Role of the audience.

How we compose, edit, block, and otherwise assemble a scene dictates, and should inversely be dictated by, the role the audience has in the film. In other words, the role of the audience is a high level, first-order decision that has influence over much of how we should assemble our films. This role is far more nuanced than "first person" or "third person", but really is about how the audience interacts with, engages with, and relates to the story; it's characters, settings, and world.

First Person Point Of View

In a first person shot, the camera is a character. They look around, they can see their own body if they look down, and other characters treat the camera like a character in the scene. The audience's suspension of disbelief is to choose to believe, to whatever degree necessary, that they are the character - or at least that they are thinking about the character in a first person way.

Complete Voyeur

The camera and its perspective are entirely non-diegetic. The camera could achieve impossible angles and movements, could move through walls, and so on. The story is happening elsewhere. If the film is expressionist or the camera's position have a dramatic role, the camera still has no presence.

Pseudo First Person POV

More interesting than complete Voyeur or First Person perspective is what can lie in between, particularly with 360 video. In 360 video and VR, often it is helpful to place the camera at eye level, keep actors out of the "comfort zone" of the camera, and other such indications that may lead the audience to occasionally feel like they are part of the scene, without actually being a part of it. Such a perspective can allow the brain to still viscerally react to certain scenes like a first person one can, without the narrative or storytelling limitations of a first person scene.

For example, in traditional filmmaking, this is done anytime a character looks directly into the camera. Without breaking the fourth wall, a camera can be placed in between the two characters, or the character could look at themselves in a mirror. The audience still has the unavoidable subconscious reaction that takes place when being stared at.

A Spectrum of Perspective

I like to think of this as spectrum. How much of the viewer's self do we put in the scene? A rule of thumb is that the more the viewer feels like they are "there", the more immersive the content. Yet to go too far leads viewers into dissonance due to mismatching expectations. The viewer can't actually control anything, and to be immersive to the point where they may anticipate such control - like seeing one's "own body" in the film and wanting to move - will be disengaging and uncomfortable.

A Variety of Attributes

A spectrum may be a simple way to think about them, but what attributes make up immersion can vary greatly. If the characters look directly at the camera, is it immersive then, even if there is no "body" in the shot? How do the different elements that create a sense of immersion go together? Which ones should we use and which should we avoid in order to sell an immersive storytelling experience without disengaging our audience?

The answers to these questions depend on the films and strategies employed in a situation, but fear not, there are strategies to navigate this mess of conflicting goals.

Conflicting Goals

We want to take advantage of 360 video, use it's beneficial properties like audience choice, immersion, "being there", and perhaps even the strong sense of camera height (thanks to a visible floor).

While taking advantage of what the medium has to offer, we don't want to over deliver - or under deliver, or otherwise set an expectation that is not met. At worse, we don't want the audience frustrated that they can't do anything, but thinking about and enjoying the story being told.

We have to understand the role of the audience. We have to hijack the audience's thoughts and angle them towards narrative, not interaction.

Understanding The Role Of The Audience

The role of the audience is how we treat the camera. Effectively, communicating the role of the camera is communicating how the audience should relate to the immersed world they exist inside of. Do they represent a first person view of a character? A fly on the wall? A character in the scene (empathy)? Do we feel a familial or other such second-degree role to a character in the scene? How much are "we" are part of the film?

The importance of this question cannot be understated. It is what is special about 360 video, and it is so easily what goes wrong with 360 content. This is why people leave experiences feeling blown away, or just wondering why the content was "VR" in the first place. Creators must understand and directly engage with the audience's experience, and the audience's perception of their own role, be it, first person, completely voyeur, or some new angle in between.

Decision Making and Audience Experience

When the audience makes decisions, they think about themselves.

When they choose to look somewhere in the frame, they are investing in that area more than others. Investing in characters that they hope will pay off. More than just an indication of who they arbitrarily "like", this investment itself forms a bond between the audience and the character being chosen. The audience looking at a character in 360 video can be more powerful than a traditional film shot of that character - all else equal - because the audience can choose to look away.

The act of making a decision is a giant step away from any normal audience member. It's a mental leap. Choosing where to look around the frame is making a decision! It's the same mental process, even if the decision isn't performative, measured, or representative of control over the story. If we don't take care to prepare the audience for how they should make decisions - if we just forfeit the frame and "let them look where they want to", then we the audience will bring themselves out of the world of the story every time they make a decision. They will wonder about the medium, about themselves, if they are "doing it right", and what they "should be doing". The storytelling will lose invisibility, and the film will suffer.

Communicating The Role Of The Camera

Let's consider a first-person 360 scene. A character stands in front of a mirror and looks at themselves. A shot like this is frequently used in film to "put the audience" in the head of the character, and it can be effective. Film manages to use it, the immersion of film isn't so much that the audience gets the sense that it is first person. The audience has the expectation that the camera can switch away from (or into) this first person shot without breaking "the rules" of the non first-person story. Let's do the same shot in 360 video.

It doesn't work very well.

Why not? It comes down to audience expectations. The audience is informed that they are this character. The immersive nature of 360 video, the current common intake of VR content through first person video games, and the marketing of 360 videos - set the expectations that the audience should "be" the character. 360 video falls short of living up to these promises. The audience turns their head, looks around, but the character in the mirror continues to look perfectly straight on. The immersion is broken. The expected reality and the perceived reality are dissonant.

Many first person films use a gimmick in order to keep expected and perceived reality's from being dissonant in this way. The character is an action hero, with their mouth gagged, tied to a chair, who everybody talks at (not with). Now we know why they cannot move or talk, great! Expectation and perception met!

I believe a better approach - one with far more creative potential - is not to set the audience's expectations up to something that 360 video cannot achieve very well.

Let's consider another example. One that begins with the camera outside, near a wall. All of the characters can be seen without the audience looking around, and there is clearly no choice to be made - just walls and non-interesting space outside this frame. Our story begins, our main character is established, and we start to build empathy from the audience; questions asked, motivations revealed, conflict hinted. Following the character gets the audience asking about their motivations, their path, the story. We get the audience invested in the character.

We also set the audience's role by establishing - without audience choice or immersivness - how the audience is to relate to the story. We signal that "immersion" and audience choice (looking around) is an element to be played on a dramaturgical level, not an "I am the character" level. We set the expectations for how to experience the story, and channel audience attention to what matters (characters, scenery, plot exposition, etc). We start building tension, too. Giving the audience emotional purposes towards making their decisions - following characters they have begun to empathize with, for example. With that, we can use less visually blunt gaze manipulation techniques and stay "out of the way" of the story. There is less risk of the audience feeling manipulated (which takes them out of the story) if their gaze is controlled by emotional, empathetic, and story decisions; not "oh, shiny!" visual response decisions.

We don't begin the story with an ambiguous "Wow VR is neat huh? Get used to looking around and having agency that is about to not matter!" shot.

[[Part of how the audience engages is who they look at. Starting with the camera in the center is destructive for the audience to be able to engage/care = unable to make decisions/follow story, disengage, leave, look elsewhere, miss more, etc etc.]]

Now, we can cut to a scene that features more immersion. We can have the audience look at two options the character is considering. We can move the camera into the middle of a group of people - the audience knows who they care about, and they know that they do not play an active role in this film. We can make the audience feel claustrophobic when their character does. They aren't a character, but the edits, blocking, and cinematography have all emphasized this other character - the subject of the story. The audience does not expect this to change. This is huge. Storytelling of all mediums very rarely change perspectives, main characters, or otherwise break these storytelling "rules", and now that we have established the role of the audience - empathetic observer, in this case - we can get away with more immersive shots.

Don't let the audience make decisions until these decisions are about the story. Once they are, then we can put the camera in the middle of a multitude of actors, or perhaps - like the occasional mirror shot in film, we can put the camera in a first person POV shot or pseudo first person POV shot. Once the audience is primed to make story-based decisions, we can "play" with immersion. To signal to the audience that they can play before any level of engagement is to confuse the audience.

Remember, we need to try to set the expectations of watching 360 films within our films, as a universal "starting point" for narrative language is not yet firmly established. I want to emphasize that even if it were, this is still good storytelling. It still matters to establish these rules ourselves.

If we have done our jobs, the audience knows what to expect in terms of style of telling. They know how to relate to the story. They know to what degree their decisions are related to the world around them. They know which character to care about, they know that their decisions only serve the function of watching the story (invisibly hinting at character decisions/mood/etc. Presumably, we have also established genre, tone, settings, timelines, editing styles and other helpful tools during this time as well.