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!

History of the World, Part 2

In 1981 the legendary Mel Brooks released a comedy film called The History of the World, Part I. For those of you who haven’t seen it (seriously stop reading this post and go watch it!) – the film is an irreverent take on the course of human events through history and covers the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution.

As I struggle to draw boundaries around my research for Fractus I find myself musing how and why Mel Brooks choose those times to parody? Clearly a big motivator was his personal view on which comical storylines he felt would be strongest. But coming from the writing perspective, I feel he must have thought long and hard about what his audience would have been most familiar with – only by intimately understanding the canon can you then understand the lampooning of it.

It’s very interesting to note that while the film is called “A History of the World, Part I” it is a film which really only covers certain major historical events in the Western psyche. Off the basis of this, I assume Mel Brookes anticipated his audience would be a largely Western-European and Judeo-Christian educated background.

So this is a long way of saying that I am fast realising with Fractus that when we initially pitched the idea of using VR to show “the repeating patterns of thoughts and events through time,” I was blithely unaware of the dangers of such a vague statement.

This is what my browser looks like every time I work on Fractus and fall down the rabbit hole of research.

And, truthfully, when any of us talk about “History,” we are so often indicating a very thin sliver of human events – not just in time – but also in terms of culture and place. This is often determined by where we are studying this subject. I was privileged to study history in three different countries, and this is what occurred:

As a child in England (5-14),  in formal education I learned about the Ancient Egyptians, The Blitz and The Tudors and Stuarts. In the USA (14-18), I had non-electives called “Modern American History” which skimmed over everything from 1950’s to 1990’s, and then by choice picked European AP History which, admittedly, provided a fascinating overview of WWII from the American perspective. In Scotland (18- 22), studying to an advanced level I had elective and non-elective modules. Non-elective covered British History from 1603 – 1980. My elective choices broadly covered these areas: Japan 1603-1960, The Spanish Civil War, Africa 1900 – 1990 and various gender English medieval history courses from 1200-1700.

It sounds obvious, but unless I elected to learn about history outside of the West, it barely registered on the core curriculum of whichever country I was in. Since then and even around my formal education, I was fascinated by many different times and places and so self-educated myself where there was time and resources. But still…my own knowledge of “the history of the world” is woefully limited. I’m blinded by a Euro-centric education, by my own bias towards my culture’s history, my own intrinsic heritage and the stories I absorbed from my earliest years.

So what does this mean for Fractus, a project with such lofty ambitions? To accurately research and show the “history of repeated thoughts and events” requires knowledge of global history and philosophy – this is going to take a huge amount of work – years, decades (that’s possibly why so many professors spend their whole academic lives focusing down on one very small part of the story of mankind)…it’s fairly impossible for our timeframe.

Just starting to try and write up a visual map of major themes across time and cultures (even just tracing back to Britain) begins to be overwhelming.

I’m also not able to accurately represent “the world” in my writing. That’s not to say that I don’t want to try my hardest to make this for as diverse audience as possible – but that I’m admitting the hard truth – I’m one white woman, and I bring my own cultural bias to this project. And I can’t solve this through research – because the sheer volume of research needed to ensure I am covering voices, views, history and philosophy from across the world throughout time is enormous.

I know, you’re probably thinking – well, duh, didn’t you think about this sooner? The truth is…yes, a bit. But It’s like the proverbial loose thread. Until you pull on it, you have no idea just how much of your jumper is going to unravel!

Coming back to Mel Brooks, I am reminded that A History of the World, Part I, was entertainment not history (and very entertaining at that).

Fractus is the same. The harder I try to cling to the factual side of the project, the more I try and make this historically accurate, the more impossible it seems.

But art is about metaphors and representation. It is also, fiction not fact. In order to move forward with the story side of Fractus I need to stop trying to make it a history project. In short – I need to stop trying to chase the facts, but instead concentrate on telling a good story, which reveals the underlying metaphor of our project.

I think I also need to stop feeling like I should be the only one to “write this.” The idea with this project has always been that we would create an initial prototype to test it, and hopefully expand the project once we had a proof of concept.

Fact or fiction, I can only write from my truth, my viewpoint. It’s a valid one, but limited. And I can recognise that.

The history of our world, the history of thought and repeated events, belongs to many voices, views and cultures. I feel that to ensure authenticity and diversity, after this initial prototype phase, Fractus should be opened up to other writers – it could in fact become a VR experience built out of monologues from writers across the world, threaded together by theme.

Right from the start we wanted Fractus to build empathy as a VR experience; perhaps that should be embedded into the very creation of the project itself.

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.