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VR Storytelling Lessons with Adam Cosco, One of VR’s Early Auteurs

This post is part of an ongoing series about writing, storytelling, and critique in VR, in partnership with Galatea, a writing and narrative design management tool for immersive stories.

The trailer for Rose-Colored, Adam Cosco’s upcoming 360° film, just dropped—and one glimpse offers an immediate understanding of why Adam Cosco has become one of the most distinct and compelling voices in virtual reality today:

I first encountered Cosco at VRTO last summer, where Knives was on debut. From the opening scene, I knew this was a different kind of immersive film than I’d seen—one that gleefully ditched convention and the existing tenets people believed about 360° filmmaking at the time. There were jump cuts, POV shots, tracks, pans, circular dolly shots. It established its own storytelling grammar, one that unfolds around viewers in a way unique to immersion—inviting participation while simultaneously preserving Cosco’s directorial vision.

It demonstrated the kind of intrinsic understanding of form one typically finds from established auteurs in established mediums.

After appearing in VRTO, Knives went on to Kaleidoscope’s Summer Showcase and FIVARS, ultimately garnering a Proto Award nomination for Best Narrative Experience.

In the debut episode of Story Unframed, the podcast about immersive stories and the artists behind them, I was able to discuss Cosco’s process in creating Knives, from writing to production—including key lessons he’s learned over the past few years of writing and directing for VR film.

Below are some key takeaways from the podcast, but the whole episode is a must-listen for aspiring VR screenwriters and directors.

Story from Environment

Storytelling in VR demands a keen understanding of physical space. To create a story that can elicit powerful emotional responses from viewers, it’s imperative that VR storytellers bear in mind the interaction and impact of colors, angles, and positioning.

One thing that became clear talking to Cosco was that he naturally draws inspiration from his environment.

“I was living in the house that we ended up shooting in, so I was somewhat cheating because I was like, ‘This would be a perfect house for this knife salesman to come by,” said Cosco. “Sometimes you’re in an environment and you’re like, ‘What story would take place here?'”

It’s more of an intuitive process than a preconceived one—which maybe explains why he was able to make such a fluid transition to VR from traditional filmmaking.

“I don’t even think I knew when I was writing it in that house that I was thinking of that house,” said Cosco. “But then as I walked through every morning when I would go to write the script I’d be like, ‘This is the hallway I just described, this is the front door….’ That kind of thing.”

While some are more innately equipped with spatial recognition chops, this is also something that requires practice and extensive planning, which is why Cosco has learned not to skimp on the previsualization process.

Planning, Previsualization, and Patience

Storyboarding is a tried-and-true filmmaking practice, but of yet, there isn’t an intuitive storyboarding solution for immersive filmmakers, which means that creators end up discovering their own solutions. For the early adopters, these solutions were learned the hard way.

“I’ve made my own VR pieces before Knives where the number one feeling I had after I shot it, was, ‘Oh my God, I wish I had put the camera there…I didn’t realize that the camera was a bit too distant to read the emotion on the person’s face…or, I wish I was here because it was a more interesting angle,'” said Cosco. “I think we take for granted the idea that you can have an idea on set and think that it’s going to look a certain way in VR, but when you actually stitch it may be very different from what it even felt like on set.”

To address this problem going into Knives, Cosco and Producer John Hudson decided to shoot 360° video storyboards of the entire film on a consumer camera (rather than the professional rig they would shoot the actual film on), where the two played the parts. This gave them an understanding of how the film would play out before even hitting rehearsals; they could address on-set issues such as moments to cut/condense or ways to reposition the camera from within the headset. And the lower visual fidelity of the consumer camera actually aided in knowing what will ultimately work in the more polished version.

“To a certain extent it’s even better because if you can make the angles work on that low-quality camera,” said Cosco. “It’s a way to test in a very rough way how this could ultimately be unsatisfying and how you could make it more satisfying, because then when you get in there and shoot it with better cameras, you’re just emphasizing the things that worked.”

From there, the projects go into production, and one thing Cosco had to learn the hard way was to allocate plenty of time on-set for plate shots.

“The number one thing that I encountered where I made mistakes in some of the first VR films I made was just not allocating enough time to do the plate shots,” said Cosco. “The way that I shoot my films is that we do the performance take, and then we do a plate shot, where the crew and the lights flip to the other side of the camera and we capture the second half of the room…and that takes time. That means that literally half the day you’re shooting background nothingness—but to make the mistake of not allocating the proper amount of time to do it is…that’s death.”

Establishing Roles

In the future, specialized roles across the VR storytelling process will emerge and crystallize, but in the meantime, the form demands that many of us wear different hats. Cosco knew he wanted to write and direct Knives, which presents the problem of being shrewd in translating the story from page to screen, being willing to “kill your darlings” along the way in service of the most powerful story.

I kind of look at my scripts when I put the directing hat on from the perspective of: “Who’s the idiot who wrote this thing?”

“My philosophy is that anytime that you are writing the same thing that you’re directing, the problem you could be facing is that you fall in love with what you wrote, and then you don’t do such a good job of directing,” said Cosco. “You essentially end up capturing what you wrote because you’re still kind of riding the high of being in love with that. For me the job of being someone who writes and then directs what he writes is being able to take the hat of being a writer, put it aside, and then become a director—and be brutal.”

Scripts tend to be written in a more abstract headspace than the physical realities of the set, and don’t take into account the kind of compression required of any visual storytelling mode—but especially immersive media, which demands (arguably) the most scrupulous eye for cutting and combining story beats. Plus, as aforementioned, you can’t fake the physical “reality” of a world the way you can in 2D film.

“I kind of look at my scripts when I put the directing hat on from the perspective of: ‘Who’s the idiot who wrote this thing?'” said Cosco. “When you’re thinking of directing something for VR, you’re automatically thinking of efficiency, finding the right angle that could tell two beats or three beats of story in the shortest amount of time, so all of those things added to basically adapting something that I wrote, but being able to adapt it with enough of a distance that I wasn’t, you know, making a forty page script.”

In a sense, Cosco was fortunate with the script for Knives: it was a short film script he’d written about a year prior to deciding it should actually be a VR piece. That distance helped him realize how much he really ought to trim in order to draw out the story in its purest form.

“It’s still hard because anytime you create something you’re like, ‘This is what I want to make,’ and then you realize that you’re so far off the mark the first time,” said Cosco. “It’s just an acceptance that you’re going to have to keep polishing it every step of the way.”

The number one thing I’ve noticed about people that’ve made VR pieces: they all hate the first one or two things that they made.

Even outside of more common combination roles like Writer/Directors, VR filmmaking demands responsibilities that have literally never existed before. To address these problems, one role that has emerged in Cosco’s sets is the “VR Supervisor.” This is the crew-member who mans all the organizational tasks related to VR during production so that others can focus on their specific roles.

“At a very practical level [VR Supervisors] have to basically know everything about the cameras, have them prepared so the cinematographer can focus on the lighting, the movement of the camera, and other things,” said Cosco. “It’s just so many cameras to manage to make sure they’re literally just ready to go. But there’s also things like, you know—we do all these moving shots in Knives and Rose-Colored, and measuring the distance of the camera to the ground, and doing this complex math for how to do the plate shot…. It’s basically taking these measurements and making sure we’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s so we can put it together in post. It’s just so much information it would be very rude to dump all of that responsibility on the cinematographer, so having the VR supervisor who’s thinking about the VR-ness of how this is going to come together in post is really helpful.”

Be Bold: Experiment

Cosco admits he has made plenty of mistakes while learning to create VR, but it’s how he’s been able to develop a unique VR storytelling language—and when asked what advice he’s give to aspiring VR filmmakers, it was to accept the inevitability of mistakes and use them to innovate.

“The number one thing I’ve noticed about people that’ve made VR pieces: they all hate the first one or two things that they made,” said Cosco. “So, anything you can do to accept that that might happen. Make your failures something that you don’t spend all your money on, but you spend a little bit of money on learning the hard way.”

And because VR filmmaking is still in its infancy, doing that might mean you’ll carve out a brand new technique others can learn from.

“You’re going to make these mistakes so go ahead and make them and learn from them and try to do stuff that no one’s doing out there—it’s wide open to do whatever you can imagine. Don’t be beholden to any way of doing it and be accepting that maybe if you’re not imitating anyone you’re on the right track, because there’s no way to say me and the four or five other people that are doing it our own special way have it figured out: we don’t. Just try and be innovative.”

Rose-Colored, produced by Invar Studios, debuts at VRLA (April 14 and 15) in Los Angeles. For more advice on VR storytelling and production, the Story Unframed podcast can be found here. If you have a pitch about the relationship between story and immersive media, please send them directly to jesse@vrscout.com.

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and the CEO of Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive storytelling. He's also Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #loliloquy (BlazeVOX, 2017). Other writing can be found on Quartz, IndieWire, and HuffPost.

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