The Choreography of Attention

The Choreography of Attention

At nearly every VR related conference I’ve been to someone either on stage or in discussions steadfastly claims: You can not edit in VR. Usually this is followed by a quip about teleporting audience members from place to place and how ‘just not real that is.’ I’m not sure how this strange notion got started, but let me assure you: it’s all lies. Lies I tell you!

Seriously people. You have to stop saying this. Not only is it not true, but people believe it. Not knowing how to do a thing is not the same as the thing being impossible.  Stop biasing such a young medium. Recent decisions by some in the field to stick close to hardcore gamers, a timid if unsurprising move to snag the only audience thought willing to spend $600 on launch day, is bias enough. Let’s take this apart piece by piece.



Editing is a thing

When an expert says that you can’t edit in VR what they usually mean is that the standard film language for shot types: establishing shot, close up, etc, have no easy analog in VR. Sure, we don’t have a codified language for the VR video editing canon yet, but can you give us a minute? There are already plenty of videos hanging around with plenty of editing in them, but it took years and hundreds of films to develop from the blockbusters 1890s, static one takes of trains arriving and people walking, full of onscreen movement but during which the camera never moved. In fact the first film that strung together more than one take was Robert W. Paul’s Come Along, Do! (1898). Scene 1: Two people eat lunch while waiting to visit a gallery. Shot 2: They go inside and look at art. Thrilling!






VR recorders are not cameras, like mobiles are not phones

Now that I have thoroughly convinced you that VR editing in a thing, let’s talk turkey. To translate from the image above: ‘This is not a camera’ and ‘This is not a phone.’ The frame, like making a call on a telephone, has up to now been a fundamental property of this technological species. The name coming from its Latin classification camera obscura. It meant “dark chamber,” and it used a tiny pinhole of light to project an image of the world outside onto a flat surface opposite the hole. That flat frame and its ability to crop the world into two dimensional chunks has been with the camera ever since. If this is true, at least in so far as it can be trusted axiomatically in this argument, it means that VR video recording devices are fundamentally not cameras. But if not cameras then what?



VR is a somatic medium

You might notice that nearly every filmic shot type is defined by its relationship to the main subject being recorded. Close up, medium shot, low angle, long shot, they all generally define how much of the subjects body in visible in frame. But VR, in much the same way participatory theater works depend on the unique but guided actions of an audience member, VR pieces take as their core mechanic the action and position of the body.The audience is not a viewer but a wearer, the content is not seen but worn. VR is choreography over camera work.

We know things with our guts. We encode emotion with the sensation of our bodies. Our body language and the volume of space our positions occupy change not only how others see us but also how confident or anxious we feel. There’s content in there. Dance has been until now been the primary artistic medium of somatic information, but with wearables and head mounted displays feeding back an ever increasing stream of body specific data, creators can now consider the body of the audience, not just the body of the performer.

This makes the editing and cinematography of VR  less the manipulation of cameras and frames and more as the choreography of attention. We understand at this point that what happens ‘on screen’ happens to the viewer. When I reach down a grab the camera in a piece shot on the Ricoh Theta at least some of the audience will feel that I just grabbed them.

And there are roadmaps to teaching and assessing physical information from somatic educators of all kinds: dance and fight choreographers, basketball coaches, music teachers, yoga instructors, they all have their systems and orders.  Lets take yoga as an example. In a well taught class there is an opening or scene setting phase in which participants mentally transition from the world outside to the yoga mat, usually involving brief storytelling or participatory music. Next comes the warm up in which participants physically transition. Bodies curled inward from a day spent hunched in the driver’s seat of a public bus or lopsided from the weight of a child carried on one hip are slowly reminded of the existence of joints and spines. As heat is built this phase slowly ramps toward higher and higher intensity movements and positions, breaks are had, intervals of high and low are alternated through, and then when the time is nearly up the ramps flows back toward slow cooling stretches and breathing. This entire format is often closed with a reference to the start, a communal sound and a thank you and a moment of silence before returning to the outside world.

This format is all about guiding people through an immersive experience, body and mind. The participants need not know any of this structure is even happening. They just follow along and trust that the teacher knows what they are doing. I’m not claiming every VR experience need to follow this exact format, unless you know you want to make VR yoga classes, but viewers should be able to follow along with any immersive experience with the knowledge that their somatic experience has been considered and the content knows what it’s doing. Because as a former professional dancer I can tell you: somatic mediums are hard on the body if approached unconsciously.
I don’t have a shot list for you yet. I haven’t found every nook and cranny of this inside out way of thinking about editing and cinematography; but in the next few VR editing posts we will explore further the implications and techniques of this choreography over camera work idea and give you some examples to chew on.