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Filmatics Enters VR World Through Transmedia Horror Story “Eye For An Eye: A Seance In Virtual Reality”

Elia Petridis, standing, on the set of “Eye for an Eye”. Photo courtesy of Filmatics.

By: Marjorie Galas

Virtual reality, or VR as it’s more commonly known, has been around for years.  It made its way into the social consciousness in the 80s but couldn’t maintain a stronghold primarily because the technology couldn’t produce visuals that excited the audience.    With the advent of improved computer graphics, camera and display technology that has quickly evolved over the last thirty years, VR has made a comeback, and companies such as Filmatics are developing smart stories that fully utilize the story to the viewer’s delight.

I recently visited the Filmatics office to watch “Eye for an Eye: A Séance in Virtual Reality.”   Aided by writer/director Elia Petridis, I was outfitted with the necessary VR gear: headset/headphones.  Assuring I was comfortable and had a clear focus on the opening slate, Petridis then sent me on a twelve minute journey.  Joining a group of four teens, I found myself outside a modest California home on a beautiful sunny day.  The group had gathered at this location, searching for their missing friend Calvin whose last known location was the home of creepy psychic medium Henrietta Sparks.  As the kids bickered about the validity of Spark’s power to conjure the spirit of an eyeless ghost named Marcus, I watched people walking down the street.  I’d frequently turn to the group and catch each member gazing at me as we waited for the door to answer.

To avoid spoiling the experience, I won’t share the details of the séance.   However, I will state that Petridis and his team created a narrative VR horror story that not only allows the viewer to engage in the environment, it provides visual and audio cues that pull the viewer back into the action, including candle smoke and rattling glass.  After I removed my VR gear, Petridis and I spent a bit of time speaking about his work.

MG:  I wanted to ask you about your progression as an artist.  You had done some film work, but not extensively, so it seemed like a quick transition to go from features to a new format.  What was the inspiration for you?

EP:  Well, I was put in the room with Wevr (a company that provides a platform for VR creatives to showcase their work), and they gave me a few technical initiatives, and they said we would like to try something that does the following, can you pitch for us.  I (spent) ten days and I came back and pitched.  They liked it and got on board, and then we went and shot it.  Film not in speaking creatively, but like, technically, people know what to expect, and that is what makes the content and the quality so good.    People know how they are going to color it, how are they going to do it.  But there were so many questions we didn’t have answers to when we shot this that it was kind of thrilling, you know what I mean?  That kind of thrill just happens once in a blue moon.  It could have all ended up garbage.  It could have not worked. That leap of faith was exciting.

MG: It’s hard to know how people will react when they are in an environment.  I think you did a great job developing something for a viewer that constantly pulls them back:  there is a spot for you at the table, the actors look at you, they interact with you.  Was that a purposeful decision when you were creating the story line?

EP:  I think the term inclusion came out of Wevr (in their original request), although they didn’t quite know how it would work.   We basically had the actors address the camera and break the fourth wall.  But more so than that, it all goes back to the writing.    I’ve seen pieces where the writing isn’t that good but there is inclusion, but then you are out of it anyways.  I wanted to make a piece where it was the story that was first and the art took a back seat, just like in film.  What really makes or breaks you is whether you have fallen in the film or not.  I just showed the film to high school aged kids and they talk back…

MG: They talk back to the characters?

EP: Yes, they talk back and they retort.    That is a success to me.  I had one kid take the googles off; he was all of 20 years old.  And he said, ‘Finally, a story!’ and he was so happy.  That means a lot to us.  VR is huge.  We are trying to find a little corner where we can deliver catharsis and escapism.

MG:  What are you looking for, in regards to storytelling and using this medium?   I ask that because the medium does allow people to interact.  That is the beauty of this, a person has their own mentality, and they are going to react their own way.  What are you looking for story wise to integrate a lot of different people into the story telling experience?

EP: I think this notion of ‘What did I miss?’ is important.  That motivates repeat viewing.  What I have found, in doing this, something that I am really proud of personally as a growing artists, is that there is the fine line between the artistic blockbuster, something that requires active viewing like ‘Memento’, and a film school project, where you are just lost and it is not intentional.  They put the camera in the right place, and it should be working but I’m a bit confused.  It is not intentional confusion.  But there is such a thing as intentional confusion.  You are lost for exactly the amount of moments I want you to be lost, then I will answer your question.  You should have this way of telling story, should people miss a line, it’s OK, because they will get the answer or get reoriented with another line.  Anything that they miss along the way will simply serve to motivate repeat viewings.  Great.

MG:  Music and punctuating lines also seems to play a role in directing attention.

EP:  Positional audio is a big deal.   Even if you turn I am still talking to you here, you can multi task.

MG:  Are you writing solo?  Or are you also gathering content from other people?

EP: I take pitches.  Devin (Embil, Digital Manager at Filmatics) writes, he pitches me stuff all the time.  We just hosted something called VR Salon and that group wants to do a WGA thing for screenwriters for VR.  And every now and then writers will come to me and ask how do you write VR, and I will show them pages of the script.

MG:  How do you write for VR?  Is there something special you did when writing the script for “Eye for an Eye?”

EP:  We color coded the screenplay per quadrant.    As you read it, you could experience it before shooting it. It helps in blocking the actors after the fact.  We’d go back to the screenplay and see that this line is red and this is quadrant three, this line is yellow so it must be behind you.  Then you get to move it around: I want the ghost to enter in quadrant two, quadrant four, quadrant six above you, and you write it and then you just go shoot the script like you would anyway.

MG:  I wanted to ask you also how you look for your crew.

EP: I was on a panel with a young man who runs a VR company that came from cinematography.   He would be really great, because he knows the technical limitations and how to solve them, how to push them.  To this day there are no such things as VR DPs.    Not yet, not till they figure out how to solve the light continuity issue.  But that is something we actively want to solve. We are going to do a piece that is all slow motion VR to figure that out.

MG:  I’m not familiar with the light issue.

EP:  Light does not have a horizontal thread of continuity.  It’s got depth to it.  It’s not just about a cup being on a cup in the same place every time.  Light seems to fall everywhere …if there is a stich here, and my hand is here, and I’ll light it in this quadrant a specific way.  If I take the cup, move it to a different quadrant then put it back lighting has be assigned certain ways in each quadrant to keep continuity.  And you can’t write (each quadrant) one at a time.  You have to do this action in both quadrants, light it differently and that might cause a big mess for you.  So we are still figuring that out.

MG:  How did you work out the light in “Eye for an Eye”, is that all natural lighting coming in?

EP:  There are a few hidden lights here and there, but mostly it is natural light.

MG: And the practical that is hanging over the table…

EP: Correct, and the candles.  At the end, we did a little bit of coloring; it gets red, right before Marcus enters.  There is a pulse there.  Then it all goes back to normal for a feeling like “Is it over, was I seeing things?’   We would do those things a little more extremely next time.

MG:  And you created “Eye for an Eye” to have a continued story line.

EP:  Yeah, that’s the thing, at Filmatics we are really interested in transmedia, so there is a companion short to this, which is how Marcus and Henrietta met.  The (film and companion piece) are singular entities of course, you don’t need one to know the other.

MG: Is the companion piece also VR?

EP: No.  It’s a different piece of media.  Things like social media, comic books, we use all these things to tell the story in a way that they don’t depend on one another.  You can just access them and have a suspension of belief with a whole new set of tools.