A Few Thoughts on “The Limit” – New VR film from Robert Rodriguez

I’m looking for a narrative VR film I can really love and want to watch over and over again. Could it be, “The Limit?”

“The Limit” is Robert Rodriguez’ latest entry into the world of narrative filmmaking using VR technology. Released on November 20, 2018, it’s an action film that takes the audience on a brief journey to find out why some bad guys are chasing “us.” It’s not much more than that. It’s fun, but in the end not very ambitious as storytelling. Rodriguez, joined by his son, Racer on this outing, isn’t known for his thoughtful character dramas, but for action and trying new things. This film reflects those values. It’s a non-stop action sequence, with only a few moments of relief. For action fans, it may be the next thing. Or?

Let’s Talk Story
The story begins with “us” (the viewer) sitting in a bar, and meeting M-13 (Michelle Rodriquez) who is obviously a badass waitress. The filmmakers take little time to set up anything, but we quickly learn that we can’t speak and have some kind of AR “enhancements” that enable us to see bad guys. Other than that, we have no idea why we’re here. If you read the synopsis for the film, you’ll discover that we are “…a rogue agent with a mysterious past…” — whatever.

We are quickly forced to flee said bad guys with M-13. After that, we mostly get shot, help drive her Jeep, and suffer repeated blackouts after bad things happen to us. But, for some reason, we don’t seem to die from anything we suffer, including a gunshot to the stomach and a freefall from an airplane. Guess that all needs some explanation, which M-13 gladly gives in a long static monologue that tries to fill in a few details in an attempt to convince us that this all matters for some reason. Oh, we’re kind of alike. And now she’s got a plan and goal for herself. Finally! But it mostly involves us walking in to a poorly defended warehouse, killing the stupid henchmen, and confronting the Big Bad Guy (played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame.) He wants something we’ve got, of course. A kind of slow, pitiful chase ensues. We have another blackout. But then there’s a twist ending. You get the idea. Oh, and the story will continue. Theoretically. If anyone would shell out for more. I’m not convinced they’ve given us anything to hope for. Michelle is badass and they treat her pretty well in terms of not really playing on her sexuality. Points for that.

Ultimately, as with many films in this genre, the story suffers for the sake of the experience. Why does this have to be? I’d call it more of a ‘ride-along’ experience. We (the audience) are immersed in the action but are almost completely passive characters, only taking initiative for a moment toward the end. So, we get to watch M-13, the real Protagonist, go through her journey that our appearance at the beginning seems to spark.

The problem with this, and many stories, is that we have no reason to care. We don’t know who we are, or who she is, other than a little backstory and a twist at the end. The stakes aren’t even that high for most of the film because it seems that we can just get shot, survive a car crash, a freefall from a plane, etc., and it’s no big deal. Guess “we’re” pretty badass, too. But “we” don’t say or think much of anything the whole time.

On the medium and techniques used in “The Limit.”
Just a note for would-be viewers; it’s not full 360 VR, more like 180 in a custom “Surreal Theater” that does fill in the other 180 with a dark cineplex, in case you want to see how cool it is to be alone in a dark cineplex.

It’s not an open world by any stretch. The directors choose and maintain our focus using the camera as in traditional cinema and it’s a completely linear timeline. The main difference here is the increased sense of immersion and some ability to look around a limited frame. I think it works pretty well, and it seems to me to be the best option for story-telling. If you let the audience just wander around, it’s hard to create a narrative flow and pacing. That works for exploring worlds in a game setting, but I don’t think we humans will lose our enjoyment of and desire for stories to be told to us. I’m not alone in thinking about ways to guide a viewer, using other cues (visual & auditory) to direct attention but without locking an audience’s POV one frame. But it’s a big challenge, to be sure. The directors do choose to pull us out of the POV a few times so we can watch ourselves drive away, etc. Also, they cut to insert shots that are from our POV, but are done in traditional cuts rather than “moving” us closer. It works fine.

Our character cannot speak for some reason. We communicate, very little, via some kind of text screen, but I can’t figure out where it may be located, if our body and face are supposed to be normal looking. At the beginning the logic doesn’t work. Maybe it begins to make sense later (spoiler!) when M-13 reveals that she’s also a biconically enhanced person. Can she see our communications in a kind of heads-up AR display?

The main problem with a lack of our ability to communicate is that the film is mostly a monologue by M-13. It gets really tedious when she has a long exposition scene where she puts the pieces together for herself and for us. Was this just lazy on the part of the writers, or an inherent limitation of the medium?

Final observation; my feeling is that running time on an immersive VR action film must be kept short. This film is really about 15 mins of actual narrative and Rodriquez made a good decision to keep it brief. Because the viewer is immersed and can’t control their point of view much, the intense action and motion will certainly cause some queasiness for many viewers. It did for me. I could never watch a feature length film without breaks if it is shot in this style. Maybe with some downtime scenes? I’m sure they took that into consideration, but it’s something for all of us to consider if we’re planning a VR film. On that note, an immersive story without all of the intense action is likely just fine for a longer run time. Then, the challenge is to have a real story. And, does anyone want to watch a ‘talky’ character drama in VR? Perhaps?

Other notes: I watched the 3D version on an Oculus Go headset. The film is delivered as an app from the Occulus story and includes a lot of behind-the-scenes material that I think will be fun to watch. The app download is pretty big, over 3GB,ut it’s not a problem to me. You can watch this sitting in a chair as the film is not a full 360 experience.

Handling Antagonists in Social Media: Our Public Voice

It may be self-evident to you, but I have to remind myself that my response to antagonistic comments could be a powerful influence to everyone in my audience, not merely an answer to a hater.

angerIn many places where we seek to love and serve people, there are groups and individuals who oppose us and our message, no matter how much love we pour into our content. One friend of mine says it’s not unusual to get 90% negative comments on his posts that are intended to speak of peace for people in his region.

It may be self-evident to you, but I have to remind myself that my response to antagonistic comments could be a powerful influence to everyone in my audience, not merely an answer to a hater.

Imagine you’re in a public place like a shopping mall or university center. A person spots you from across the room as you are discussing something important with a new friend. They make a beeline toward you, yelling out angry comments and insults before they even reach you. It’s a tense moment. At least one person seems to be spoiling for a fight, right there. How would you respond?

Many of us are naturally inclined to avoid any kind of confrontation, especially a direct one like this. We would try our best to just back away, apologizing, fearful, and praying for others to intervene to cool down the situation. Others of us are very bold, risk-takers, and would step up ready to embrace a challenge (hopefully, with fists un-clenched.)

angry (1)In social media, I have encountered such situations. A number of years ago I was developing a feature film project in Latin America and I was using early Facebook and other social media to raise awareness of the project. A certain gentleman, who lived on the other side of the world, decided that we were evil people, exploiting the indigenous people, etc. (We were making the film at the request, and in partnership with, an indigenous group in the Amazon.) He didn’t know me, but he attacked me, and threatened to rally people in the country to shut us down.

Now, this was Latin America, so things never go according to plan in the best of times, and I had no real concerns that he could have any clout. My partner thought I should just block and ignore him. I thought I’d at least try to engage with him to see if I could convince him that we were OK.

happy copy

It became an interesting conversation for me, though I don’t think my arguments were very convincing for him at first. He did cool down and kind of disappear after a while. But, I did get to know something about him, his own past and personal issues that seemed to drive his anger. So, I felt it was fruitful. He never went further with his threats and actions, and it all basically blew over.

Ironically, a year or so later, he contacted me again. He was raising money for a project to help the indigenous group for which he was an advocate (in East Asia) and actually asked for my advice and help with his own project. It was a crazy turnabout, but I believe it was because I treated him with respect and tried to understand where he was coming from when he was attacking us. I pray for his project.

Of course, it could have gone much worse. Sometimes, and you may not be able to discern this in advance, it is truly fruitless or even dangerous to engage much. However, in this case, I felt it was worth it.

Now, in my story, all of this deeper engagement was through email, so it wasn’t public. However, if it had taken place in “public” on a comment thread on some social media site, I would have to discern the value of the engagement.

peace-talksMy theory is that, in a situation like this, where we try to have a conversation with an antagonistic person, our comments may be more for others in your audience who are “eavesdropping” on your conversation, than they will be for the person with whom you are conversing.  We can’t know if there could be some softening if our gentle speech turns away their anger.

I often get wise advice from people who say it’s not worth the engagement. But, as my original example in the shopping mall, I may also consider that there are many more people with whom I’m communicating. Anyone within “earshot” could also hear my arguments and my tone, and it could be beneficial to them as they assess just who I am.

Am I a good or bad person?

Does what I am saying in answer to common objections sound reasonable?

Do I sound like they could have a safe conversation with me?

This indirect communication could form an important part of someone else’s journey.

What do you think? Have you had this kind of experience on social sites? How should we handle people who oppose us in public? Are there principles or “rules” we should follow?

  • Tom

 

 

 

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Storytelling 101 – Why one version works and the other does not.

I saw this short animated film today from a Facebook share. It’s called “The Present” and it has won a bazillion awards at film festivals. It’s touching, simple, visual, emotional – all of the things we know makes an idea “stick.” The comments in Vimeo and on FB posts are pretty uniformly positive. It’s definitely worth a viewing.

The Present from Jacob Frey on Vimeo.

Now, for a comparison.

Facebook is so helpful to give us the “people also shared” links on this stuff, so we can sometimes stumble on other interesting items (anything to keep us swiping and clicking.)

So, I took the bait and clicked on this link:

http://9gag.com/gag/aXXWodz

It’s a comic version of the exact same story. For some reason, it doesn’t affect me the same way as the short film. From looking at the comments (language-warning), it doesn’t have the same effect on readers either. Just a different audience?

I’d suggest it’s a radically different visual and storytelling style. It’s graphic, static, and less warm-and-fuzzy, for sure. Also, notice that, in contrast to the film version, the story is told through dialogue – especially the boy’s feelings toward the dog. What was left shown and un-said in the film was expressed definitely and very on-the-nose.

What other differences do you see? Think about the difference in the impact of each version and think about what you can learn.

(Note, this comic is just a clipping and not the whole comic. Click on the link above to see the whole thing.)

3-legged dog

 

 

Lightfield photography – inviting viewers to touch your pictures

Lightfield photography – inviting viewers to touch your pictures

I’m a filmmaker and photographer. As such, I’m a sucker for gadgets and new technologies.

The idea of “lightfield” photographs that capture light in multiple dimensions (a very inadequate technical description) is intriguing to me. The basic deal is that you can share photographs that can be refocused by a viewer to reveal different parts of an image.

I just bought a Lytro camera and am now hooked on thinking of ways to tell interesting visual stories in single frames. Here’s one of my first attempts, a simple image of a couple of figurines my wife collects of mothers and children.

You can click on the image to shift the focus point. You can also click and drag on the image and it shows a tiny perspective shift. Kinda cool.

The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 1: Sin | GoIntoTheStory

Filmmakers, even those claiming no particular religious faith, make use of themes that seem to resonate universally with human beings – and these are highly theological. This is not news to most people, but I like Scott Myers’ examination of theology and its use in visual storytelling. It’s in 5 parts.

Here is a link Scott’s exploration of “The Theology of Screenwriting” on his Go Into The Story blog.

The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 1: Sin | Go Into The Story.

Cell Phone “Portrait” Aspect Video Production

I’ve been pondering the options for a vertical aspect ratio for narrative films if the intended delivery is primarily mobile devices.

I’m preparing to do some teaching in Eurasia this fall to train young filmmakers to work with mobile devices in places where they have phones, but other resources are extremely limited.

And this past week I spent at a debate tournament with my daughter and noticed lots of parents shooting videos of events with their smartphones, held vertically in portrait mode. It got me wondering about the options for a vertical aspect ratio for narrative films if the intended delivery is primarily mobile devices.

Here’s a link to an article that also asks that question, along with a link to a cool little film shot vertically.

The Way We Watch: Cell Phone “Portrait” Aspect Coming To A Video Near You.

This clip works very well embedded on this particular blog site because of the white background field. It’s a bit odd on Vimeo on a laptop or desktop. However, when I view it on my iPad, using the Vimeo app and holding in vertically, it looks great and I like the composition possibilities a lot. When I’m in the story I don’t really notice that it’s vertical. Of course, if the film is viewed everywhere else it will seem odd – talk about letterboxing!

101 Greatest Screenplays – WGA list

If you want to write well, read well.

If you want to write well, read well. Here are just the Top 10.

1. CASABLANCA Screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the play “Everybody Comes to Ricks” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

2. THE GODFATHER Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novel by Mario Puzo

3. CHINATOWN Written by Robert Towne

4. CITIZEN KANE Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

5. ALL ABOUT EVE Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Based on “The Wisdom of Eve,” a short story and radio play by Mary Orr

6. ANNIE HALL Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

7. SUNSET BLVD. Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

8. NETWORK Written by Paddy ChayefskyFACTS

9. SOME LIKE IT HOT Screenplay by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond. Based on “Fanfare of Love,” a German film written by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan

10. THE GODFATHER II Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. Based on Mario Puzos novel “The Godfather”

via 101 List.