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!

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.

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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.