Reclaim Your Screen Performance With VR

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Photo Source: Wevr

Any actor who’s done their share of film work is familiar with the debilitating fear that comes before seeing their performance with an audience for the first time. Which takes did the director go with? Did your favorite scene get cut? Was the lighting flattering? With theater, there’s significantly less anxiety when it comes to agency over one’s performance. Actors are in complete control of their delivery onstage—so long as they remember their lines.

Technology today is working to meld these two mediums to bring immersive narrative pieces that inspire empathy, connectedness, and engagement in ways that are unparalleled.

READ: “How to Connect With an Audience”

Virtual reality, powered by companies like Oculus and Wevr, has taken the gaming world to another level, with players controlling more of their surroundings than ever before. And actors are now getting involved beyond voicing the games’ characters. In 2013, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe starred in “Beyond: Two Souls,” a choose-your-own-adventure drama that spliced together elements of motion-capture technology, performances delivered by the award-winning actors, and the player’s own decisions, weaving together a story about coming of age, familial bonds, and the supernatural.

More recently, narrative filmmakers have jumped on the VR train and have begun working out ways to adapt the collaborative viewer-creator process to a more traditional and linear storytelling format. Writer-director Janicza Bravo is one such filmmaker.

“I was a little afraid of it,” she admits about working on a VR film, “and I didn’t want to enter into something I didn’t know how to do. Being a lady in directing and filmmaking, I’m OK with people saying, ‘I don’t know.’ But on the other end, if I say I don’t know something, it becomes a sign of this bigger thing. It can make people nervous about your ability.”

But with her roots in the New York theater scene, the now L.A.–based Bravo found her stage experience lent itself well to working with actors for her short film “Hard World for Small Things.” Initially, the highly technical aspect of shooting a VR film was a turnoff for Bravo, and she rejected the offer to direct. But Wevr’s commitment to getting her on board and compensating her for her vision outweighed that fear.

Starring Lakeith “Keith” Stanfield (“Straight Outta Compton”), Brandon Scott (“Blair Witch”), and Hannah Heller, the short film follows three friends as they drive through their L.A. neighborhood on a sunny day. The viewer is in the backseat listening in on the conversation while fully immersed in the visual narrative. Other supporting characters enter the picture, including two women arguing on the sidewalk, seen as the car pulls up to a bodega, an elderly woman who gets in the car, and two police officers who approach the protagonists. There’s one cut in the whole film that takes us into the corner shop before culminating in tragic miscommunication.

“It was choreographic the way [Bravo] directed it,” says Heller of the experience. “It was like a dance, because it was all one take. We’ve all seen those impressive single takes in big movies that move like they’re on a metronome or something. It was about hitting these moments where the world is colliding and expanding.... Like theater, it was about listening.”

The fluid, 360-degree nature of VR means everything visible is part of the set and being able to deliver a performance was essential for the film’s necessarily long takes. Therefore, casting actors she could trust was paramount for Bravo, who was blocks away after her three leads drove off with cameras already mounted and rolling. Shot in a single day, she held a rehearsal the day before to determine blocking and timing.

“It brought me back to the space I knew best, which is directing a play,” she says. “That was the easiest part, working with the actors and building a space for them. It was like theater in the round with cameras everywhere.”

“I think the viewer feels more active,” she adds. “It feels like you’re creating memories.”

While the success of guiding a viewer through a linear VR story—using voiceover, visual cues, and sounds to attract and direct his or her attention—still has to catch up with the technology, there’s a promising space for the VR actor that hints at a reclamation of the screen performance.

Want to see if there are any VR projects currently casting? Check out our film audition listings!

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Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
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