Dive into the chaos of medical drama 'Code Black' with VR

The freshman drama puts you inside a bustling emergency room with a new immersive video. We speak with the creator and executive producers about virtual reality and the evolution of storytelling.

Caitlin Petrakovitz Director of audience
Caitlin Petrakovitz studies the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it's a course in school, with an emphasis on the Infinity Saga years. As an audience expert, she rarely writes but when she does it's most certainly about Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Westworld, San Diego Comic-Con and great streaming properties. Or soccer, that's a thing she loves, too.
Caitlin Petrakovitz
5 min read
Monty Brinton/CBS

The next evolution of television -- and storytelling -- won't be just live streaming and passive viewing. It'll be interactive, immersive media, probably in virtual reality.

At least, that's the dream. And the idea that spurred Michael Seitzman, creator and executive producer of CBS' "Code Black," to create a virtual-reality video people can control and view -- without a headset -- to get a whole new look at the show. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.)

The new show "Code Black," which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., is based on the busiest emergency room in the country and set in Los Angeles. Filmed on a 360-degree stage designed to resemble a real, working ER, the show is chaotic, hectic, loud and abrasive -- and that's what gives the medical drama its heart.

The video, posted below, puts the viewer in the middle of the work that keeps this fictional ER running smoothly.

We chatted with Seitzman, Executive Producer David Von Ancken and second assistant cameraman Oliver Ponce about the implications of VR on the future of television and the reasons why they wanted to experiment with the technology behind the camera.

Q: What compelled you to make this video? Were you interested in virtual-reality tech, or in the behind-the-scenes action? Is there something unique about this show or set that made you think this would be a good fit?

MS: One of the basic creative conceits of the show is that we try to be relentlessly subjective in our filmmaking, i.e. you are the doctor, you are the resident. Being a fly on the wall isn't close enough to the action. We want to drop you right in the middle of it.

That sensibility lends itself to VR filmmaking in a very real, very organic way. Also, "Code Black's" center stage set is uniquely suited for a 360-degree experience. The whole idea of that set is to surround you with a wildly kinetic, overwhelming world full of people who urgently need saving and the heroes who are saving them.

DVA: Pushing the envelope on the experience for the audience is always worth an experiment. Our Center Stage set is a 360-degree environment and is therefore great for the integration of VR. The "center stage" in "Code Black" is a natural hub from which all story spokes radiate and this plays perfectly into the use of VR.

OP: There are so many layers and so much depth to the show that I felt it would be a great mix of storytelling and tech. I was interested in the virtual-reality tech and behind the scenes due to the combination of storytelling and immersive experience. What makes this show unique for VR are the 360-degree emergency situations and heightened circumstances, from patients on the gurney, the doctors operating on them, the nurses assisting them to the intricate equipment surrounding the scene. You're dropped right into "center stage" engulfed by all the action.

TV has often experimented with new things to change the viewing experience, such as filming in 3D or live episodes. Do you think VR is next?

MS: Historically, storytelling has moved steadily toward a more immersive experience. Look at sound, for example. We went from silent to sound to surround sound. If it's raining onscreen, it's now raining all around you. Video games went from a two-dimensional space (Pong) to VR headsets.

On our show we're constantly thinking about the audience's experience and how to involve them more in the storytelling. I'm constantly saying we need to drop the audience in the middle of the action. That's what VR does.

Would you ever want to film an episode in VR? In instead of, or in addition to these behind-the-scenes pieces? What do you think the pros and cons are of such a film style?

MS: Yes, absolutely. What we did here is basically a test. Next season I'd like to try to shoot a series of short episodes exclusively in 360 in addition to the episodes that air.

DVA: It's possible that eventually all TV will be VR. For now, it's the first stage in enhancing the audience experience with a show like "Code Black." The potential pros down the line end in the customization of each episode as per the interest of each individual audience member. With VR, you could track separate story lines that interest you.

So you see this tech expanding beyond being used for gaming? We're starting to see VR sports become available to watch more regularly, but how do you think television shows will both affect and be affected by the addition of VR?

MS: I don't think VR will ever replace anything, just like theater didn't vanish after movies and TV. I do think we'll see more and more of it as audiences continue to seek out a more immersive experience and as storytellers figure out how to use it. For a storyteller, it's not simple by any means. A big part of our job is to navigate an audience through a story. That requires information management as well as the structuring of scenes to create an emotional response.

The challenge with this kind of tool, which in its purist form will facilitate an audience's ability to decide what to look at and when to look at it, is that the navigation controls are taken out of the hands of the storyteller. That sounds great in the abstract, but making it work is a very real challenge. It's why in video games, when it comes time to give backstory or context, the game tends to revert back to a more traditional form of storytelling. They take back the controls from the gamer and require that you sit back and watch and listen as you're told that story before you're then given control again.

DVA: Yes. It will be a while before VR is accepted by mainstream audiences and may involve headsets. But it has a potential for enhancing the experience so great, that the expanding of VR will eventually happen.

OP: I believe in the next 5 to 10 years we will see 360- or 180-degree home viewing. I think we're proving right now it's not just for gamers. Technology has allowed us to step outside of the confines of our own experience, we can go anywhere in the world in just a click of a button. Virtual reality just makes it even more real. It will be interesting to see how it incorporates with TV and film, education and medical. I think there is a certain power in it.

Our goal as storytellers is to share a perspective, and so we try and tell stories that are as real as possible. We are thankful to have the support of a true forward-thinking company like CBS, that lets us artists explore these new avenues of storytelling.