Class Spotlight: Virtual Reality Screenwriting

As the students in Troy Perkins’ advanced screenwriting class slip on virtual reality headsets, the professor warns them: “It’s weird coming out of it.”

He cautions the students to transition slowly back to “real” reality once they finish watching a short video, about an Indonesian fisherman struggling to protect marine life from poachers and polluters.

“Virtual reality sickness,” it turns out, is a common side effect of immersing oneself in a VR environment. Its symptoms are similar to motion sickness: spatial disorientation, headaches, nausea, sweating, even vomiting. Indeed, one student looks queasy as he takes off his Zeiss VR One Plus headset after watching the short film.

“I have vertigo,” he says. “I’ll be fine in a minute. This happens a lot when I do VR.”

There’s no such problem for some of his classmates.

“That was so cool!” says junior Cameron Ford.

Perkins recently finished the first draft of his new feature film screenplay, The High Road, which he plans to direct.

Since 2017, Perkins, an associate professor of film and media arts, has been encouraging his screenwriting students to explore a medium that barely existed when they were in grade school: virtual reality, a world in which viewers are immersed at the center of a three-dimensional environment. Individuals each determine what they see based on where they choose to look.

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“It really is an entirely different experience from what audiences – and screenwriters – are used to,” the professor says. “It takes away one of the director’s strongest tools: the absolute authority to decide what the viewer sees, for how long, from what vantage point, in what chronological order and in what spatial context. With VR, those decisions become shared decisions. The viewer has a choice, which they never had before.

“Knowing that audiences will view their work using VR gives these students a different focus,” he adds. “They have to think much more about the viewer’s perspective. They have to think at all times about the audience’s experience. This takes them out of their own heads as writers and into a real relationship with the audience.”

John Bucher, a Los Angeles author, teacher and narrative consultant, put it this way: “Storytelling in virtual reality is less about telling the viewer a story and more about letting the viewer discover the story.”

That technological transformation presents both challenges and opportunities for writers.

“It helps you break free from a linear structure,” says senior David Fice, one of Perkins’ screenwriting students.

As much as anything, Perkins says, virtual reality is creating a new career vista for aspiring young writers.

“Right now, the world of screenwriting for VR is wide open,” he says. “Because it’s an emerging medium, producers and production companies who want to develop VR films are desperate for good content. The sooner emerging screenwriters understand this and learn how to write for VR audiences, the sooner they’re going to succeed.

“The key at this stage is just for young writers to get their foot in the door. One of my goals with this class is to teach our students skills that will make them much more competitive in today’s workplace – and in tomorrow’s.”

For her class project, junior Tori Carley wrote a 20-minute VR screenplay based on the mystery of Roanoke Island, an English colony off the Carolina coast from which more than 100 settlers inexplicably vanished between 1587 and 1590.

“It was the most difficult script I’ve ever written,” says Carley, who has written a half-dozen. “But it was also the most rewarding.”

Knowing that her viewers in their VR headsets could look wherever they chose, she tried to keep them looking where she wanted with visual and verbal clues that something important was about to happen in a specific location.

“I had to write in a way that conveyed where their main focus should be,” she said. “But at the same time, I knew I had to make sure there was something of interest wherever they looked.”

Perkins, who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is an accomplished director, cinematographer and screenwriter whose award-winning short films have been showcased in numerous national film festivals.

Two or three years ago, he began researching the possibility of incorporating writing for VR into his advanced screenwriting class, and acquired the needed equipment with the help of an SMU instructional technology grant. He discovered that while universities across the country were focused on the technology and programming underlying virtual reality, only a tiny number offered courses that explore the medium’s storytelling potential.

“It’s exciting for Meadows to be at the forefront in teaching this new form of storytelling for an emerging technology,” he says. “Will VR last as an entertainment medium? I don’t know. What it really needs in order to take off is good stories. That means what it needs is a lot of great new scripts.”

As with anything in art, he observes, what’s new is at the same time old.

“Really,” he says, “all filmmaking is ‘virtual reality.’ We use light, shadow, and motion to create this magical illusion, an approximation of reality. It’s all about creating something that audiences will find meaningful. That’s always been the case.”

–Bruce Tomaso