Saschka Unseld is changing the way we watch movies. The Pixar veteran is now head of Oculus Story Studio, the production company responsible for the virtual reality short films Henry and Lost.
In a short interview for the Future of Storytelling summit, Unseld explains that virtual reality doesn’t just represent a new way to watch a film, it completely reshapes the way we experience stories.
While we watch a movie from a distance, virtual reality immerses us in a story. According to Unseld, the feeling of being inside a film changes the way we interact with, and relate to, characters.
It also necessitates completely different storytelling methods. For example, it’s conventional in movies to show characters in close-up when they are upset or crying—being close to a character allows us to see their emotions more clearly and helps us empathize with them. But in virtual reality, that closeness feels uncomfortable, even invasive. It’s more like the experience of watching someone cry in real life—being too close to them feels voyeuristic.
In fact, according to Unseld, virtual reality may help us empathize more completely with characters. For instance, he explains that he intended his short film Henry—about a porcupine who just wants to hug people, but can’t because of his quills—to be a comedy, but it ended up being a little sad. That’s because viewers get so close to Henry. They’re in the room with him, for example, when no one shows up for his birthday party. To some degree, because the film is so immersive, it lacks the necessary distance to make sad events feel funny.
While this may present challenges for VR filmmakers, it’s also, in a way, encouraging—virtual reality creates a unique kind of one-on-one relationship between viewer and fictional character, which can foster real empathy.
Unseld explains that he’s still figuring out the grammar of virtual reality, but he’s inspired, so far, by the way VR allows him to break down the fourth wall, constructing what he calls “audience-aware storytelling.”