Nora Kirkpatrick wasn’t allowed to watch many movies when she was a child in rural Iowa. The ones she was able to see, though, were comedy gold: This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Soapdish, Strictly Ballroom. She credits the 1986 comedy Three Amigos with sparking her acting ambitions, specifically Martin Short’s monologue about meeting Lilian Gish’s sister Dorothy. Sitting inside the Playa Vista offices of immersive entertainment studio Ryot, Kirkpatrick says, “I memorized it at the time. That was my thing: Martin Short’s Dorothy Gish monologue.”
Kirkpatrick wanted to star in the movies she saw and, eventually, she did become an actor. She’s perhaps best known for her work in television, including roles on Greek and The Office. Now, she’s giving audiences the chance to break the fourth wall themselves.
Door No. 1 is a virtual reality short about a high school reunion, available via Hulu’s VR app and produced by Ryot, in which the viewer plays the starring role. Interactions with other characters determine how the plot unfolds. Will you encounter Snoop Dogg, who has a cameo in Door No. 1? Will your character even survive the night?
Comedy is still an oddity in VR, so Door No. 1 is an unusual project. Kirkpatrick’s career is out of the ordinary too. She studied theater at UCLA and then got involved with Upright Citizens Brigade. While her acting career was taking off, she also found success in music. Kirkpatrick plays accordion, an extension of her childhood interest in church organs. (“The accordion is kind of like the mobile version of the old-lady church organ,” she says.) While she was in an RV headed to Burning Man, she met two musicians who were starting a band and asked her to play with them. Kirkpatrick went on to join Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, touring extensively with them and flying back to L.A. for her acting work. She left the group a few years ago to focus on acting and writing.
Kirkpatrick was first introduced to virtual reality through 360-degree documentaries. She was intrigued and felt that the new technology would be a good fit for comedy. That led to her first project in the medium, Virtually Mike and Nora, with Michael O’Brien. They created awkward situations, like one where viewers were in the middle seat of an airplane while the two stars made out. They would talk to the users as well. “When I saw people talking back and inserting their own dialogue, that’s when I knew that we could go one step further and make it interactive like this,” says Kirkpatrick.
Door No. 1 takes advantage of VR’s response capabilities by relying on eye movements. To move the story forward, users lock their gaze on characters that they want to follow. “I wanted it to feel like real life,” says Kirkpatrick.
Making the VR film had its challenges. Because the story changes based on interactions, Kirkpatrick wrote a “decision tree,” with one unifying scene at the top of each act from which both major and minor changes in the plot would flow based on user responses. It was filmed with a camera that catches everything in the room, so actors had to stay in character regardless of whether or not they were the focus of a scene.
Moreover, scenes had to be filmed in one shot; if an actor messed up, everyone would have to start again from the beginning. With this in mind, Kirkpatrick and her casting director selected actors with theater and improv backgrounds. The impressive cast features Steve Agee, Lucas Neff, Missi Pyle, Ravi Patel, Sarah Baker, and others.
Despite those challenges, working in VR has had many creative rewards. “I love the idea that the audience members are going to be very focused when watching,” says Kirkpatrick. “You’re not on the phone or on your computer, you’re paying attention, which is wonderful.”
Since VR is still relatively new, its a medium that open for experimentation. “If you have an idea, there are people saying we’ve never done that before, but there’s not a lot of people saying that’s impossible because we’re at the point where it’s our job to make it possible in virtual reality,” she says.
Kirkpatrick is already thinking about what might be possible next time, like integrating verbal responses from users in the stories.
“I would like the viewer to be able to integrate in as much as possible because I think that it’s a different viewing experience when it’s dependent on you,” she says. “It makes you feel a sense of accomplishment or a sense of responsibility more so than watching something that someone else made for you.”
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