A Journey Into (Virtual) Reality
Text by Ingrid Mengdehl
“You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” This extract of the poem “Home”, by Warsan Shire, has been used frequently in recent years to attempt explaining what drove people away from their homes and their countries in order to find a safer and better life. But such a concept, sometimes very removed from what we experience in our daily lives, can sometimes be difficult to grasp. Can emerging technologies and new ways of telling stories help in this endeavour? This is what Dan Efergan, Interactive Group Creative Director at Aardman, tried to find out when he worked on We Wait, a virtual reality (VR) project in partnership with the BBC.
“It was for BBC Connected Studios,” he explains. “They were interested in experimenting with storytelling and how immersive it could become.” That was the real starting point of the project. It was 2015, and VR was still in its infancy. Dan admits to having been a bit cynical at first.
“It was the new fancy thing, everyone was jumping on to do it. I think that we’re a long way away from having mastered telling stories interactively, and we had to contend with this brand-new approach.”
However, they very quickly started to research what made VR such a different experience. If Dan had gone into it expecting to make something fantastical and out-of-this-world, he was quickly struck by a particular aspect of it. “VR is an incredibly intimate experience. You felt close to the people.” In addition to that, he points out that the tool allows you to choose where you’re looking, and there was potential to play with physical posture and eye-contact. “There was a way to tell a more emotional story about the users and the characters around them.”
But what story? “People in migration came up very quickly,” Dan notes. “The news at the times was all about the ‘migrant crisis’, especially in the British press. They were talking in broad strokes, using facts and figures, forgetting that they were human beings with a story.”
They pitched it to the BBC, who greenlighted the project, and soon enough, they were in production. Dan is incredibly positive about the relationship. “They were amazing. Zillah Watson, the executive producer, came from a news background and was very interested in using these platforms as documentaries. She put us in touch with news correspondents.”
What else do you need to conceive such a project? “We were also talking to a friend of ours who works for the UN. We started immersing ourselves in their stories. It’s obviously very risky to take on a subject like this and not tell the truth, and even more so, we had to be careful not to sensationalise the situation.” They ended up piecing multiple stories into one, individuals and families. Dan recalls having to take some parts out, as “some of it was so unbelievable and horrible that we felt if we put it in, people weren’t going to believe that it was true”.
The production started with two months of experiments, in order to figure out the different mechanics. “First of all, we had to write something. We sat down with Darren Dubicki, Narrative Director and started thinking quite linearly, much like a radio play.” Soon enough, though, the team started to think in terms of moments experienced by the viewer. It became more theatrical in its nature. “We had audience locked into place, a certain distance away from the actors, and you need to get that moment right.”
In parallel, they also had to figure out the technical side of it. “How do we build water? How do we transition from one place to the other? It was quite experimental and we didn’t have a very big budget.” The team working on We Wait was relatively small. One producer, one writer, two directors, a developer, an animator/modeller and a sound designer.
They had to be mindful of loading times, and their original idea to have memories slowly surround you had to be abandoned. There just wasn’t enough memory available to do it seamlessly. Instead, they came up with a clever transition, using light to go from one moment to the other. “When the light crosses your eyes, it forces you to squint because of its brightness, which causes your pupils to shrink. We used that to quickly switch the scene in the background so that by the time your eyes have recovered again, you were left in a new place.”
For characters, the team used motion-capture, wanting to give the characters as much humanity as possible. They didn’t cast any actors, instead recording it all themselves with Perception Neuron, an affordable motion-capture kit.
The animation, building and testing took in all three to four months, which was followed by its first release at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The response was incredibly positive, Dan recalls. “The experience of having people trying it has been successful. We got the best comment from someone who had been out there, working on a boat. She’d never experienced VR, but after trying it, she came out saying that it was the closest experience she’d had to reality.”
Of course, as is to be expected, the project was met with some critics as well, mostly in the form of YouTube comments. “We were told that we were continuing the lies of the BBC, and so on, but at one point, you have to realise that some people approach it with too strong a view to change.” Instead, Dan hopes they manage to have an impact on the rest of their audience. “We hopefully got through to the people in the middle that were just less informed, so that they realise that refugees are just trying to find a life for their kids. That would make me happy.”
Any last words? “We’ll definitely continue telling stories in VR, and hopefully, stories that can make a difference.”