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Defining VR Content: A Conversation With Producer David Alpert

By: Marjorie Galas

Imagine seeing a child at play.  Suddenly, that child is missing.  The desperate need to find that missing child is at the core of “Gone,” the first narrative virtual reality, or VR, series presented by Samsung’s Milk VR service.   For David Alpert, President of Skybound Entertainment, the production company behind the series,  and an executive producer of “Gone” (not to mention AMC’s hit series “The Walking Dead”), the connection a person has to the content while viewing “Gone” – the basic human instinct one experiences to protect a child in need – was a motivating factor in creating the series.

VR has been around for a while.  The first head mounted displays were used in the 1970s by the military as flight simulators for training purposes.  Early adaptors who saw the value of VR  in the entertainment realm arose in the 80s.  The gulf between the rudimentary computer generated environments and the viewer’s ability to suspend belief of their emersion was too great however, and the industry folded.  Technology has made huge advancements on all fronts involved in creating believable environments, from camera technology to design software.  Within the past few years, VR has once again become a hot topic due to the development of the Oculus and Samsung’s MS – R322.  The gear has been mass produced at affordable price points.  As more people engage in VR, content producers are creating material to fit the need.  Alpert spoke at the 2016 NAB show about the challenges the new entertainment format poses.

Recognizing the content should bring an unique experience to the viewer that lasts throughout the produced piece is the first hurdle to bridge.  Alpert suggests there are two main questions a content creator should ask themselves before deciding on VR.  First – why should this be created in virtual reality?  The content should have a specific challenge that utilizes the unique qualities of virtual reality.  The second question to ask is what are the aspects of virtual reality the content is taking advantage of?  The narrative will benefit from so many choices, from CG to the experience itself – it is good to have an understanding of what you want to capitalize on before you even start.

“It is like a group of blind men in a room describing an elephant.  Some are feeling the tusk, some are feeling the tail; no one understands what it is they are describing,” said Alpert.  “What we are doing is so new, no one has the right way to vocalize it.”

Alpert suggested Skybound is not looking for scripts, per say, to translate into the VR content they produce.  They are looking at the whole of the concept, focusing on areas such as what it would be like for someone to be a guest in the environment as well as part of the collective of the moment.  “Gone” invited the VR user into the experience through the motivation of finding a missing child.  Using a settings including a forest filled with giant Sequoias, the user is invited to marvel at their surroundings while visual and audible cues help retain their focus to the continuing storyline.

“Why fight what people would do naturally,” suggested Alpert.  “Through cues such as a 3D sound mix we can help direct focus organically.”

At various points throughout “Gone” the viewer is able to zoom in on clues using the touchpad on the side of Samsung’s Gear VR headset that utilizes Samsung smartphones as a display device.  These features, the 360 environment and the encouragement of a viewer to fully engage with their environment has encouraged Alpert to maintain that working in the VR world dictates moving away from the traditional media’s model of a guided storyline.  It also dictates a team open to the possibilities of this new medium.

“If you are making a movie, work with a film guy.  If you are making a TV show, work with a TV guy.  If you are making a VR experience, look for the team with experiences in new media, in gaming, in different approaches,” said Alpert.

His philosophy will be tested in the slate of VR projects Skybound Entertainment is currently developing on, which includes a video game, five new original VR series, and a “The Walking Dead” experience that will be featured at Comic Con 2016.

To learn more about MilkVR, visit: https://milkvr.com/

To learn more about Skybound Entertainment, visit:

http://www.skybound.com/about-us/