The doors of virtual universes open again at New Frontier, the immersive section of the Sundance 2019’s festival. This year the regulars of the event in Park City will discover 2 sections dedicated to VR & AR content, including a new VR cinema. Among the selected projects, we met the team of MECHANICAL SOULS (theXRDB) and its director Gaelle Mourre.
In MECHANICAL SOULS (official site), the audience attends a wedding in Taïwan where beta-model android helps as bridesmaid, and AI (with machine learning and real-time story engine) guides you through your own personal journey.
THE PAST – Androids don’t sleep
I trained as a classical filmmaker. I went to the London Film School where I studied the process of classical film creation, and quickly after graduating I started to work on different projects. Amongst them, was a project involving androids, an adaptation of a short story by my co-writer, L. P. Lee. For this project, we were interested in exploring a technological format that could reflect the content.
P. Lee and I worked on this project together for a while and then in 2016 I met Francois Klein, who was just opening his VR production company, Digital Rise. We got chatting about what kinds of projects we were interested in and it quickly became clear that our story would be a good fit. From there we developed the project together, which would later become Mechanical Souls.
THE PRESENT – Being the passenger and the driver of the story
On MECHANICAL SOULS, it really was the story that guided us to choose VR. And now that I know more about this format, I’m very interested in seeing how the public will engage with Mechanical Souls. It’s really something we started to discuss during the production, as it wasn’t the initial driving force.
From the very beginning, the story was interactive and we really wanted to engage with the audience without “gamifying” the story. Considering this, VR made complete sense. Also, as the story is about questioning humanity, our own consciousness, we were glad to offer a choice, to engage the audience on many levels with our story.
It was very important that the audience influenced the story that unfolds, without realising their own choices were affecting the story unfolding before their eyes. When I watch interactive films where I have an active and conscious choice to make, I’m quickly thrown out of the storyworld. When I watch a film, I really want to be immersed and taken along on the ride. It’s ok to have choices to make, but it’s less interesting to really play with them consciously. I thought it would be interesting to create a pure fiction story that, at the same time, uses the mechanisms of real life: to have to look back to understand what choices guided your journey. When we started to collaborate with François and Thomas Villepoux (co-producer, Digital Rise), we definitely had a branching narrative in mind, in order to guide the audience through our experience. We quickly understood it would be interesting to have only one ending, so that everyone could understand the same thing differently, to have different perspectives on the same issue.
Usually when I’m directing, I like to look at actors (and not my monitor) to best appreciate their performances. Obviously here we had to leave the room, as we were filming in 360. It was great to have of course a live feed of the actors’ performances, even though it was new to me to be physically in a separate room from the unfolding action. The interesting thing though is that it allowed us to let the story come alive on set in a way that doesn’t happen as concretely when filming classical films, which typically really only come together in the edit.
Although we did have a lot of vfx to do in post-production, the script was conceived so that the storyworld could already be established in camera, right there on set. So we had a number of in-camera special fx (including what happens in the last scene!).
The actors had the chance to use the space around them, and we had a lot of freedom to try things out. We looked for professionals who could play to the camera and ignore it at the same time, who could strike a balance between a theatre and a film actor. And we planned to have minimum cuts in the film! So a lot of the scenes were filmed in one shot. We rehearsed a lot, but I like to remain flexible and adjust the scene as we go along so the actors and I went with the flow and the scenes organically came together. Of course it’s always a challenge to find a balance between the freedom of creation and technical issues that need to be addressed or resolved, and that didn’t change here.
As for myself, I had to go back to basics – a huge learning process was on camera angles, where to place it, where to cut. I had to challenge myself to capture the actors’ performances correctly given this was my first VR stereoscopic film! Working with Celine, the cinematographer, we discussed camera placements, what would make sense,, what kin of light quality we should establish… From there, everything came quite fluidly and I was able to work on the characters, what they’re going through and how they can come across to the viewer. Which is basically the same process in every format: I just had to get used to different tools.
THE FUTURE – A new frontier
I’m very excited to be part of Sundance 2019’s New Frontier, very honoured. It’s a huge boost for us. I’m also excited to discover the other experiences there, as well as the talks, events… everything!
It’s quite surreal to offer a concrete, tangible experience to an audience. Not that long ago, we were on set and now we’ll meet them with an installation. It’s great to get to share Mechanical Souls this way! It will also be an important learning opportunity to understand how to connect with the public with this story and how to develop the rest of the Mechanical Souls instalment.
I’m really interested in the empathetic capabilities of VR, and I think that transcends storytelling. It can be used in documentary, fiction or even medical experiences etc. It’s a tool that can bridge the gap between art and practical tools. I think VR is something that can give us a new point-of-view, a way to understand filmmaking and storytelling differently.
More about Sundance New Frontier 2019 (link).