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.

Now Streaming – “The Enemy God” indigenous film

I’m really pleased to announce that a feature-length film I produced, “The Enemy God” is now available for streaming rental or purchase on Vimeo On Demand. Watch the trailer here, then, just click on the “From $2.99” button on the video to rent or purchase.

The Enemy God from Tom Khazoyan on Vimeo.

This multi-award-winning film tells the story of a Yanomamö shaman and his search for the truth about the spirits he served. It is a powerful, true story, told from the point of view of an indigenous people group from the Amazon rainforest.

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”

iPad Teleprompter – partial DIY

Rig up an inexpensive teleprompter using your iPad and a few items around the house.

I work alone sometimes and, sometimes, I have a need to shoot an on-camera piece with myself that can’t be just an impromptu web-cam piece. I want to address the camera directly and I want it to be scripted, therefore, a teleprompter would be nice. (Saves my aging brain from the stress of memorizing a 3 min. presentation and keeps my eyes from wandering to cue cards.) Well, this week I have just such a need. But I don’t own a teleprompter.

Here’s what I did, using a few pieces of ‘real’ gear and some things I scrounged from around my house. It’s a basic, but very functional teleprompter that takes advantage of my iPad and the ProPrompter app.

Rear View
Side View

I built a minimal rail set-up using a few pieces of my GiniRigs rails, with the addition of an extension bar that I use to hold up the picture frame.

I found an old picture frame, diploma-size, and pulled out the picture, leaving just the glass in the frame. Be careful, it won’t be safety glass and it’s very fragile!

I placed my iPad on the rails and, with a little piece of gaffer’s tape, made a hinge for the frame on the camera-side edge. Then I just moved my arm piece to give the proper 45 degree angle on the picture frame.

The ProPrompter software lets you flip and reverse the image as needed to get the proper orientation in the reflection.

When using a minimal rig like this, you will likely run into problems with reflections and glare. I would likely build a little tent or place something dark behind the camera and above the prompter to kill the glare. There is plenty of brightness on the screen, but you will want to make the iPad brightness up full.

Front Angle

I happen to be shooting with my iPhone 4S for this piece (’cause it’s about mobile production) and so I have my phone mounted in a Phocus mount. The odd little cube on the top is a bubble level.

These are rough photos as I was testing it. If I have a chance I will post some better ones. But it works!

Update: I forgot to mention that, when you’re working alone and shooting with an iPhone, monitoring can be a problem. You can hardwire to a monitor if you have an i-device-to-VGA or HDMI cable and a portable monitor. Today I’m using my laptop as a monitor via AirServer software. The phone broadcasts (mirrors) to the laptop so I can set my framing and such. There is lag but it helps a lot if you’re flying solo.

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.

Listening to Critique on Your Screenplay

Tools of the trade.

I’m soliciting feedback on a screenplay I’m working on. Today I’ve got a consultation with a guy who is a reader in LA. I really do want to know what people think, even if there is a lot still undeveloped at this stage of the process.

Storytelling is about communication. If I’m not communicating, then I want to fix it.

But receiving critique on creative work is usually difficult. As wonderfully wise and mature as I am, I still get defensive and frustrated on occasion. I honestly think that it’s not so much that I don’t think the advice is valuable (it might even be correct), it’s just that I am secretly afraid that I may not have a solution. And my story will be a dead end.

My experience has shown me that is usually not the case.

What’s your experience?

Six lines. Three minutes.

What kind of film story can you tell with the limitations of six lines of random dialogue and a three-minute time limit.

What kind of film story can you tell with the limitations of six lines of random dialogue and a three-minute time limit. This film was recently shared with me, from a contest a couple of years ago. (Ridley Scott chose this winner.)

The contest, which received over 600 entries from around the world, invited aspiring filmmakers to create an original short film using the same six-line dialogue as the Cannes Lions award-winning Parallel Lines short films directed by RSA talents Carl Erik Rinsch, Greg Fay, Johnny Hardstaff, Jake Scott and Hi-Sim.

Commenting on his choice of winner, Sir Ridley Scott said: “I chose Porcelain Unicorn to be the winning film as it had a very strong narrative; a very complete story that was well told and executed.”

Learn to love limitations!