How the National Theatre is using VR for Set Design

The possibilities of pratical application of Virtual Reality (VR) are being experimented with by many industries, including the military, education and healthcare.

The National Theatre is getting involved with the exciting medium to see how it can be used for set designers as part of its newly established Immersive Storytelling Studio in London.

The studio was created to allow a dedicated space to test the relationship between VR and theatre, production and film and how the immersive experience can enhance storytelling.

Set Design using VR

What is noteworthy for designers is the possibility to create 3D models in VR before the physical application.

The National Theatre showcased a recording at the studio of Olivier, Tony and OBIE award-winning British designer Rae Smith creating a fire-breathing dragon in Google’s Tilt Brush app using the HTC Vive VR system.

Tilt Brush lets you paint in 3D space, essentially sculpting with brush strokes and lines of light that hang in the air.

The app lets the user choose backdrops, props and colours before using a controller to 'paint' into thin air.

See Illustrator Alex Moore's hands-on experience with Google Tilt Brush below.

Rae drew the modelled animal as an example of how set designers could use Tilt Brush to create a virtual 360 version of their set ideas, and walk directors through the set using the HTC Vive, even being able to annotate along the way.

Credit: Rae Smith

Given the right amount of real-life space to move around in, set designers are given an infinite amount of virtual space to create a masterpiece, before walking around and through the 3D model to look at it from all angles.


The studio, based in Waterloo, also showcased Home | Amir - a 360 verbatim documentary following the life of refugee Aamir escaping from Sudan to the Calais Jungle in France.

The film gives an immersive 360 view of the locations that Aamir stayed in, accompanied by a voice over describing his journey to get there. Aamir is never seen in the documentary, but the video exposes scenes of destitute refugee tents in the rain, prison walls and his final destination – a hostel room in Glasgow, which he calls "paradise".

The film was shot from multiple GoPro cameras attached to a mount over the course of three months. The crew hope to use the medium in collaboration with non-profit organisations in the future.

Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel

The Immersive Storytelling Studio also showcased Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel VR experience available to members of the public at the National Gallery from early next month in a free installation in the Lyttleton Lounge.

The film was produced by BBC Learning, Crossover Labs and VRTOV and watched by the cast and creative team of the National Theatre’s The Plough and the Stars at the Lyttleton Theatre for research.


These examples of storytelling through VR follow the fabulous installation, used in conjunction with the National Theatre’s musical on show December 2015 to April this year.

The immersive experience using the Oculus Rift was put at the front of house before the show began, and proved a popular way to lure people into watching the musical.

 The Immersive Storytelling Studio will be commissioning new work specifically to be experienced through VR or 360 technologies in a way to enhance theatrical experiences.

This autumn the studio is set to collaborate with the National Film Board Canada on a research and development lab in non-fiction VR.

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