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Virtual Reality Is A Renegade Technology That’s Disrupting The Creative Process

Framestore VR Studio creative director Resh Sidhu on the questions, challenges, and creative opportunities in VR storytelling.

Virtual Reality Is A Renegade Technology That’s Disrupting The Creative Process
Fantastic Beasts VR experience [Photos: courtesy of Framestore]

I’m far from the first person to suggest that creative companies are currently at a crossroads. Everything around us is shifting, from the media and platforms we’re expected to navigate, to the kinds of ideas our clients expect from us. And it seems that increasingly, we’re falling short of those expectations. Why? A failure on our part for not changing the creative ways we work with technologists and partners to come up with fresh ideas.

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Fortunately, another parallel revolution is taking place inside the creative process itself, and it’s being driven by the still-emerging medium of virtual reality. The sheer amount of problem solving, rule breaking, and inventiveness the VR production process demands is reshaping the way creative and technologists do their work and work together, setting the stage for never-before-seen kinds of creativity that will push storytelling forward.

The Big “What If?”

There is always a rocky period around the birth of a new medium, when naysayers decry the loss of the old and work to minimize the potential of the new. But it’s clear at this point that virtual reality has been a gift to the creatives who are pioneering it. Old ways of thinking bring the same old results, but when you are working in an undefined space, there is no tried-and-true process to fall back upon–new ideas and experimentation are the only ways to succeed. VR has forced us to work outside our comfort zones. Our parameters and our structure have been wiped away, no longer are we producing our work from straightforward scripts and storyboards, or only worrying about what’s inside the frame. Years from now, we will be experimenting with something that was sparked by VR, and we will be reshaping the creative process again–a cycle that should be nontraditional in its roots, just like what VR is bringing in our creative processes with clients today. But only when we aren’t scared of the big “what if?” and embrace the moonshot thinking required to work in VR will we be able to help move this medium forward to its full potential.

Something Everyone Needs To Invest In

We are challenged to account for every single detail around us, even as we work without a map. But this challenge, as with most things in the creative process, comes at a price. Let me be frank, good VR is not cheap, and neither is 360 video, which can start at $150,000, with some projects even starting at $1 million. Cost has a huge impact, but not investing in good VR also has major consequences. Producing good VR requires a significant budget and investing in certain levels of expertise. It’s not a last minute add-on. It’s also essential to have a strategic vision for VR and AR that works best for your brand or objective. Those who are thinking about the way these technologies play in their future will be prepared when that time comes. A perfect example, VR is already being introduced to industries once thought irrelevant to the medium. Fidelity Investments, a far cry from the entertainment-driven industries most associated with VR, just announced they’re using VR to help HR professionals assess employees’ retirement plans. It’s about future-proofing your brand, business, or industry, and adapting to changing consumer behaviors when new technologies arrive.

At the moment, VR is really about lessons learned. It’s in an exciting (and frightening) experimentation stage, something that might not be perfect during the first go-around but should still be invested in. This is the way we will start breaking new ground and challenging the norms. By doing this, we can learn something new about VR, and it will impact business in ways we didn’t ever think possible years ago.

Your Leap Of Faith Will Create Better Work

Is all of this scary and challenging? Of course! But that’s exactly why it’s so rewarding. Working in VR is a leap of faith that requires a high level of trust and collaboration between teammates and from clients alike, and ultimately, that’s what produces better work. Those who are intimidated by the unknown or who don’t enjoy a little chaos tend to shy away from this environment. It’s a medium for intrepid adventurers, people who revel in solving the unsolvable, are unfazed by the impossible, and who thrive in adversity. And beyond shining a light on the bravest creatives among us, it has brought together disciplines that were traditionally kept separate–data scientists, architects, hackers, coders, designers, and UX experts can now be paired with directors, VFX artists, directors of photography, and set designers to create something none of us could produce on our own.

When we worked on the Fantastic Beasts VR experience, a collaboration with Warner Brothers, this was the first time that we worked on a project that pushes the limits of mobile VR with an unprecedented level of interactivity and immersion never seen before with the aide of a controller. Here, we shook up the creative process, used diverse skill sets, and had multiple teams collaborating together (in a “fail fast, learn quick” approach) with new hardware, the Google Daydream. We were challenged at every point in the process, taking that leap of faith together and bringing the magic of this project to life.

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Just as this is uncharted territory to those creating the content, it is also new waters for the businesses commissioning these projects. The same taste for adventure and relative comfort with uncertainty is required of our clients. VR projects rarely emerge fully formed just as they were initially pitched, and, for businesses not knowing exactly what they are paying for, it can be unsettling. The straightforward, familiar process of pitching on a brief is out the window. The technology is changing at exponential speed that it’s almost impossible to keep up, like new headsets coming into the market everyday, and there are just too many other variables that can occur during production. VR directors, producers, and technologists have a responsibility to educate their clients on this new way of working, from the leap of faith that is required during production, to the new opportunities (as well as the limitations) inherent to the finished product.

As the years have passed, VR content creators are no longer flying by the seat of their pants–this is the chapter that sees us reaping the benefits of exploration. The new creative process that has emerged is malleable but has some consistency. It always requires true collaboration. It asks us to experiment, test, and experiment again. When it’s done correctly, it produces experiences that inspire awe and euphoria like no other. VR’s new storytellers and creators are just beginning to understand its true power, as we are on the precipice of evolving into a new dimension of possibilities.

Resh Sidhu is a creative director at Framestore VR Studio.