#1064: Bringing Art History to Life in VR with “(Hi)story of a Painting” Series

(Hi)story of a Painting: The Light in the Shadow won a special jury prize at SXSW for Immersive Storytelling as it uses the medium of VR to take us back into history to explain the deeper historical context of the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, a Baroque woman artist who had to overcome a lot of limitations to do her passion of painting. I had a chance to speak to the co-creators of Quentin Darras and Gaëlle Mourre at SXSW about how they’re using the VR medium to help bring art history alive. Also be sure to see their previous Episode 1 of this series: History Of A Painting – “What’s the Point?”, which is available on the app lab.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So in today's episode, I'm going to be digging into a piece that received a special jury prize at South by Southwest for immersive storytelling called History of a Painting by Light in the Shadow. So this is a piece that digs into the history and context of a painting and just does a really nice job of using all the different affordances of taking you into a place and having lots of different theatrical stating and lighting and ways of directing your gaze around and Just a really well done example of taking you into a place and be able to share a larger context of that place. And by focusing on artists or paintings that weren't as well known as their first episode, I think you can actually see their first experience of history in the painting on the app lab. And I'll include a link down in the show notes so you can check it out. So this interview with Quentin and Gail happened on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:08.745] Quentin Darras: I'm Quentin Darras, I'm the co-creator of History of a Painting and I'm an animator by trade but on this one I had to adopt a more global role as a technical lead and yeah.

[00:01:22.988] Gaelle Mourre: And I'm Gael Moore, so co-creator with Quentin on History of a Painting. I'm a writer-director in film and immersive work, and History of a Painting is my second VR project, and the one that we're showcasing at South by this year is our second episode in the series, The Light in the Shadow.

[00:01:38.826] Kent Bye: Okay, great. And maybe you could each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.

[00:01:44.758] Quentin Darras: Well, there is not much background for me in VR, because it's still quite recent. I started two years ago. Before that, I was an animator in 3D, so it's not too far. So the jump to VR is not very great, but it still has been quite a steep learning curve. So I've been an animator for about 13 years, and I've been very new to VR.

[00:02:09.064] Gaelle Mourre: You're being very modest, though, because you worked on a commercial for Ford, was it? And you did Octonauts in 360. So you've worked in immersive before becoming a creative lead in immersive.

[00:02:21.090] Quentin Darras: That's right. That's right. I used to have a much more animator approach, but I did work in VR before. It felt very different because this time we had to think the whole process over. Having a creative role feels really different from what I did before.

[00:02:36.583] Gaelle Mourre: And so I come from, well, way back, an art history background. That's what I studied for my BA, art history and Spanish literature. And so that's sort of, in a way, what led one way or another to history of a painting. But before that, I then segued into film school, where I had a very essentially traditional film education. made some short films, worked as a branded content producer, worked as a sports broadcast editor of all things, and I don't understand sports, so that was definitely a weird job for me, before then becoming a full-time freelance creative and working in both the immersive and traditional sector. So yeah, so I work as a director and writer on multiple immersive projects at the moment,

[00:03:23.230] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could just remind me and our listeners the first episode and what you covered and then what you decided to do in the second episode.

[00:03:30.912] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, so our first episode is on Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette, or La Grande Jette, which is just a more succinct title. It's a massive pointillist masterpiece that is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. And so we chose to focus on this first painting because it is visually iconic. When we tell people about Georges Seurat and La Grande Jatte, most people are like, no, we don't know this painting. Then we show them a picture and they say, oh yes, of course we've seen this painting before. And that to us summarized what we wanted to do with History of a Painting, which was to get people to learn more about paintings that they know without actually knowing them. Then we expanded that remit with episode two, when we focused on Artemisia Gentileschi's self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, because we also wanted to explore artists who haven't quite achieved the same iconic status but actually do really deserve that status and for one reason or another didn't get that promotion in our popular culture today. So we thought let's just expand that remit and let's help shine a light on a more diverse set of iconic artists.

[00:04:44.311] Kent Bye: Yeah, and maybe we could start by describing the conceit, which was to start with the painting and then dive in to the history of that painting and go back in time and to really transport us into another time and place and to give the broader context. And so similar idea from the first episode that I saw in terms of like really trying to expand out the larger context of the time that these people were living in when they're making these paintings. And so from a spatial storytelling perspective, maybe you could talk about how VR as a medium is particularly well-suited to be able to do that.

[00:05:14.544] Quentin Darras: That's actually more question for you because Gary's a writer, but yes, this is definitely the idea that We live in a time where artists are just so iconic that they're basically gods. So what we really wanted to do is to bring us back to when they were just regular human beings and to explore their lives. And VR is great for this because it's a great tool for intimacy and exploring things to a very human level. So VR helped us to tell a story of who they were when they were humans, having real human life problems, and explore their work from that point of view.

[00:05:47.709] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah. So each painting informs the style of the episode. So our first episode replicated the pointillist style, and our second episode follows a much more realistic style. And in terms of lighting, we followed the chiaroscuro mood, which is what Artemisia Gentileschi was known for and practiced quite widely.

[00:06:07.492] Kent Bye: Can you expand on what that means?

[00:06:09.921] Gaelle Mourre: What chiaroscuro, yes of course that's a good question, so chiaroscuro is light and shadow and so there's strong contrasts in the composition, unnatural sources of light essentially, and what that does is it really focuses the eye on the subject matter. For example in the painting that we chose to focus on, a self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, It's a very, very focused portrait, so there's not much else going on, yet our character Artemisia is highlighted quite beautifully, but that also allows to make her look more real, more realistic. So she really does look like she's looking straight at us, and this is a human dressed as a saint, which is quite interesting. because she really grounded a subject that was holy, which at the time I think, I mean this is not my area of expertise, but I would imagine at the time that was actually quite a bold move.

[00:07:03.903] Kent Bye: Yeah one of the aesthetic decisions that you made in this piece that I noticed, I don't think I saw that you did in the previous piece, but the main protagonist of this piece is like fully animated and then all the other mostly men in this piece are like these cardboard cutouts that are almost like puppets in a way and so just... They are paper puppets.

[00:07:20.775] Quentin Darras: Yeah, so it was a decision that we had to take on very early because on the first episode we were a lot more technical on the topics we were talking about and on this one, because Artemisia's life was very interesting, we had to have a much more human approach. So we knew we were going to have to have Artemisia in her studio painting to really understand her life and illustrate what happened to her. It was very clear that we wanted Artemisia to be like a character that was with us, that looked like us. But the other characters, because we're not trying to pretend we're doing a drama or a movie or we're trying to depict exactly what happened, we thought that having a more artistic approach and illustration approach would kind of make that difference between are we not pretending that this is what happened for real, that this is just a representation, a metaphor. And yeah, it does happen that most of the important person in Artemisia's life were men, but this is not our intention. Her mother is also a paper puppet. It's not to make a difference between women and men.

[00:08:25.616] Gaelle Mourre: It is an engaged piece for sure, but yeah, that's not why we chose to make that differentiation. There was also a practical reason, which is we made our project on an untethered headset, and so we had to make sure that it ran smoothly on an untethered headset, so we couldn't really afford to make all our characters 3D characters, and that suited us in a way, because Artemisia is our protagonist, so we found a way to make her stand out even more.

[00:08:49.150] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could just talk a little bit about Artemisia. In some ways, she feels like a feminist ahead of her times, pushing for her own sovereignty, and maybe you could contextualize that a little bit.

[00:09:00.713] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, so actually Artemisia Gentileschi wasn't the only successful female artist of her time, but she still did remain quite exceptional, as did all the other women who were successful artists at the time were, especially seeing as this was an activity that was reserved for the daughters of painters or certainly usually women who were of a certain social status. So I just wanted to highlight the fact that Artemisia wasn't the only one, she just happens to be the one who's more talked about and who's stood the test of time slightly more than her peers. I don't know if Artemisia, if she was alive today, would she consider herself a feminist or would she just think I'm a human being. This is what I want to do. Let me get on with it. And so I don't want to project ideas into her. But it seems from what we read from extracts from her letters that she certainly just wanted to have the freedom to just get on with things and to live her life. And she certainly had a very bold character. We didn't say this in the story, but she fought off her rapist and she branded a knife. So she was definitely feisty and definitely resolute and certainly had a grasp of her value, her self-worth, which I think is incredibly important. And what we wanted to highlight was that women like that have always existed. This is not a new phenomenon. I remember talking to a girlfriend of mine quite a few years ago now, who thought, oh, well, there haven't been interesting women in the past. Men have been doing all of the interesting things, have been marking history. And that's a shame for us. And I thought, no, women have always been doing extraordinary things. We just haven't heard about it. And they've been written out of history. And so Artemisia Gentileschi has been knowing a resurgence in the past few decades. And we just wanted to contribute to that.

[00:10:53.592] Quentin Darras: if I can just add something. What is very interesting with Artemisia's case is every generation brings a new perspective on what she did and how she did it. So her work and the way we see her work is very much a reflection of where we are in terms of the conversation between men and women because when she's been rediscovered for the longest time her work was actually attributed to men because it was impossible that a woman could be that good at painting. So, more and more, because of the Me Too movement, especially, and the more generalization of the feminist vocation, now we finally see her as a feminist artist. But again, it's a projection of our generation. So, like you said, I don't think Artemisia was necessarily a feminist, she was just trying to be a painter. And we project, again, because she's a woman, she had to fight for all of these things, and so she must be a feminist icon, but I think she was beyond that.

[00:11:48.130] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could talk about your process in terms of taking her corpus of paintings and then trying to like select and highlight certain ones and unpack the themes or also the story of her life and all the different research you had to do to be able to actually write the script and pull everything together from all the scholarly research that's available.

[00:12:08.143] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, so we certainly didn't read all of the scholarly research that is available. That's a full time job and probably just get a PhD out of it. But we worked with art historians who advised us on books that we ought to read, on paintings that we ought to consider, as well as the perspective that we were taking and the way that we were explaining the historical context. And we also worked with Quentin's mother, who's an art historian and a retired teacher. And that was crucial because she allowed us to think of how we were going to thread all of these different elements of Artemisia's life into an engaging way for younger audiences. and there's a lot of information out there. We only put a small amount of what we know about Artemisia, but we had to select the top line that was going to give us a good overview of her life whilst highlighting how good an artist she was, how interesting a person she was.

[00:13:02.812] Quentin Darras: Yeah, because definitely what we wanted to do first was a story. We do feel like there is enough of very dry and compact information when it comes to the history of art. Like you said, there is so much information that it filled many, many books already and we just don't have the time to do this. So our goal was definitely to have a story that was engaging enough for people. If they want to dig deeper, they can just go and do that on their own. But at least they have a good grasp and something to start with. So the idea was definitely to have compact all this information that we know it's true because there's also a lot of information that is very hypothetical and To pack in into a story that was still easy to follow and understand and yeah Did you have more that you want to say on that?

[00:13:48.496] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, well, I guess maybe a bit of a tangent, but we chose to work with contemporary creatives. So in our first episode, we worked with Speech DeBell, who narrated the first episode. And then for this second episode, we worked with Keris Matthews. And part of that was they are both singers. And so that allowed us to add a certain lyricism to the narration. But also we wanted to work with contemporary creatives who helped us bridge the gap between today and the past, which I think allows us to actually absorb the story and the content in a new light and certainly with a different mindset because we're not taking a super academic approach and we're making that clear in every aspect of the story down to the way it's actually told and the narrator's voice and we thought that was really important to communicate the story and the ideas and the themes that relate to today.

[00:14:42.122] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess a question that comes up a lot in the context of telling an immersive story is why VR? And so I'm curious to hear your answer to what was it about this story that you felt like the medium of VR was going to tell it in a way that you couldn't quite tell it as well with another media?

[00:14:58.412] Quentin Darras: Well, like I said earlier, VR is a very immersive and then a very intimate medium. And for a story where you're supposed to follow someone, you want to see their struggles, you want to see how they reacted, having a very academic approach like a video or just a text, you put some distance with that character. With VR, because especially in our experience, you are in a house, you see her work, you see how she interacts with people, we feel it brings a different level of appreciation of what she went through and that's exactly what we wanted to say. We don't want to make just another character of history, we want to make her like a person that we could know, that we probably know and we see what she goes through and therefore we understand her on a very different level than if we just read about her.

[00:15:49.290] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, and also this was certainly very, very true for the first episode. The painting La Grande Jatte is massive. You can't appreciate that on a computer screen or a textbook. You need to see it in person. But not everyone can travel to Chicago in the best of times, and certainly not during the pandemic. And so we figured we're never going to replace seeing an artwork in person for sure, but VR is a step closer to that, which allows you to appreciate the artwork at scale, but also you can walk around it, you can change your perspective. No one's dictating to you how close you can get to the painting or, you know, which perspective you can physically take when you're contemplating it. It also allowed the viewer to create an exclusive relationship with that painting, which I think is exclusive to VR. Because when you go to a museum, unless you're incredibly lucky, there are going to be other people around you and you are going to be hearing whatever it is that's going on. So you don't have that, maybe that opportunity to just have that link with the artwork. And for Artemisia's painting, It's a smaller painting for sure, but the same ideas persist. It is important, I think, to be able to create your own relationship with an artwork. And this might not be a very popular thing to say, but what we've heard a lot, and I kind of agree, is that if you don't know anything about this painting, it's very easy to bypass it. you're not necessarily sure why it's interesting. And when you learn about it, then you get to realise, oh my goodness, OK, so this was actually a bold painting for its time. And all of the context that feeds into it makes it much more exciting. And so being immersed in that world, I think, creates more empathy and certainly more engagement for all those reasons that make this painting extraordinary.

[00:17:37.543] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's interesting to think about how culture shifts and then there's these cultural artifacts that represent those shifts and it seems like this is like maybe a symbol of one of these shifts that now that we're so far down the line of the cultural shift it's just normalized and doesn't seem like anything but you know for me when I watch this piece I'm really left with the scene when we're in the courtroom and essentially there's a man who had raped Artemisia And, you know, the process of justice at that time was to actually torture the person who was the prosecution. And so just to have that scene play out in the courtroom, and to have like a little motion graphic, symbolic representation of justice at that time, and to show how even though he lost the case, that he was able to essentially escape suffering any real consequences. I'd love to hear a little bit more about that scene in particular because it seems like there is a lot packed into even how the criminal justice system was working back at that time.

[00:18:36.359] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, we'll both have something to say about that. Yeah. Well, so essentially, torture was a lie detector at the time. So I think the way we see it today is victim blaming. And that's probably a mindset that has traveled through time. And I'm not sure if that's how they would see it at the time, because I'm pretty sure that that conversation was not being had, that there was no concept of victim blaming. And it was more just, how do we verify the truth? And it's easier to, I guess, dismantle a lie through stress than anything else. So maybe that's the process. The way we see it today is it's outrageous because the victim has already gone through a trauma and has to go through yet another one. And that's something that persists through to today, a lot of the time in assault cases. And so that was something that we felt was very resonant with today and that we wanted to be at the same time pragmatic about. We didn't want to project too much of our own modern understanding into this scene, although that is inevitable whenever you're creating something. and the fact that there are social hierarchies and there is favoritism, that's also a truth of today, that also persists through to today. And so we actually wanted to highlight these two elements to show that these are issues that have existed for a very, very long time and whilst we have made some progress, there's still work to be done because this is still an issue today in many different societies and in many different demographics and groups.

[00:20:09.486] Quentin Darras: Well, I'm going to have to paraphrase a bit, but what was very important for us was the notion of context. Obviously, something that we look at from our point of view is going to look very barbaric in the past, probably. But we also have to remember that we are part of history. The present is going to be the new history and everything. So our values are not the values. They are some values. And so we cannot just go back in past and be the judge of what is right and what is wrong. We definitely adopt that point of view that some of the things have changed, some of the things haven't. And yes, some things that we do now are barbaric from the future, maybe, probably. And at the same time we've been doing it for all the centuries. So this is something that comes back a lot in Artemisia's story. Some of the stuff that happened to her is obviously terrible. seen as horrible from our eyes but it's still happening all the time and yeah this is not a new story in many ways.

[00:21:08.582] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, when we were recording Cerys Matthews in the studio in London, it felt like good timing to be recording this story because in the UK, certainly, the controversy around the prime minister's Christmas parties during lockdown had been breaking through and under review. And we were recording this scene talking about how justice strikes differently for people. And we thought, OK, well, there we go. That's one point that illustrates this.

[00:21:36.986] Kent Bye: Yeah, it reminds me of like different philosophies of history like Hegel who saw that there are these big ideas that were competing with each other and there's like the synthesis and the antithesis and the synthesis and that over time there's this continual dialectic between these big opposing forces. And so I feel like just to kind of reflect on what you're saying, Quentin, in terms of the ways that our values have a certain normalization within our culture and we accept them and then when we look in the past that they've had values that were maybe not as evolved and that it can be seen barbaric but there's things certainly at this time that people looking back into the future we can already imagine all the many things that are going to be seen as barbaric within our culture right now. that everything's happening. So I'm curious how you see the medium of VR is particularly well suited to be able to explore these larger contexts because there's a lot of ways that I feel like there's almost like an anthropological capture of a culture at a time by both the art and all the surrounding context that maybe gets lost in other media. And so, yeah, I'm just curious how you were able to maybe leverage that as a conceit within a piece like this and what were some of the other aspects that you were trying to bring in from either an architecture or environmental design or just things that may be difficult to capture in either a video or other media.

[00:22:52.802] Quentin Darras: Well, the interesting thing about VR, it's still kind of new. So we're still kind of trying to figure out the grammar, where it's going, what we can do with VR. I feel like video is much more normalized nowadays, so we know what to expect. But with VR, it's what I like to call it the far west, because everything is technically possible, and we're still exploring what we're going to do. And that's definitely what we're trying to achieve, is people don't know what to expect. So they come in, and yeah. Yeah.

[00:23:22.455] Gaelle Mourre: I was looking for a quote by Toni Morrison, but I can't find it. But just to badly and loosely paraphrase her, it's interesting to normalize the weird and deconstruct the normal aspects of life. And I think VR allows us to do that. And particularly for our project, What we're doing is we're bringing history to the present, but also linking the present to the past, as Quentin was saying earlier. And what that allows us to do, I think, is to really, yes, think of our place in history, but perhaps also to realize that history is an active evolution and it's an active part of our heritage and there's an importance in remembering that in order to not just learn from past mistakes but also to perhaps have a little bit of humility in order to think well we are living in a great time of course but Is it particularly special or are we just living in perpetual state of evolution and this is just a natural course of life essentially? And I think maybe if we have a little bit more humility about our place in time that could perhaps open us a little bit more to having more empathy and more understanding not only for each other but also to think of how can we make sure that we are improving rather than replicating problems from the past.

[00:24:46.303] Quentin Darras: What's that? Or stagnating. I think it's very easy. I'm often wondering if every generation in human history were thinking like, oh, it's fine. We reach the maximum potential of humanity and we're never going to do anything any better. And as some people do feel today, there is always room for improvement, a lot of improvement.

[00:25:06.948] Gaelle Mourre: And also, VR allows us to displace people. So we're displaced into another world, another environment, someone else's life, and we make her real. She was a real person. We don't know her, but we have enough information on her to have an idea of what her life was like. And we certainly have written letters to have an idea of what her voice was like. And I think that's actually really interesting to see that in a world that is immersive and that we are physically in. Because I think, you know, ultimately, the more we can put ourselves in someone else's shoes or in someone else's life, then the more we can open up our minds about different perspectives. And the real question here is, how are we achieving this in VR? And as Quentin was saying, we're still figuring that out. We've found a way that, for us, works in our History of a Painting series, but as a format that is in perpetual evolution. And I'm sure we'll find better ideas as we go forward.

[00:26:08.141] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the other aspects of the medium of VR is that it is bringing more video game elements and interactivity and agency, and in this piece I wouldn't say that you have much agency in terms of how the story is unfolding, it's a really linear narrative, but there are some interactive moments where you can choose to have additional chapters that or available to give a little bit more context, but there is also a gamified element, which is to find these shiny objects that are within the scene, and so I found it interesting because I always wanted to see those extra chapters, but sometimes I wasn't always explicitly looking, and so I was trying to, at one time, follow the story, but at the same time, switch into scanning and searching the room to find the object. So there's this interesting interaction where that conceit in some ways makes me pay attention closer to the environment, but perhaps tune out a little bit to what the story is happening. And I kind of had to find, like, sometimes I would get so immersed in the story that I would forget to look around and like, oh, wow, maybe I missed something. And so, yeah, I'd love to hear a little bit more about those tradeoffs as you try to give extra information for people who want it, but also not create a situation that you're taking people out of the story that you are trying to tell.

[00:27:17.503] Quentin Darras: Yeah, that was definitely a challenge that we had to face. So the story is very linear, like you said, it's a narrative story, so we put a lot of emphasis on the text and what is said and the way it plays out. So we obviously wanted people to follow that story, but we also felt like adding extra things would also actually ground people in the narrative, not feeling like, oh, the story is playing out without them anyway. So we felt like, oh, if they can actually have a little bit of interaction with the story, it would make them more attentive and everything. The way we play with this, we call them story bonuses that you can activate sometime in the middle of the stories, is that they're not crucial to the story. They are like bit size elements. They help to understand the story if you know them, but they're not really that important. you don't have to play them right away. They're all available at the end if you want to stay in the story or you can just play them in the story if you want to see the full experience like we intended. The idea is you can have a bit of what you want and we don't want to disturb the main element. We played around more interactive elements but we felt like there is a very fine balance between narrative and video game elements because if it's too interactive you're not listening. We have a lot of information to say and so it's very easy to just lose track. So one of the elements that we also kept in mind is that people should be able to drift out a bit and then come back in the story and not be completely lost. So the story was also written so people were allowed to just explore, to hear some words and whenever they're ready they could just jump into the story and it would be fine.

[00:28:57.891] Gaelle Mourre: mentally switch back in. Yeah, because we tried this out and of course it is a dense piece, but what we also realised was, yeah, you can just get immersed in the visuals. And then when you switch back in, you can quite quickly find your step in the story without feeling like you're completely lost. And there are some films where if you switch off at any moment, then you're just completely lost. And we definitely worked to make sure that that was not going to be the case. We added also some little visual candy for viewers and they are interactive, but they don't change the narrative or anything. But we've got a little mouse, for example, who reacts to your gaze. Or in Act 2, we've got a guard who reacts to your gaze. If you look behind you, the guard goes and crosses his arms. And in Act 3, we've got flowers that bloom if you look at them. And what we wanted to play around with was not just to sort of add a playful element to the project, but to also really weave the notion of the gaze through every element of the story, because it's a gaze-activated narration. But we're also talking about the female gaze and the strength of Artemisia's gaze. And so we wanted to weave that right through to the DNA of the project and find not just narrative ways of bringing that forward, but also structural ways of bringing that forward.

[00:30:17.799] Quentin Darras: Yeah, because at its core, the gaze is how we interact with the paintings mostly, so almost exclusively. So it was always very interesting for us to explore the fact that the painting is art, but with our gaze, this is how we give it meaning. So the strength of the gaze, and this is how we interact in our piece.

[00:30:40.243] Kent Bye: Yeah, I appreciate also the little floating particle effects off of the object that you're looking for, because at the beginning you're like, these are the three objects that you're looking for, and in the middle of the piece I was like, oh no, I forget which objects I'm looking for. But if you're looking around, then you can find them. I think, is the feather, is it in the very last scene?

[00:30:59.039] Quentin Darras: It's only here for a very short amount of time, so it's very easy to miss.

[00:31:02.211] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think I missed that and I don't know if that was coming before or after the wheel because that bonus chapter sort of explained this aspect of the wheel and I don't know if it was earlier that she has holding a broken wheel but maybe you could just explain the wheel and the bonus aspect of the more context of the wheel because I felt like I saw her talking about the wheel, but I didn't understand the deeper context until I saw that bonus chapter later. And then I was like, oh, now that makes more sense. But it's almost like I would have almost preferred to see that before to have that context before I had that piece of the wheel so that it would have been more meaningful for what that meant.

[00:31:34.597] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah that's interesting because I'm just going to backtrack a little bit to give some context. So we're both French and I grew up in a Catholic family and so culturally there are some things that actually are probably more obvious to me than they are to anyone who's not sharing this same culture and that's easy to forget certainly from my part. And so, for me, yeah, the Catherine Wheel was something that we know about because they've become fireworks and they've sort of embedded themselves into popular culture and didn't really question, clearly, how that might be understood or not understood. Certainly not in a way that we felt was problematic to the understanding of the overall story.

[00:32:16.220] Kent Bye: So... Wait, just a pause. Can you explain what it is? Just because I didn't realize that this is something that's well-known in other culture and this is maybe the first time I've heard of it or I'm an accounting guarantor.

[00:32:25.827] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, absolutely. So the Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who is a saint in the Catholic Church, a contested saint, whether or not she actually existed is another question. But she was set to be tortured on this wheel. And when she touched it, it broke. And so since then, the wheel has been known as the Catherine wheel. And these have evolved into sort of spinning fireworks that we use in the UK, although the UK is not traditionally a Catholic country anymore, but yeah, it has embedded itself into the wider popular culture. And so we thought that was just an interesting element that we kind of just assumed, or didn't actually really think about, was just sort of lingering in the subconscious of our viewers. not at all expecting everyone in the world at all to get this reference but I suppose it's interesting that you picked up on it as an element that needed more clarity and we just didn't think about it really. We probably took that for granted.

[00:33:24.012] Kent Bye: Yeah, just to reflect on that is that there's a part that VR as a medium captures some of these cultural aspects where just like language oftentimes will reference things and that if you don't understand you can look it up or even memes and the meme culture. So it's just I think a part of culture where you have things and part of the anthropological or sociological capture of these things is to just capture these cultural artifacts and get those stories. But VR as a medium, you can start to embed that in. So, yeah, it's hard to know, even on my podcast, you know, what terms to define or not define. And people within the time right now understand what I'm talking about. So, yeah, it's something that I just kind of like assume that people may be able to extrapolate from a context to understand. But if there's something that's so embedded into a culture that you don't need to explain it because everybody knows what it means to Google something. But if people from the future, if the Google no longer exists, then, you know, it would be a thing that would have to be explained. So, yeah, I don't know if you wanted to add something.

[00:34:17.568] Quentin Darras: No, no, it's just to bounce on what you said, the Catherine will, it reminds me a bit of the cross for Jesus Christ. You know, if you see the cross now, you obviously think about Christianity and everything. But at first it was just a torture instrument, and it became the symbol of the cross. But obviously, tons of people died on the cross and not all become the icon they are today. So I think this is the thing with the St Catherine's wheel, which is like, when we see the wheel, we automatically associate it to the St Catherine stories, but it's not. It was just a torture instrument.

[00:34:50.635] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah, yes. I've noticed in watching VR as a medium that sometimes there's these universal symbols that are understood within culture and then these very individual symbols that maybe have to be extrapolated and explained. And so it's kind of like a dream-like quality to the medium sometimes. That I think is probably similar to other medium, but I think particularly within the VR medium sometimes we or maybe leaning into some of those symbols more to tap into the language of VR. I imagine in the future is to try to find out what those universal embodied symbols are to be able to tell the stories. And just generally, I think in terms of the different communication media, I think that theater actually is, as I can see, where there's more static scenes where people are standing there and maybe interacting a different scene and so there's less cutting and less movement and so I feel like there's a way in which as you're embedded into these scenes then are there other things you can start to lean upon in terms of these different types of symbols. But I'd be curious to hear your own reflections on having a stage in a theatrical way and how you're pulling from more theatrical conceits to be able to tell the story.

[00:35:51.662] Quentin Darras: Yeah, definitely. Theater has to be... It's interesting because obviously we both come from a cinematic background, so we all have those references. But when it comes to making a VR piece, you also have to borrow a lot from the theater because just like in the theater, you can't dictate where the viewer is going to look. So you have to make sure that everything can be understandable, even if they're looking in a completely different direction. So we also had to think about this and not... just see the things the way we wanted to see it. One of the things, just because we were talking about video games earlier and the tiny object with the particles, one of the things that we had to make sure worked is the understanding of the mechanisms. Because for us it's very obvious, we've been working on it for months and we know exactly how it works. But new people who just watch it, they don't necessarily have the same way of seeing things and approaching video games and everything. Actually, we found out that in the first episode, especially with the Sora episode, a lot of people were missing all the video games elements because they were just not seeing it the way we were seeing it. So we had to make real work to get out of our own head and be like, how someone who never tried VR is going to perceive this? And so, yeah, I think it does come back to theater in a way, like you have to make sure that the action is clear and understandable from anywhere in the room.

[00:37:13.933] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, and we were also careful to help guide the viewer's attention, so whilst there's no way that we can control where the viewer is looking, and great, because we don't want to do that, we want to provide an environment that they can explore at their own will, we did want to help orient them, because we wanted to make sure that if they wanted to know where they should be looking, then that was clear. And so we integrated a bird who's our guide and who helps guide the gaze to where the action is evolving essentially. And that's particularly true in the third act when we reveal a ceiling painting and that little bird flips up to the ceiling and helps guide your gaze up there so that you don't miss it. But another element as to why the visuals are building around the viewer and we're not expecting the viewer to walk around that much, although they can if we've got wider spaces, is we were definitely considering different levels of mobility and we wanted to make sure that that was never going to be an issue or a barrier. So if you're staying in one place, you can appreciate it almost to the same level as if you're walking around. The difference is if you're static, then of course you're not getting closer to the painting or to different elements. But by and large, you're having the same experience and you're not missing out the way that you might be if you were expected to move around.

[00:38:37.084] Quentin Darras: Just completing that, we even made sure at some key moments that the painting would come to you. So people would, like you said, limited to move, would still be able to see it closer.

[00:38:47.603] Kent Bye: So the story bonuses I thought was interesting when I found the object and looked at it and then selected it, I still remained within the context of that scene and there was almost like this tabletop platform that came up that had these little miniature characters that then played out the story in a very spatially symbolic way. But maybe you could just talk about that as a conceit to be able to have you remain within that context and then have like a little pop-up come up and then take you back into the next scene.

[00:39:14.022] Quentin Darras: Yeah, I like the fact that you said pop-up because that was definitely the idea, like you open a pop-up book and you have a tiny chapter playing in front of you. So there were things that we wanted to illustrate and they would not necessarily fit with the story, but they would also be very hard to illustrate with the style of the main piece. The idea of using puppets was great because we could definitely play on a different level and would be accepted as such so we could have very weird things popping from the air and everything and it would still kind of fit in that tiny bubble of universe bubble. It's something we had from the beginning like this story bonuses because there are things that we need to explain and they just don't fit in narrative.

[00:39:56.929] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, in our first episode on Georges Seurat, the whole episode was much more symbolic and metaphorical and we used anthropomorphic buildings and that's how we illustrated our story. So we were inspired by that mechanism in our story bonuses to create something that was slightly more metaphorical, which, yeah, as Quentin said, allowed us to explore themes that are harder to illustrate, certainly in a succinct manner. We also had in mind that this is a story with a lot of hard-hitting subjects and we didn't want to skirt or shy away from that but we also didn't want to be heavy-handed and we wanted to be very careful because VR is an incredibly immersive platform and so we didn't want to make our viewers uncomfortable or traumatize them with a difficult subject matter, at the same time we couldn't ignore it. And so we thought our story bonuses will allow us to dig a little bit deeper into these slightly harder topics, certainly for story bonus number two and three. And having these visuals that are playful allows us to strike that balance. And we were also thinking in terms of series mechanisms, perhaps this is going to be our way to explore story bonuses consistently through different episodes. And so we're building a visual language and figuring out what our repeatable elements are and what are the unique elements to each episode.

[00:41:20.069] Kent Bye: Yeah, I definitely see that this is kind of an evolution of the grammar. Like, it feels like it's aggregating all these other insights and kind of synthesizing in a way that's really quite coherent. And a quick question, on your first episode, has it been released already? Or is there a plan to kind of release it as a series? Or where can people see these?

[00:41:36.438] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, so the first episode is available up on the App Lab and it's available for free for now. It's also on Viveport and we are working on an exhibition potentially for the first episode in Taiwan but also potentially in London. We can't quite go into more detail because it's not quite locked off yet and for episode two we are in discussions for an exhibition in the UK and hopefully beyond. as well, and we'll be making announcements on that as soon as we can. But we're working hard to make that happen, and yes, it is looking like it will happen, we're just not quite at the point where we can announce it.

[00:42:11.045] Kent Bye: Okay, so it sounds like for people who do have headsets, they might be able to have access to it, and people who don't, and they just stumble upon it in a museum, it'll be potentially shown in museum contexts.

[00:42:20.788] Gaelle Mourre: Yes, so our plan is to roll it out online eventually anyway for people who have headsets but we're conscious of the fact that of course many people don't have headsets and so we're working on a tiered strategy for release both in terms of location-based exhibition but also programs with headsets and that can tour the project. So, yeah, we're working to make sure that it's as accessible as possible. And to that end, the piece that is currently on exhibition is a interactive six off, six degrees of freedom piece. But we are also exporting 360 videos, which are non-interactive. And those are going to be probably geared more towards the educational market, which allows us to reach yet more audience members and make it more accessible.

[00:43:07.752] Kent Bye: OK, great. Well, finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:43:15.519] Quentin Darras: Well, I love this because I don't want to see a limit in the ultimate potential because there is so many applications. So we're definitely exploring the educational way because we think this is a great tool for this. But as we can see, especially in a festival like this, there are an incredible amount of applications and potential everywhere.

[00:43:35.764] Gaelle Mourre: Yeah, and I think, I mean, what most people are saying about VR, I think is true, that it's an incredibly powerful empathy tool. And I think, to me, that is the most exciting part of VR. And we're still figuring out how that works, what the mechanics are around that. But there are projects that are really showing great promise around that. And I think that's incredibly exciting because what this allows us to do as storytellers is to think, I've got a story, what's the best format to tell it in? And VR just adds to that palette and gives us great freedom in order to bring a story forward into its fullest potential.

[00:44:08.943] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?

[00:44:15.350] Gaelle Mourre: perhaps to storytellers and makers who are thinking about going into VR, then absolutely dive in. Because from an outsider's perspective, it can probably seem really scary and inaccessible, but it isn't. There are so many tools that are available for free or that are very accessible, certainly, that can allow people to start exploring VR storytelling. And so there's just no better time to start than now. So yeah, absolutely just dive in.

[00:44:43.247] Quentin Darras: Yeah, just keep creating because it's still a very new media and we're still building the grammar. Another, probably a lot of potential in what we can do that we don't even know yet. Every time there are new ways to tell different stories. So yeah, keep creating, keep bringing new stuff.

[00:44:59.467] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I know last year at the South by Southwest, I really enjoyed the history of the painting episode one, and it really stuck with me. And I followed up with any of you that I intend to publish here at some point here soon. I think it's really, like I said, evolving the grammar of immersive storytelling in a way that I think is just works really quite well for this context. And so, yeah, I really appreciate the work that you're doing and look forward to future episodes. And yeah, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. Thank you very much.

[00:45:22.346] Gaelle Mourre: Thank you so much, Kent. It's been a real pleasure. Thanks.

[00:45:25.266] Kent Bye: So that was Quentin Daras, a co-creator of History of Painting, who's an animator and technical lead on the project, as well as Gail Moray, also a co-creator of the History of the Painting, and also a writer and director of immersive work and coming more from an art history background. So like I said, there should be some links in the show notes if you want to check out some of the different experiences. I'm not sure if they're going to make this one available publicly, but there is certainly episode one that's already out and available that you should definitely check out and I saw last year at Southwest Southwest. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

More from this show