actors need to be taught how to perform with this kind of camera array – where to look, how to move around it, when to address the camera and when to ignore it. All of these are lessons that we learned in our early experimentations over the last few years, and now we get to put them in motion on our productions.

TheStrainVR Andy

Hearing that you actually disabled the touchpad to prevent viewers from accidentally pausing the video almost seems invasive…but it’s all about creating an experience, isn’t it?

I don’t think it’s invasive for one simple reason : 99.999…% of the Earth’s population don’t know that there even is a touchpad on a GearVR, and those who do know have often accidentally hit it while trying to adjust the headset!

We have shown thousands of people VR for the first time, in various headsets, and the decision to add external sync (with confirmation via the flashing LED on the phone) and to disable the touchpad came from the common pain points we have seen in introducing this medium to someone new: they never know how to control it. So we moved the tech out of the way and made it so that the experience remotely starts when everyone is ready, and there is no way to accidentally pause or break it. Sync was also extremely important for the “4D” elements like the rumble packs in each seat, so we did everything to make sure that the whole experience was perfect and there was no “how do I use this?” uncertainty for the viewers.


Audiences are able to interact with each other inside the story, which is a totally new experience for them. What kind of feedback have you seen around that?

Putting multiple headsets in sync adds a fascinating communal aspect to VR. You can hear your friends reacting to the same things you are reacting, and the crowd mind definitely amplifies your own reactions. Haunted houses are always better in small groups, and this experience absolutely benefited from the same human reactions that make that true.

While this kind of experience is currently difficult to accomplish (it is rare that 6 GearVR owners with the same apps ever gather in one location), we foresee communal and social VR as having an important place in the pantheon of great experiences yet to be created. Humans are social animals, and bringing them together to share a VR experience is going to be the key to realizing the full potential of the VR medium.


I’m always reading reports about how this technology is going to be the next billion-dollar industry. Is that kind of talk an exaggeration, or putting the cart before the horse? Or is it the reality that we all need to get behind?

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we do have a good handle on some of the facts: virtual reality is really fun, most people want to do more VR once they experience it, and it is a new medium with a lot of room to grow that offers content creators very exciting new ways to create. Unlike stereo 3DTV or smell-o-vision, this is something that people actually want, that they actively seek out, and it appeals to anyone who enjoys film, TV, commercial, music video, video game, web, and live interactive or immersive experiences… that’s a massive potential user base and I cannot believe that it will not be a multi-billion dollar industry over the next few years.


As a content creator, what’s the most exciting thing to you about VR immersive storytelling?

We use the term “world building” a lot in film and other traditional mediums, but I often find that term to be a little bit of hyperbole. VR is the first medium that I have been able to create in which genuinely creates a world that audiences can step into.

For me, this medium feels like the perfect combination of everything I have ever been interested in, some of which previously felt rather disconnected from each other. It takes my love of long take, fully practical, naturally acted cinema and adds my loves of high-tech immersive and interactive narrative. There’s even a huge element of improvisation and live event creation, which are all things that I have always loved but have rarely been able to mix with these other interests.

We often compare VR to a haunted house, and the stories we tell in it are more about user experience than they are about strict narrative, and that is incredibly exciting to me. I have always been more interested in having someone live through a 2hr zombie apocalypse than filming some characters doing it so you can live vicariously through their actions, and VR is finally a way to do that on a massive scale.


Where do you see this technology going in the next few years? Are movie theaters soon going to need headsets? Or will they be a requirement in the home?

I really don’t think we are going to see VR cinemas… VR arcades probably (at least I really hope so). The real power of VR is immersion and interaction, and sitting in a theater breaks that. I do think that social/communal VR experiences are going to have the strongest impact, but that requires hardware that is just not ready for consumers yet. So over the coming years we will go from mobile to room-scale VR, with hand and body/positional tracking. Not everyone is going to have a setup at home, they will be like big-screen TVs used to be, where groups of people will gather to try them out. The more inclusive VR becomes, the better. Think about how much Rock Band and Guitar Hero pushed console adoption – there was a few years’ span where you couldn’t go to a house party without someone busting out the guitars and drums. I think if we all do it right, VR can have that kind of impact, only with a much wider variety of experiences and thus longevity and appeal.


What would you tell a content creator who is very interested in learning about how they can tell stories in a VR setting? Where should they begin?

The single most important thing is to throw out everything you know. You’ll need it later, but at first, you need to approach VR as a new medium with its own rules. To really create you need to understand what is possible, and understand how it works (at least in a top-level sense). You can go rent a GoPro ball and start learning how to shoot or you can grab a free copy of Unity or Unreal and start learning how to create interactive VR apps. No matter what, someone who wants to create in VR is going to need to learn some new tools, and get familiar with terms like stitching, parallax, stereo spherical, coding, and a whole slew of brand new technologies. You need to study film, games, interactive and immersive mediums like interactive theater, get a basic familiarity with Android and iOS and soon PC software development, and learn how to code on at least a basic level. The tools are brand new, and the skill-sets are just starting to come together, but the future of virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality are going to rely on a new type of creator that is in very short supply currently.

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Jeremiah Karpowicz moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter but quickly realized making a film was about much more than the script. He worked at a post house where films like Watchmen (2009), Gamer…