This special report was created by FastCo.Works,
a division of Fast Company, in partnership with MINI.
WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: that heady moment when a new visual technology positively captivates a generation of pioneering creatives with its sense of wild possibility and utter transformation. It happened at the turn of the 20th century with the invention of motion picture cameras, which ushered in an era of film innovation. Continuous action, close-ups, special effects, animation, and eventually sound—each new technique and technology inspired another.
It’s happening again with VR. Filmmakers the world over are experimenting like mad to develop what looks to be the next big medium. They’re testing and pushing and failing fast, racing to figure out how to optimize the technology itself, as well as its impact on storytelling. What, for instance, is the role of dramatic pacing when the viewer controls the action? How do you convey a character’s perspective when the viewer can look away at any point?
Brands are eager to play as well. Take MINI. Rather than a traditional 30-second commercial, the car company wanted to apply the technology to create something truly innovative: two short VR films. So MINI tapped production studio UNIT9, which had worked in VR for a couple of years. But with the technology evolving so rapidly, director Gevorg Karensky still found the assignment “tricky, scary, exciting, and challenging.” In other words: an ideal opportunity to break new ground.
How are the films that you made for MINI different in VR than if you had filmed them conventionally?
Gevorg Karensky: The first one, Real Memories, is about a therapist who’s trying to manipulate his patient’s thoughts and memories to make him believe he’s done something that he hasn’t. It mostly takes place in one room of an apartment. The VR makes you feel like you’re actually in the room with them, but you feel like you’re not supposed to be there. It’s like when you see two people arguing, having a very private moment.
Michelle Craig: There’s always a distance with a camera lens, but VR brings you quite close to the point of view of the center of the action, which is a perspective we haven’t had before—except maybe in some avant-garde films.
VR lets you build an entire environment for viewers to explore. How do you take advantage of that?
Karensky: We created different things to discover in the apartment, because you can look everywhere, all around you. For example, a calendar on the bookshelf keeps changing the years and the dates when the character has
This technology allows you to add layers of meaning and alternate experiences. But as a storyteller, how can you be sure people will notice
all the details?
Karensky: You leave them like bread crumbs and hope people find them. Usually in film, you’re framing one thought and the things outside of that don’t matter. In VR, everything in the frame is part of the composition, because someone could be looking at it. You have to account for literally every single object, every corner of the space.
Henry Cowling: What the technology provides us with is the ability to tell stories in an environment. Stories are now spatial, they are happening
all around us, and we are defining the ways of storytelling—the narrative techniques—to best service this mind-blowing technology.
Since VR films are still nascent, you don’t have anything to build on. There are no conventions. How did you begin this project?
Karensky: You start with a blank canvas instead of dealing with all the preexisting ideas and ways of making films that have been around for more than a century. If there had been a hundred completed projects in VR, we probably would have started referencing them. But here, you’re forced to come up with an idea that’s brand new. And that’s the tricky, scary, exciting, and challenging part of the whole campaign.
Craig: It’s a tough nut to crack. Everything is progressing at a pace that is almost impossible to keep up with. I think of the first VR project we did two years ago like a silent movie—and this is the first talkie.
Cowling: Projects like these are helping to define the future of VR as a narrative medium. And it’s interesting to watch how our language is evolving. We tend to talk about virtual-reality experiences as opposed to virtual-reality films.
The MINI films are very different from each other. Was the idea to apply VR in two distinct genres?
Craig: This was all about being experimental. In the second film, Backwater, we take a more traditional genre—one last heist—and see how it plays out in VR. You could have told it conventionally, but you wouldn’t have the sense of closeness to the characters and that voyeuristic feeling you get in the VR headset.
Karensky: In the beginning, the main character is standing on a boat, and a car approaches. In a traditional film, you would cut and see the car. But here, the viewer has to turn around to see the car approaching from a distance. We don’t cue it.
Karensky: We don’t want to tell you where to look. It’s more natural if you just discover it.
Which means VR offers different ways to see the same scene…
Karensky:That’s the interesting part. Where and when you look is a big question.
It seems to shift the point of view from the filmmaker to the viewer.
Karensky: As the filmmaker, you’re not fully in control of where the audience is looking in VR. It’s more like live theater.
But you don’t want them to miss key information or events.
Karensky: If everything is static, your eyes go everywhere. You don’t know what to focus on. But as soon as we introduce motion, your eyes track it.
We’re like animals in that way.
Does VR subvert traditional storytelling by giving the viewer control?
Craig: When you’re writing for traditional film or a commercial, you know a series of points to hit. In VR, there’s no rule book. You’re engaged in a story because you’re emotionally immersed rather than being carried by a singular narrative. That statement—the breadth of what it covers—is, excuse my French, #$%*&@ terrifying.
Craig: When I think about VR being here to stay and think about it as a more common filmmaking tool, there’s a lot to figure out. Let’s take Batman as an example.
The Dark Knight trilogy?
Craig: Yes. Imagine the thinking that goes into creating that perfect story. [Director] Chris Nolan has shot every scene in a way that tells me what to pay attention to, when to look at Christian Bale. If I saw it in VR, how do
I engage in the story when it’s my choice where I’m looking? It’s almost “choose your own experience.”
UNIT9 has worked on marketing campaigns for a variety of clients, from the band Arcade Fire to Unicef. What was different about this project?
Cowling: MINI is a cultural icon. So this was an opportunity to take a well-known brand into virtual reality. It’s a bit like introducing the queen to virtual reality. We wanted to treat MINI with respect in these films— because the cars play a key role in the stories—without making it feel like a crass, ordinary advertisement.
Craig: Using narrative VR in this way for a brand—as far as I know, it’s a first.
What does VR offer brands and marketers that’s unique?
Karensky: I think it’s about what brands want you to feel, not just what they want you to see.
Craig: VR is an emotional drive. The immediacy of it forces you to watch. You can’t go in and out of it the way you do with other media. And you’re creating an individual experience, something for an audience of one in a VR headset.
How important is the access that VR affords to unleashing some of this creative potential?
Cowling: In VR, we can make you fly, we can make you go inside the human body, we can tell stories that you can’t even begin to imagine yet. This technology is going to be used in all manner of ways, not just for narrative, but also socially and just as an interface for how we communicate with computers and communicate with one another. The possibilities are so boundless that I would hate for it to be tied down to just re-creating reality.
To watch MINI’s films, go to MINIUSA.com/GetConnected.
Ben Cosgrove for FastCo. Works
Illustration by Ollanski
Film director, UNIT9
Founder and creative
Creative director, UNIT9