A comic sketch in 360º video
A short sketch in 360 video that places the viewer in the midst of a tense and potentially dangerous scene until it is gradually, comically undermined.
I have spent much of my life making theater, and one of my goals was always to create experiences that would fully transport the audience into another world. When I discovered Virtual Reality, I found an exciting new tool for doing that. My other lifelong goal has been to make people laugh. But when I went looking for VR experiences that made me laugh, I found surprisingly few. Most creators working with virtual reality and 360º video have steered clear of comedy altogether, going instead for serious journalism or documentary, or for dark and sinister horror scenarios. Many of the pieces that aim for humor don’t land for me — and I’m usually an easy laugh. It seems that the nature of immersive media presents challenges to the comedic approaches honed over the past century of cinema. So I set out to investigate why it might be hard to make comedy in VR, and to draw on some of what I’ve learned through my experience with comic performance to explore a comedic language for the new medium.
Among the challenges others have already pointed out with developing any kind of narrative piece in VR is the difficulty in directing the audience’s gaze. Comedy relies on timing, and a lot of cinematic comedy relies on editing to control this. In virtual reality, where the viewer is in control of where and when they look, we have to draw on more theatrical techniques for directing focus and comic timing.
There’s also a more subtle issue at play: VR’s most powerful effect is a feeling of presence, of being inside the world and events of the story. Some folks working in the field have suggested that if a VR piece does not somehow acknowledge the viewer and give them a reason for being in the scene, then it can be alienating and cause the viewer to disengage. But comedy relies on distance: usually we don’t find things funny if they are happening to us. As Mel Brooks says: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer.” So how do you allow the viewer to be present in the scene and engaged in the story while also remaining sufficiently detached for comedic distance?
In “The Accountant” I’ve worked with experienced clowns and comic actors to create a short piece similar to what we might craft for the stage, except that we choreographed the action to use the full 360º space around the viewer. The viewer has a role in the piece that gives them reason for being there without feeling as if they are expected to do anything. And by the end the viewer is completely surrounded by balloons — something that rarely happens in either real life or the theater. I hope that some of it makes you laugh at least a little bit, and that something in it suggests a way forward to more comedy in VR.