Mainstream VR: Ricardo Laganaro meets German Heller in #XRCrowd event

On June 17, Ricardo Laganaro, director of The Line, and German Heller, producer of Gloomy Eyes, met on a #XRCrowd event on Crowdcast to interview each other about their works and talk about VR and its audience. A recap of some the concepts they shared with us.

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So, personal story ahead: a few days ago I made my father, back from the hospital, try a VR headset for the first time. I was not sure where to start: a 360 video? Something more game-like? I wanted to find an experience that felt a bit… magical, to him, after those bad days. And that’s why I went straight for my favourite VR piece, recently made available on Oculus Store: A linha (The Line), directed by Ricardo Laganaro and produced by ARVORE.

Dad does not know English (nor Portuguese, for the matter), but the story is simple enough to understand: in a world of miniatures, Pedro faces his fear of change in the name of his love for Rosa, the girl he brings yellow flowers to every single day.

I do have pictures of those moments, but I promised dad not to share them here (the temptation, though…). However, let me tell you: to see him gaping at the setting and interact with it, to listen to him cheer out loud for Pedro (and scold him for being undecided), and to notice he was really moved by what was happening… Well, it made my day. And once again it confirmed something I already knew: VR and immersive works have a potentiality that goes beyond (beautiful) industry festivals, and goes beyond videogames (with all due respect for them). They have the power of touching us, the audience, those who don’t understand much about technology – and maybe don’t even need to – but who just want to be part of a story. To see characters come to life, to share a moment with them and to feel in a magical world they can get lost into when they are wearing that headset.

#XRCrowd event: The Line meets Gloomy Eyes to interview each other

A few days ago, Ricardo Laganaro joined a Crowdcast event organized by ARVORE and #XRCrowd for an interview with German Heller (3DAR), producer of another favourite story of mine, Gloomy Eyes, directed by Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado.

Both works, The Line and Gloomy Eyes, were presented at the Venice VR at the Venice Film Festival, where I fell in love with them, and in many other international festivals. The Line was also available, during the past last few days, at the Tribeca Virtual Arcade showcase of the Cannes XR (here).

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A moment from the #XRCrowd event

During this one hour conversation, Laganaro and Heller talked about the creative processes behind their works, how the stories were born and developed, what needs to be done in VR to make it economically productive and how they reached their audience.

And this last one, in particular, is a central topic, often discussed among those who are working on immersive productions.

You see, I may not be an expert in technology, but I know a lot about audiences. It’s clear to me that while some installations and pieces out there are absolutely stunning, to reach a popular consent you need to do something different. We are not all videogamers, we do not all want to “escape rooms” (or get stuck in them…), and we are not always in the mood to reflect on the problems of this world through – often amazingly well done – 360° documentaries.

An underline to do at this regard: mainstream audience is not a synonym of a lack of quality in tastes. I would not have a cultural association about fans if I thought so. Some “mainstream” productions in cinema, for example, are such immense masterpieces that I would proudly scream it in Lars Von Trier’s face, and goodbye, sir, it was nice knowing you.

Also, we need to admit something: while Malick’s movies may be your favourite thing on Earth (they are certainly one of mine!), most people would have run away from cinema a LONG time ago if they were the only thing cinema had to offer.

Does this mean that we should only go for mainstream? Obviously not. But it also means that, even in VR, there must be productions that target outside festivals and that look beyond the already consolidated communities of videogamers, to offer something that even someone like my dad would want to try and could fall in love with. And, you know? There are a lot of people like my dad.

The Line, Gloomy Eyes, Wolves in the walls, Arden’s Wake, Crow: the legend (just to mention some) are in the not-so-long list of VR productions that can touch a bigger audience and, therefore, could really impact the popularity (and consequent diffusion) of virtual reality today.

The interview on Crowdcast gave Laganaro and Heller the chance to discuss some very interesting aspects of their work with the viewers and I refer you to the full video that you can see at this link.

What I’d like to share with you now, however, are five concepts that I was already familiar with but that I also found particularly interesting: both as a user and as someone who is taking a closer look at what kind of content could really talk to a specific audience – the one that needs to be convinced to try VR or that is at their first experience with this medium.

NB: the citations have been slightly modified to make them more flowing in their written form


1. World building before the story

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The world of Gloomy Eyes and of The Line

The story is important, but in VR you have the characters, you have the world, and you also have the experience, much more intense than in a regular movie. So, we wanted to create the characters and the world first, and then go to the experience and let the story come, let the characters dictate it […] and to be really honest at the time, I felt like, oh my god, what am I doing? This is not how you should do things! You should know what you want to do”. But after Gloomy Eyes I feel much more confident with this way of working, because in this way you just leave the decisions to the last moment and you have so much more information to make them in the best possible way. […] I enjoyed (this process) much more than just having a vision, writing a script, storyboards, pre-production product, everything linear – you decide something and then you execute it. It seems a very efficient and predictable process, but you feel like you lose some of the magic of just going into the unknown… which is very unsettling for people on finances or for people who want to see predictors. But if you go there with the right environment, you can get to so much more beautiful results.

German Heller (Gloomy Eyes)

2. Working on “active witnessing” and third person narratives

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Gloomy Eyes

This is a way of telling stories where you are a witness. When we started doing the original pitch for Gloomy Eyes we came together with a trendy concept named active witnessing. We were trying to find a term for this: you’re watching something, but you’re not entirely out of it. But you are witnessing it, so you’re not going to do something that you might do right or wrong. You don’t have a mission, but you can somehow, depending on what you choose to look at, discover new things or have a different experience.
So, I think there are degrees in VR that you can play with, degrees of involvement as an audience, and it really comes to a preference: sometimes I just feel like watching a movie, sometimes I feel like playing a video game. It’s a complete different active-vs-passive kind of experience. […] Of course we direct you to watch this, we put a little light there, a little sound that says “There is the action, you should watch”, but we are just giving you some hints and this is a degree of freedom that is a little more than just flat narrative from a movie and it is a little less than the kind of interactivity you have in The Line. […] When you can fail at something (interactivity), your whole mood changes. “Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? Should I do this?” […] Sometimes it’s nice not to be challenged and to be able to stay in the wonder of being in a different space.

German Heller (Gloomy Eyes)

3. The importance of an integrated, but easy interactivity

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Memories kept in a photo album, the first moments inside The Line

[…] depending on the experience, if it’s more narrative, I think it’s harder to make the user have a body and exist for real there. If he did, he would try to do a lot of things but you cannot predict them all in the space you’re creating so then people get frustrated […] How can we make the story really integrate with the interactions in a way that one could not exist without the other? For example, in The Line […] we did a lot of user testing – and we saw a lot of people who were scared because they were not gamers […] these people will never connect with the story and the characters, because they are just trying to do things right.
So that’s why we created interactions that were very simple and with objects that people could relate to in the physical world. Objects they knew how they worked. And we made a cycle. So the first time, the thrilling of discovering how these things work is part of the excitement of the experience, […] knowing that world. The second time is kind of boring already, but it’s good because we are talking about routine and we want to make people feel like, “Oh, I know everything already”, so they don’t have to think about interactions anymore.
But then we change the routine and the character has to learn how to live with this new routine and the user has to learn again how to interact with the experience. And after that we have this moment where the user has to crawl on the floor. There are no voiceovers anymore and the character even asks the user to help. It’s a new moment for everyone.
So, if we think of the viewer not as a player but as (someone who is able) to progress with the characters thoughout the whole experience, then we can have a user who is not a body or a character, but, nevertheless, is very active in the story.

Ricardo Laganaro (The Line)

4. Balancing narration and voiceovers

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Gloomy Eyes

We have so many unanswered questions about the narration and the role of the narrator right now. […] When you see a VR, you just don’t pay attention to the voice.
We are always trying to adapt to where the audience is in terms of getting used to the new experience of being in VR: narration sometimes can be too much and what happens is that you miss the story. So at first, in Gloomy, we did not want a narrator at all, but then we would give the headset to somebody and they were like “Oh, really cool. I didn’t understand anything, but I liked it” […] And that was not good… So, after that, we partnered with Atlas V, and they strongly suggested that we put a narrator in. We brought in Colin Farrel [… ] and people were listening to him but maybe getting a 30% out of it. So, in episode 2 and 3 we kinda balanced it a little more and then we found out that maybe we had to create scenes that had flat moments, in which nothing really happened, and that is when the voice comes in […]. In this new project that we’re producing, we’re going to make the story work as much as we can without the narrator and once we have the full layout, what we could not tell, visually, we will tell through a narrator.

German Heller (Gloomy Eyes)

For us it was different, because we wanted to have the feeling of being inside a fairy tale and a fairy tale needs a narrator. […] We tried to create this ballet between the user, the experience and the narrator and a feeling of complicity between the three of them. We wanted an experience for people who had never tried VR before, and so we wanted to make them feel safe […] That’s why we made that intro: everything is black and there is just one thing that you have to look at and then the narrator tells you “You can (do it)”. And because we had this additional layer of interaction, we could use the narrator to explain people what they had to do. The magic comes in making it in a way that is not boring nor too literal and didactic… but giving some hints in the speech and creating a personality for the narrator. […] So, in our case we thought that the narrator could be more like a guide who really knows that experience […] and when the routine is broken, we don’t have the narrator anymore. By then, the user is already confident enough to try things by themselves and when everything is solved the narrator comes back to enjoy this new cycle, this new thing. Everybody is learning to live this a routine together, including the narrator himself.

Ricardo Laganaro (The Line)

5. The diverse soul of a “new” medium

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We wanted to show Brazil and to have the Brazilian landscape in the experience, but in a very normal and subtle and natural way. Because when you see movies about Brazil, you usually see the jungle, you see samba, you see football: so how the gringos see Brazil… but (you rarely see) a regular story set in Brazil, like we are used to see regular love stories in New York, in Rome, in Paris.
And since this is a new medium, we really think this is a unique opportunity to start in a more diverse way, having stories from different places that people are not very used to see. But stories that do not have to be about those places because when you see a film in Brazil or in Argentina, it’s a film about Brazil, it’s a film about Argentina. […]
So when we got selected for Venice […] we said, let’s have a Brazilian actor and show the Brazilian talent but without it having to be a caricature of Brazil. And then we got Rodrigo (a/n Santoro). He was in a very good role in Westworld and when we got to discuss the project with him, we knew he understood how to create a story that happens in Brazil, but it’s not about Brazil. A story that can be universal, can be good for everyone, but would have this second layer: there is a personality (to the narrator) and he is a Brazilian. He has a perfect English, but when he says Pedro or Rosa, he does it in a Brazilian accent. We were very careful with that because I think this is a beautiful way to make it normal, to see different landscapes in entertainment, and to have different voices, different colors and different textures.

Ricardo Laganaro (The Line)

Both Gloomy Eyes and The Line are available on the Oculus Store for Oculus Quest (The Line here | Gloomy Eyes here). And while the store certainly has amazing games you could spend whole nights on, there is so much more to a headset than that. So, take a leap of faith and go enjoy these two stories. If you already haven’t, you will get crazy about virtual reality after that. I talk from experience.

After all, as Ricardo Laganaro said during the #XRCrowd event:

“I think in the end Gloomy Eyes and The Line are two optimistic experiences. I think that’s why they are resonating so much worldwide. Nowadays, people need stories that can help them have good feelings, stories about connecting. We need to connect with people more than ever in this period, and experiencing a story where this is made possible is kind of an inspiration”

First of all, thank you, #XRCrowd and ARVORE, for this great live conversation!
Please, if you love VR or are just curious about it, visit #XRCrowd‘s profile on Crowdcast to receive updates on their events and find out more about the projects ARVORE has in store on their website!
And, obviously, thank you 3DAR and ATLAS V!

You can read XRMust‘s interview to Gloomy Eyes‘ directors Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado at this link. Also, enjoy this very useful list of VR experiences made by our friends from Loud and Clear Reviews and this review in German by the great Pola Weiss.

As for The Line, I forward you to our interview with Ricardo Laganaro on XRMust (in Italian here) and to the video of the award cerimony at the 76th Venice Film Festival, where The Line won for Best VR Experience.

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