Art, The Universe and Everything

You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.

– Ansel Adams

I love this quote as it’s such a good reminder that your own art is enriched by everything you experience – which is why you should go out and experience things! Sounds simple enough. However, that can easily slip by the wayside when you’re head down pursuing a creative career.

First of all, it’s very easy to get stuck in a tunnel just working on your craft or on a project. There have legitimately been months where all I’ve done is work the day job and work evenings and weekends on the creative job. I don’t see friends or family. I turn down opportunities to travel or go out to the cinema, shows or galleries. All in the pursuit of my writing career – because it takes up all of my spare time outside paying bills. But this really isn’t brilliant or sustainable long term for your mental and physical health. But just as importantly it can also start to drain your creativity. It’s an old, old adage that life inspires art inspires life. Well, if you don’t get to have any kind of experiences, then pretty soon your inspiration starts to wear a little thin.

Secondly, It’s very easy when you specialise in one medium to just focus down on that. I write predominantly TV scripts, and so I watch a LOT of TV shows. But it’s so important to cross-pollinate your art forms. If you write novels, spend a few hours listening to opera; if you paint go try a VR experience; if you write TV, read books and so forth. We can learn a lot and be inspired by each other – you just never know what may spark that next great idea. Sometimes it may even involve a mash up of different mediums.

This is all to say that sometimes you need someone to tap you on the shoulder and remind you that it’s OK to step away from the drawing board/laptop and go outside – literally just go outside. Even if it’s just for a walk around the park (that’s where I get some of my best ideas at least).

When our mentor Avril gave us homework along the lines of “go see things, go play, come back inspired,” I could absolutely recognise the wisdom in her words.

So that’s what Simon and I have been doing at the advice of Avril Furness, our mentor.

Because we both work day jobs around our creative projects (either 9-5 (Simon) or freelance (me)) and struggle to fit everything in, we decided to split some of our time over the last month between some exhibits as well as going to some together.

Walking through Art

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

I was lucky enough to visit the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at Tate Modern twice, and I much preferred my second time, (when I went during the week, without crowds). It was fascinating to see the perfect paper and metal scale models for his installation pieces, and see him using fractals and geometric shapes to great effect.

It was also interesting to see his study of light in so much of his work. Taking sometimes really simple concepts (like a candle reflected in a mirror) and using that to make us reflect on the beauty of this. One of my favourite pieces was aptly titled “Beauty” and consisted of a fine sheet of water in the darkness, lit by light to show the rainbow refraction. I could have stood for hours just observing that.

Impossible to capture with my terrible iPhone was an immersive piece which involved walking through a corridor filled with smoke that was lit by ambient light. As you walked you moved from yellow to blue.

I also enjoyed seeing his research at the end – in fact I was so engrossed with reading his research and watching his films about his process I entirely forgot to take a photo!

Takis

Full disclosure – Takis deserves another visit, as I was only able to pop in briefly to see the exhibit. I will go back soon.

However, what I saw was pretty fascinating, and I enjoyed looking at Takis’s studies into electromagnetic and “movement” in the art pieces.

Walking through History

We were lucky enough to get away for a long weekend to Normandy in August.

I had never been to Normandy before, and the name conjured up vague primary school history lessons around D-day landings and my one viewing of Saving Private Ryan. I was astounded to find Normandy not only actively remembered the D-Day landings but celebrated them, with flyers and posters of the names of officers, and the flags of all the Allies who fought to liberate France. It was humbling and moving to walk through small and large towns and see this displayed everywhere, the lessons of a war never forgotten – when it feels like we in Britain have completely forgotten what was so hard fought-for and at such great cost.

My most striking moment of realisation that I walked in history’s footsteps – and a history that is not far gone – was seeing the rusting, giant carcasses of the Landing Bridges. Rather than “clean them up” they have been left as permanent monuments jutting out of the golden – and now idyllic – sands of Normandy’s beaches. No one walking there can fail to understand that war tore across Europe a mere 70 years ago, and the peace we take for granted today cost thousands of lives.

That visceral feeling, of walking amongst the monuments of history (a history so close I could still touch its recognisably modern remnants) is something I want for those who step into Fractus.

Walking through Mountains

In September we disappeared to the Lake District. Something that I’ve been finding fascinating about Fractals is how they appear everywhere in nature: in leaves, in river tributaries, in the shells of snails. Nature and fractals are bound up together in our perceptions of beauty.

Walking in nature I was reminded that our vision for Fractus was always about creating something breathtaking, visually sumptuous. That the Fractals and our Fractal landscapes should be enchanting and captivating. For me, a lot of that will be down to the use of light and colour to soften what can be perceived as quite brutal shapes – it turns out that 3D fractals are quite a different beast on the eye compared to their 2D counterparts, somehow losing some of that innate wonder.

We need to ensure that we add that back in when it comes to our final experience.

Pivot(al) Conversations Part 1

Over the weekend Simon and I had our first mentoring meeting with Avril Furness.

For me, it was really great to have a conversation with someone who is intimate with writing and storytelling in 360 degrees. It was a crucial chance to be able to air some of my concerns and struggles with finding a compelling narrative that would work with our broad theme of repeating patterns in history, linking this diaspora of voices and the abstract Fractal imagery and technology that Simon is working on.

What are you trying to say?

One thing became clear quite quickly – that Avril wasn’t just a brilliant 360 Director, but had extensive experience with being a creative director. She was quick to triage where I was coming unstuck – that our theme was just WAY too large and ambitious, and that we needed to simplify things down and focus on one simple idea to pursue.

We bounced some possibilities around over the conversation, but her advice was for us to step back from the fractals and fractal theme, and just do some concept work and blue sky thinking, and just see what stories we wanted to tell.

She also suggested we take some time out to look around at many different kinds of art and look for inspiration to see what really got us excited – which is something I’ve heard before, and I’ve used in the past, but frankly you do need a reminder when your eyeballs deep in your own project.

What are others doing with Fractals?

Avril also suggested we explore how others have used Fractals to illustrate a point or tell stories, and found some great examples.

What is already possible/being done with fractals in VR and 3D?

The top video “Like in a dream” was a huge inspiration for Simon from the start with our project and pursuing this Fractal imagery. But it was great to see where others had been forging ahead in the VR and 3D world with fractals:

How and why are fractals important? 

So, I added this as it’s something that I’ve sort of been digging into on the side anyway as part of this project. It probably deserves it’s only post at some point, so for now I’ll just pop this video Avril shared, here which is a nice summary for those curious about the story of fractals:

Fantastic resources and where to find them

Over the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to attend some events and have some meetings with some pretty big movers and shakers in the VR world.  These VR industry leaders – who really are at the top of the crest of this wave – are still very much accessible compared to TV or Film because this is still such a new medium. For this, I’m profoundly grateful, as their insight and experience is invaluable for both Simon and myself as we develop Fractus.

Eddie Redmayne capturing my exact expression when I realise I need to get out there and network. © Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In case any of you out there are interested in developing your own projects I wanted to do a little round up of some of the resources and tips I’ve gleaned from these experts. Hopefully as we continue to network I can add more to this post – also, if anyone else has links to great resources please do add to the comments.

Avril Furness

I was lucky enough to be invited to hear Avril speak to LCC VR students the other month. In case you don’t know who she is you should definitely take a look at her website.

It was a real privilege to hear Avril speak about some of her projects and what she has learned. During her talk, Avril gave a detailed overview of her experience creating The Empathy Machine, a 360 Noir Virtual Reality Murder Mystery film experience shot in London’s Roundhouse Theatre. I realise that this was probably more what I first envisioned for Fractus when I imagined using VR to tell stories – creating scenes from history in a figurative yet stylised form, in a 3D “set” which viewers would walk around and through. I also probably gravitated to this “theatrical” use of VR as I have also been very influenced by Punchdrunk in my exploration of immersive technologies. Although Fractus has gone in a very different direction, I’d still like to revisit using VR in this theatrical form at a future date.

Avril also talked through another fascinating docudrama project, The Last Moments, which immerses the viewer in the fictionalised final moments of someone at Dignitas. The experience literally places the viewer in the position of someone about to experience euthanasia – seen in a first person POV. It was fascinating to hear about the long road to developing the script, the initial poor reaction to her first script by Dignitas and then the eventual positive input and involvement by the organisation.

It was also interesting to hear her speak about the ethics of creating this VR experience and its purpose within the Euthanasia debate. Avril felt that the VR experience should not be used by Dignitas in any way to promote Euthanasia and did not allow it to be used on their website (it was presented as an installation in several places to stimulate conversation around Euthanasia and laws). When people email requesting to see it to “help them make decision” regarding their own euthanasia, Avril refuses, as this VR experience is art. Although the 360 film is based on extensive research, it is ultimately fiction, and should only be viewed in this capacity. Avril wanted to ensure that the piece was used as a conversation starter around a difficult topic – but not as a way to influence people’s choices. I can see how audiences could easily become confused mistaking what feels like an extremely realistic and well-researched docudrama as “actual reality.” As creators and storytellers in this powerful new medium we have a duty of care to ensure we make that distinction clear where necessary. I can only admire Avril’s clarity of vision with this, around her responsibility as an artist, and the role of immersive experience too.

One other moment from this project which struck me was her exploration of sound. In order to really create a sense of swallowing the water and tablets they put a mic inside one of the actors ears to record that inner ear sound of swallowing. I thought this was such an “outside the box thinking” moment, and reminded me yet again of the power of audio in VR, something which is very important for Fractus.  

I’d like to share with you her brilliant pointers for VR when starting out on your project:

© Avril Furness. Please do not share without permission.

I’d also like to mention some of the other companies, VR and immersive experiences Avril suggested were worth checking out:

And last, but by no means least at all – we are also very excited to have Avril come on board as a mentor for Fractus!

Scott Marshall

When I was first e-introduced to Scott Marshall he was off to exhibit his latest work at Cannes Film Festival, and I must confess I was rather intimidated! I shouldn’t have worried – upon meeting Scott in person he was a truly genuine and down-to-earth guy and I would never have guessed he’d been rubbing shoulders with the Film, TV and VR Glitterati for a week prior to meeting me for coffee.

Scott is the CEO and Founder of Bamsound Creative, and specialises in audio design for VR, AR and Film. It was brilliant just getting to speak to Scott about Fractus as this was the first time I’d had a chance to pitch the idea outside of LCC – and I was more than a little relieved that he didn’t laugh me out the door! One of the fabulous things about talking to a VR sound expert was that I was able to throw our ideas around “tuning” fractals at him and have Scott immediately bounce back with his ideas about what might work within Unity.

He was also keenly aware of the pitfalls of leading an audience through an audio-only story, and the perils of branching narrative within this. He quite correctly cautioned us from getting too lost in too many storylines with this initial prototype phase.

In fact our chat turned into such a free-flowing conversation that I failed to take notes, so all I can really add here was that we will be showing our new build to Scott as soon as it’s ready, and hoping to get his feedback on how best to use audio and interaction –  and perhaps even collaborate on it together.

Women in Film & TV – VR & Games

A fellow screenwriter advised that I look at joining Women in Film and TV to further my industry networking and it just so happened that when I looked them up they were advertising a panel event for those interested in getting into VR and Games. It seemed like fate! I promptly booked a £5 ticket (steal!) and headed on down.

The panel was hosted by Liz McIntyre and consisted of Adrienne Law from Ustwo Games, Moo Yu Co-founder & Programmer for Foam Sword, Mehjabeen Patrick from Creative England and Dan Tucker Executive Producer & Curator of Alternate Realities, Sheffield Doc Fest.

All the speakers had a lot of great advice, although it did skew towards the Games industry versus VR. Mehjabeen talked about what Creative England look for/ expect to receive for funding applications for games (but I’m sure this can be applied to VR):

  1. An outline of the game/ idea/ character arcs
  2. People/talent on the team
  3. Why will it sell/how does it meet trends etc
  4. Cost of acquisition
  5. Publishing and marketing costs/ business plan

Dan said for the commissioning of VR/Interactive experiences it’s less reliant on existing talent as VR is still such a new field, and most people do not have direct experience with VR but they will look at who you are connecting with to get your project made.

An over all note was for all creatives to think about diversity – but especially disability. How will your VR/Immersive experience or game be accessible?

Resources & networking suggestions:

Extra shout-out to Moo, who spent a great deal of time speaking to me out on the street after we’d been kicked out of the event pace, sharing networks and online communities for female/game-writers!