Narrative Form

Virtual reality represents a new narrative form, one for which technical and stylistic norms are in their infancy.

The authors of this report have concluded that some fundamental components of narrative remain massively important to documentary storytelling, whether in traditional media or VR. These are primarily characters, actions, emotions, locations, and causality. They need to be present and understood by the audience for the work to produce a satisfying and compelling experience. Likewise, audience members benefit from being guided through the experience—directing their attention and exposing narrative elements at the right time to keep viewers engaged, without their getting bored by having too little to absorb or confused by too many story elements introduced with no organization. Few journalists would be unfamiliar with these ideas. However, VR presents new changes and challenges around delivering narrative elements.

Our research indicates that producers must exert directorial control in order to deliver those “satisfying and compelling” narrative elements mentioned above. While simply placing the camera in an interesting location can make the user feel present, this does not on its own produce an effective journalistic experience. However, many basic techniques available to traditional documentary directors present problems when working in VR. For example, directors cannot quickly cut between angles or scenes (a primary technique for shaping the audience experience in traditional video) without severely disorienting users. There is practically no 360-degree archive footage directors can draw upon. The camera cannot be panned or zoomed, and if a videographer wants to light a scene for narrative effect, the lighting equipment is difficult to hide.

So, we see two broad strategies for directors to exert control over how the narrative is incorporated into the experience. (These are not mutually exclusive.) The first is for the team in the field to direct the action around the camera. The second is to supplement the raw, immersive video by layering other content into a scene and/or including extra CG scenes before and/or after the live action scenes. In this project we called the CG scenes “interstitials” and they were crucial narrative and framing devices.

Regarding the first strategy of directing action in the field, traditional documentaries commonly feature “set pieces”—often interview formats, but sometimes coordinated action or even staged reenactments. Some documentary makers are uncomfortable with the staged action or reenactments for stylistic or ethical reasons. These preferences may need to be reexamined in the context of VR, where there are fewer available techniques for shaping narrative.

The Frontline Ebola documentary uses a lot of the second technique, supplementation. Scenes made entirely from computer-generated graphics introduce the story; set up the context of each immersive, live video scene; and close out the experience. The producers also layered 2D video clips into the 360-degree scenes. These 2D inlays can be valuable for adding background content and focusing a user’s attention on a specific element of the story. However, by supplementing the direct recording of the scene, some viewers may feel less immersed—as is predicted by the framework of immersive factors outlined in the theory section of this report (specifically, that model would say the producers’ decision to adulterate the raw footage reduced the experience’s fidelity). It would be valuable to conduct controlled audience research on this. The producers would have preferred that more 360-degree footage be available, so they could have used less supplementation.

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