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Virtual Reality: Entertainment’s Next Frontier

Last night, I attended JHRTS’ Virtual Reality panel over at CAA.
The event was moderated by the great Reggie Watts, who is a fellow VR aficionado.
Panelists included: Ted Schilowitz (Futurist at 20th Century Fox), Nonny De La (CEO of Emblematic), Matthew Collado Pena (Co-Founder/CCO at Littlstar), Tom Vance (Head of Narrative at JauntVR), Jeffrey Greller (Digital/VR Agent at WME/IMG), and Ryan Horrigan (CCO at Felix & Paul Studios).

virtual reality panel stitchingThe panel (and terrible image stitching)

I’ve already been on the record saying how big a fan I am of this new medium.
Specifically, I’m a firm believer that the future of entertainment, whether it’d be in 100 or 500 years, is something similar to the Holodeck from Star Trek (and its famed holonovels).
It’s all about the convergence between passive entertainment (film/TV), active entertainment (gaming), and interactive/immersive technologies.

Empty HolodeckThe future of entertainment

As a side-note–
Although I have yet to talk on here about my NYTVF experience, I did attend back in October the StoryNext virtual reality conference (offered to us in conjunction with NYTVF). On top of panels with speakers from companies such as Google and LucasFilm, multiple VR demos were on display.
I was able to try out then HTC Vive, which is probably the best (and only?) kinematic VR experience available for purchase.

And speaking of kinematic experiences, let’s go back to last night…

The panel opened with a rundown of what people defined as “virtual reality”. Nonny pointed out the two major variations in VR: Cinematic versus Kinematic.
Cinematic being VR through a fixed point (arguably more passive), while kinematic VR has the ability to physically move within a space and interact with it.
Ted brought up that the initial Wii was akin to a VR experience, albeit through a flat screen.

A question was then asked about the reach of VR. Since the experience is about “being there”, such a powerful escapism tool can innately reach a wide audience. It’s about having the right tech with the right people. Tom revealed that their Paul McCartney concert video is their most successful VR video to date. Clearly, not a niche piece of entertainment.

The conversation then switched to creating content for virtual reality.
Consensus was formed around a first, simple question that should be asked by anyone thinking about creating for the new medium: Why does it have to be in VR?
Much like plays being “adapted” to television broadcast in its advent, some current VR content can be a bastardization of 2D/passive cinematic experiences merely transposed to a VR headset. In other words, these are not native experiences designed for virtual reality.
VR is inherently a “point of view experience”, which leads to multiple “issues” or “limitations” that need to be addressed to get a fully immersive experience. One is regarding the POV you create for your viewer. Then there are other narrative traits, such as cutting (or as I’d say “shifting”) between scenes without jarring transitions.

Well, these are merely challenges for the present, not the future.
Similar to the early days of film and television, I am curious to see how the language of virtual reality evolves. For one thing: how can you script a three-dimensional interactive environments while accounting for possible movements and audio cues? Is Final Draft working on a new version?
I should probably get started on a proprietary format…

Truth be told, as the technologies progress, so will the content, language, and workflow.
Volumetric capture is already on the rise (albeit with basic resolution), and with the advent of mass-market VR headsets, content will thrive. Ted predicts a “culling of the herd” within the next couple of years in terms of companies, technologies, and content.
Jeffrey did bring up the inevitable transition from VR content wrapped in an application, moving it into standard/open web (see: video or audio before it). There’s probably going to be some loss of revenue linked to that though. Since MKV and MP4 are the current defaults for sharing videos, what will the “open” VR container look like? (And how big will it be?)

In addition to volumetric capture, I’m personally excited for the progress of light-field technology. Lytro is coming out with their Lytro Immerge camera, which looks like it could transform the way live-action is captured, and how it renders in VR environments.
It will also be interesting to see the evolution of haptic feedback and ways to “physically” interact with these digital environments.

So, what about the not-too-distant future?
Occulus and HTC Vive are entering the market. The end of 2016 will see the launch of Sony’s own VR gear (known as Morpheus), which should push adoption to several millions of people.
Fox is releasing a VR experience for The Martian. Ted stated it would be roughly a 30-minute highly interactice experience, which is fairly ambitious for current projects.
Multiple recommendations for experiences and tools were mentioned. There’s Mixamo for done-for-you 3d characters, the game Esper2 for GearVR, and the VR experience of The Walk.

As you can surmise from this recap, virtual reality is still a whole lot of questioning with few answers.
But that’s really all you can expect from the infancy of a new medium.

The demographics of dialogue

Last week, an interesting study got posted on Polygraph from Hanah Anderson & Matt Daniels.

The pair scoured over 2,000 feature screenplays, using the written dialogue to break down the character demographics of these mainstream movies. Specifically, disparities in gender and age.

The study wasn’t completely scientific however, as they themselves pointed out:

We don’t need to follow a perfectly structured academic study because…
1) This is the Internet. Not academia.
2) We’re publishing on a .cool domain, not an MIT Journal

Their methodology basically centered around extracting dialogue from particular script drafts, and extrapolating that data into gender and age categories.

It quickly becomes obvious that this selective dataset may lead to multiple limitations:

For each screenplay, we mapped characters with at least 100 words of dialogue to a person’s IMDB page (which identifies people as an actor or actress). We did this because minor characters are poorly labeled on IMDB pages.

One of the most interesting aspect in looking at “how” they came to their outcome is to discover which scripts (and versions) the study worked on.

Take a look at their Google doc spreadsheet to find the 2,000 scripts and their relevant source.
You’ll notice a hefty amount of Academy Award drafts, and multiple older versions of scripts; undoubtedly linked to the (lack of) “public availability” of shooting drafts.

The draft for Pixels turns out to be the 2013 version leaked during the Sony Hacks.
The script version used for The Big Short does not include, among other things, the Margot Robbie bathtub scene. (Admittedly not the best representation of a woman character in a feature.)

This isn’t to undermine the study. Their FAQ already tackles a lot of similar objections to their findings.

Given the sheer volume of data extracted, and regardless of how updated those drafts were, I would still consider this a fair bird’s-eye view–and indictment–of representation in mainstream film dialogue.

Just look at this gradient breakdown of words given to men and women from the 2,000 screenplays:
male female dialogue words

You can search for individual films in the website’s dataset.
It’s quite interesting (read: damning) to see where some cinematic classics fall on.

One is pleased to learn that Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back is at a 54/46 split, thanks to Ash Ketchum and Meowth being voiced by ladies.

Frozen however, with its two woman leads, still ends up with a 57/43 breakdown for men. Place your bets on the non-stop talking sidekick character voiced by Josh Gad.
The same goes for Mulan, which gets a 75/25 split. (Damn it, Mushu!)

No word on any of the Mad Max movies.

The stats are equally as sobering when it comes to age:
39% of male dialogue written for men 42 to 65-year old.
38% of female dialogue written for women 22 to 31-year old.
The male/female curve-bells are actually the exact opposite. There are more male roles available the older actors get, while roles for women over 40 decrease dramatically.

So, where does this leave us?

Well, there is a critical limitation to this study that we need to address–
What we are talking about here is dialogue relating to specific drafts of specific screenplays.
And given the topic at hand, the natural follow-up question to that statement could be:
Is it a fair assessment of representation to reduce the entire issue only through the amount of words said by a character?

I would argue this approach limits the discourse (no pun intended).
Which is why we should be asking a different question to begin with–

What is an accurate gauge of representation?

Screen time? Number of characters? Nuanced portrayals?
Probably no unique correct answer among those. Nor should there be.

Fair representation is an ongoing dialogue with which our industry is still struggling.
As long as this discussion continues–with more findings, more light being shed on specific issues–the closer we will be to addressing the problems at hand.

Incidentally, there is another conversation going on currently about television representation and the writers’ relationship with their fandom. (The 100, Sleepy Hollow, casting/staffing diversity…)
I won’t address much (or any) of it here since this is a post (or many) on to their own.
For now, I’ll just direct you to read some of the tweets from the past two days by Terminator: The Sarah Connor ChroniclesJosh Friedman and Agent Carter‘s Jose Molina.

In fact, I don’t have a groundbreaking revelation to add right now, if only to remind people that “representation” is an amalgam of factors.
It isn’t just how much you say. It’s also what you say, how you say it, and why you say it.
Quantifying any of these values is pretty much impossible since they are mostly a matter of perspective, not objective data.
The one thing we can all do is be mindful of the current landscape, and continue to improve on it.

Write on.

Writings from WonderCon 2016

This past week-end was WonderCon 2016, which moved from Anaheim to good ol’ Downtown LA.
That meant taking the red metro line instead of finding parking around Disneyland.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying WonderCon more than the San Diego Comic-Con.
There’s evidently a huge cost difference. At SDCC, you need to book a hotel for 2-5 days, which ends up costing you hundreds of dollars (even split) if you want a halfway decent place. Add to that having to go out 1-2 times a day, and the train from/to Los Angeles.

It’s also interesting to see the difference in attendance. WonderCon 2014 was around 60,000 people. On the other end of the scale, Comic-Con hosted about 167,000.
100,000 is a huge gap, and a crucial reason why WonderCon ends up more appreciated than SDCC by seasoned con attendees.
You have breathing room. You can walk the floor easily (or easier). Lines are not hours long.

Well. Up until this year.

wondercon 2016 pro line

Right out of the gate, professional badge “registration” was a nightmare. In 2015, 15-20 minutes was long enough to go through the whole process of getting one’s badge. This time, I (and many others) had a two-hour line wait. Yes, two hours. Keep in mind, this is to pick up your badge.
It became so bad that, as we approached the checking point, one of the volunteers ended up handing us our badges without printing a name label on them.

I’m one of the proud owners of a WonderCon ghost badge!

wondercon 2016 badge

Another ridiculous aspect of this year’s WonderCon was a new RFID system which forced everyone to tap their badge at every entry and exit point of every room.
Do you have to go on the floor? Tap in. Need to exit? Tap out. Need to go to a panel? Tap in again.

This may not sound that convoluted… Except when you have nearly 100,000 people moving around a tight convention center. Lines beget lines.
With the temporary Los Angeles move, I wouldn’t even be shocked to find WonderCon 2016 nearing 100,000 people itself.
Let’s hope they drop the concept for Comic-Con–where twice the number of attendees are present.

With the aforementioned professional line wait, I missed out on most of my first panel of the con: a discussion about the ABC-Disney programs.

wondercon 2016 abc disney panel
Fortunately, I caught up on a compelling portion about what constitutes a “personal story”. During the writing programs (and arguably any other meeting in Hollywood), you will be asked to tell “your” story. In fact, being able to define who you are as a writer–and connecting it to your own experiences–is a key part of my TV writer roadmap.
People will often focus on periods of their lives that impacted them in a negative way. Traumas are inherently more memorable than an average positive influence that may not be as quantifiable. But it’s not all about the bad experiences. As someone on the panel said:

There’s greater drama in surpassing something rather than dwelling in it.

People want to see characters overcome obstacles and transform because of them. That’s character growth. And for all intents and purposes, you are a character in your own TV writing journey. Yup, this is an industry of storytelling through and through.
Your personal story is therefore not just about the bad moments that made you a knowledgeable writer, it is your entire growth that brought you to this moment.

Once the panel was over, I headed to the convention floor. Surprisingly, there were not many (if any) television/feature production companies, studios or networks booths.
I say surprisingly because the evolution of Comic-Con/WonderCon into a pop-culture mashup of mediums is one of the reasons why so many people attend them.
Guess they didn’t find it worthwhile to advertise in a con taking place in Los Angeles.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the countless amazing cosplays I saw. My favorite was a circle of Flash characters fighting each other.

They stood like this for a good 20 minutes. (Some of us have pictures to take…)

wondercon 2016 flash circle

Saturday was the big day for TV writing panels.

I had to skip the showrunners panel, but I ended up attending one my favorites: the bi-annual “Inside the Writers’ Room“.
Much like the last go around, were present: Mark Altman, Gabrielle Stanton, Amy Berg, Jose Molina, Ashley Miller, Sarah Watson, and Steve Melching.
It’s all about going over the process of making an hour of television. There’s nothing really groundbreaking said (unless you’re brand-new to TV), but the panel is always a good solid hour of entertainment.

This was followed by an extremely informative “Writing for TV” session, moderated by Spiro Skentzos.
Usually, this is a panel dedicated to the NBC Writers on the Verge program; however this time the panelists were EP-level writers: Glen Mazzara, Natalie Chaidez, Richard Hatem, and Meredith Averill.

wondercon 2016 second writing panel
It was great to hear directly from “decision makers” what their thoughts are on speccing, staffing, and everything in between.
One of the great moments of the panel was Glenn Mazzara discussing spec pilots. Specifically, he pointed out that spec pilots should not leave the reader hanging. In other words, it should be a self-contained satisfying story that is cinematic and visuals, with maybe a few open questions. It should not just be a set-up for future episodes.
Simply put: there is no need to bring a convoluted plot to a spec pilot. As long as you deliver an emotion to the reader, you’ll get far.

This incidentally reminded me of the current trend in franchise features–iconized in the recent Batman v. Superman–which have to serve as both precursor to a whole cinematic universe, and skimping on being a satisfying movie experience in of their own.
Instead of delivering the story at hand, Batman v. Superman spent a ridiculous amount of time on a ponderous introduction to characters meant for sequels.

But back to WonderCon.

Sunday came, and it started off with another Brandon Easton panel on “Breaking into Comics and Hollywood Scriptwriting“. Panelists included Ubah Mohamed, Erika Alexander, and Tony Puryear.

wondercon 2016 third writing panel
Once again, a lot of time was spent on the concept of branding yourself as a writer.
*cough* TV writer roadmap *cough*
I did learn about a comic-writing book I wasn’t aware of: Writers on Comics Scriptwriting.
The two volumes seem to be out of print, although Amazon has second-hand sellers (same for Volume 2).
There was also some talk about how you need to put your work out there. (Don’t just let a script sit on a shelf somewhere.) It reminded me of my exploration about publicly sharing my Star Trek spec pilot script.

As the floor was closing down for the year (at 5PM!), it was time to call it quits on WonderCon.
Yes, I only went to four panels. I’ve cut back on the sit-downs since I end up spending most of my convention time running into people I know, or making new connections.
(Also, discovering new comics to read.)

And that’s that for WonderCon 2016.

Can you believe Comic-Con is in less than four months? I’m already exhausted thinking about it.