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.

4 Reasons Why Homeschoolers Should Study Screenwriting (and get English Comp credit for it.)

If you have a budding homeschool writer or filmmaker, they should be learning to write screenplays. Screenplays represent a unique literary genre that forms the foundation of one of the most influential forms of art and entertainment in our world today, movies and other visual stories.


I’ll begin with two quotes:

“Film is the literature of our age”  AND  “Those who tell the stories shape the culture”

script-tight

The first is by Steven Spielberg. I’ll reveal who said the second one in a moment.

These two quotes remind us how influential and pervasive stories through film have become in our culture. No one can deny the influence of these stories, whether told on a cinema screen or a mobile phone. My 30+ years as a professional filmmaker have convinced me of the importance of raising up a new generation of filmmakers and writers who will take us into the future.

So here are the four main arguments I’ll make to encourage you to consider screenwriting as an important field of study for your creative homeschooled student.

  • Screenplays are a unique literary genre, deserving disciplined study.

  • Screenplays make use of the major elements of all good creative writing.

  • Screenwriting is the foundation of a highly influential cultural expression, movies.

  • Christians can make better movies.

First, as Mr. Spielberg argues, screenplays made into movies are the pervasive form of storytelling in our modern culture. And, they truly are a literary genre unto themselves. They require discipline and study to master their unique form and storytelling conventions. For instance, did you know that screenplays are always written in the present tense? That’s because all we can write is what we see on the screen in front of us. We can’t make full use of inner thoughts of characters. A well-written screenplay reveals their choices through the ways they act when challenged. If you have a budding screenwriter, this is a great creative challenge.

Secondly, screenplays make use of the same storytelling elements found in other literary forms, such as short stories and novels. For instance, we must create interesting and dimensional characters, devise interesting plots with rising conflict, and draw our audience into the story with vivid descriptive language and compelling themes that touch our emotions while entertaining us.

Third, most people don’t understand the immense importance of the screenplay as the foundation of all movies. It has been said that it’s possible to make a bad film from a good script, but it’s impossible to make a great film from a poor script. It’s like the blueprint, foundation, and framing of a movie. Of course, movies–good and bad–exert tremendous influence in our culture.

That leads us to my final point

…making films that are powerful and influential and reflect a Christian worldview. I believe all Truth is God’s Truth, and that all Beauty reflects His Glory. I hope to envision and equip young storytellers to follow God’s call to speak powerfully to culture through many forms of films and videos. Most of us admit that few popular films that are labelled “Christian” exhibit the highest literary and artistic reach we are capable of. There was a time when the Church led the way in the arts. We should aim that high.

Now, to the second quote; “Those who tell the stories shape the culture.” It’s from Aleister Crowley, the famous British occultist in the early 20th century. His vision was to undermine the Christian worldview and values of his culture, and he argued for a takeover of popular storytelling to achieve his end. He saw the potential.

I have had the privilege of teaching many passionate and creative young homeschoolers who are learning to tell powerful stories of their own. I am so encouraged by them, and they give me great hope for the future. They are learning to tell stories that change the world.


For further reading: There are a zillion screenwriting blogs out there, but one I especially like is The Rabbit Room. They have a film section, plus many other forums that, to me, represent some of the best writing and thinking about the arts in the Church today.

Zero Dark Thirty: A Tale of Bias and Burqas

What can we, as storytellers, do to avoid biased and inaccurate (perhaps offensive) portrayals of others in our films? As much as I may intellectually value other voices, it is exceedingly difficult for me to recognize the impact of my own inner biases when I am creating stories.

As a filmmaker passionate to cross-cultural stories and also dedicated to crafting authentic stories that present accurate depictions of culture, this article is a great caution for me. While I think of myself as one who values other voices and hates simple stereotypes, I’m sure I am guilty of falling into the same traps. I am, after all, tremendously influenced by my own culture, religion, and upbringing. As much as I may intellectually value other voices, it is exceedingly difficult for me to recognize the impact of my own inner biases when I am creating stories. I may really be committed to presenting authentic points of view, but I have to acknowledge that I often can’t see the impact of my biases.

Here’s what this author says about the portrayal of Muslim women in two Oscar celebrated American films.

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo have twelve Oscar nods between them. There has been much heated discussion on their portrayal of Muslims and how much of it ought to be excused do to artistic message. In the end, though, their many accolades serve as one more example of anti-Muslim women dialogues in Western society being fervently rewarded.

Read the whole article here, from Patheos: Zero Dark Thirty: A Tale of Bias and Burqas.

What can we, as storytellers, do to avoid biased and inaccurate (perhaps offensive) portrayals of others in our films?

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”

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?

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.