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Screenwriting for Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (or VR in the trades) is a relatively new media format that places the viewer at the center of a 360-degree environment. Using a headset (like the Occulus Rift) or even just a smart phone, you can "look around" an environment as if you were physically there.

There's an entirely new visual language being developed for this format. Most VR productions can't rely on the familiar tools of editing, camera movement or multiple angles to tell a story (and in fact, most VR productions today don't tell a story - they're observational, like the earliest films of the Lumiere Brothers). But narrative VR production is inevitable. Since it's all so new, we find ourselves in the unique position of having to invent methodologies for it.

I recently had an opportunity to develop a narrative VR concept. I can't tell you much about it, except that it called for a script, which I wrote earlier today.

At first, the script looked much like any narrative script I've written: A slug-line at the top of the scene, action descriptions down the left side of the page, dialog in the middle. After all, this thing is a movie, even if it's presented in an unusual way. But something about the format bugged me.

VR is subjective entertainment in a way that "traditional" cinema is not. Sure, with cinema, each camera angle is subjective, but the combination of angles is meant to spread that subjectivity around, so that we absorb a scene not as individuals, but as a sort of multiplicity of identities. The moviegoing experience multiplies that further, as each person in a movie theater (or on a living room couch) observes the screen from a slightly different angle. But VR is viewed by an individual, from just that one vantage point. The viewer can "look around" a VR environment, but there is only one vantage point, and it belongs to (and - this is the illusion - is controlled by) the individual viewer.

As a result of this necessary subjectivity, it became hard to write the screenplay without acknowledging the viewer's position in the space. I wrote sentences such as "we are seated at the table" - something I'd never do in a traditional script.

But even that didn't quite sit well. Who is this "we" of which I write? There's no "we" in the individual VR experience. The viewer is emphatically individual - just one person wearing a headset.

So I went back and changed all those first-person-plural sentences to first-person-singular: "I am seated at the table". Suddenly, the entire script transformed. Reading it, I felt that it captured much more precisely the subjectivity and personal-presence of the virtual reality experience.

So, to a brave new world of narrative VR production, I humbly offer my own contribution: When you write for VR, remember that you're writing for a single viewer who is at the center of whatever universe you're creating. In other words, write in first-person-singular.


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