Creating Impact: The Scripting and Development of a CVR Documentary

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This chapter examines the writing and development of a cinematic virtual reality (CVR) documentary titled Impact: Beyond the Night Sky (2020), that was written, directed and co-produced by the author. The chapter adopts an exegetical style as it reports on this creative research project, providing an opportunity to explore the concepts presented in the previous chapters through practice, and demonstrating a creative-critical approach in action. The author explores how the physical expression of a CVR documentary concept captures the conceptual and technical aspects that are imperative for successful realisation of the work. Through an analysis of the script and other planning documentation for Impact: Beyond the Night Sky, this case study evidences the challenges associated with writing for a spatialised medium.

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This article responds to the recent wave of experimentation with Virtual Reality (VR) as a nonfiction platform. Amidst daily announcements of new VR documentary initiatives, and at times giddy claims about the potential of this new medium, I consider how a media technology expected to enter the mainstream as a games platform became a magnet for nonfiction producers. VR is not a new medium, and has been the subject of a substantial body of research across arts and science. This research is also the site of claims for the pro-social potential of VR, which provide a significant context for its adoption for nonfiction. Less attention has been given to ethical risks posed by VR, which I highlight, and which I suggest require attention within documentary practice. The article concludes with a discussion of the symbiotic relationship between technology and content development in this arena. All these factors have come together at the intersection of VR and nonfiction to produce a heady mix of commercial excitement (hype) and techno-utopianism (hope) which this article highlights and analyses.
Screen production research brings new knowledge to the practice of filmmaking, screenwriting, and digital media production. This type of creative research is attractive to those who have worked professionally, are aspiring to do so, or want an academic career specialising in screen production practice. Choosing an appropriate methodology, epistemology and ontology that supports an enquiry into practice requires a deeper appreciation of the philosophical position of the researcher, who chooses to examine their subjective point of view through their creative practice. This chapter provides an explanation of an appropriate research design to allow a screen production researcher to logically defend their research enquiry and decision to use practice, be that filmmaking, screenwriting or editing, as a method that leads the research process. This aligns with practice-led, research-led, practice-based and practice as research, which are popular approaches used in creative practice research enquiries.
With reference to three recently produced Australian case studies, this article explores approaches to the conceptualization and writing of short narratives for the emerging medium of cinematic 360-degree virtual reality. Storytelling for this format involves a user-focused engagement with time and place. Whereas the viewer of classical narrative media, such as film or television, is for the most part passive, the VR viewer is ‘present’ as an active agent who engages with the unfolding narrative as either witness or participant. These factors present a number of challenges and opportunities for the creator of narrative VR, when considering viewer immersion and/or interaction in the 360-degree environment. The article presents a review of literature that interrogates the specifics of writing for VR, with a specific focus on 360-degree, immersive projects. By interrogating the form of three recently produced works, the author highlights emerging approaches to narrative structure, audience acclimation and the directing of viewer attention. While some commonalities can be observed across these case studies, the article concludes that to date, there is no one approach and no fully established screen grammar associated with a 360-degree VR narrative.
Virtual reality (VR) can provide our minds with direct access to digital media in a way that seemingly has no limits. However, creating compelling VR experiences is an incredibly complex challenge. When VR is done well, the results are brilliant and pleasurable experiences that go beyond what we can do in the real world. When VR is done badly, not only is the system frustrating to use, but it can result in sickness. There are many causes of bad VR; some failures come from the limitations of technology, but many come from a lack of understanding perception, interaction, design principles, and real users. This book discusses these issues by emphasizing the human element of VR. The fact is, if we do not get the human element correct, then no amount of technology will make VR anything more than an interesting tool confined to research laboratories. Even when VR principles are fully understood, the first implementation is rarely novel and almost never ideal due to the complex nature of VR and the countless possibilities that can be created. The VR principles discussed in this book will enable readers to intelligently experiment with the rules and iteratively design towards innovative experiences.
The screenplay is currently the focus of extensive critical re-evaluation, however, as yet there has been no comprehensive study of its historical development. International in scope and placing emphasis on the development and variety of screenplay texts themselves, this book will be an important and innovative addition to the current literature.
Brian Winston is a British screenwriter who focuses on documentaries; he won an Emmy Award in 1985 for his work on Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, Episode 8, ‘Out of the Ashes’ (1919–1947). Other credits include A Boatload of Wild Irishmen (2010). In his keynote address at the Screenwriting Research Network Potsdam conference in 2014, Winston, with passion and humour and his knowledge, addressed the ‘script’ and engaged the audience of academics, graduate students and industry practitioners in re-assessing what signifies a screenplay in the world of documentary filmmaking.
This article seeks to examine the varied modes of writing employed by documentary filmmakers and media artists, who may, as an alternative to a conventional ‘script’, devise a framework of intent, or a ‘working hypothesis’ in order to constitute or determine the underlying structure of the temporal work. Fiction and non-fiction screenwriter/directors regularly focus on the subjects of human mortality, yet the process of shaping a script differs for the documentary author in that they may choose, or seek to, film the actual lives of trauma victims or terminally ill subjects. This article will examine how a documentary writer/director undertakes the relatively analytical processes of screenwriting and film structuring, whilst simultaneously experiencing a premonition of loss and uncertainty as to future events. Is it possible that filmmaking and autobiographical writing, as documentarian Ross McElwee (Time Indefinite, 1993) suggests, in their attempts to confront death directly, are ‘just another denial of death-a way of distracting the filmmaker from dealing with death and then getting on with life’? Incorporating case studies of several of my own hybrid documentary films and digital artworks, I intend to examine some of the ethical, temporal, screenwriting and directorial issues that arise when selecting, filming and editing the lives of social actors or documentary participants. This article will discuss the key question: what can and do documentary and media art ‘scripts’ look like? How stylistically diverse can they be, in response to the director’s framework of intent, or the idiosyncratic qualities of the participant selected?
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Script as a hypothesis: Scriptwriting for documentary film
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Cinematic virtual reality: Towards the spatialized screenplay
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Scripting the virtual: Formats and development paths for recent Australian narrative 360-degree virtual reality projects
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