Fractus: A new brief

Fractus is a VR experience that explores the repetition of history through a powerful audioscape inside a wonderous, infinite fractal universe.

What R&D can teach you

When you pitch a project it’s perfect – in that small paragraph vagueries are glossed over, and ideas sound pithy, streamlined and even…easy.

It’s only when you start to unpack an idea, when you begin to drill down into the nuts and bolts, that you realise you’ve actually built a house out of cheese and only brought spaghetti for a hammer.

And that’s OK.

Because more often than not (once you’ve stopped panicking), after you’ve taken some time to explore how this baby idea may actually grow into a concrete piece of art, you end up discovering  and learning all sorts of things about yourself, your artistic process and your idea that you never knew before.

So what have we discovered through our R&D so far?

  1. Fractals are hard to code. If you want to learn more, check out Simon’s blog series.
  2. Fractals are SO beautiful – people want to look at them and are genuinely excited to play with them in a VR space.

With both these things in mind, and a realisation that we are time limited on this project, it seemed much smarter to concentrate on the fractals rather than add additional illustration and animation requirements to the project. To this end we have refined our brief:

A new brief

Fractus is a VR experience that immerses the viewer in an ever mutable universe of thought, colour, noise and passion. Exploring how our heritage shapes us and how we in turn mould the future.

Viewers are invited to don a VR headset in a curated space and enter Fractus.

The experience is presented as a navigable abstract, fractal world. Viewers can hear a steady soundscape which they can tune like a radio by making gestures in the air.

As they tune and change the soundscape, the fractals themselves react, shifting and dancing in sync with the audio, voices then begin to subtly drift into audibility at certain “frequencies”.

These voices come from many times and places throughout history and they speak candidly about their experiences and feelings towards others and the great events of their day.

As the viewer tunes into more of these voices, they discover similar themes that play-out through the epochs, tying our own experiences to our predecessors in ever-repeating patterns just like the fractals that roll off into infinity around them.

At the end of the experience viewers should feel a sense of wonder at the beauty and scale of the fractal landscape and intimacy with the voices who spoke to them. From a cognitive rather than an emotional view, they should find in equal parts that there is hope in the future, as well as warnings to be drawn from the past

Link

Learning to draw with a pencil made of code

My partner in crime, Simon Ashbery, has written a brilliant and in-depth series of blog posts on his research into the rendering techniques of Rasterization, Raytracing and Raymarching and how this relates to creating 3D fractals for our VR project, Fractus.

MyMovie (2)

A prototype for Fractus using Sebastian Lague’s open source code (https://github.com/SebLague/ray-marching), which Simon believes he in turn derived from code by Mikael Hvidtfeldt Christensen (http://blog.hvidtfeldts.net/index.php/2011/09/distance-estimated-3d-fractals-v-the-mandelbulb-different-de-approximations/)

Lion Taming

This is the story of how I started a VR project and ended up taming lions.

Ok, so I didn’t actually become a lion tamer…But this was exactly what I thought of when I was asked by LCC’s Course Leader for MA Virtual Reality, to come in and run a workshop for her students on screenwriting.

Clyde Beatty taming a lion with a chair. (Image from Harvard Library.)

Having only graduated from my own Master’s course a few years ago, my mind immediately went into panic and I got a huge case of imposter syndrome – what on earth could I teach these MA students? Surely they would know as much, if not more than me?

Well, the truth is, in terms of their VR knowledge they absolutely knew more than me! I’m trained to tell stories in more traditional mediums (TV, Film, Theatre etc). I’m using my residency project, Fractus, as a way to better understand and explore storytelling in VR. As soon as I admitted that to myself, I calmed down. Perhaps this could be more of an exchange of knowledge and experience, rather than me feeling I had to be “master” of all things storytelling and VR?

And so I began to think about what Screenwriting 101 in four hours might look like; what would be most useful to impart? To do this I went back to my own notes from my MA Screenwriting course at LCC and then something wonderful happened…

As I revisited the information all my brilliant tutors had gifted me during my two years at LCC, I suddenly realised that my recent time in the industry illuminated my education in brilliant and shocking ways. I revisited workshops on Narrative Structure and suddenly concepts that had appeared so difficult to grasp at the time were seen in a new context: the midpoint (that formerly illusive, mysterious beast) became obvious. When I stumbled upon John Yorke’s handy breakdown of the difference (or lack of difference) between all the many theories of structure – I almost whooped for joy.

Page 256. Into the Woods by John Yorke

When I looked at Character Development and found a note on how structure is also character changing over time, I smiled in excited agreement. Woolly concepts and half finished thoughts about screenwriting were written clearly here on the page – and helped me crystallise things I was half aware of in my mind. Certain exercises jumped out at me – why I could use this one to help me with a problem I was having on a script I was currently working on…and so it went on.

I spent three days putting together a workshop on introducing the basic building blocks to screenwriting and some useful exercises to help develop ideas – but it was I who became a student all over again, except that this time I felt less like such an idiot and painfully slow dolt!

This is not to say I suddenly became an all-knowing screenwriter upon revisiting my old lecture notes. More that I suddenly had a glimpse of what my poor tutors had been trying to bang into our heads all those years ago: a brilliant grounding in screenwriting craft, and a useful toolkit to carry into the screenwriting world. I was, and doubly more so today, profoundly grateful for their insight and time. If this perhaps started out as a confession of fear, then I am not ashamed to admit that this post has turned into a love letter to a course and my own tutors who prepared me so rigorously for a very difficult path I wished to follow.

But I digress. I was meant to be talking about my experience taming lions – I mean – teaching MA students. Funnily enough as I was heading to teach my first workshop, I ran into one of my old screenwriting tutors. I was so nervous about what was to come that when he kindly asked me what I was up to, I went completely blank! I finally cobbled enough brain power together to tell him I was very nervous and feeling like an imposter as I was in fact off to introduce a new set of LCC students to screenwriting…based very much on some of his core tutorials he’d run for our class. I told him I’d give him all the credit.

He smiled at that: “Don’t be silly,” he said, “I learned it all from John Yorke many moons ago – it’s not just mine. And anyway, we’ve all learned different things along the way. You’ll have your own things to pass on. You’ll be just fine.”

And suddenly, just like that, I felt the ground shift once again: I may not have a lot of experience yet, but I had learned a thing or two, and suddenly I was quite eager to get in that classroom and share my thoughts with other upcoming creatives.

The truth is, I was still extremely nervous walking into that classroom, and the better truth is – I didn’t need to be: The MA VR students were wonderful – switched on and eager to learn and discuss everything and anything I threw at them. And, as predicted, they certainly knew far more about storytelling for VR than me. But I do hope I held my own a bit when it came to some tried-and-tested screenwriting tools and craft know-how.

Rooms by Enda Walsh

So here I am, splashing around in the shallows of our R&D phase of Fractus. My gut feeling is that storytelling in VR has a lot to learn from/draw inspiration from theatre – and particularly immersive theatre. So when I heard about an immersive theatre experience at the Barbican I immediately jumped at the chance to go along and see what could be learned.

Rooms by Enda Walsh is described: “As one of an audience of six, you are invited to step inside meticulously designed and detailed rooms, exploring each for two minutes before recorded audio begins. Comprising absorbing and vivid texts by Enda Walsh that draw us into the highly intimate lives of five individuals.”

In all honesty, this description lead me to believe that I would have a much more Punchdrunk experience, with intricate set dressing and freedom to explore the space at my own pace. I’d slightly glossed over the part about the audio recordings, and was definitely expecting to find an actor in each room reciting the monologue.

Office. Credit: Andrew Downes

In fact, due to the monologues being recordings what happened was we all stood in each Room/set and just listened (which had it’s own benefits). In addition, the Rooms were not truly built for exploring – most doors and cupboards didn’t open, and after a surface glance, there really weren’t that many layers of details to the sets. But once I’d let go of my Punchdrunk expectations I started to realise that this more minimalist set dressing was still very effective in it’s own way – more on that later.

So what was the overall experience like? First of all, you were randomly assigned a group with a maximum of six people, and once in your group, you were led through into a huge space with five giant white boxes – these contained the Rooms/Sets. That in its self was quite interesting, and slightly made me think of initial VR training spaces where you learn how to manage the controls before choosing which “world” or game you want to step into.

White Boxes at Galway International Arts Festival (Not Barbican) Credit: Andrew Downes.

Once in this dark warehouse space, we were randomly assigned an order of “rooms” which our guide led us through over the 70 minutes. Each time, we six audience members were escorted to and then shut into the room for around 15 minutes in total. Once inside each Room the audio would start after a few moments. At the end our guide let us out and took us to the next white box, which, upon stepping inside revealed its self. As an overall experience, I quite enjoyed this element of anticipation.

Kitchen. Credit: Andrew Downes

It’s worth noting that none of the monologues were directly related to each other – they didn’t make up a “composite” story, which is why we could visit them in a random order. Each character was an anonymous but distinctive voice piped into the Room but each monologue could be placed or started in specific space (the Room).

Of course there were themes that carried across Walsh’s monologues such as loneliness, memory and childhood – all delivered in a beautifully lyrical stream of consciousness. Each monologue and Room was very intense, partly because being shut in a space with nothing to distract you but to listen to this disembodied voice meant you were concentrating very hard. This active listening, while your eye wandered around each Room was very effective.

I was quite relieved for the five minutes outside each box, which allowed me some respite before going into the next set/ Room. It also created a sense of rising and falling action, and allowing a break in which to recuperate so you could bring your full concentration to the next Room. This in its self also made me think about VR – which can be quite overwhelming as so many of your senses are engaged in an extremely active way. It’s worth thinking about how you will create possible “spaces” to ensure your audience isn’t just overwhelmed and inundated with information.

Room 303. Credit: Andrew Downes

So what did I find worked well? First of all I very quickly realised that whether in the real world or the virtual, you actually don’t need tons of dressing and details to create a very effective set which still adds to the story experience for your audience. Having perhaps been overly attached to Punchdrunk my takeaway from this experience is that the use of “magical objects” (something imbued with significance) is far more important for the audience than loads of detail which can in fact mask what you’re really trying to say/draw attention to. (Of course, I know this from traditional theatre, but heading into VR I think I was slightly in danger of thinking that everything had to be ultra detailed and realistic for the audience to “believe.”)

In fact, once I’d stopped trying to open every door and drawer in every Room upon entering, I instead used the time before each monologue to look and see why they had chosen to include a certain object or detail and how this helped create the illusion of a real space or added to the story.

In Room 303 I was particularly struck by the smells – the cupboard smelled of moth balls, and there was a general mustiness that I associated very strongly with my grandparents house. Interestingly, when the monologue started, it was about an old man at the end of his life.

In A Girl’s Bedroom certain early 90’s books, toys and the stick-on glow-in-the-dark stars, immediately placed the bedroom in quite a specific time-period which allowed me to bring my own childhood memories from that time to the piece.

A Girl’s Bedroom. Credit: Andrew Downes

Each set had me immediately ready to try and make connections, to tell a story, to fill in the gaps and anticipate what the monologue might entail, how it may end. We humans are primed to make sense out of chaos – and after all that’s what stories are all about: explaining the random patterns of our existence into a meaningful order. The marriage of immersive set, which offered at times some indication and sometimes no indication or even a discordance, with the monologue kept me highly engaged. It also was a good reminder to choose what you include carefully with regards to your set – in this “storytelling state” when your audience is ultra-alert it’s easy for them to read into something and you might accidentally have them spend the whole time wondering about a very incidental detail. Of course you can play with that, and create lots of anticipation and tension when this is done consciously.

The Room I found most effective in this was Bathroom. Upon walking in I immediately noticed that the sink had been smashed with a sledgehammer. What happened here? I thought. And of course my brain went into immediate overdrive – would this monologue involve violence? And then I noticed, quite deliberately in the corner, the shoes a young child and on the counter two adult tooth brushes and a child’s tooth brush…my heartbeat increased tempo. All of these visual cues were raising an “active question” in the audience’s mind and also creating tension – and it’s worth noting I didn’t really need any more details than that – in fact anything else would have taken away from these very deliberate objects.

Bathroom. Credit: Andrew Downes

Without ruining it too much – all I will say is that the smashed sink was never explained in the monologue. But it served its purpose very well – a symbol of destruction and underlying violence in an otherwise perfectly ordinary bathroom – and a powerful tool to keep the audience guessing “what next?”

It’s also worth noting that not always answering every question was not a problem for the audience – in fact it made us discuss afterwards what we each had interpreted or understood and that in its self was very satisfying.

Aside from the set and the monologue themselves, Rooms also used light and sound as effective cues to grab attention or change the mood. In Bathroom a loud white noise alongside bright flashing lights kept the audience on edge and indicated a change within the story. In Room 303 the overhead light grew dimmer and dimmer as we reached the end of the monologue, just like the character’s eyes grew dim as he headed from life. Sidelights or spotlights were used well to create atmosphere over all.

I could also see that it was quite easy to be distracted from the audio by the visual – which is why the more simple (yet still effective) set dressing ended up working so well. There was just enough for me to believe I was in that Room but not so much that I was busy being distracted by too many details or poking around. This balance between audio and visual is one I am keen to explore when it comes to our VR project, Fractus.

Find out more by visiting the digital programme for Rooms by Enda Walsh.

Introducing: Fractus

Starting a new project is a surprisingly similar feeling to standing in your snorkeling gear on the edge of a boat, looking down at the blue-green ocean and wondering what delights and what terrors lie beneath those glorious waves.

At least, that’s the feeling I got when I entered London College of Communication last week to take part in their Induction Day for their 2019 Graduate Residency.

IMG_2989

Lara and Simon snorkelling between two tectonic plates in Iceland

The LCC 2019 Graduate Residency will support six residents for a year while they explore the theme of “The Space Between.” My residency project is Fractus, a VR experience that explores repetition in the human condition through the lens of a fractal landscape.

Of course I’m not embarking on this project by myself, I’ll be working with my husband and long-time creative collaborator, Simon Ashbery. Having a collaborator can be both a boon and a challenge, and I look forward to seeing how we navigate the year ahead together.

The first part of our induction day was a chance to meet the other residents alongside helpful workshop on project planning, and in true nautical theme, Simon and I created this visual time line for the year ahead (we do have a proper one too)!

The second part of our day was a chance to present our projects to each other and the wider community (I have to say I was totally blown away by everyone’s proposals), and so here is our introduction to Fractus in blogform:

What does “Fractus” mean?

The word Fractus is Latin meaning “to break or fragment,” it is also the latin root of the word for “Fractal.”

A fractal is a set which is self-similar; fractals are repetitive in shape, but not in size. In other words, no matter how much you magnify a fractal, it will always look the same.

Both of these concepts are at the heart of our project.

What is our aim?

Fractus means “broken,” speaking to peers today, many people use the word “broken” to describe how they feel about society, about politics, even about family – but by creating an immersive VR installation which can place the viewer amongst those conversations across time, culture and space, we hope to show that society isn’t broken – that we have more that unites us than divides us – if we just take the time to listen.

Our desire for Fractus is to frame the conversations we have with each other here and now in a greater context. To help us understand that our thoughts and our actions have repercussions both negative and positive on all those who will come after us just as those who came before have influenced us now.

How will we do this?

If we took an average pub, coffee shop or street corner in 2019 and jumped back 50, 100 or 1000 years, the set dressing may change but the conversations would remain. An angry woman rants about foreigners, a man talks passionately about the future his child will inherit, a young group argues back and forth about the rights and privilege of the rich and the powerful.

We will place you as a voyeur through time and space. Self leading your exploration of these interactions and navigating the space between, through fractal imagery with a powerful auditory soundscape.

Why do we want to do this?

We want Fractus to be about hope as much as it is a warning. It’s easy to feel at times, that we live in a singular age. That the tumult in the world is utterly unique to us. But these ideas, emotions and actions have repeated time and again through history. By exploring this repetition these “fractals” in time, we want to find the hope in their resolution and the warnings in their fallout.

VR is uniquely able to build an empathic experience through its immersion of the viewer. Through that empathy, we hope to empower ourselves to make a difference; through stories we wish to understand where the touching points are in the space between past, present and future, through experience we wish to find action and through action, we wish to find hope.

What inspires us?

We have drawn inspiration from many places. VR invites viewers into a space where they can explore and uncover the story on their own terms. As such we are drawing inspiration from immersive experiences like Punchdrunk and Gone Home which uses that immersion to tell a story that is unique to each viewer.

This is also a chance to explore VR as a storyteller – how best to tell a non-linear story? How do you tell stories when viewers have almost unlimited agency to control their environment and view compared with “traditional” mediums like TV and film?

Visually it’s important that we create an engaging experience that is also feasible for us to produce. That Dragon, Cancer is a great example of how minimalist characters can be used to tell a very strong emotive story. Likewise Penrose Studios uses their production to design to mix the fanciful with grounded themes.

The visual motif of the fractals is central to the experience and this is just an example of how that might be rendered in 3D:

Finally, VR is such a new medium, we’re just looking forward to the opportunity to explore how the viewer interacts with the visuals themselves and what that means for the story.

Engagement

We’d love to work with LCC students directly, where it’s feasible with their time constraints and where it would help them. We’d also be keen to get feedback as we iterate throughout; we don’t want to create this in isolation.

We also want to hear from the students and what the world looks like to them, how events are affecting them; it’s important their voices are heard.

Ultimately, our end goal is to create a portable VR installation which would allow people from various communities to access our experience so they can engage and explore these ideas. Future plans would be to release a digital version to allow even wider global engagement.

Follow Lara and Simon to keep up-to-date with Fractus.