Julia Sourikoff’s Five Pillars of VR Storytelling 

by Beyza Boyacioglu

Open Documentary Lab and VR@MIT, in partnership with Oculus Next Gen, invited Julia Sourikoff, Head of VR at Tool of North America, to deliver a lecture on the dos and don’ts of VR storytelling. Here are Sourikoff’s five pillars of VR storytelling and highlights from her lecture:

Why VR: Transcendence and Empowerment

Sourikoff began her lecture by emphasizing the psychology behind VR and 360 video. If “The computer offers a thrilling extension of human powers” as Janet Murray says in Hamlet and the Holodeck, how can the VR technology offer empowerment and transcendence to its users?

A personalized VR experience was suggested as a possible answer: In collaboration with Together We Are Stronger (a National Multiple Sclerosis Society awareness campaign), Tool created a 360 VR experience for an MS patient who is a former surfer. Sourikoff said such attempts to capture emotional resonance may offer transcendence and empowerment through VR.

Human-Centered Design: VR is a Somatic Medium

In VR, we are not watching a world but we are experiencing it. Rather than visualizing this world, we should be creating it through sensory inputs. At the center of this realm is the viewer, whose identity and purpose should be factored into the creation of the VR piece. Therefore, producing for VR requires a ‘human-centered’ design approach.

Sourikoff categorized the relationship between a VR piece and the user as active/passive and observant/participant, based on the level of interactivity of the VR piece. In addition, she emphasized the success of mixed reality pieces that offer a full body experience combining the virtual and the physical, such as Tool’s Eight Phases of Enlightenment.

Stop Thinking in Rectangles

VR storyboarding and scripting breaks away from traditional filmmaking processes. Field of vision and depth perception should be included in the pre-production stage as a part of the storytelling language.

VR producers must think about the full sphere (360-degree vision), rather than a film frame, and utilize environmental (360-degree) storyboarding techniques rather than conventional rectangular panels.

VR scripting should include a spatial dimension in addition to the temporal; quadrant blocking is a useful tool to undertake this multi-layered scripting task. Meanwhile, spherical blocking can be used to sketch the action within a scene.

This is Not a Film Shoot: Production Challenges

  • Set and lighting design have to be as minimal and natural as possible, as there is no space to hide behind the camera.
  • Since each scene is shot with multiple cameras, data management is an important issue.
  • Directional audio is significant in VR.
  • There is no live view; filming VR is basically shooting in the dark.
  • Always level the rig. If you are shooting in stereo, it is very difficult to fix this in post-production.
  • Avoid acceleration and maintain a consistent speed. Think about how you feel the plane speeding up, but once it reaches a consistent speed, you do not feel a thing.
  • Lens height, as in non-VR moving image, can communicate emotion and visceral reaction, as well as an advantaged position.
  • Avoid thin structures, semi-transparent surfaces, overlapping objects, and repeated textures because they are hard to stitch.
  • Avoid lens flare.
  • As always, testing and iteration are key.

Technology Influences Story: Future Forecasting

Watch out for WebVR, which is already available on most browsers. The fact that WebVR is headset agnostic will disrupt VR distribution and allow for the democratization of the medium.

Also look out for inside-out tracking (“untethered VR”), the positional tracking technology that does not require any sensors and is purely mobile. Hololens already uses this system. VR headsets will soon use this technology, as well as eye tracking.  

Custom peripherals (physical and haptic elements that complement the VR experience) will offer more mixed reality experiences.

With volumetric live action capture in green rooms, creating holograms of people will be possible.

The combination of photogrammetry and volumetric capture will blow our minds.

Julia Sourikoff is Head of VR at Tool of North America. Before joining Tool, Julia helped launch the annual Future of StoryTelling summit in New York, growing the company from a small start-up to an exclusive and oversubscribed thought-leadership event with an online presence of over half a million followers. At FoST, she specialized in content curation, partnership development, and experience design, working closely with the world’s leading brands, like American Express, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, and Time Warner.

Tool of North America, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Lions Festival. Tool of North America has created some of the most innovative VR/360 experiences to date both independently, and in partnership with South Park, Ford, MS Society, and more.

This event was made possible with the support from Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and MIT Innovation Initiative.