This section explores the suspension of disbelief, and what elements of this phenomenon may affect or should be considered when crafting a 360 video.
Tapping On The Glass
"You don't need to break the fourth wall, but you can tap on the glass from time to time. Let the audience know they are here to enjoy themselves and do what you need to do in order to serve the story, be it sticking to reality or letting realism fall to the wayside."
I said this, or about this, when speaking with an old friend about writing and film. I sensed I stumbled on at least a clever turn of phrase, if not the underlying concepts presented here, and jotted it in my notebook.
The Fourth Wall
The Fourth wall is an interesting concept when discussing theater. To what extent do the actors in the play have knowledge that they are in a play? Breaking the fourth wall is when an actor completely acknowledges the audience or the reality of the play's production, and unwillingly un-suspends the audience from their willing suspension of disbelief. It's usually unexpected and for a comedic effect.
So when we talk about the fourth wall, we're really talking about one creative use of the phenomenon of the willing suspension of disbelief. For an audience, suddenly having to recalculate the reality of the play in their heads is unexpected, surprising, and difficult - perfect for a comedic punch line, but when done accidentally - that is, when the audience feels something is not "right" with the reality of the production, it can be detrimental to a story.
After the fourth wall has been broken, there is usually no repairing it - the audience knows at least one character that can speak to them. The surprise is no longer a huge surprise. In other words, the reality, or the rules, of the play has changed. What sorts of expectations the audience places on the play can be shifted during the play. Rarely does an audience understand all of the little "rules" on how the play behaves, but genre's and mediums help set these expectations. 360 Video creators are going to need to navigate these waters and define how the worlds created in the videos work. What elements of "reality" do we keep, and which do we throw away? From the simple: Do the characters know they are in a play? To the detailed: Does the main character know or feel the same as the cues given to the audience? Do characters get hungry? Are they concerned with banal or routine matters or intent on their plot-driven focus? When a character hangs up a phone, do they bother saying goodbye?
This post will define and drive at many of the concepts, and how they may apply to 360 video.
Willing Suspension Of Disbelief
The willing suspension of disbelief is the acceptance, by an audience, of nonfactual, unrealistic, odd, or confusing elements in a story for the sake of the appreciation or enjoyment of the story.
We also must carefully consider what degree, on any attribute or element an audience allows for disbelief.
What sorts of "non-play" attributes/things do audiences allow as being part of a play, and what types of actions do they not? Audiences can complain of "bad acting" if they don't believe the characters, yet plays are often performed in front painted backdrops and flat sets. Films utilize non-diegetic background music without question, as well as a host of reality 'cheats' thanks to editing away space and time. Examples are endless and pedantic in tone. "Why doesn't anyone recognize Clark Kent as Superman?" for one.
Films may not break the fourth wall but may tap on the glass of the fourth wall, so to speak - giving the audiences, who have choices to make, at least some allowances for the sake of their enjoyment in the medium.
What Elements of 360 Video Requires a Suspension of Disbelief?
Being able to identify the elements of 360 video that audiences are more likely to give disbelief to, versus the ones that will feel more unnatural or stand out is a smart way to determine where to focus our production efforts.
A rule of thumb could be to somehow calculate an imaginary scale where we identify what is "story critical" and find the "distance" any element has from this story-critical nexus. The further something is, the less "realism" way may have to put in that attribute. As you can tell, this language is full of wishy-washy bologna and is not satisfying. We will, instead, break down a taxonomy, opening the way for a more nuanced examination of elements. Ultimately it will be up to filmmakers to make specific decisions regarding their particular stories - so this work will attempt to avoid getting too specific in fear limiting scope on what is possible.
Artists, don't let me tell you what not to do! My goal is to provide you with tools to intelligently consider your options, not decree a particular approach.
First, what are the categories of suspension of disbelief?
I have identified the following:
- Story/Plot realism
- Production artifacts
- Medium artifacts
- Humans & Motivational realism (and blocking)
- Timeline realism
- Environmental realism
- Dramaturgical flourishes
On Story and Plot Realism
For this discussion, we are going to ignore elements of disbelief that extend from plot. They are the most medium-independent, and irrelevant to understanding 360 video. Science fiction, for example, is full of elements requiring a suspension of disbelief. A flexible nature of the law of gravity, the mechanics of time travel or teleportation, and how a "hyperjump" may work - these details don't matter. That they don't matter is the same in a novel, TV series, or in 360 video.
One corollary of choosing to ignore these plot holes is to not make a claim about what genres may work best. It's safe to assume there's no reason any genre - from wild fantasy fiction to gritty down-to-earth journalism - may work equally well in the medium of 360 video. Many artists and creators are discussing the merits of 360 video as what types of stories it may be capable of telling. This work aims to treat 360 video as a new and unique medium, not a niche or corollary experience. Thus, as we dissect the craft of 360 storytelling, there's no good reason to play favorites, as doing so may channel our thinking away from certain discoveries or realizations.
When a viewer in a 360 video looks down, they often see a tripod or the shadow of the camera. Crews, microphones, and lighting equipment may be poorly hidden, or there could be stitching errors when trying to cover up these elements.
One-takes are common in 360 video, and all of the sort of less-than-realistic timing precisions required to pull such a long scene off go with them. Many times audio is not spatially mixed, or combines spatial and non-spacial mixing in "unrealistic" ways.
How much, we ask ourselves, do these concerns matter? For audiences with the expectations of filmmaking, it may be strange or attention-getting to see a tripod or other such production paraphernalia in the shot; but 360 video is not a film, and the 360 camera has a large role, being the active axis around which the audience rotates. Can we train audiences to stop minding or noticing these artifacts, and give filmmakers a chance to focus their efforts elsewhere? I hope so.
The audience is often looking at a screen only a few inches from their face. They are swinging their heads around in rooms, often obliquely aware that others are watching them. 360 video is weird. We have to get the audience past that.
It can often be very strange for viewers to experience 360 video. As immersive as the content may attempt to be, nothing breaks immersion like the audience stubbing their toe as they spin around. Headsets may not have a full wide field of view, audio quality is often a concern, and the widespread use of streaming as a delivery tool leads itself to more accidental interrupts than locally delivered content. Further, 360 video is complicated by the sheer variety of forms it takes, different types of headsets behave differently, audiences can simply hold a phone or tablet in front of them (as I often do after watching head-mounted 360 videos and becoming nauseous), or just click and drag around on a computer screen.
Audiences can become motion-sick, which is not the feeling we want our stories to provide!
These medium considerations, I believe, like in most mediums, will be the first to be accepted for belief to be suspended. Technology will improve and screens/screen resolution, head-tracking accuracy, and comfort will all improve with it. For now, we can hope audiences do not berate or critique a story for the faults found in these emerging mediums, and do what we can to be aware of concerns (particularly those around nauseousness) that do not, we hope, interfere with the telling of the story.
Over time, I believe, artists can be more and more creative with, say, camera movements, as audiences become more accustomed or trained on 360 video and virtual reality content. As of writing, I will encourage creators not to be afraid to experiment, and not to be afraid to give up on, say, a wild camera movement if it does not test well with audiences.
Humans & Motivational Realism (and blocking)
Humanity is almost always the center of a good story. Audiences expect actors to deliver performances good enough that, simply, the audience does not notice any failure. For 360 video (and filmmaking), I believe performance to be critical. Characters motivations (in plot, as well as acting) must be believable in order for a story to continuously engage the audience with that characters challenge or struggle.
There is a particular note about 360 video that separates it from film or theater, which is distance. In theater, actors project their voices huge, and have strong and large movements. Blocking plays a significant dramaturgical role - one can often understand the relationships of characters based on where they are standing on the stage. In film and with the development of the close-up, acting was able to become more subtle. Blocking played a less extreme example as camera position, direction, and cinematographic considerations of that blocking projected onto a two-dimensional screen became more dramaturgically significant. The reason for the change? Distance! Theater actors had to perform not just for the front row, but for the back! This affects how they give the most readable (and, if motivations are well read: believable) performance. Film actors had to learn "microexpressions" (and editors learn how to ahem enhance the actor's performance through, for example, the Kuleshov effect).
In 360 video, we lose the close-up! 360 cameras, generally, have minimum operating and focus distances, and perspective distortion is high up close. There is a minimum operating distance cinematographers and directors need to be aware of. Scenes are often staged with a full, medium, or 3/4 ('western' framing) framing. This changes how they have to perform, and body language is huge!
This is without acknowledging that 360 cameras and screens have trouble achieving high-resolution playback images. This technological note is very important for filmmakers today, but will likely improve over time.
Blocking around the frame is also important. Character movement triggers audience head movement - and a decision for the audience to follow the character. Characters far apart require the audience to switch between them (playing editor) and characters together risk the audience having too much elsewhere to look. Audiences can remember positions around the frame (if they are sitting down) and read dramaturgical meaning from direction and location in a frame (Most likely, like video games, the hero goes right! Or, to put it heavy-handedly, put the angel over the left shoulder, and the devil over the right; while the main character (center) has to make an important decision).
This blocking and camera places will inevitably, at times, feel "unreal". Ignoring when the camera plays a first-person perspective role, the question remains: To what extent does a filmmaker just put a camera in a room where some action is happening? "Fly on the wall", so to speak. To what extent should the actors position, distance, blocking, and visual relationships are influenced by a "natural", or an "artistic" approach? These approaches are not mutually exclusive, so perhaps the real question is how to convey "artistic" (dramaturgical) meaning while keeping the appearance of a natural flow? By natural, I mean unnoticeable: not breaking the suspension of disbelief. What types of blocking arrangements, distances, visual verbosity of acting, and others such "human" considerations will audiences allow for?
I do not yet have hard answers to these questions.
360 video is video. It is a time-controlled medium, where the pacing is in the total control of the filmmaker. 30 frames a second, every second. (Or 24. Or 29.97. You get it). Graphic novels allow readers to spend time on every illustration or hurry through the plot - at their own pace. I believe the control of pace is a significant factor in a stories re-readability (or rewatch-ability) for these reasons.
So, because we edit, and we must consider pace, timelines get chopped up. One takes and simple scene changes certainly allow for an "as-it-happens" timeline, but what about more extreme variations in time? Or non-linear structures entirely? How does the nature of 360 video affect the way audiences consider time? Audiences, in greater control over what interests them, are also in a mild control over the pacing - if not the concrete pacing, audiences may not be looking at certain indications of, say, cuts. If an audience doesn't see a character walking out a door, they may be confused when we cut to the room that character enters.
It is easier for the audience to "catch up" on the information missed when the scenes are playing out "in real time" and editing is spatial, not temporal. Editors do have tricks to indicate temporal edits - like fades instead of hard cuts - but fades also are useful for "non-temporal" edits, working merely as a visual buffer from what might feel like a jarring cut in 360.
Yet, to limit ourselves in this way is, well... to limit ourselves! There is no reason that more complicated edits or a wide variety of edit motivations (temporal, spatial, etc) couldn't be used to assemble a film. This thesis work will later examine a variety of "editing structures" and how they may best play out in a 360 film. At the least, playing with timeline changes through editing will be trickier than it is with film, and should be approached with caution and intent.
It's strange to see 360 cameras in square rooms, because of perspective distortion. Similar to character blocking, objects that are closer are not only bigger but generally perceived as more important. How do we lay out an environment to appropriately support the story taking place within or around the environment?
If characters move in straight lines through square rooms, their distance away from a single point - the camera - changes. Walking past a 360 camera in a hallway, a character gets larger and closer, huge, then shrinks away. The character's perceived speed, thanks to the changing size in the frame, changes. The actor moves at the same speed but their angle of movement against the line extending from the camera to them changes, so how quickly they move around the frame changes. In other words, how laterally they move in the frame is varying constantly. Walking across the camera, right next to it, they move quickly, walking down that hallway further, they barely move in the frame - just shrink.
A simple movement across the camera is first perceived as getting larger and faster, then smaller, shrinking, while movement stagnates. Which effect do we want to achieve? How do we have a character simply walk down a hallway without such an effect being given to the audience!
Without finding ways to use or ignore these effects, we may place characters the same distance away - and their walking paths (a curved one, for example, walking "around the camera") will only feel supported if the environment supports them. Filming in round scenes helps with this visual artifact, but hurts in almost every other way. It is hard to find narrative and plot excuses to create circular environmental layouts in a predominantly square human world.
Can we teach audiences to get used to a more circular world?
How can we construct our scenery to best support the cinematographic intentions while remaining believable? I believe in pseudo-circular sets. I.E.: faking it. More furniture in the corners objects creating paths that encourage a static subject-camera distance). I also believe in mixing this approach with a creative` (read: intentional) use of subject-camera distance. For example, a character can cut across the scene, visually sweeping up attention, to deliver an important line at the peak of that momentum.
Dramaturgical Realism ("other")
This is, admittedly, a catch-all category. Briefly, to what extent do artists allow themselves the ability to communicate mood, atmosphere, feeling, and more through visual, auditory, and metaphorical elements in a 360 video that, on their own or out of context, may not lend themselves to reality.
As the terrified character walks down the dark hallway, what are the chances that the lights start flickering at just that moment? Why are the lights so green and spooky? To what extent do we allow the elements in the frame to hold more metaphorical weight at the cost of "immersiveness" or "realism"?
I believe that we should lean towards artistic metaphor, and give up on "realism". We are storytellers, and we must discover all of the elements with which we can tell our story. 360 video is not going to progress as a craft without experimentation, and the singular goal of realism is limiting. In film, camera position and perspective hold a lot of metaphorical weight. A filmmaker can communicate a powerful and intimidating character by shooting them from a low angle, and not "break reality" since it's just a camera angle. Audiences have the expectation that any such angles are fine - even impossible camera movements, like through walls, rarely break suspension of disbelief in film.
360 video takes many of these tools away from us. To limit ourselves by not exploring other metaphorical ways to support the story is damaging to the medium.
360 video loses a lot of the subtlety that film allows for through camera perspectives, close-ups, and tight editing. Instead of fighting through this to achieve subtle filmmaking, artists should consider embracing how 360 video's increased level of immersion and audience engagement may balance out (so to speak) the lack of subtlety in the dramaturgical effects.
Which is to say, artists, you have my permission to go crazy! Become more inspired by comic books than documentary photography. Play with extreme use of color and blocking. Put characters in wild settings and let the audience discover how they respond, react, and survive them. When the sound designer says they have a "weird" idea, roll with it! Most of all, construct or find extravagant environments that tell stories in their appearance.
Immersiveness and realism are not glued together and don't need to go hand in hand.
How do we get away with a wild appearance as described in the end of part one? How does one get away with fantasy in immersive 360 video?
The audience's expectations and a story's 'reality' must align. The audience can arrive with expectations - from marketing, genre, form, "experience", or medium considerations, and a story can set appropriate expectations itself for how it should be perceived/judged.
If someone walked into a film - even a great film - expecting a 22-minute television show, they are going to be annoyed and impatient, thrown off by the pacing, length, and attention asked of them. If a film gets advertised as a laugh-out-loud comedy and audiences receive an introspective drama, they too will be disappointed, regardless of the quality of the drama as a drama. In addition to the genre, setting appropriate expectations is key for willing suspension of disbelief to be effective.
Many documentary journalists, for example, make little attempt to hide production crews, and the active presence of the crew in the story is rarely a hindrance, since the audience has no expectation of a totally immersive experience, and often the journey of the main documentarian - such as Morgan Spurlock - is 'followed' by the crew on their adventure, and having the crew present is not only non-disruptive to this story but in line with it.
360 video creators must be aware of the audiences' willing suspension of disbelief, and use it in order to focus resources in the appropriate places.
Audience expectations in 360 Video
360 Video has its own unique considerations for a few reasons. The first is that a standard set of expectations an audience may have when putting on a headset is not currently well defined. Audiences' expectations are likely to vary widely - one who is experienced with VR Video games may be more willing to accept a first person perspective than a member thinking in terms of traditional film, which will be different than an audience member thinking in terms of theater. Ultimately, 360 video must set its own expectations for the audience, and not borrow or translate from other mediums.
A medium with audience familiarity and/or a well-designed onboarding experience will allow for an audience to have appropriate expectations going into a story. This audience familiarity will likely become the test for 360 video "coming into its own" as a medium. One may consider this the test for any medium, and how critics can start considering and speaking about mediums in their own rights as opposed to in conversation with other pieces.
We could examine other medium's historical progressions, but that's a discussion for another time.
Where To Focus Resources
What sorts of fourth wall "boundaries" can be skirted or allowed for in 360 video? How might we compose, direct, or otherwise communicate expectations? What do creators let slide and what do they focus on? What types of filmic elements are naturally deemphasized or emphasized in 360 video? In short, Opening shots are important for more than just establishing environment, but set the tone of the story, and clue the audience into how to continue to enjoy the story, and how not to spend the whole time annoyed by XYZ.
One exercise for creators to do is, while watching 360 videos, take notes on a pad of paper about what is bothering you. This is how I assembled the list below, which is far from exhaustive.
In my opinion, it will be very important to let go of "total realism" (in an effort towards "immersion") and to focus on discovering what types of reality can be broken without the audience noticing, caring, acknowledging, or critiquing (within the audience's suspension of disbelief), and how to utilize this for as much creative control as possible.
A List Of Decisions
Here is a short and inexhaustive list of some audience-aware attributes that should be considered when producing a 360 video.
- The perspective of the camera (first person? Fly on the wall? Filmic? Are we allowed to switch between stylistic perspectives)
- How much attention does the audience have to pay? Will important plot points be repeated or emphasized? How much is asked of the audience? (think film vs. tv)
- The objectiveness (or subjectiveness) of the camera
- The presence of filmmaking paraphernalia in the scene (tripod, Steve the sound guy, poorly hidden lav mics)
- The paths that characters take through the room (around camera regarding subject distance and relative sizes vs. something more "natural", cutting across the camera perspective with varying size)
- The believability of the environments, the actor's arrival/exits, and the size of the space.
- When we hear voices, do we always know where they are coming from? Have we seen the narrators face when they began speaking?
- The spatialization (or lack thereof) of audio elements
- Any element designed to manipulate the viewers gaze, bring them "to the action" - how heavy handed would one do, how much the film forfeits such attempts or indications.
- How grand is the environment? How surreal?
- If elements designed to manipulate the viewers gaze exist diegetically or non-diegetically. A butterfly floating across the scene is diegetic, while desaturating unimportant sections would be non-diegetic.
- Diegetic vs. non-diegetic audio sources.
- What sort of eye contact do actors make to the camera? Does the audience know what the actor is looking at, if it isn't the audience themselves? Is there something behind us?
- How much freedom do we give the audience to look wherever the hell they want? How much of the story is told in ways that don't require a specific gaze point?
This section should, I hope, give 360 video's a new perspective on some of the decisions being made. Perhaps something a creator hadn't considered or taken for granted is now being challenged and explored. The willing suspension of disbelief is a powerful tool in the hands of storytellers, and should not be taken for granted. Tools for setting the expectations the audience has are important and creators should pay attention to doing what is in their ability, and not get tied up over controlling what they can't control.