Interview: IDLYA on creating award winning immersive content

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We interviewed Ideate mentees Anna West and David Callanan from Manchester-based studio idontloveyouanymore to find out more about making their debut VR film To Miss The Ending which screened at Sundance last month and scooped the first-ever Virtual London Film Festival Audience Award for Best XR/Immersive Art in 2020.

Tell us about To Miss The Ending – where did the idea come from and how did you guys make the leap from theatre to VR?

Anna

To Miss The Ending is based on a play that we made with a group called Theatre 42 in 2016. It was funded through the BBC New Creatives North Scheme and there are similar themes to the play– 5 characters have uploaded their consciousness to a machine in order to escape their reality, however the machine that they’re in is failing and the code is starting to rot so their memories are slowly breaking down. In the theatrical version, the 5 actors moved around the stage with boxes that were projection mapped with block colour to look like pixels. David and I always thought it would translate really well to VR because the piece was already playing with the idea of what is real and what is technological.

David

Yeah, essentially it’s a story of digital isolation, escapism and separation from the real world and VR does all of those things. When you put a headset on, you do feel isolated and it is an escapist practice. You feel like you’re removing yourself from one place to enter a new place. So we really wanted to tell a story about that and the medium and the subject matter just fitted together really well.

Anna

And we lean on the technology too. In To Miss The Ending you put a headset on and we imply that’s how you’re uploading. So as the viewer, it feels like the experience starts mid upload, then the environment shifts to a pixelated landscape and you hear voices which are souls of others who have also been uploaded. The world around you builds as you hear these voices’ memories before the world starts to crumble as the machine fails.

How did you start experimenting with VR?

David

Well, this is the first time we’ve made anything in VR but to a certain extent we already had a lot of the skills needed. We’ve worked with technology throughout our careers, so things like projection mapping, live real time graphics, animation, texturing – we knew how to do. And a lot of the skills needed for making performances translate really well to VR, like transitioning space, directing attention and physically placing a viewer in a world. But there were also lots of new skills we needed to learn.

Anna

Both VR and theatre are very audience led and the audience have the power to look where they like. All of those skills we had already learnt were really useful for this process. We had to focus on the physics of the world. In theatre you’re restricted to the size of the space but in VR you can enter a world that’s as big as you like. So what was interesting were all of the decisions that had to be made like how big is the space, where is the ground, what’s the ground made of, how does gravity work here?

There were lots of conversations especially with Jamie Finlay. We were like, we want this box but it’s also a river so is there a way of making a water droplet sound like a box?

David

Yes it was a very odd brief! Lots of artsy conversations!

You made this during lockdown – how was that experience?

Anna

Well, the creative team haven’t even actually met! We’ve never all been in the same room together. For example, the actors had to record the audio themselves.

David

We gave them a little guide on how to create a sound booth at home. We had people hiding in wardrobes and everything! We posted everyone a care package – a little hand-held recorder so we were getting a similar quality audio. But I don’t think you’d guess that’s how the audio was created.

Anna

Yes, Jamie Finlay who runs a company called We Make Audio did the sound design and composition and did an incredible job. We just told the actors they had a lot of license to show off – give us 5 or 10 takes of everything – go wild! Which we think they actually really enjoyed!

How did you find the Ideate scheme? What made you apply?

Anna

I suppose we applied to get to know more industry skills.

David

Yeah, we’d just started developing the project when we applied and we’d never worked in this industry before so we felt we needed some mentoring and guidance.

Anna

We were paired with Avril Furness who is an amazing VR filmmaker. It’s quite funny, because this all happened during lockdown, her job became very motivational for us! She was really great at keeping us going during what could have been a really isolating time and that became really important for us.

David

We also didn’t know anything about the film festival circuit and Avril was amazing at giving advice on that – how to approach our strategy and get our work seen at festivals. Obviously the film did good – we won an award at BFI London Film Festival and we got into Sundance so she really contributed to the film doing as well as it has done.

Where do you see the future of VR?

David

We see a really broad landscape for it. Obviously it’s a great gaming tool and lots of larger franchises are now releasing VR. It can be used for location based/installations experiences and as the technology advances it’ll just keep getting better.

Anna

I think there are also really interesting applications for it with healthcare or even therapy. It’s a safe space to take someone and present them with past memories or even phobias. We’re kind of exploring that in our next piece actually.

David

It’s really exciting technology but I don’t think we need to worry about it erasing anything that has gone before. I mean, we know people who still listen to the radio. Not even the radio on their laptop – an actual radio! And, we still read books – real books!

What would you say to anyone thinking of getting involved with a programme like Ideate?

Anna

There’s no downside to applying for anything! Just throw stuff out there and see what sticks!

David

It’s worth applying to Ideate just for the connections and people you meet.

Anna

That’s true. Something which actually really helped us is the feeling of having a team around us and we really got a gem of a team. And Creative England is part of that team.

David

Yes, they’ve always been really good at keeping in touch and being so supportive. When we finished the mentoring, it’s not like they dropped us and said ‘ok you’re done, box ticked’. We’ve had loads of ongoing contact and it feels like they’re genuinely excited about what we’re doing and want to help us to do well.

So what’s next for you guys?

David

For us we’re working on a new piece that’s tentatively called These Three Things. It’s a film /game hybrid, so it’s a narrative where you’re in control of the timeline and how you explore the world, but we’re obviously crafting a story for you to follow and guiding you through it. It’s a much more ambitious project for us as a studio, it’s a lot larger and all-encompassing than To Miss The Ending and I think it’s going to be the best thing we’ve made yet.

Anna

Don’t go saying that!

David

Well it’s your idea so I can say that, I’m allowed to cheerlead your ideas! Anyway, we’re actively looking for co producers and funders so we’ll see where that goes. We’ve also got some other things that aren’t VR based too where we’re in the creative technologist roles providing design and technical support to other people’s projects. So we’re the ones helping others to incorporate digital into their work in an interesting, pretty and compelling way.

Watch out for To Miss The Ending which will be available on the Oculus store soon. Find out more information about Ideate the programme here.