Writing an Immersive Screenplay, Horror Character Development, and the Deep Empathy of 360

Elia Petridis’ film “Eye for an Eye” takes viewers to a séance in VR.

As CED and Creative Director of Fever Content, Elia Petridis and his team have pushed this VR Creative Agency to test the limits of the medium, focusing in on its mass appeal. As a VR creative his journey began with Eye For An Eye: A Séance in Virtual Reality.

Horror films are one of our most popular pieces of content on the platform and at Jaunt we’re always in a bit of a scary mood. Eye for an Eye tells the story of the friends of a missing boy who try to communicate with him across the plane. Instead, they communicate with something entirely more sinister. We caught up with Petridis to talk about his genius screenwriting process for VR, how shooting immersive films is like directing a play and how the best directors come from the horror genre.

We love B-movie horror films and Eye for an Eye definitely has that vibe. What was your inspiration for developing the film?

I love modern filmmaking and I love self-reflective cinema. I always knew what I was creating was going to be a horror film. I had always loved the genre so, I went back to the way I was groomed in film school. Then, I thought to myself, “What is the horror of the medium [virtual reality] itself?” Virtual reality is literally the ability to borrow someone else’s eyes and put them on so I meditated on that idea and then the ghost story came up. I love ghost stories and stories about unfinished business and rites of passage. We know what the potential of the medium is and we know what is exciting to people who love immersive content, but what is the dark side of that conversation? How can I make it really digestible, not too heady, not too academic and something people can really get behind?

Character development in the film was extremely important to you. How did you make sure your characters were well fleshed out?

I naturally gravitate more towards ghost stories rooted with character than stuff rooted in spectacle or horrific happenings. Every character no matter what role they play in your story has motivation and a backstory. As we wrote the screenplay, I asked myself, “Why would a ghost want to borrow someone’s eyes?” Of course, because they are missing their own. Our ghost is missing something so he can’t cross over to the other side. Those pieces of his body are essential for him to have peace. It makes him sympathetic even though he is quite a ghoulish figure. Just like when we learn that Freddie Kruger was burned his neighbors (spoiler alert) among all of the mayhem he raises, it makes him quite sympathetic. I tried to sculpt Marcus and Henrietta and the rest of the cast of characters with that same approach.

You had an interesting method of screenplay development that really lent itself to shooting in 360. Tell us how you made it happen?

In order to effectively shoot a 360 film, you must pre-plan, choreograph and organize everything for the medium. It can be unforgiving in that way. A good film starts with an effective script. For Eye for an Eye, my screenplay was color coded to dictate where the viewers eyes should go. I used one color for the front, one color for the right, one color was behind, etc. I didn’t do it because of any special technique from the medium (VR / 360 video is in its very early stages and screen writing for the medium is still new), but the job of a screenplay is to shoot the film even before you film a single frame. Before anyone even finances a film, they’re financiers are going to have to know how I choreographed the film and how I trained the eye of the viewer. So, by the time we got our funding and got on set, we were just following the script to the letter. We made a few adjustments in terms of the location, but all the blocking was right there on the page and where the shot would go in the viewers gaze was already there.

Was there a part of the film that came out exactly how you wanted in the final product?

VR has come so far, and what do at Fever Content these days is so far forward from this piece that I’ve been looking back at it with a little nostalgia. It’s the nostalgic B-movie flavor of it that makes me smile.

I love the medium, but at the time it was really hard for me as a director to shift from the traditional way of filmmaking and put our stock into a computer. We were really proud of the use of in camera effects and we were most proud of getting ghost Marcus to look perfect. He was done completely in front of a green screen. There was no CGI done and he’s a real boy with all of that gore make-up on him. All of the effects in the film were practical, too. In order to put our ghost into the shot we filmed him on a traditional camera, made the image spherical and masked the image into the shot later.

Where do you see the genre of immersive realities going? Do you think we will start seeing traditional filmmakers take advantage of the medium?

The most successful filmmakers in this medium will tell stories in both 2D and VR to create a world and a whole experience across a variety of platforms. I truly believe transmedia is the cousin and counterpart of virtual reality and both of them have made each other really powerful. It’s tricky to tell a story that has depth and narrative qualities. That excites me as an immersive storyteller. The vastness of 360, volumetric, and beyond is the gift that keeps giving. The experience is all around you and it’s impossible to run out of imaginative storytelling methods. Everything all around you means something.

As viewers get to know more of the world through other forms of storytelling and then you see those same stories continued in 360, its becomes a very emotional and impactful experience. If VR filmmakers really want to put their money where their mouth is they should wrap their head around creating an experience that motivates the viewer to re-watch and has a very concise beginning middle and end. The more details you get about a world, the more you want to come back and look again and look again to see all the things you missed the first time.

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