Filmmaker Addison O'Dea has been traveling the world since he was a little boy. With Discovery's new 360° video series Discovery TRVLR, he is taking audiences with him in a way never before possible.
Discovery TRVLR is a major commitment to VR content for Discovery. The 38-episode series, produced in partnership with Google VR, launched at the beginning of November on YouTube and DiscoveryVR.com and on the Discovery VR app. It can be experienced in VR with the Google Daydream View headset and Google Cardboard. It can also be viewed online.
The launch strategy sees one episode released each day (Friday to Tuesday) for 38 consecutive days beginning with the Nov. 3 premiere. The first location covered is Auckland, New Zealand.
A VR adventure off the beaten path: The team shoots 360° footage of their La Paz Guru.
TRVLR takes viewer-participants to all seven continents and explores the astounding diversity of human experience around the world. Apart from the Antarctica episodes, the series was produced by experience studio Here Be Dragons, with O'Dea writing and directing; the Antarctica episodes were directed by Barry Pousman (@bpousman) and produced by Yes Please Thank You.
Creating a Format
One of the problems with 360° video and VR experiences is that audiences still don't quite know what the rules are. How are they supposed to watch it? What should they expect in their experience? One of the principal goals in conceiving this series was to create a format with its own rules and rhythms that would be something audiences could regularly engage with.
From the Mexico Guru episode
"The mandate was that we would go around the world, stopping on every continent, to tell an epic travel journey," O'Dea explains. "In 38 episodes, we are training viewers to have programming expectations in a formal format, the same way they do for television. We couldn't just deliver 38 random stories because that wouldn't create a consistent program brand."
O'Dea and the team at Discovery carefully crafted a format that could be repeated and that would provide a framework for stories from literally all around the world. The series encompasses seven chapters, one for each continent. Chapters for North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia consist of six episodes each, while Antarctica features two episodes, for a total of 38 episodes in the series, each four to five minutes in length.
Each chapter begins with a sunrise and closes with a sunset. In between the bookends, each TRVLR film uses a single character as a doorway into a specific setting. The characters generally fall into one of four archetypes: Gurus, who are culture carriers, Explorers, who have a mission, Entertainers, who have an audience, and Renegades, who defy convention. In the story, the characters share the rituals, traditions and quests that define their culture.
From the Hanoi Guru episode, "Walk Through a Buddhist Monastery." Hoang Hua, an enlightened guru at the Thao Sach monastery in Hanoi, Vietnam, shares thoughts on meditation and mental discipline, and discusses how his ancestral traditions, including Kung Fu, have helped shape the mindfulness culture of his country.
With the template defined, O'Dea felt confident audiences would be able to follow the story he was telling with VR, a medium that is often criticized for not having consistent rules and parameters.
"We believed these archetypes would exist in every country on Earth. After deciding on the countries we would visit and defining the archetypes, we started digging into the local communities.
"With VR, you're not just securing the participation of a single person—you're securing the participation of an entire group or community. VR works best when you're capturing not only the primary story but also the world in which that story lives. You want to make sure everyone is involved," O'Dea adds.
Welcome to the underground. Spelunker Angus Stubbs explores an ancient cave in the Auckland Explorer episode, "Dive into the Blackness."
In production, O'Dea gained a profound understanding of the differences between shooting traditional framed video content and VR. "Around the world there's obviously a familiarity with traditional cameras and storytelling, where I, as a director, frame up the subject and we follow a protagonist, or maybe a secondary or tertiary character, through some journey. But shooting VR, I'm removed from the equation somewhat. I'm not choosing the frame. I choose the story, but once that story is set, everything is captured.
"There was a learning curve for me and for the communities we were filming [with the Google Yi Halo 360° camera]. I had to help them develop a new understanding of camera so they understood that each person present was playing a role in the film."
The Discovery TRVLR series is probably unique in VR filmmaking in that it is the result of a consistent rhythm of 360° production, within a set format, over a long period of time, and whose product is regularly and consistently put before a large audience. The experience of the TRVLR team is not only highly valuable for Discovery in its future 360° plans, but for the entire VR community; where most productions are a specialty one-off or limited to a handful of episodes, the experiment of a consistent VR production-to-distribution workflow is a key milestone in its growth.
From the Mexico Entertainer episode
New Platforms, New Stories
Rebecca Howard, Discovery Communications' senior vice president of emerging platforms and partnerships, leads the company in its exploration of new technologies for storytelling. She also serves as executive producer on Discovery TRVLR. "It's important to continue to think about how you tell story as platforms change and as the technology changes," Howard says. "I think it's great for us to be looking at how you can tell these global stories in 360° using different kinds of technology, and then figuring out how you monetize that."
Howard warns that the marketplace for 360° and VR is not in any way mature. Discovery is very much a pathfinder in this space. "It is somewhat experimental and innovative. We're still trying to figure out business models. And it's challenging. You have to take a leap of faith."
The production and post processes allowed for a period of experimentation in eliciting optimal audience engagement. Howard found that, as usual, less is more. "We had music composed for the series but ended up taking some of it out so you can hear the natural sound of where you are. We took the voiceover off too, just to let you 'be there' in that moment. That was a fine balance in the edit room. I think [maintaining that balance] is a big challenge in VR."
As a kind of ongoing laboratory, Discovery TRVLR is able to address many of the puzzlers of VR production. For example, editing: How do you transition in VR? Can you cut as you would in framed content?
One TRVLR piece, about a transgender Mexican wrestler, features an impressive cut from a high angle to low angle on matched action. It manages to be good storytelling, seamless and slightly exhilarating at once. "I'm really proud of that match cut. We had the opportunity to do that on other episodes too and it works really beautifully," Howard says. "I think we've come a long way from a couple years ago when even a lot of VR creators were saying, 'You can't cut in VR.'"
Discovery TRVLR will be worth a watch over the coming months, not just for its exploration of the world, but for an exploration of VR itself.