Author: jamessally

The Inbetweeners – Liminal Spaces and Transitions in VR/360

The Echo Chamber – Notes 05

One of the most interesting of the formal challenges of creating media for VR/360 appears to be how to make the most of the transitions between shots or scenes.

As a filmmaker in the old media linear world, you have a toolkit of tricks at your disposal when cutting between shots. You can fade between shots (black or white) or simply cut between them. There are plenty of subtleties within the fade or cut including of course how long is the fade, and where in the action do you place the cut to create the desired effects of of pace, atmosphere and energy.

In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather that watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’.

A viewer watching TV or video is essentially watching a moving two dimensional image, with any transition between shots an absence of image, that we all now read and understand as indicating the end of one thing and the start of another.

Hal C. Kern, Supervising Editor of Gone with the Wind 1939

The fade from shot to black to new shot is probably the device that we’re most familiar and arguably comfortable with as it probably most closely represents the transition that we all experience with our own eyes as we blink (blink and see what you think). Filmmakers have other tricks up their sleeves as well including the wipe, where one shot is wiped away by an incoming shot and the iris transition where the action narrows to black, via a shrinking (usually round) window onto the shot.

In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather that watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’. This means that the rarely considered fade has to become something a bit more ‘immersive’ and can become a useful narrative and experiential device.

Expanding this thought a bit and indeed the transition itself, you can begin to imagine how the transition could become an important liminal space within the film. Liminality is the state of ‘in-betweenness’ where one is underway within a ritual or experience, but not yet complete – literally ‘on the threshold’.

We’re still thinking hard about how we make the most of these liminal spaces within our own film. What we’re certain of, is that the visual transition will need to work in concert with the sound design. We’re developing a series of explicit and hidden audio cues that will prepare (and confound) the viewer to expect certain things to happen.

We’ve been discussing what it would be like if the fade dropped down onto us from above like a black blanket, or if the fade mixed up from our feet to our heads. We spent a lovely afternoon this week with our friends at Ardman Animations considering some other approaches as well, including borrowing from the visual iconography of video games – more of that in another post.

What is certain is that the moments that transition between the shots, these liminal spaces, may end up being as important as the shots themselves – they may in effect become micro shots – which then brings us back to the question of what do we put between them?

Oiling the Empathy Machine

The Echo Chamber – Notes 04

We’re well underway with making our VR drama Echo Chamber for the BBC. One of the words that has been coming up a lot during our research and discovery phase and in meetings is EMPATHY. VR has famously been described by Chris Milk in his TED talk as an empathy machine. It’s a nice, pithy high concept phrase that has in turn been repeated all over the place by journalists and commentators. A more empathetic world is a better world right? I mean, we all want to understand more, to empathise more, because that will mean that we care more. If we care more, we can’t fail to do more – at least that’s how the received wisdom goes. That means that VR is going to make the world a better place. We’re going to be immersed in worlds and introduced to people whose stories we must empathise with.

Chris Milk’s film has reached around 1.25 million views via TED and ‘VR = Empathy’ is a compellingly neat narrative – but with all respect to Chris and all the other creators (myself included) who want you to watch and engage with our media – we would say that wouldn’t we..?

L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

There’s a famous and almost certainly apocryphal story of how cinema audiences in 1895 fled in terror from the Lumière brothers 50″ film of a train (silently) thundering towards them. Whether or not the story is true, it demonstrates our belief and hope in the visceral power of media to create impact, make us feel and care and in turn act.

It will be entertainment, spectacle, sensation (depressing probably porn too) that power VR to a popular mass market. In our newly drawn media world the power of VR to act as an empathy machine has to be up-sold. Otherwise nobody will see your film. Nobody will empathise. Nobody will care.

Nick Fraser the commissioning editor of Storyville has spoken about ‘Why Documentaries Matter‘ and in a talk to the Frontline Club he outlined his thoughts and has written comprehensibly in a report for the Reuters Institute on the challenges of keeping documentary vital and relevant. Nick once told me that people want to believe that documentary can change the world, but that it doesn’t. People change the world. In the introduction to his paper for the Reuters Institute he quotes Simone Weil.

The most important modern philosophical problem is attention.

Simone Weil

Perhaps if the real problem we’re facing is with attention, then maybe VR has an opportunity, however fleeting to be the thundering train, the talkies, cinemascope, the perecpto of the moment? We’re beginning to think of VR as more of an attention machine that an empathy machine. If that leads audiences to empathy, laughs, tears, fear and all the rest then great.

So… Sure – VR is an empathy machine. Clap on those goggles, oil the empathy machine and get ready to pay attention, empathise, care – and act!









VR Play Day at the Pervasive Media Studio

The Echo Chamber – Notes 03

Sally recently spent an afternoon at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol attending their ‘Virtual Reality Graffiti Jam and Play Day’. The event provided a fantastic opportunity for us to try out a variety of VR platforms and tech and meet some interesting practitioners in the field.

Producing a VR film is a new adventure for Chromatrope and so the event was well timed to fit into the discovery stage of our production. There were some really helpful takeaways from the afternoon which will feed into the early stage of our project planning and have already helped direct us towards deciding on a suitable platform and story. More on that to follow in future posts…


One of the lessons from the day is that when a story is truly engaging, the immersive experience can be surprisingly convincing and emotionally powerful. Even with a fair level of background noise and the knowledge that other people are in close proximity, a good story melts away the self conscious feeling that you might look like a bit of an idiot to other people in the room.

An engaging story can also be more important than the type of headset you watch it on. An oculus headset looks set to be priced at over £400 when it’s released later this year. However, a Google Cardboard viewer can be bought for around £10. When a decent set of headphones is placed over the top of whatever headset you’re wearing, the success of the experience is all down to the story and the sound and not the platform. We want our film to be seen by as wide an audience as possible so for now a low entry point is of great importance for us.

Richards Crandon, director of On Par Productions was at the event with a couple of Samsung Gear set ups which were running some of his company’s recent productions. The Little Arrow and Conductor 360 films were both very engaging. What became clear from both films is that sound is very, very important for the 360 experience. Firstly it provides vital indicators for the viewer to turn, orientate and notice the thing that is happening (or about to happen) behind a current viewpoint. Secondly, it doesn’t pay to be too subtle with these indicators – if you miss the cue, the action moves on and you’ve missed the vital part of the story that just happened behind your back. Background noise can also be a distraction to the viewer and the subtleties of a ‘binaural’ experience can be easily lost below a general hubbub.

As well as helping to clarify some thinking about VR, the afternoon also raised some questions for discussion with the team as we move towards making our film. Where should the viewpoint go and how will it change? Can the viewpoint change within a scene (and if so how do you do it so the viewer won’t feel sick)? Will the user have control over motion and movement? Will there be interaction with the actors or is it purely about observation of events?

We hope to start answering some of these questions soon, but expect also to find lots more questions along the way. By blogging about the project we want to share our experiences with others and also keep a record of the process for ourselves so we’ll be ready for the next VR project when it comes along! Please join in the conversation via Twitter on #echochamberdrama.


Recent Intel on VR and the World of Publishing

The Echo Chamber – Notes 02

The Media Briefing has been addressing three key questions about the potential of VR in the world of publishing; What will it take for virtual reality to become economically viable for publishers, where is that tipping point of viability and where is the revenue?

Chris Sutcliffe has written three articles which attempt to address these questions separately. Together the articles investigate the current status of VR and look at what is required to provide the fertile conditions needed for VR to grow into both an affordable technology for publishers and an accessible experience for consumers.

In the first article Sutcliffe says that there have been a number of interesting experiments in VR documentary making, pointing to Hong Kong Unrest as an example. Productions like this have proved the potential for VR’s immersive qualities to provoke a new level of audience engagement with documentary storytelling. So what will it take for reporting like this be viewed alongside the news headlines of the future?

It’s one thing to do experiments, and quite another to make virtual reality one of your regular means of distribution. Issues of investment are certainly one consideration – though the cost of entry is lower than you might assume – but the real questions are these: When will there be enough of a userbase for it to be worth publishers’ time producing content for VR users? And how can they monetise them?

Sutcliffe points to the accelerating rate of technology adoption (as summarized by the Pew Research Centre) as evidence of the speed at which we can expect VR to become mainstream. The early adopters of VR have come to it through the games industry and it seems unlikely that journalism on a VR platform will become mainstream until it can be monetized. But Sutcliffe says that publishers existing partnership with advertisers could provide them with the experience and leverage needed;

While many publishers are still grappling with the issue of what a successful ad looks like on mobile, brands and advertisers are already experimenting with marketing services using VR platforms. In an article for AdWeek about the potential of advertising on VR platforms, Christopher Heine provides the following example: “The 360-degree videos will live on an Oculus content platform that’s set to go live early this year. Destination B.C. also plans to distribute the clips via a partnership with Thomas Cook, a U.K.-based travel agency that will outfit its U.K., German and Belgian locations with the Oculus Rift. ‘You don’t have to simply lean on telling consumers things like, ‘The trees are this big.’ That sense of being there is such a powerful tool,” notes Janice Greenwood-Fraser, a representative for the tourism authority. “It brings it to life in a way that no photo or regular video can.'”

Sutcliffe’s second article examines what conditions will be needed to tip VR towards mainstream distribution. The NYTimes’ recent experiment with VR saw them sending out 1.3 million free Google Cardboard headsets to readers of its print product. The project has been viewed as a success with average audience engagement times of 14.7 minutes, and the NYT is now planning future VR projects.

And of that 14.7 minutes figure, Andy Wright, senior vice president of advertising and publisher at The New York Times Magazine, said: “Given the average time spent within the NYT VR app is close to 15 minutes, an unheard of metric for digital media, it is clear that this experience resonated with viewers.”

YouTube’s Google Cardboard platform is now accessible to Android users as well as iOS, making a 360 viewing experience genuinely possible for any smartphone owner. The cost of camera rigs is coming down too so are the conditions for VR to take off here right now?

But there are other fundamental problems to be overcome. For instance, the body’s proprioception is keyed to adapted to your personal height and body type. For the same reason that mirror box syndrome can (reputedly) alleviate the pain of phantom limbs, the tricks virtual reality employs can stimulate a physiological response in the user. As a result, introducing too great a variance in the body type (height/weight/etc) means that an individual’s proprioception can be thrown off, breaking the ‘presence’ of the experience and arguably blunting the point of true VR. But, as a result of the efforts of the NYT and other publishers in pushing the new medium via the minimum viable product of Google Cardboard, in addition to the lower-than-expected price of the Samsung gear VR headset worldwide, it’s likely adoption of VR will be faster than we could have predicted even six months ago.

The third article looks at the way advertisers are investing in VR. As with native advertising, the success or otherwise of an advertisement is based on the trust a reader has with the host publication. Sutcliffe argues that publishers are in the best position to judge their own audiences, and they have the skills to produce the copy. An investment in in house VR could reap rewards for advertising revenue and documentary storytelling alike.

And with major audiences come major advertising opportunities. Whether that’s through content produced on behalf of brands in an incredibly immersive medium, or an event or brand producing it to bolster its ecommerce proposition, it’s evident that if 360 video offers savvy publishers a new way to engage audiences.

Watch this advert for mini (which the article points to). The short 360 film, which can be watched on a laptop or smartphone as well as with goggles, shows some interesting creative possibilities for both advertisers and dramatic storytelling..?

We’ve Been Commissioned to Make a VR Film!

The Echo Chamber – Notes 01

Here at Chromatrope we’re very excited to announce that we’ve just won a film commission. We’ve made plenty of films before including this recent batch for I Can Make, but this one is a bit different. We’re planning to document as much of the process as we can here, and we can’t say too much about it all at the moment. What we can say is that we’re making ‘The Echo Chamber’, a short virtual reality drama on the theme of dementia. We’re gearing up to a live action VR production which will also incorporate binaural sound recording and we’ve assembled a very experienced crew and a brilliant writer, sound designer and director. Pre-production starts in the new year, so keep checking back for news here.

James – @kidhelios

Working for Common Good

Over the last few years I’ve been an advisor to REACT (Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technologies). It’s been a great experience and really exciting to see such an amazing range of innovative new projects created. I was asked to write a piece for the ‘The Rooms‘ event, which celebrated four years of collaboration on the theme of ‘working for common good’ – James @kidhelios

There’s a wind of change a’blowin’ through business. The last few weeks have seen the launch of B Corps in the the UK and Kickstarter’s announcement of its reincorporation to become a benefits corporation. In real terms B Corps offers a fairly new way to structure and condition a business to be a meaningful social enterprise. In the five years that Kickstarter has been around it has always been profit making. By re-incorporating they are making a clear statement that they will never sell the company, and that their ethical ambitions are open and crystal clear to their investors and supporters.

One of the experiences in The Rooms

Amidst the enterprise scramble to re-imagine new ways of operating in a new world, there are plenty of startup and existing businesses who have jumped onto the social bandwagon and who are enthusiastically social-washing themselves to appear more ethically and socially responsible that they actually are.

But social enterprise is much more that placing stock photos of meadows filled with laughing children on the ‘about’ page of your website or stating boldly that you don’t dump nuclear waste, or deal in weapons of mass destruction. It’s actually much harder than it should be set up a business structured to operate in a different way.

There are plenty of people who might for instance consider setting up a cooperative, but the non-exhaustive list of options presents a bewildering array of at least sixteen legal forms and around ten different organisational types. Faced with these choices many new businesses opt for a straightforward limited company, which may not have socially or ethically ambitious articles of association at heart and which may not be the best option for them or for society in general.

Rather than the culture of suspicion that can be so evident in the world of venture capitalists and flinty eyed investors, we need instead a culture of permission. Triumphs should be celebrated and failures learned from. Ideas held in a knowledge commons, and enthusiasm and insights are shared with an applied and practical generosity, underpinned with the belief that we all benefit from ideas and projects that fly.

This approach extends beyond the ideas, individuals and projects involved in this newspaper, to offer new ways of operating to potential new business. These re-imagined models of working are becoming a requirement in the mutable and sometimes unsettling world that we live in where a job for life no longer exists, and where instead we nurture a framework of skills and relationships for life.

Projects like REACT demonstrate that it’s ok to be innovate in theory and practice, and that there are creative, social and business opportunities to be exploited for the common good.

The longer term benefits for all of us in generating new approaches to solving both old and new problems might in fact be REACT’s most important legacy.

James Richards is director of Chromatrope, a digital innovation consultancy