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How Do You Tell a Story in Virtual Reality?

For filmmakers moving into the new medium, the question is what to keep -- and what to throw away.

Pavr / "Teleportaled"

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the “Wild West” of virtual reality, but as one developer recently told me, it is good at “capturing moments of wonder and sadness.”

Coming face to face with a giant but harmless animal? Wonderful. Gaining empathy for a far-off country hit by natural disaster? Sadness.

A lot of VR content is based around these moments, and is accordingly labeled as an “experience.” A Los Angeles studio called Pavr wants to move the needle toward “story.”

“We’re seeing lots of impressive pieces, but we weren’t seeing a lot of narrative entertainment,” Pavr co-founder Mike Ashton said in an interview with Re/code. “A lot of people diving into the VR space are saying, ‘You have to throw away all the fundamental parts of storytelling and start fresh.’ Our mentality is, you still need character and scene and tone to make something entertaining.”

Pavr’s first two videos are comedies: “Teleportaled,” a sci-fi short about a mysterious device found in a warehouse, and “Passport to Adventure With Amanda Lund,” a mock travel video. Both can be viewed on virtual reality headsets, or just viewed on YouTube, with the user clicking and dragging to change where they’re “looking.”

One of the biggest challenges in virtual reality filmmaking is that, unlike normal filmmaking, there is no “frame.” So rather than turning the camera to point at something else or editing to a different angle, filmmakers have to find new ways to direct the attention of an audience that can look anywhere — and that’s a feature, not a bug.

“VR feels a little more theatrical, which is really cool and fun for actors because it lets them explore the space and be creative,” Ashton said. “But it’s also fun for us, because it feels less like a machine and a little more organic. Right now, it’s an experiment, and a real fun one.”

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