#713: Moving Through Grief of Suicide through a Spatial Story in VR with “Homestay”

paisley-smithPaisley Smith’s Homestay is a deeply powerful spatial story that explores her family’s journey of grief from the death by suicide of an international student that they were hosting. She shares her journey of how to best tell this story in VR with many approaches that didn’t work. Homestay will be available soon from the National Film Board of Canada’s website.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So one of the amazing potentials of virtual reality is that you're going to be able to potentially empathize with an experience that somebody has gone through, even if you haven't gone through that experience. Death is something that we all experience at some point. I mean, either we're going to die or we're going to know somebody that's going to die. It's just a part of being alive is to know death. And death by suicide is like being initiated into a club that you never really want to be a part of. And there's a lot of cultural taboos around even talking about it if you've experienced a suicide. And so Paisley Smith created a VR experience called Homestay, which was premiering at the Vancouver International Film Festival. And it's a deeply moving and profound piece. And it's gonna be coming out within the next week or so. But I wanted to go ahead and put out this interview I'd really highly recommend if you have the opportunity, if you have a Vive or an Oculus Rift, to be able to actually download and watch the experience once it's released on the National Film Board of Canada's website. But I wanted to talk with Paisley Smith about her journey and process of creating this, but also this experience that really allows you to move through grief and suicide through this spatial story. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of The Voices of VR Podcast. So this interview with Paisley happened on Saturday, September 29th, 2018 at the Vancouver International Film Festival in Vancouver, Canada. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:45.608] Paisley Smith: My name is Paisley Smith and I'm a filmmaker who works in emerging technology. I directed a piece called Homestay, which is a virtual reality documentary about my family and an experience that we had that changed our lives forever. My family's always had international students live with us. It's been something that we've always really loved doing from all over the world. So I grew up having lots of different, amazing new family members. And so when I was, I think it started maybe when I was in grade 6 and all the way through university we had international students and when I went backpacking in Europe in undergrad I was able to travel and stay with various people that had lived with us. When I started grad school at USC for film, we had a student who moved in with us, and my brother's 10 years younger than me, so we had a student named Taro, who lived with us, and he quickly became a core member of our family. He was 14 when he moved in, so he was a year older than my brother, but they were best friends, and their language of communication, as little boys these days do, is through video games, and so they didn't have to really talk, they could just like, play a game and forget that they had any differences in their experiences and just communicate through these games. So Taro would do the night shift and my brother would do the day shift and they would just take turns building up all these points on these games. But unfortunately when he was 17, Taro took his own life. He died by suicide and it was a real shock to my family. and to me and my brother and none of us had any knowledge that he was struggling with anything. I still don't, we obviously still do not know what the context of it was. It came as a surprise and a shock and things that we just took as teenage, growing up as a teenager, especially someone who's from a different country, living in Canada, you know, there's things that like culturally are different but also language and different social interests and Taro definitely flourished in a virtual space and so when I started working in VR, I kind of like got into VR right after that happened and I started working for Nani de la Peña and she's known as the godmother of VR. She's a force and I joined her team and started producing for her and I kind of threw myself into that world in a way to distract myself from my actual life. But the whole time I was traveling with Nani, I kept thinking, man, Taro, if he had lived just a little longer, would have freaking loved virtual reality. Imagine his ability to touch and interact and move through virtual spaces that he loved so much already, just on a screen, to then put him into that world. So I thought, wouldn't it be cool to honor him in VR? So that was the basis of my exploration of his story in VR. and the National Film Board came on as a producer of Homestay, and we tried lots of different ways of telling the story and finally landed on this way, which I think it might not be the coolest, flashiest way of telling a VR story, but what it really does is it allows the audience in a VR experience is able to walk through this story, and as they do, they're able to come to terms with my own story of grief and understanding, but also it gives them enough space to kind of apply it to whatever they might also be struggling with.

[00:05:04.331] Kent Bye: Yeah. You know, I think virtual reality is a medium, is a spatial medium. So how do you translate these emotions and these experiences into spatial metaphors that perhaps touch into a deeper emotion? And so use of color, lots of grays, scenes of fall, leaves falling. It's like the time of season when everything is kind of winding down towards winter. It's really like all these metaphors for death that is universal in many ways. We all die, but in this particular case there was very specific experience of suicide, which suicide is an experience that it's sort of like being initiated into a club that you really don't want to be a member of. Which, you know, I've experienced three suicides myself and It's something that when you go through that experience, it's kind of hard to know what it's like unless you've been through it, which then puts a certain amount of cultural taboo to even talk about it because people don't necessarily have a context to really understand even how to respond or what to say. So you're kind of stuck with something that is an experience that you can't really communicate. So I think this experience is probably the, It's the closest that I've seen. Gets to that experience. Yeah.

[00:06:34.592] Paisley Smith: Yeah. It's heavy. It's funny, like, sharing this piece, it's really personal and very vulnerable. So I have to really separate myself from the experience of seeing it shown. So I have to put a little bit of a wall up. And so it's very,

[00:06:51.498] Kent Bye: You don't have to have a wall here, though.

[00:06:53.059] Paisley Smith: I know, I know. And I'm really, I really, I feel, I appreciate the ability to talk about it in a real way because, you know, it's so hard. It's been such a hard process making this piece. And, you know, I think when I set out doing it and I pitched it to the NFB and they came on as producers, I was like, I can do this. I can do this. I'm able to tell this story. I have to. But it was really hard and especially talking about Taro with a team throughout the process and just having moments where I was like, I don't know if I'm strong enough to actually do this. It is so sad and so disappointing. And the process of telling the story in VR was interesting because I do come from documentary. There's lots of different ways of telling a documentary story but in many ways you would capture what you collect in your footage and then edit it into a story and hopefully you discover something along the way in shooting this documentary that changes the way that you feel or you discover something that shifts the meaning of the project or you know there's this exciting moment that the filmmaker has this moment of clarity or something like that. And I kept recording all these interviews with Taro's friends and my family and classmates and psychologists and all these people who had an idea of this kind of experience and also had an understanding of what I would say is like a youth at risk. And I kept waiting for this moment of discovery that would make it all make sense. Like I would find an interview or I'd have talked to someone who knew him, who knew what was happening with him, and it just like became really apparent that there was never going to be that moment for me. And so that's how it shifted. When I actually initially set out to make this project, I thought, oh, wouldn't it be cool to make, his favorite game was Skyrim, which is a video game, which is a fantasy set world where you interact with magical elements and I thought wouldn't it be cool to have a magical game where you can move through this virtual space and as you collect a crown or a saber or whatever and those objects could trigger stories of his life in Canada and you would make sense of his story that way and you could even have his avatar moving through the space. In some ways I think that was me trying to protect myself from the emotion of the story like I thought it would be easier to tell it if I could have that kind of distance and like have a fun element to it But just like trying to tell the story in that way just wasn't landing. It's not a fun story. It's not something that was working. And so I actually did set out, I worked with a game designer named Alon Kerner-Sefrada, who's a Canadian game designer who went to NYU for game design. And he and I set out doing all these really amazing sketches and renderings of what this game world would look like. And we did a little demo of it, where you'd move from Taro's bedroom in Vancouver and go through the computer screen into this game world. And it was really cool, and it was awesome. And it was kind of like the tone that I had set out to tell the story in. But ultimately, it just didn't feel right. And so I had to throw that. We had to scrap that part of the project. And I actually was like, I don't know if it's going to be possible to do this. And so I actually like, I hit kind of like personal rock bottom because at the time I had, you know, I had started my VR career in LA, so I had a very strong community there. And then to work with the National Film Board of Canada, I moved back to Vancouver and also simultaneously was applying for an American work visa. And so I wasn't really in my community that I had been before. And as you all know, we're all in emerging tech, probably, if you're listening to this, you're interested in it, or at least an active member in some way. And there's a sense of a race or a need to create quickly, to get things done, to get it out there, because tech is this whole thing. There's this energy that you need to get things out there, to get seen, so you can get into the conferences, so you can have your work seen at festivals. It's this frequency of creation that is really especially as a creator can be really stressful. And so meanwhile, I'm in Vancouver, I'm actually living in his room in Vancouver at my parents' house while I'm working on this project. I'm away from my partner, I'm away from my support system that I created in LA, from school and from working in LA. Not to complain about Vancouver, Vancouver's an amazing place, but I just felt like I was working on this really deep, dark project. and I didn't have people around me who understood the complications of the technical side of it too and like the nerves that I had around whether or not I'd actually be able to do it. And so I started to question the story itself because there was never any solid answers and then on top of it I wasn't finding the right technical way of telling the story. So I ended up partnering with, I actually did a lot of really crazy stuff during the process of making this project. I worked with an incredible animator named Kaho Yoshida, who is a Vancouver illustrator and animator. And she and I worked together and she made beautiful painted renderings of Taro in our house, in our family house. his classroom and also in the game world and created avatars and a huge part of the story that I had to leave out was that he was actually from the part of Japan that was affected by the tsunami and he actually died about a year after the tsunami and so that was a big part of our story you know and I did end up having to leave that out because there was just so many things I wanted to talk about but didn't have time to And so we actually did tilt brush, like the tsunami waves would come over and like wash the viewer over and then you would have this moment of contemplation after the whole world would have been destroyed by water. And that was like water and paper were the two textural elements I was really interested in exploring in the project. And so that ultimately didn't fit either, but Kaho herself has been an international student, so she brought a very personal experience into the project. She grew up in Tokyo, which obviously is a huge city, and she moved to small-town Ontario and lived with several families there, and her experience really enlightened me to some of the challenges that international students face, especially when you're young, alone, not speaking the language, not sure what the boundaries of family and paid relationships are. Like, you are paid as a homestay host. It's not a lot of money, but it's still like a transaction, right? So there's, it's complicated. And so anyways, I did that with Kaho. And then one of the other things I did was I worked with Katie Newton and Corinne Sukup from the Stanford D School. They're researchers. And this is one of the weirder things that we did during the experience. Katie and Curran used Homestay, which was then called Taro's World, as a way of exploring how people connect with virtual reality stories. So we ended up building in New York a set of Taro's bedroom. And they hired actors to play Taro and members of my family, decorated the room, So it looked actually like my house, had things like Skyrim toys and anime and video games around the room, framed photos of my family, like it was art directed like it was my house. And then I watched as actors played my family and an actor played Taro. and various audience members would come into the set with a fake virtual reality headset that actually just filmed where they looked and why. The idea was there was the whole room and they could look around the whole room or they could cut it in half with a black wall. So they would only have half of a field of view and then they actually reduced it. And so all the different people had different ranges of view and different amount of things happening in those spaces. So after each time they went through these experiences, they would measure and ask them questions about what engaged them and how. So Karen and Katie ended up writing this incredible document called The Storyteller's Guide to Virtual Reality. That was on Medium, you might have read it. It's really cool. But for me, it was a very strange experience. To see people interacting with maybe the most tragic thing that's ever happened to me in just a very strange, surrealist way. I don't know how to really

[00:14:58.560] Kent Bye: What I'm getting is that there's been a number of different iterations or things you've had to go on your own journey of creating this experience where the virtual world of Tarot's life and then, you know, having this whole surrealist depiction of your home recreated on stage with actors to do a study about virtual reality. And then eventually you get to kind of like this sparse paper town world that's really gray and dark and music that's really evocative of this sadness. And it's your first-person narrative. You're telling the story from your perspective you know the thing that was really striking to me was just how the leaves were the kind of through line throughout the entire story of The leaves were the point where you could interact and at first it was kind of a new construct because I didn't know like you were Talking and I was like, oh, I don't know if I push this if she's gonna stop talking but there's a disconnection between the narrative and that's being told to the audio and what you're saying in the visuals that were coming in and they're kind of operating at their own pace where it's like okay well I can control the visual experience of this without messing up or missing anything of the audio. It gave me this ability to have spaciousness around whatever was emerging in the visuals but Having the leaves there and for me one of the most striking moments was and I guess spoiler alert for anybody who hasn't seen it yet I'd highly recommend you see the piece before listening to the entire thing but there's there's this moment when leaves are swirling around you and then they just all drop and It's just like that moment of the choice and decision to take your own life. And that moment of that transition and the paper trail of his life. But also, as I was looking down, there's kind of like this swirl of the leaves that kept on getting more and more chaotic. And I was looking around, and I wanted to look up because it was just getting too crazy and frantic. But I recognized that feeling as that kind of impossible spinning out a chaos moment that your life kind of going out of control.

[00:17:06.513] Paisley Smith: Yeah, and you know, part of the experience that I was interested in exploring was the idea of going into a world that you don't necessarily know how to communicate with or navigate the world. So there isn't any instructions on how to go through the world, but I hope that people who choose to go into the experience allow themselves to discover and try a couple of things. And once you learn to touch a leaf, for example, and you realize that that does something, you're inspired to do more and to see more things within the world. And so in some ways I tried to mimic the experience of being an international student and taking that little risk and putting yourself out there and going into the virtual world and then exploring it a little bit more. And yeah, so the whole idea of the paper craft world and the slow loss of control was for me the process that I had to go through. Hoping and hoping and hoping that you're going to find a reason or an explanation or feel some sort of comfort about the experience isn't what's going to happen. The only thing that's going to happen is that you're going to be okay with the way that you feel. you know like this isn't an easy VR experience to go into and do like it's like 15 minutes it's a commitment you have to really be in there and listen to get anything from it really and so the idea would be like as you move through this space and navigate the world you come to terms with whatever you're Thinking and maybe the actions allow you to think and maybe you don't even listen to what I'm saying But it allows you to process whatever You yourself are going through through the actions and the movement and the lack of control and the frustration and that is It's what we're all dealing with in some way, you know

[00:18:50.958] Kent Bye: I mean, it's not really set up to just pop into VR and tell a story. I mean, there's a lot of things that you kind of have to fight the technology, because the technology is not necessarily built for storytelling, it's built for games. The language of storytelling isn't necessarily figured out all yet, so there's a lot of experimentation that has to happen. But at the same time, the abstractions of the technology of dealing with all that frustrating and it sounds like your journey, there's many different iterations. And so you're trying to like hone in into this feeling and emotion that you like can just sink into it, but yet you've see it hundreds or thousands of times. And so I'm just curious from your own process of eventually getting to that moment where you can just sit back and watch it and feel it. and take it all in despite all of the other mental abstractions of the technical hurdles and hoops you have to jump through. But as an artist, once you get to the point where you're able to craft an experience to that point and really just observe it and watch it and what that process was like for you to get that point.

[00:19:54.207] Paisley Smith: So when I was in the process of figuring out that I wanted to set it at this Natobi Japanese Gardens, at that time I still had like hours and hours, like hundreds of hours of audio recordings that I had intended to use and tell the story. and none of the audio was working in the scene. I used bits and pieces from those interviews and crafted basically a giant document. I got a huge piece of paper. I'm going to tell you this process because it was very complicated for me. I had all the interviews and I figured out all the themes, major points of the story, or people, places, like anything. Anything that had to do with the story, I just wrote it on a big piece of paper. And actually my partner, Caitlin, really was an amazing resource for this process because she kind of helped me figure out how to do this. But she said, okay, anytime any of these things deal with grief, circle them in pink. If they deal with cultural difference, circle them in green. I mean there was lots of different themes of the story, but basically all the major themes and symbols I went through and like highlighted them. And then I took the actual map of the garden, which I was really excited about discovering the Natobi Japanese gardens because when you get there, they give you a map and it shows you the symbolism that's already embedded in the garden and it's a life cycle. And the idea is that as you move through the life, you go through birth, childhood, adolescence, middle age, old age, and then death. So it's already designed to be about a life. And for me, it was really interesting that the garden is allowed to grow out of place in adolescence. Japanese gardens are very precisely designed. And it was cool to see the symbolism of allowing those parts to grow wild. Like, that's the natural part of growing up. And so anyways, I had this map and then essentially cut all of the story points into little, like, game pieces, essentially, and laid them out on this map. And then I just tried different ways of mapping out the story until the beats worked. And that's the basis of the story that is told in Homestay. And I worked with an amazing journalist named Alison Brodel and she helped me craft it into a meaningful story from there. So we worked together on writing a script that then I recorded. But yeah, it basically, I had to make, like I really wanted to cover all those themes and there's so much information that I was trying to reduce to its essence. And so that's what I really like about the final project is that It's simple, and the interactions feel very simple too. And that has to do with the space to understand these complex themes of the story. And I worked with an amazing team at Jam 3, and they crafted this world. And so it was really an interesting process to work with a technical team as well. Sorry. communicating these subtle emotional moments and beats with a team, like a large team, especially remotely. It's an emotional story and then having to talk about it like over Skype or like on the phone and like over email. It's just such a strange process, but you know, my producers at the National Film Board, Rob McLaughlin and Loc Dow, you know, I have to like really give them major props because they already knew where the story was going to be like before I got there myself. I had to go through that journey of trying all these different ways of telling the story, and that's the joy of working on the National Film Board. It's like, as an artist, it's an incredible opportunity to be able to try things without the risk of I don't know, like not being good enough or not working. And like the fact that I was able to try all those different ways is really a gift. And I'm happy with the way it ended up, but it definitely was a process of being like, oh, OK, I have to let go of what I thought things were going to be like and be cool with what this is. And the moment that I actually had that feeling of relief and like, OK, I'm happy with this was the whole time I'd been working very closely with my little brother on the project. And for a long time, I thought it should be told from his perspective. And I really struggled with that because you know he was his best friend and they were really close and I didn't want to take his story or tell it when I knew that it was his story to tell really. But he gave me permission to do that and that made me feel good but I also felt like a really strong obligation to make sure I told it right and that he approved of it. And so I was really lucky. I showed the project at IDFA, Duck Lab, last year in November. And my brother was on exchange, actually, in Scotland. And he was able to come down and see the project. And he hadn't seen it. And it was in the middle of a reception. And if I'd given it more meaning, it might not have happened the same way. But the way that he saw it was really magical. And my producer, Rob, was there. My partner, Caitlin, was there. and I was there and it was in the middle of this reception and we all just realized what was happening. He was seeing the piece and it was really moving and you know he came out and he was really upset and but like crying and he was just like you told it right you know you did a good job Paz and I was like oh thank god you like it like if he didn't like the piece i don't know what i would have done or if he didn't think it was told right and that moment was the fact that he said okay this told the story right and you got you got some of the stuff that we were all dealing with um yeah it made it all like feel better

[00:25:34.178] Kent Bye: Yeah, one thing that I'm really hearing from this process is this exploration of the why. Back in 2007, in January, is when my wife at the time, we were living with her father in Maine, and he was going through separation. And it was like a six-month downward spiral, but he eventually took his own life while we were living with him. And he didn't leave a note. And it was this process of not knowing the full answer as to why. And it was like this recasting and reevaluation, almost the entire lifespan going backwards in time, reevaluating every moment, trying to find little clues and signals that could have told the larger story. And it's like this process as an individual of reevaluating your own interactions and saying, oh, could I have done this or could I have done that? And I think in doing a lot of therapy with survivors of suicide, the thing they say over and over is that it's not your fault. It's their choice. And I think that's a big part of it because there's a lot of feeling guilt and shame of being complicit and not seeing those signs or signals. There is this process that feels like it's any time of an unexplainable trauma Or if it's somebody's free will that they're doing then there's the the question of why that is you have to unpack. And it sounds like this whole project for you was to, even though a lot of these interviews aren't in the final piece, it sounds like the fabric of that exploration of that why. And for you to come up with your own story, a narrative that you can tell yourself that helps you to resolve this kind of impossible story.

[00:27:24.034] Paisley Smith: Yeah. I mean, what my hope is with the piece is that people are able to know that, you know, if they've experienced this kind of loss, that they're not the only one. And really it's rewarding sharing it because it does open up this conversation. I think when you're vulnerable with someone, it allows them to be vulnerable. And that's, as an artist, that's my favorite part of making work is talking to people. Definitely the process of understanding suicide is like trying to figure out all these little puzzle pieces and I definitely took that approach to trying to figure out what happened and like anytime I had a lead I felt like I was closer to discovering it and it was like sometimes I would look for someone who knew him or a counselor from a school who might have spoken with him and like would find these little clues and get closer to figuring it out but then there was never that resolution. And so I guess when I share it with people, it's hard to explain what it's about. And so I guess when people see it, and if they do relate to it, they can understand that process of trying to collect the pieces of your life and how to make sense of them. But yeah, I think it is a pretty universal experience of just trying to understand. Yeah, I guess my hope is that people who are in high school are able to see the project, or people who have experienced suicide or loss in this way. you know, open up conversation and make it more possible to talk about mental health issues or struggles, I guess you should say, or mental health in general, just whatever you may be going through and open up conversations around it with people around you. Yeah, and I'd love for this also to start a discussion about the international student experience and it's a major industry in Canada and a lot of these young people are at risk and the age of people coming to Canada is lower and lower every year. because there's more and more incentives for international students to get high school and elementary school completed in Canada. For example, if you graduate from a British Columbian high school, you don't have to pay international fees when you go to university in Canada. So there are these little things that are incentives for people from all around the world to come and study here. And so we just need to be aware of what people around us are struggling in, like this experience talks about, like even people in your family who you think you know so well have personal things that they're dealing with that you might not know about. I assumed the way Tara was acting was because he was a teenager, but I never pursued it further when he was alive. And I wish I had asked more questions or been more honest about how much I cared about him too.

[00:30:12.166] Kent Bye: Yeah and the thing that it reminds me of is this process of grief that is non-linear, it's chaotic, it comes in waves and when I first went through the first suicide as an adult and was going to a survivors of suicide support group and it actually was really helpful to get a lot of the basic facts and knowledge and with the experiences of what being initiated into this club that no one wants to be initiated into what that is all about. But then later going to a survivors of suicide like support group later, it felt like people that were there would go into the narrative of their story and kind of like recount the very fixed story that they have of it from a way that was very almost like emotionally distant. it kind of felt like if we were to go back to this we would almost like hear the same stories like over and over again and what I got from watching this experience is that you know what VR as a medium could afford is something that's a little bit more of a mythopoetic translation of the experience that as you watch it it's sparse enough visually that you can project yourself into it and allow your own experiences to come forth. That's what I found with the experience was that there's enough spaciousness in it and the tone and the color and just the whole spatial experience of it that was allowing me a context to really get into this grieving place. And so it feels like pointing towards these new grieving rituals that we can have that really allow us to get to that place of emotional vulnerability and emotional catharsis that maybe even funerals that we go to have a fixed script and narrative in how much space is really there to allow yourself to fully feel the emotions of the experience. And I think that as a culture, our rituals that we have are kind of stale in the sense that they're not really tuned or optimized to have that emotional catharsis. That was my experience is like this direct visceral emotional catharsis of my own experiences and just seeing this future where we could start to have a variety of these different grief rituals.

[00:32:25.955] Paisley Smith: You know, when I was doing the research, one of the articles I came across was the story of a man in Japan who started communicating with his deceased relatives through a telephone. Did you hear about that?

[00:32:38.238] Kent Bye: Yeah, I've heard the story, yeah.

[00:32:39.219] Paisley Smith: I just found that so moving, and it really, for me, resonated, because the ability to talk to someone who's not with you, but also have that space for emotion that's very private in a phone booth, And I kind of felt like that's kind of what happens in the VR experience, you know?

[00:32:56.645] Kent Bye: Yeah, just if you're not familiar with the story, it's like this telephone booth out in the middle of somewhere, but families go there as a unit and just have conversations with people who have passed. And they kind of make up a conversation, but it allows them to kind of share the mundane things in your life that you would share in a telephone call. And it gets them into this place where they can actually have that grieving.

[00:33:26.643] Paisley Smith: Yeah, I mean it's so it's so sweet because the idea of having just like a casual conversation is something that you crave, right? You miss those moments. And so I love the idea that it could open up people who aren't necessarily able to get to the place of like really deep grief can still have a light-hearted conversation with a loved one who's not with us. So I loved that, but yeah, I saw kind of a connection between that experience and VR. Like, at the end of the day, you're in this virtual world, and it can be rich and beautiful and playful and fun and delightful, or you can learn something, and at the end of the day, you're alone. You know what I mean? Like, there's a very aloneness that I found very intense. And that was a huge thing for me, Charles' love of games. I had this whole fantasy of him having this rich, beautiful, poetic life that played out in these games. But I also imagined having so many friends and conversations. And when I looked into the games that he played, he was alone. And so I had imagined this whole thing and I'd projected that want onto him and so I actually had to really question Is it the game that's important in this story? No, that's why also I had to shift it from the game being the most important thing in the story It's not about the games. It's not about that. It's about something else. It's about It's about grief.

[00:34:48.534] Kent Bye: Yeah about your relationship to the story and your relationship to the process of trying to make sense of it all and

[00:34:55.011] Paisley Smith: Yeah, exactly. It's exactly what you're talking about. It's like latching onto this thing. I'm like, okay, this makes sense because of this. But no, it's not that thing. It's this bigger question that we're all moving through and trying to get towards. And I think the element of touch and movement through this space allows you to physically move through the grief, which I found, like you were saying, a grief ritual. Like, this actually feels like that for me. Like, okay, it's this space in this virtual world where I am creating a memory of this experience. And in there, I can move through it. And I can interact with it in a very tactile way. But also, I can get out of it. And for me, that was necessary, to know that that grief is there. And if I ever need to process or move through it, it's there. It's like this memory box. But I can also get out of it. put it away, which, honestly, we have to learn to do, ultimately, if we want to carry on our lives.

[00:35:52.609] Kent Bye: What has been your parents' response to the piece?

[00:35:55.930] Paisley Smith: My parents both were really moved by it. I showed it to them privately at the National Film Board offices, and it was really, yeah, I really, I mean, I really wanted to make sure that they felt like I wasn't exposing more than has already been exposed. It's such a personal story and it's so intense. They already felt so much guilt and shame that they weren't able to be successful in raising Taro. His parents had so much faith in our family and we all felt like failures, that we'd failed them. And so sharing it with them was really intense. And actually my mom, I just, when I went over there just now, my mom's here. So she just said she watched it again and she was like, Paisley, it's so... She just said it's really moving. It's not like it gets easier. Every time I see someone I know go through it, I have to have a little private cry. I showed it to one of my best friends who knew Taro. She saw the piece two weeks ago. It's rare nowadays that I meet people who knew him. So it was really profound and she knew the fun part of him. He's such a cute kid and we had lots of good times. So it brings all that up when I see someone go through the experience. It's intense.

[00:37:30.443] Kent Bye: I know that from my own experience of creating these kind of grief rituals, I've found that when I wanted to really get in touch, sometimes if I would either listen to a specific song or go into a virtual experience, that I could tap into those emotions if I really wanted to go deeper with them. I'm just curious from your own process after going through this long journey of creating it, if you found yourself being able to kind of revisit it and take it in and I see grief as this process, as you do this kind of emotional catharsis, and I feel like actually in the process of me creating my piece, I know that it was actually done as a part of the Oculus Mobile Game Jam, so there was a deadline. that I had to hit in order to put it out there. But there was some intense nights where it was moments of intense catharsis and grief through the process of working with the art and having it reflect back. And I felt like through the process of that, I was able to move through a lot of unstuck or unprocessed emotion. But I still found myself sometimes wanting to go back and really tune in and feel it again. I'm just curious to hear your own process with creating this piece of art that could be considered a grief ritual and how you've experienced it over time now?

[00:38:42.490] Paisley Smith: It's a really interesting question. I kind of, in some ways, envy the idea of doing it within a certain time period, because then there's the structure of making it and having it, the ability to move forward. So you can actually look at it and be like, OK, well, I know that I made it within a certain amount of time, so I can actually move forward and know that I tried my best during this time frame. It was a blessing and a curse to work with this project with so much creative freedom. The National Film Board is known for only releasing projects when they're telling the story in the best way possible. That really meant that I couldn't just put something quickly out, and I wanted to desperately. There's so many times I was like, I think this is it. I think it's going to be this one. It's done. And then it would be like, nope, try again. And that really was hard. It also makes it so that like the final version of it could always shift. You could always tweak it or not always. Now it's obviously completed and it's showing and it's in its final stage. But during the process of development, it was just really challenging. personally to know that it was open-ended and I really had to look at myself and face the stuff I was trying to avoid desperately like the dark stuff and the truth. I will personally like especially in my creative process like pretty much do anything to avoid having to tell the truth. And at a certain point, there comes a time when you have to. And if you're going to make the work that is truthful, you have to do it. But I will dance around it and around it and around it and around it until I can't anymore. And that's what we have here. It's like the final truthiest truth.

[00:40:31.239] Kent Bye: Well, I'm curious to hear your thoughts about virtual reality experiences and death and the cultural perceptions and cultural norms and taboos around death and how you see virtual reality could either change the conversation around death or help move it or change it forward as you've created this piece that is exploring it. And based upon the different reactions you've seen, I'm just curious to hear where you see this could go in terms of the conversation around death and facing our own mortality.

[00:41:01.042] Paisley Smith: Well, you know, as makers of work that is an emerging tech, we have a tendency to believe that it will always be there. And that I always think, oh, I'll be able to go into homestay whenever I want. But the truth is that the technology is changing so rapidly that even the tech might not be accessible. So in some ways, it is more theoretical than you even think now. So for example, projects that were made in 92, you can't necessarily just go see them. you really have to try or upkeep those projects so that you can get in them and see them.

[00:41:30.544] Kent Bye: But what I'm trying to get at is that... Even our access to these projects die.

[00:41:36.247] Paisley Smith: Yeah, you can't even, you have to come to terms with the fact that things are going to shift no matter what, even technology. And I guess like my assumption, when I first hear that question and I think about it, I'm like, well, it's so amazing that you could create these virtual spaces that honor people. And you could always go into this, like, I could always go into a room that looks like Tara's bedroom and have audio clips with all of his people talking about him and, like, I could go there and visit this memory space and it could be there forever. But ultimately, like, you almost have to, like, be comfortable with the fact that that might not be there. It's like accidentally deleting an iPhoto library or something. Like, the idea that it could all just evaporate is possible. And that process and just allowing yourself, this sounds crazy, but just being comfortable with the idea of that kind of loss of material, image, or sound, or media of any kind. We create these, in some ways, these cocoons of safety. And this is a filmmaker thing, I think. in a lot of ways like filmmaking is dealing with mortality. Like we try to show these worlds and we put ourselves on screen and in some ways it's to make sure that we're not forgotten or that we remember this time in our lives or whatever it is but ultimately it's all about the connection between death and art is like very, very close.

[00:42:57.892] Kent Bye: I was just reading Carlo Rovelli's book called The Order of Time and he's talking about time and how the Buddhist perspective around time is a lot about suffering and how a lot of these things of our grasping and holding on to things because we do want things to be permanent and it's like this sense of impermanence that is the cause of suffering. In a lot of ways, our relationship to time can be the root of a lot of suffering when we are wanting to have this permanence of not accepting that death is a part of that natural cycle, even in everything that we interact with, whether it's people or objects or whatever else. But as you were talking about that, I got this sense that Eastern philosophy and the Buddhist perspectives around impermanence and death and suffering and time, there's this interesting connection between all those.

[00:43:39.773] Paisley Smith: Yeah, so this is sort of related to what you're talking about. When I started researching the Nitobe Japanese Memorial Gardens, I befriended the chief curator there, the head gardener. His name's Ryo. And I started talking to him every day, like, you know, when I would go visit him in the garden, I would chat with him. I started to have this fantasy of like oh you know he studied Japanese garden design he must have this like deep love for it and like going to work every day because you know he goes to the same garden it's the same aesthetic it's like the seasons change but the process of planting and growing this space is the same. It doesn't change. And so I had this whole fantasy of him being like this person who was able to see the same thing and maybe put meaning into this world beyond just like a regular job. Because at the same time I had been struggling with how am I going to tell this story and facing this material that I felt like was unchanging and I couldn't get to the next step. So I was drawing connections between it. And so I went to him and I was asking like, so how do you do this? how do you come here every day and what is the experience of that like? Like, how do you make it meaningful to you or what drives you to do that? He said, well, you know, it's just a job. Like, there's no special meaning here, but it is a job. You know, at the end of the day, I go home and I see my family and that's where the meaning is. And he also said that, you know, what makes the garden special for him is when he sees someone who has a moment with a family member in the garden. who's delighted by the garden, who has a moment, a profound moment in the space. Like, he had told me that there was a mother and son who'd come there, and they had traveled just to see the garden from elsewhere in Canada. And they came right before closing, and he was able to keep the garden open for them for a little longer, and that made him feel very touched. And it made me feel better as a person. Like, there doesn't need to be, like, some profound motivation for what you're doing, necessarily. You can be comfortable with what it is.

[00:45:41.615] Kent Bye: Cool. Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality? And what do you want people to enable?

[00:45:51.100] Paisley Smith: Well, virtual reality has this amazing ability to allow you to connect to someone else's emotion or brain or see something from someone else's perspective. You can literally walk in someone else's shoes. And then you can add this layer of touch and audio and sound the imagination that you can create with this space is limitless. Like there's so much room for storytelling and ultimately for me the most important thing there is connections with other people. Like the fact that I took like a very small personal story and was able to obviously work with a team and bring it here and share it is an incredible way to connect with someone else. And you are able to talk to me about your experience. And that, for me, is the power of VR, like any other medium that resonates with an audience or with other people. I think that's my answer.

[00:46:43.267] Kent Bye: Yeah. Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the VR community?

[00:46:51.970] Paisley Smith: Well, I guess. I'd love for you guys to be open to trying projects that are personal. I think if you guys can take the risk telling your own story in this medium, and it takes a little bit of guts and a lot of persistence, but I encourage everyone who's listening to tell their story because you never know what connections are going to come from it.

[00:47:17.393] Kent Bye: Awesome. Beautiful. Well, Paisley, I just wanted to thank you for joining me today on the podcast and for creating Homestay. It's a beautiful piece and hope that everybody has a chance to see it and really experience it. So thank you.

[00:47:28.621] Paisley Smith: Thank you so much, Kent. And thank you so much for being so open with me and trying the project. It means a lot.

[00:47:36.286] Kent Bye: So that was Paisley Smith. She's the creator of Homestay, which won the Audience Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I have a body memory of this experience and it just really takes me back to my own experiences of grief and just gave me an experience that I can point to that I think is universal enough to really capture the essence of the experience of suicide, at least for me. I think it really touched into a lot of key experiences And it'll be curious for me to hear other people who maybe haven't gone through a suicide, but have gone through dealing with death or questions around death. Because I do think that what Paisley has created is this really amazing grief ritual that tells her story in a really powerful way, but also is open enough for you to participate and allow your own memories of your own experiences to be a part of the story that's emerging. And I think that's the power of spatial storytelling and virtual reality is that there's going to be symbolic ways of moving objects through space and specific ways to invoke specific emotions that are trying to get at the deeper content that's being talked about. It's kind of like in music when you hear the music and the music alone is really getting the emotion but then the lyrics on top of it just take that meaning to the next level and I feel like that's what was happening in this experience is that Paisley was talking about this experience of death and grief and just the the colors and the gray and the fall and the symbolism of the Japanese garden and actually locomoting through it All those things together were amplifying the deeper symbolic meaning of what was being talked about, but also the objects moving through space in this moment when you look down and there's just this tornado of leaves that are around you and you just feel completely out of control. And then all of the receipts flow into the box and it's like a paper trail of that person's life that you're trying to piece together. And I was just really struck how Paisley was treating this project as like this detective story where she was really trying to find these answers. And she went on such an epic journey that isn't even contained within the final experience. I was really quite surprised to hear about all of the failures that she had gone through. just how insightful that was to hear about what didn't work and there's so much about doing virtuality these days where there's going to be a lot of things that just don't work and I think that there's a lot of deep lessons to be learned from those failures of experimenting and trying to find the right tone and she was really trying to create this like video game adventure from a disconnected third person perspective and it wasn't like a fun story that was being told and so to have this kind of like fun experience just was not matching the deeper tone that she was going for and so switching over the first person narrative and then drawing the story that is symbolically linked to moving through the different places within the Japanese garden. I wasn't aware of all the things that were happening there. She's talking about the symbolism of that, but I just felt this story that was unfolding and that I could have control over the pace under which it was unfolding because I could control when I wanted to touch the leaf. If I wanted to take a pause and just take in a scene and really feel whatever I was feeling, I could do that. And I feel like the pacing of the way that she constructed the story was just a really brilliant job. And I highly recommend if at this point you're not convinced to see the experience or find a way to see it, I think you should definitely try to watch it and I think it's something that is really pushing the medium of virtual reality storytelling forward, especially when it comes to this concept of the yin archetypal journey, which is this you as an individual connected to the larger whole of what it means to be alive, to be human, and to explore these emotions of death and life. In a way that I don't think it would translate as well if you see a piece like this in 2D. I just think there's something about spatial storytelling that's allowing us the spaciousness to really be present in a place that allows us to get in touch with those deep places of grief and loss and death. and that there will be a lot of different ways that people have experienced death. And I'm personally looking forward to many of these different types of grieving rituals so that we can perhaps start to see what is connected to all of them, this process of death and endings and what it means to be alive and this feeling of impermanence. So that's why I'm curious to hear people who haven't experienced a death by suicide directly in their lives to go through this experience and to see how they can connect to it just from the deaths that they've experienced. Because I feel like part of the burden that is put on to people who experience a suicide is that people don't. often know how to react. So I'm just really grateful for Paisley for for being brave enough to be able to do this exploration and to have the support from the National Film Board for her to be able to actually find the story and for them to be so encouraging and for her to stick with it to end up where she ended up with because I think Homestay is an amazing piece of virtual reality. It's going to be one that stays with me for a really long time and really personally connected with it and I'm looking forward for more people to getting to experience it and to see how this type of experiences could start to be used in survivors of suicide support groups, but also anyone who's going through death. the holidays, both Thanksgiving and Christmas is the time of year if you have experienced a loss or death where the holiday season is kind of the season of people to start to really feel that sense of loss and grief. And so this is going to be a great experience for people to have available to have a place that they can go to really tune into their deeper emotions and There's a lot of rituals that I think are moving back to these different processes of potentially within the context of a funeral, having new ways of doing grieving rituals where it may be a more visceral embodied type of ritual that allows you to touch into those deeper aspects of your grief. And in virtual reality, I think is going to be a complement to those changing rituals that we have within the funeral industry, and that it's going to allow people to connect to these deeper aspects of the experience of grieving through death. So that's all that I have for today and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast and I just want to take that moment and to thank my members of my Patreon. I wouldn't be able to do this podcast without your support and I just really want to thank everybody who's a member of my Patreon and to encourage more people to become a member of the Patreon so I could continue to bring you this coverage and to expand the potentials of what virtuality can do as a medium. so you can become a member today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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