Light Sail VR: Interactive Stories are Both Art and Process
The two Co-Founders behind Light Sail VR and makers of Speak of the Devil (the VR horror project that embraced multiple outcomes) spoke with VRTL about the art of narrative in virtual reality. Matthew Celia & Robert Watts put in serious hours to thinking about how to tell a story and what effect presence and perspective will have on viewers. They share their insight and findings with us in their usual friendly and engaging manner.
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Justine: Hi, I’m Justine Harcourt de Tourville, VRTL’s Editor-in-chief. And as part of our podcast series, we are pleased to bring you two co-founders from Light Sail, Matthew Celia and Robert Watts, and they’re going to join us in this episode to talk about storytelling, narrative perspective and presence and how they work in VR. And as the makers of speak of the devil and interactive horror piece with many potential outcomes, they have spent time investigating all the different components that go into telling a compelling story and we’re delighted that they’re going to share it with us. So stay tuned. Welcome Robert and Matt from Light Sail, a question. What is Light Sail doing these days?
Robert Watts: Uh, so we’re an immersive media production company. so we do 360 video, 180 video interactive video, unity work and we’re starting to dabble in AR. So basically if it’s immersive, we like to touch it.
Justine: Okay. And you’re based here in Los Angeles?
Matthew Celia: Yeah, we have our office here on Wilshire Boulevard in the middle, the heart of the city. It’s great. We just recently expanded this year. I got a few more edit bays. We had a big team of people working on a bunch of projects for Refinery 29 and Conde Nast. Um, and uh, you know, it’s nice to have a little bit of room to keep innovating and exploring this awesome new medium.
Justine: Well, let’s talk about this fun medium. Is there, let’s talk about something, a film that a lot of people have seen, maybe a little controversial and kind of get you pick your thoughts about it because we can talk some more about story. Let’s talk about the limit.
Matthew Celia: Yeah. Robert Rodriguez project that was done, uh, with STX surreal, really fascinating, launched on Oculus. It’s actually a VR 180 a film. I think they shot it on like a red camera and I think they did all the conversion into stereo in post. Really fascinating project that got a lot of buzz online and got a lot of controversy. And I think that’s good. Like I think early on in this medium, you know, we need projects that are going to push the limit, not to drop upon. Um, but try new things. And I think it’s important that every creator kind of has their own voice. I, I really enjoyed certain aspects of it and I really didn’t enjoy certain other aspects of it. I think POV VR is very difficult and we get a lot of requests from clients to do POV. And when I say Pov for those who don’t know, That means like you have a body or you’re an actual character and you can like see your hands and you are like somebody else. And like the problems with POV from my perspective are 1: it’s you, not your body. So there’s some body transference issues that could be distracting. Right. And 2: it’s technically very difficult to pull off most of the time.
Justine: In terms of character because how do you a whole character and you don’t even know who you are.
Matthew Celia: It’s hard to be the protagonist, right? Like especially in video, in video you don’t have as much interaction as you do. Like in a game engine VR where you can pick up objects and you can solve puzzles and you can shoot at bad guys. Right? Like in video, you can’t talk back to the characters, you can’t have a dialogue, you can’t choose certain things. Interactive video is more like an immersive theater, right, where you are still observing but you’re in the story. But for you to be the protagonist, like it’s very difficult for you to have any sort of growth. Which is why when we write projects for VR, oftentimes we make the camera and not necessarily the protagonist but maybe like the antagonist or somebody who’s like narratively supposed to be in the scene but isn’t the driving emotional arc
Justine: So the supporting character?
Matthew Celia: Exactly. Yeah.
Justine: So you can still technically win an Oscar for your participation.
Matthew Celia: Right, exactly. I think one of the things about the limit that was very challenging was the fact that it moved the camera a lot. It was a VR one ADP, which solves a lot of technical issues of doing a POV project. But it also did things like it would like force you to look up or force you to look down and when watching a headset, sometimes I found myself being a little nauseous because I wasn’t actually looking up or looking down. But you were forced to but you were forced to. I think once I got over that and it took me about four viewings to like make it all the way through and then I think my stomach got a little more used to it. Then I was able to kind of like enjoy it a bit more. And you know, I thought that the production value was very good. I thought the special effects are really good. I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing and the acting and I think that that, but that’s like a personal taste thing. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of writing in 2D films a lot of times either. So I don’t think it has anything to do with the medium itself. Other than to point out how difficult I think it is to write like natural dialogue with a character when you have interaction. Like there were these moments that were very uncomfortable when she was like, you don’t talk much, do you? And I was like, all right, that’s a little on the nose for me. You know, can we find something maybe a bit different at the same time, you know, I remember Robert and I pitching on a project that asked us to do a VR thing where we’d like look up and look down and do all those things and we told their company that we didn’t think that that would work and we didn’t think that would be a good VR experience.
Matthew Celia: And The Limit basically does exactly what that other project did. And we thought, well, okay, maybe there is maybe with some more developments, more iterations. Like maybe there is a way to make this work. I mean, obviously a lot of people really enjoyed it. You know, a lot of people didn’t. But the same can be said for any piece of content out there.
Justine: And absolutely true. It’s a matter of taste. Robert, do you have anything to add about The Limit or storytelling in general in this form?
Robert Watts: Yeah, well I would just say when it comes to POV, I tend to shy away from it because for me it breaks the immersion. If I am not the same sex as a character that I’m being asked to represent or if I’m not, you know, the same race, you know, it’s instant like, oh well that’s not me. I don’t buy into it and I’m already distracted by not the narrative itself. Because really you want people to care about the story and less about like who I am, what I’m playing, what I’m supposed to be doing. I should just be taken off on an adventure thrill ride. So POV is hard that way, especially when you’re moving cameras as well. We tend to feel that there’s always frames within frames. And if you, you know, use your blocking and your art direction correctly, you can direct the viewer’s attention where you want them to look without having to force them to like look up, look down, look left, look right. You know, when we’re working with writers, we always say, hey, don’t put in any of the blocking. Don’t put them in any direction. Just describe a really rich visual world around us. And then the director will work with the production designer and say, oh, hey, we should put this over here so that when the viewers looking left and this big action set pieces coming up, they’re going to inherently want to look to the right and see the car explosion and see the characters doing all their actions.
Justine: So let the director do his job or her job.
Matthew Celia: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Justine: No, that’s important. What about story branching? I mean this is something it sounds like you do a lot of or deal with.
Matthew Celia: Yeah. Um, about a year ago Robert and I released our experiment project called speak of the devil, uh, which is available on Oculus rift and Oculus go and on daydream. And it is our initial steps into what we consider a mesh narrative. And we kind of coined that term because unlike branching narratives like Bandersnatch, blackmailers, Bandersnatch, a mesh narrative just places you in the world and you can move around it freely, almost like those, uh, those games like myst, which are like a big touchstone for us. Um, we think that as a branching narrative technique in VR that it’s really powerful to think about branching in terms of location, where you are in space. Because when you put on a headset, you were in the story and you exist in a room or in the woods and you could, and you should be able to go forward or go left or go right.
Justine: And do you think the world is the first starting point for a writer or is to begin first with the world or the character?
Matthew Celia: Well, I think in thinking about virtual reality, what’s really exciting about it is that it transports you to new places, right?
Matthew Celia: That’s the whole thing. So I think your world is a really important thing to consider. Now. I think all stories need great characters. And I think one of the big things that we saw early on in Vr was people were paying a lot of tension to the world, but not to the characters. And you do need both because you can create a great world and you’re gonna explore that world. But after about a few minutes, you need a story to keep you engaged. And that’s where you write really great characters to fill it in.
Justine: And I think we’re good talking about interactivity, how do you approach it?
Robert Watts: It’s really, it’s really location based in Speak of the Devil, we have over 50 different locations. There’s 125 unique videos and 13 different endings, 12 of which you get brutally murdered in. So there’s a lot of logic that’s hidden underneath the hood. And the idea was that no matter what path you decide to take, that you’re hitting the important story base. So there’s the inciting incident and then there’s something that builds tension and there’s something that builds character no matter what direction you take, even if you double back. So when I think of a traditional branch narrative, it’s either a or B, a or B. Always moving forward in time in speak of the devil in this format that we’re, that we’re trying to create. You can go back to where you started and based on what you’ve seen and who you’ve interacted with, that might change previous locations you’ve hit.
Justine: Okay. But this sounds almost mathematical. How do you work this out?
Matthew Celia: It is a little mathematic, but actually really what it is it’s taking a story structure of a feature screenplay. When we went to Robert and I both went to Chapman University and, uh, you know, Paul Golino teaches a course there on screenwriting and he has a book called the aid sequence story structure. Which is a pretty common template of writing for Hollywood feature films.
Justine: Similar to what Pixar uses?
Matthew Celia: Very similar to what Pixar uses to stories about Blake Snyder as a book called Save The Cat. And like all these screenwriting books basically break out a feature film into chunks of narrative beats. And when you write a feature screenplay for a movie, you always write one scene. Robert and I were like, well, okay, why don’t you write several scenes that do that same narrative beat and we’ll place them at different locations in our world and we’ll track our audience and find out where they are and what they’ve seen. And instead of thinking it as like a branching narrative of like go up the stairs or out the door. We’re like, okay, what’s the narrative event? Have I met this character, has this character told me what they want, how I gone to go get what that character wants yet. And this way we are able to deliver a full narrative arc that gives you that promise of a presence that you’d find in like an immersive theater show.
Justine: Wow. The only thing I can think of in terms of how do you, how much time does it take to write this? Because look, getting to 110 pages of a feature film is hard enough and making sure there’s character development of one character or two characters and you know, the whole set. But how do you do this? Times how many it’s
Matthew Celia: not, it’s not easy. Right. And you know, We’ve been working on another project where like our Speaker Devil 2.0 we like to call it the next iteration of this. Um, and we realized after creating speak of the devil that we didn’t write enough. Like we didn’t spend enough time writing, we didn’t flesh it out enough. There’s too much time spent just wandering around the forest. Right. Um, which is cool because it’s a horror project and like that kind of fits, you know, but like the feed that we got from people was like, Hey, I want more. Right? So we created a custom bill tool in a game engine now that allows us to write these mesh narratives where you write your screenplay pages and you assign metadata. Right? So like what characters you meet, what characters may die, what the characters might give you in terms of an inventory system.
Matthew Celia: Right. It’s a little gamified, right? Yeah. But we track all those variables into a logic engine that we wrote. So as you move through the experience, it knows, like did you get a, did you meet Ned and did Ned give you a computer password? You know, if you do, when you head back to your desk, your computer will play this different scene and advance the story in this way. And so it knows everything that’s happening and it knows what you’ve seen and haven’t seen and it nudges you gently towards the narrative rather than in something like Hulu did a project called door number one, which was a branching narrative where I felt like it kind of hit you over the head with a frying pan a little bit because the characters were like shouting and pick me, pick me, pick me. And I also think that that was a really interesting project that informs a lot of stuff.
Matthew Celia: But that for me was one of those things where I said, I wonder if we could do this more organically, you know, to keep me more present, to keep me more immersed in this world.
Justine: That’s a good point. Um, who wanted to talk about Game of Thrones.
Matthew Celia: Oh, I’m so, yeah. So, uh, the opposite idea, the other kind of branching narrative or interactive narrative idea is something that we call seamless presence. And I think, I think a couple of companies have actually done this and come out with it. But, um, you know, in Vr we have this unique ability to track where you’re looking. Right?
Matthew Celia: And so by taking that data, you would naturally assume that where you’re looking is where you’re interested in. So what happens when, you know, you have a scene between two characters and you look at one character more than the other, could you then spawn out into that character’s storyline and instead of you being given the option of when to choose. Where the narrative has to stop and you have to like go this way or that way. What if the VR headset would take the metadata from what you’re interested in and choose for you based on your subconscious viewing.
Justine: So basically artificial intelligence is predicting.
Matthew Celia: It’s predicting what kind of movie you want. So, you know, like let’s say you had a spy thriller and you wrote four characters. So you write a movie for each of those four characters. Like think about writing like a short 30 minute film ones like an action adventure type spy one’s like a comedy Austin Powers type spy. One’s like more of a cerebral like tinker tailor soldier type spy, right?
Justine: James Bond somewhere in there.
Matthew Celia: Exactly. Then those characters meet and come together and like different audiences might react and respond and connect different characters. So they may naturally want to follow one over the other and the headset would know, oh hey, they really are interested into the comedy spies. So let’s load more scenes with comedy. You know, let’s, let’s go on that branch. We think this is a super cool idea because we think that like interactivity that’s subconscious is also still interactivity. It’s a different experience for everybody. And like, what if media could rewrite itself to be in what your taste is. Would that be cool?
Robert Watts: We really believe that storytelling in VR should be native. That it, if you’re going to do a piece in this medium, each be better by being in VR in the first place. Otherwise, what’s the point? So we should use any tools that we can to make this interactivity more interesting and give you agency that so that you’re highly engaged when you’re watching the content.
Matthew Celia: And I think that’s a really fine line, right? I think that, you know, you don’t want to make a game. Oh as you should just go make a game. Like, so you, we have this discussion all the time. Is it a game? Is it a movie? What is it in between? What game elements should we be bringing in? But like what cinematic elements are we bringing in? You know, if we want to make a Zombie game, like we’ll just make a Zombie shooter and you can pick up the shotgun and you can do all sorts of fun things like that. But if you want to make a cinematic experience. You need to find organic native ways where the audience accepts the fact that you can’t shoot or you can’t pick up everything and it becomes a little bit more like I keep saying like an immersive theater piece. Like Sleep No More is a big touchstone for us. Uh, we went to New York and we saw it and says interactive immersive theater piece. We put on a mask and you don’t talk and you know, you don’t say anything or interact. You’re just watching characters go in and out of scenes. Exploring like four stories of this like hotel. And that I think translates really well to live action VR because a lot of the same restrictions are there.
Justine: You just said that you shouldn’t make pieces just to experiment with VR, I think must be, our community believes that to be true. But how do you do it when you’re, when you care about your narrative work, you care about it. You want to tell a story, it comes from you. It’s organic. What’s the difference and how do you combine it when you have to do branded pieces or where you have maybe a different feeling, it’s just a little more transactional.
Robert Watts: Oh, I like to think of us as commercial art tours. So we care about the creative, we care about it being native with the VR medium, but it has to have an audience and it has to sell it because otherwise no one’s going to pay for it. So the important thing is to keep your company flow so that you making money and so that you’re still creating pieces that work for what the client wants, but also that you think are best for the medium by putting those pieces forward. So we really have two sides of our business. We have a commercial side and we have an original side. The commercial side we use to hone our technical chops to own our knowledge base. And then we use those same skills in our original side in development. So we take the creative and we add that to the original side. So it’s really about having a balance of keeping the lights on, but still creating new and original things.
Matthew Celia: I think something really important is the fact that brand new content is, is really the new norm. Like people aren’t really making commercials as much anymore. You know, brands want to make content that moves in needle that provides a real value add for their audience and helps tell their brand story. So it’s not like, Hey, I’m selling this shampoo. It’s like, Hey, this shampoo makes me feel great, so why don’t I make an experience that makes people feel great and I’ll just put my name at the end. And I think like more and more we’re seeing brands realized that that kind of message is really powerful to audiences. And I think that, you know, for people working in this space who want to sell VR projects to brands, you need to find, you know, what is, what does that message that you want to tell? Like, how can you move the needle? So, you know, I think a lot of the branded projects that we’ve done have been things that we’ve liked to do just on our own too. Um, because I think that we’ve been able to bring our commercial taste, bring our artistic taste to it and still move the needle forward in this medium.
Justine: So there’s a challenge for you still and an artistic one and hopefully not too much of a challenge on the financial side, but I’m at a benefit.
Matthew Celia: Oh, is a challenge on the financial side, especially with a new medium because companies aren’t used to spending this amount of money. Uh, it’s, everything is very hard. The technical chops required to do VR is very difficult, still, even though it is getting easier. And I think that, um, you just have to find the right partners that allow you and give you the resources to make what you want happen.
Justine: But in practicality, how do you divide your time? I mean, do you literally spend time, I’m gonna spend two days to work on brand and content are two days for my original or…
Robert Watts: It’s a balance. I mean, when we’re working on our original, well we look at them as projects we have to package, right? So it’s like, it needs to have not only a finance here, but it needs to have a home and he’s having a distributor needs to have an audience. And so we look at our original content the same way that we would look at a commercial client’s content.
Justine: Okay. So your approach is the same. Okay. Is there anything that you both want to share for upcoming and aspiring filmmakers or current people in this new medium or tips or tricks that you’ve picked up along the way?
Matthew Celia: He’s really resonated well with me. Andrew Stanton who worked at Pixar. He’s always had this mantra of gets wrong quick. Um, and you know, when Robert and I decided to start Light Sail, one of the things we did is we immediately got a camera and started messing around. And we decided we needed to get to wrong very quickly. But it’s important to have a clear vision for what you can add to the medium. If you’re going to jump into VR because you think you can make a quick buck. Find a different path, it’s not going to work out well for you. But if you have a vision as a creator to crew, you know, to add to this to say like, you know what, I’ve watched all this VR content and, and I think I could do something very different. Then dive in. Find people who can help bring your vision to life and try, try new things. Prototype, prototype like crazy. We have like a giant folder of dead projects because we prototyped them and we were like, this is terrible. Like we’re never going to show anyone this ever. And that’s important. It’s really important to do that, especially in something like Vr, which is so new.
Justine: Can you give us an example of something you tried that didn’t work like a, was it a piece of a story or something technical or…
Matthew Celia: Oh man, we tried to do so. Robert, I big board Gamers, like really like board games and we like playing board games and we’ve had several projects throughout the years that have not worked. Like we tried filming 360 board games and like that didn’t work. We tried doing a 360 food show that didn’t work because like, you know, putting a camera in a kitchen with a three 60 camera, like there’s too many stitch lines is too much unpredictability. The dimensions don’t work. And the like, it becomes too difficult. But then like VR 180 came along and we were like, you know what that VR180 is medium for this story because it’s a lot easier to produce. It creates, it’s all about the people not necessarily being in a kitchen, you know, so it’s not really about where you are, it’s about who you with. Ah, right. Um, and so that was just one of those things. Um,
Robert Watts: I got off track with the food thing, but with the board gaming, well, I mean, I can’t think of a specific negative example. I mean, we’ve tried about doing like the, the theater show of a board game simultaneously with the board games. Like, right. There’s a lot of dead projects, but my advice that goes on the same line for young for any greater really is a question that we ask for every single project, which is why Vr, and it’s like if it’s going to be in Vr, it needs to be better by being there. Like if you can shoot it in 2D, do it in 2D because it’s easier and cheaper. And there are plenty of rules and plenty of guidelines and other examples you can use. But like if you’re going to take the time and the money and the development time to make it VR. Make sure it’s better because it’s in VR watching it and a headset should be more immersive or more exciting. Otherwise don’t do it.
Justine: Robert, Matt, thanks so much. I appreciate all your insight.
Both: Thank you.
BIO MATTHEW CELIA
Matthew Celia is a creative visionary with over a decade of experience spanning technology, film production and entrepreneurial endeavors. Celia fuses his knack for crafting authentic narratives and technical prowess across all sectors of VR production to create compelling cinematic storytelling. His work has amplified the impact of immersive content for such top brands as Conde Nast Entertainment, Refinery29, Paramount Pictures, and Google Small Business, among others.
Speak of the devil
Speak of the Devil VR is a live action, horror narrative that fuses cinematic visuals with game-engine based interactivity. Awoken by a nightmare, you find yourself alone in your tent. A couple has set up camp uncomfortably close to your campsite. They are looking for something ancient. Undeterred by rumors of cult worship, and the various missing-persons reports over the years, they set off into territory clearly marked ‘no trespassing’. Compelled by an urge to follow, you set off to explore this isolated forest. Speak of the Devil is available on the Oculus Store for Oculus GO, Rift, Samsung Gear VR and Daydream.
BIO ROBERT WATTS
An early adopter of the evolving VR medium and innovator in multiple sectors of the entertainment industry, Robert applies over 10 years of diverse experience spanning the agency, management and content development sides of the industry to his role. His ability to master the art of creating and selling intellectual property and assess business and creative needs in today’s marketplace has attracted a roster of top clients including Google, GoPro, Paramount Pictures, among many others.