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.

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.

Creating Your Unique Story World – Dialogue

I was reminded last night of the Coen Brothers’ passion and ability to create rich story worlds in their films through their use of dialogue (among other things.) I see films and read scripts that nail character arcs and important beats with precision, but don’t rise to their full potential because their characters are too flat. They may be extreme, active, loud, quirky, and all that. But they are usually stuck in a stereotype and are ultimately predictable by the time we get past the introductions.

True-Grit-image-10392I was reminded last night of the Coen Brothers’ passion and ability to create rich story worlds in their films through their use of dialogue (among other things.) I watched their recent version of “True Grit” again and I thought to myself, I’d watch this film again just to enjoy individual scenes because of the unique voices given to each character. Mattie Ross is a force of nature in a 14yr/old girl. Rooster Cogburn is a force in his own right, but they are polar opposites in their social manners. The story brings them crashing together and it’s a joy to watch. I can watch the scene where Mattie negotiates for her father’s horses over and over as an example of great dialogue and fun scene dynamics.

But this isn’t a review of True Grit or any other particular Coen Bros. film. (You can say the same things about The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, etc.)

It is about creating rich story worlds by using all of the tools in a filmmaker’s bag. Visuals and production design are on everyone’s mind, but if your characters aren’t created with the same care, the film will not succeed at the same level.

I see films and read scripts that nail character arcs and important beats with precision, but don’t rise to their full potential because their characters are too flat. They may be extreme, active, loud, quirky, and all that. But they are usually stuck in a stereotype and are ultimately predictable by the time we get past the introductions.

I’m trying to work on this in my own work. I need to back up continually to listen to my characters, to hear them as individuals rather than ‘types’ I know. I ask myself how I am creating individuals who live in a unique (even if it’s familiar) story world. There are no “normal” people or worlds.

Do you wrestle with this too? Do you settle to describe your Hero as ‘a typical suburban housewife’ or ‘slacker dude’ and settle for that? If you are depending on quick dialogue and witty comebacks or just keeping the audience on a ride with your action scenes, you are depriving yourself and your audience of a richer story experience.

I’ve mentioned the Coen Bros. (love them or hate them) as filmmakers who have a passion to create rich cultural worlds. I can think of others who are less quirky, but no less rich.

If you’ve never seen the Coen Brother’s version of True Grit, here’s a sample scene (the trailers don’t capture the dialogue well): “Not Going”

Article: Getting Started With iPad Editing Apps

Total Mobile Filmmaking! If you’ve ever dreamed of traveling the world (or your neighborhood) while making movies with just a phone or tablet, you may just be in luck.

Total Mobile Filmmaking! If you’ve ever dreamed of traveling the world (or your neighborhood) while making movies with just a phone or tablet, you may just be in luck.

Here’s my brief review of several video editing apps for iPad/iPhone.

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.

Making Something is Easy, but it’s Not Enough | Echo Hub

“…it’s easier than ever to make something. But it’s as difficult as it ever was to make someone feel something.”

Scott McClellan writes a good article in EchoHub this week. If you are creative person, it’s easy to get caught up in the creative act or even the technology that makes it easier/cheaper to create (a real tendency in the filmmaking world) but forget about the long discipline of learning to tell good stories.

Scott writes:

So, it’s easier than ever to make something.

But it’s as difficult as it ever was to make someone feel something.

Our job as communicators is found in the difference between those two pursuits.

[And]

In other words, if I really want to be a filmmaker, I need to invest in more than just a camera. It’s easier than ever to make a video and publish it on the Internet, but it’s as difficult as ever to make a video that makes a difference.

Read the whole post here: Making Something is Easy, but it’s Not Enough | Echo Hub.