Arcadia Flats: A VR Horror Experience

Writing and creating a compelling horror short film is challenging enough. So when we found ourselves on the edge of our seats while watching Arcadia Flats, a 360°/VR horror experience, we knew we had to talk to the writer and director Joe Jacobs and writer and producer, Lacey Leavitt to learn more. From production and logistical challenges to knowing how to master designing the right sound experience, read about what it took for them to create the suspense-filled VR short film, Arcadia Flats.

Developing suspense in a short film can be a challenge. How did you decide on the flow of the film to start on such a high note?

Lacey Leavitt (Writer & Producer, Arcadia Flats): It happened organically as an extension of the character and story we wanted to tell. We’re getting a very small window of time into what Alice (Jessica Martin) is going through. We wanted to get the audience into the story immediately, to be able to be right there with Alice as she’s going through a scary and overwhelming situation, while keeping a bit of mystery as to what exactly she’s going through

Sound design was extremely important in this film and remains very important in 360 filmmaking as a whole. What tools did you use to create the experience? Was there any foley that was unique to this film?

Lacey Leavitt (Writer & Producer, Arcadia Flats): Sound design is a crucial part of any cinematic experience. Most people don’t realize how integral sound is to a film unless it’s lacking. And in 360 filmmaking, it becomes even more important to drive audience’s attention and add to the immersive quality of the experience.

We worked with amazing sound designer and composer Jeramy Koepping. Jeramy has experience designing for both films and video games (he’s currently at 343 Industries, working on the Halo franchise), so he was an ideal collaborator for this project. Sound design, implementation and mixing for the film was done with Facebook’s TBE toolset and Reaper DAW. We used a combination of wild captured ambisonic field recordings and mono custom sound effects and foley. Music is stereo and intentionally not world-locked, so it would stay left / right when the user moves their head.

Actress Jessica Martin bracing herself for what’s to come

What camera did you use and were there any unique production/logistical challenges in making this film?

Joe Jacobs (Writer & Director, Arcadia Flats): Setting out to shoot a 360-horror film, the first camera system that came to mind was the Sony A7SII. The ability to get exposure without a bunch of additional lighting was a big plus. We also shot on a full moon to help us out (the natural lighting actually goes a long way on those high ISO shots). We did some experimenting with a cluster of four of them and got to a configuration that we were happy with. It was shot all in a day and a half, so minimizing set-ups was a necessity. We had a total of 6 hours of darkness, so we had to move quickly.

Where did the inspiration of the film come from and did you create any interesting back stories for the characters?

Joe Jacobs (Writer & Director, Arcadia Flats): Like all writers, there’s always a bajillion projects brewing, and one of them has a werewolf story with a scene where the protagonist loses control of her newly found lycan abilities.

Originally, the project was being worked as a feature project, but now we’ve been focusing on creating it for more of a serialized immersive experience. The genesis of the project came from the Ethan Couch case, and how the rich and powerful have almost a superpower advantage over the rest of us schmoes. We were interested in exploring a community at odds with one another, and how much tradition and family heritage would try to shape Alice’s decision making and her understanding of herself as an individual.

We thought this particular slice of Alice’s story would make an interesting scene for a VR piece to experiment with, developing a project that had more of the traditional feel of a cinematic film. Our first few 360 films were documentaries, which it’s an amazing medium for. But we wanted to play with immersion in the cinematic sandbox and have edits that jump you around the narrative like we’re used to, while being immersed inside this world with these characters.

Horror films do really well in 360 / VR filmmaking. Did you know that going into the filmmaking process?

Lacey Leavitt (Writer & Producer, Arcadia Flats): It was definitely something we’d been talking about as a team. It’s so often that a character in a horror film is walking into a situation where they are questioning their safety and the darkness surrounding them. That slow walk into that basement, glancing all over the place not knowing who’s going to come from where. Why would you want to restrict your audience to only looking at someone else being in a scary place when you can plop them into the same world, and have them doing their own gazing into the ominous darkness of their own?

At the same time, 360 is a unique challenge because so many of the best horror films really restrict what you see, and when. You usually only see pieces or the aftermath of the “monster” (or whatever the antagonist is) for a long time, which builds suspense. Jaws is, of course, the classic example of this. So, although being in the same environment as the horror film protagonists is inherently terrifying, to maximize the suspense and tone you also have to design just how much and when you’ll see the monster. Not as easy to do when you can look in full 360/don’t have the full cinematic arsenal of close ups and cutaways to utilize. It’s a very exciting time to experiment with immersive story design.

What other projects are you working on in the immersive space? Will you be doing more 360 films in the future?

Lacey Leavitt (Writer & Producer, Arcadia Flats): Absolutely! We started Electric Dream Factory to keep pursuing XR content. While we are still working on “flat” films and TV — our first EDF feature film SADIE (writer/director Megan Griffiths) will be premiering at SXSW 2018 — we also love exploring the opportunities the narrative XR space provides. It’s a rare opportunity to be artists working and experimenting in the dawn of a new medium, and we are happily taking advantage of the time and place that we’re in.

We’re developing Arcadia Flats as a larger series/story world, which includes an interactive 6DoF game component. We’re also creating an immersive music video for Prom Queen that includes a volumetric capture element, which we’re really excited about. We’ve also got short 360 pieces from directors Lynn Shelton, Dacia Saenz, and Netsanet Tjirongo in post-production which will be releasing in the next few months.

Watch Arcadia Flats now on Jaunt.