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Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Murder Mystery Could Be First VR Feature Film

The filmmaker played with storytelling by giving Gear VR viewers four scenes to follow based on where they’re looking.

Behold MansLaughter, the marriage of virtual reality, murder mystery, choose-your-own-adventure, and the visual style of George Lucas’s famous dystopian film, THX 1138.

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Made specifically for Samsung’s virtual reality headset, the Gear VR, MansLaughter is billed as the first-ever VR feature film. The brainchild of filmmaker David Marlett, the movie brings viewers into the world of a cold-blooded killer, letting them choose how they watch the story unfold in a unique way made possible only because of VR.

After strapping on a Gear VR and loading up the movie, all viewers watch the same preamble, two minutes that set the stage for what’s to come: The employer of one of the women in the scene has won $265 million in the lottery, and the two women quickly hatch a plan to steal it for themselves.

Presenting that scene would work in any medium, but it’s what comes after that’s special for VR: four side-by-side scenes, each part of the story, and moving it forward at the same time, and each viewable only when you turn your head in its direction. Literally.

Imagine a big white square room with actors performing scenes in front and behind you, and to your right and left. You could only follow what’s going on with the scene you’re looking at.

That’s just how MansLaughter works, except everything is happening in virtual reality as the Gear VR headset determines which direction you’re looking in, and adjusts the scene you’re seeing accordingly.

Marlett told Fast Company that the inspiration for MansLaughter was Lucas’s debut feature, 1971’s THX 1138.

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“I was (and still am) working to get to direct a remake of THX 1138 as a VR film,” Marlett wrote in MansLaughter production notes he made available to Fast Company. “In that process, I was looking to film just the white void torture scene as a proof of concept. But lacking authorization at the time to do so, I became…inspired by the idea of telling a story in VR in such a white 360 [degree] space….to place you right in the middle of scenes playing out all around you in an unsettling shell of whiteness.”

As virtual reality hardware edges ever closer to mainstream availability–products like the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR, and HTC’s Vive are all expected to hit the market by early next year–there is an increasing focus on making cinematic VR content.

Many people are working on developing content for the platforms, and several companies are working on building cameras capable of shooting films for VR hardware. One company, Jaunt VR, is building both a custom high-end camera and an end-to-end production-to-distribution system. It is also helping filmmakers learn how to work in VR.

MansLaughter doesn’t take advantage of the 360-degree capabilities of many VR cameras. With those systems, it’s possible for viewers to see action going on in a single scene in every direction, much as we can by turning our heads in real life.

Rather, Marlett said he wanted to experiment with the idea of placing the four separate scenes side by side and letting viewers choose the way they take in the story. Because all four scenes progress at the same time, viewers will likely move between them, rewinding and fast-forwarding until they get a clear sense of how the story unfolds. Or they might watch each scene all the way through. It’s up to each person, and that’s exactly what Marlett wants. In fact, he clearly thinks the film will encourage multiple viewings.

In a version of the film that Fast Company saw, there were no visual cues pointing to important plot points. Marlett said in a future version, there will be, making it possible for people to switch between scenes at vital moments. But he clearly only did that because some people may have otherwise found themselves uncomfortable with storytelling as free form as MansLaughter.

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Tricky Geometry

One of the interesting visual elements of the film is that, even as you watch (and hear the audio from) one scene, you can see the edges of the scenes on either side.

Making this work required some tricky geometry, Marlett said.

“It was hard to write, trying to work in multiple quadrants,” he said, so you “understand where the actors are relative to what’s happening in other scenes.”

The MansLaughter script “went across long ways, rather than straight up and down,” Marlett explained, “because it had to be timed so perfectly, yet feel natural. You don’t want to give your plot away.”

In the production notes, he added that “We solved the geometry with a locked off [6K camera shooting at 60 frames per second] and long takes on a massive white…cyc stage…and very careful measurements for the placement of props, etc.”

Does it work? It’s hard to say. This is clearly an experiment in filmmaking, one that leverages some of the capabilities unique to VR, while intentionally eschewing others. Marlett, however, is not against filming with 360-degree cameras, or with a more traditional storyline. He’s currently in pre-production on a true full-length VR feature called Arapahoe, a film he expects to have a budget of $2.5 million.

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For now, though, he’s worked closely with Samsung to get MansLaughter finished in time for consideration for the 2015 Future of Storytelling prize. And finish it they did. Whether it will win is anybody’s guess. What is clear is that Marlett has made a film that stretches the limits of technology, and will force viewers to think about what they’ve seen.

It’s also clear that as cinematic VR storytelling progresses, we’re sure to see many, many more unique and innovative approaches. For those with access to VR hardware, this could well be a treat.

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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