#1065: Translating Her Father’s Holocaust Refugee Journey into VR Memory Domes with “Komez Alef O”

Ioulia Isserlis’ Komez Alef O translates the story of her father’s refugee journey of escaping the Nazis during the Holocaust. Isserlis collaborated with her father in distilling his journey down to a dozen moments that were spatially reconstructed within VR in what she calls “memory domes” using the Unreal Engine to export high-resolution, stereoscopic video. She collaborated with her father to reconstruct these scenes in what was a really emotional journey of reckoning this intergenerational trauma of the impacts of war. Isserlis had a surreal journey making this piece, and then dealing with the unfortunate timeliness of this piece as millions of families escape Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion — including some of her own relatives. Isserlis shares with me both the emotional and technical journey in creating Komez Alef O, which had it’s World Premiere during the SXSW festival. There’s a dreamlike and etheric quality to Komez Alef O,, which takes you on a spatial journey through these moments and memories frozen in time as you listen to her father’s testimony.


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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, continuing on my coverage of some of the different experiences at South by Southwest 2022, today's episode features Ulia Serylis, who's a creative producer, director, and CEO of Another World VR, and there's a piece that she directed called Comas a Lov-O. This is a piece that's a very personal piece. It's about her father's escape from the Holocaust. She had him write out this story, focused on 12 different moments of memory snippets, and created these memory domes that are kind of like a moment in that memory, but taken through a dozen of those different memories that then creates a journey of what his experience was in the process of escaping the Nazis in the context of the Holocaust. This is a refugee story that ended up being actually very timely for her, as well, just because she's also got family in the Ukraine who are also reliving these aspects of the things that she's been covering within this immersive piece. It's got a very distinct aesthetic and style in the sense that it's done within the context of the Unreal Engine but exported out into stereoscopic 360 video. It's got a very distinct look and feel to it, as well. A little bit of a different workflow that I've seen allows it to give a little bit higher resolution of the type of immersive experiences that you would typically see within a real time experience. So we're covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Yulia happened on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:41.082] Ioulia Isserlis: Hi, I'm Yulia Serles and I am the creative producer, director and the CEO of Another World VR. We are a virtual reality company and we are already producing and developing VR content since 2016. You might know us from Cobalt VR that premiered in Venice or from Pig & Peak VR that premiered also in Venice. And we're here now at South by Southwest 2022 with the project Comets Aleph-O. which is our first non-interactive project and it's just a very personal piece that I hope you immerse yourself while being a passive spectator. The piece is about my father and his memories of the Holocaust, so he's a Holocaust survivor. And he is telling his story, so you hear him in the voiceover. And I'm the director of the piece and I visualized his memories through kind of my eyes and how I grew up with his memories because he was telling me about what happened during the war since I was very little, as I think sort of a cautionary tale also. And the visualization is obviously also a close collaboration with my dad together, so I was always asking him which objects or people he remembered in specific scenes, or which colors he remembered it, or in which color scheme are his memories. And the rest is basically like how I emotionally feel about my family's history. And it's a very personal piece that is not out there so much for entertainment but really for rather education. So I hope people that see it... My message is basically that it's a cautionary tale against war, against civilians being targeted, against people that are fleeing country and yeah.

[00:03:36.662] Kent Bye: Sorry. No, well, I mean, this is certainly, unfortunately, a very timely piece. And so, yeah, I know we chatted just briefly a little bit yesterday. Maybe you could just provide a little bit more context as to what's happening in the wide world and how you're also connected to that, because your piece here is about a refugee story. And within the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there's certainly a lot of this story that's being replicated by millions of families right now. So maybe you could just elaborate on that.

[00:04:06.638] Ioulia Isserlis: Yeah, unfortunately the story is very topical and I didn't think that it would be when we were developing it. And just a couple of days ago my grandmother and my aunt were able to flee to Poland. They were in Eastern Ukraine, so all my family that is still in Europe is in Ukraine. and my cousin and my uncle obviously stayed in Ukraine now and it was just when we arrived at the festival it was a very surreal experience to be in such an amazing and entertaining and fantastic environment while I know my family and so many more millions of people are suffering right now in Europe, in the continent that we were born in, the continent where we didn't expect that history will repeat itself again during our lifetimes. And also showing this piece is very emotional. Like yesterday there were a couple of Ukrainians came by and they actually didn't even watch the piece. We were just talking about how our family is doing and we all started crying. And it's unfortunately too topical and I really didn't want that to be. I just want it really as a cautionary tale and as a remembrance of war. However, as we know, like I'm just talking about my continent where I was born, but we know that on every continent in the world there is constantly and throughout our times there's always a war. if it was in Syria or anywhere else. And my story is very universal in that point, and I want to point out how important it is to welcome refugees. Because where I'm from, Germany, we live in Germany since 1998. Since 2015, the Nazi party, the AfD party, came to the rise and they're in the parliament for the first time since the 40s. There was a Nazi party in the parliament, and they got into the parliament because of the strong anti-refugee sentiment. And my story is there to tell how incredibly important it is to take in people that it was not their will or choice to flee their country. They didn't have any other choice or they would be killed. They have to leave their homes behind, they have to leave their family behind. They are going to be separated while fleeing and they just need a home and we just need to help everybody who has to face the most horrendous events that you wouldn't wish for anybody. That's basically my story here, and I told the story out of my personal family history. And what is also, I think, an important point of Comet Salafo, that my father and his mother and his grandfather, that they could flee to a Muslim country back in Uzbekistan. while other countries in Europe were not taking in Jewish refugees. And the country that took them in is a Muslim country. And they found their home and they were... Obviously, it was very hard times with malaria, with sleeping without any water, running water, heat or anything, but they had a home to survive the war. They were far from the front line. And I wanted to tell the story because I think like also this stories of the Holocaust are not really seen and it's a positive story of finding a home and finding refuge in times of war.

[00:07:17.488] Kent Bye: Yeah, wow. I just kind of take a brief breath. Well, before we start to dive into your piece, I wanted to just get a bit more context as to you and your background and your journey into VR.

[00:07:32.922] Ioulia Isserlis: I'm actually from a film background and I studied film. Also, before diving into VR, I did a lot like everything, like post-production, from things like cutting trailers for Spongebob and Viacom to like really indie productions where I was writing shorts or producing shorts. And in 2015, me and my partner, Max Zacker, for the first time we tried out VR and back then there was a negative experience because we all know the roller coaster experiences, the very first ones where everybody, I'm sorry to say, that had to puke. However, we saw what amazing potential and what an amazing medium it is, and we just basically stopped everything that we were doing, completely left film, and started 2016. We both founded Another World VR. We were also a little bit of morons when it comes to that, because we didn't really understand gaming back in the day, or how to produce VR content. We founded a company without knowing a single programmer, so that was a joyride, obviously. A couple of months later, what? programming However, we learned quickly, but we only learned together with our team and our team right now there are nine people in Berlin and we are all together since 2017 and we all produce and make every project together and we grew because of our team and It's kind of like what we exchanged as us to Max is also filmmaker became half gamers and our team became like kind of like also film cinematic people and it's just

[00:09:11.637] Kent Bye: Yeah. So was one of your pieces at Venice in 2019, was it like a horror genre that was like you go into a room and you're, it's like an escape room, but there's like a horror narrative that's on top of it?

[00:09:21.927] Ioulia Isserlis: Yes, that was Pig and Peak. I directed it. It's a game. It's an escape room game. And we actually produced a multiplayer for it that was supposed to premiere here in South by two years ago, but we all know that everything was canceled because it was just a time when Corona started. But yeah, the pieces that are out there are very dark. It's horror entertainment pieces without a social message. Because we also just... I am myself a very passionate gamer. Before VR I'm just any kind of PlayStation. I love Assassin's Creed except of the new one Valhalla. I love Last of Us and I'm a very addictive gamer and for us also just creating games. is just very much fun and we love doing that. Obviously for VR it's yet a little more intense and a little more difficult as we all know when we're developers that the Unreal Engine or if you work in Unity that there are always some bugs that you have to for a week detect where it comes from. because it's still in VR production. There are a lot of things that are not documented and you have to find out yourself where the bug is. However, we just also very much love to create gaming content.

[00:10:31.749] Kent Bye: Okay, that makes sense because it sounds like you started in film, you went and started making interactive pieces and learning the game engine, Unreal Engine, and so this piece I think is unique in the sense that the aesthetic of it, like I asked you if it was in Cinema 4D and you said no, you've actually built out all these scenes and put it into Unreal Engine and had a little bit more of like baked lighting in a way that has a little bit more higher fidelity resolution that you would see in a real-time Unreal Engine game because just the performance is not there yet so maybe just talk about your workflow and producing this piece because I think that's a distinct part of it is the little slightly less than photorealistic it could still kind of tell it was a game engine but it's still like looked distinctly different than what you would get from a real-time experience.

[00:11:12.729] Ioulia Isserlis: Definitely, and I really didn't want it to look realistic. I wanted it to look stylized as those are memories of somebody else, although it's my dad, but it's still somebody else. So I wanted everybody to see also in its style and its artistic style that it's reimagined. And our workflow was that me and my 3D team, and I have really the amazing opportunity to work with people that I worked for years before, that they know what I mean, we work together without any miscommunication, so it was basically first It was creating the 3D models that we needed, so creating the characters from scratch, like, for instance, the textures of our characters that are these moving textures that were done by hand, by pencil, that are constantly moving, and then, obviously, the 3D models of the environments that were created first. And then we were, me and my lead VR artist on this project, Jasper, we were experimenting a lot, because I had a certain idea of how I want it to look like, but we just experimented a lot with kind of style, with kind of colors, fog, particle systems we're gonna go with. And actually we had a completely different version of the project in summer and I decided to completely rework it because I was not happy with its message and how it felt because it felt very distant. And the work that I did beforehand was very distant and I was not really immersing or letting myself immerse in this topic and kind of like protecting myself from it, which is stupid, because I wanted to make this project. However, we completely threw it away and we did a new version of it. And yeah, the workflow is basically like we always import the 3D models, like from mainly from Maya or 3ds Max. And then me and Jasper, my lead VR artist, we placed them in the environment together. And then we add the particle systems, the fogs, the lighting. A lot of it is obviously baked lighting. And to be honest, in real time, it would not work at all because the performance already, we rendered it out, but the performance was horrendous. So just the rendering of the scenes took us a week and it was constantly crashing.

[00:13:21.183] Kent Bye: So for one scene as a week?

[00:13:23.665] Ioulia Isserlis: Not one, like the whole experience together was a week because also like every and each computer was constantly crashing because they're very heavy graphically. Super, super heavy because I really wanted to have also a lot of shaders in the scenes which are super happy performance-wise. And for the characters, obviously there are animations that I played all the characters in XSense, and every animation of the characters is played by me, which was a little bit weird, because I played my father as a child, my grandmother, my grandfather. And yeah, like when we had all the elements, we were playing around and looking at them and still deciding how stylistically we're going to work with it. But sometimes with some scenes that are super heavy, for instance, that train scene, when you're on the train and you see you're in a train wagon and you see outside and everything is red because everything is burning. We couldn't even preview it before rendering it out because it was so heavy. So we had to render it out a couple of times to be even able to preview it beforehand.

[00:14:22.648] Kent Bye: So are you able to export a single scene into a 360 video and then compile everything into like Adobe Premiere?

[00:14:30.590] Ioulia Isserlis: Exactly, exactly. So we were exporting PNG sequences and then I import the PNG sequences in the Premiere and then I put it all together. And then basically when we have the timing, Takuero, my wonderful sound designer and composer, he then has, and sometimes he had to work under horrendous conditions because for instance, like some scenes, I still had to cut a little bit or make them longer, and he had to immediately, like in a day or two, he had to adapt his music to it so it still fits, until very late, like he didn't know exactly how many seconds the scene is going to be. So it's basically, yeah, it's a PNG sequence that I then put into Premiere, cut a little bit around it, and then I export everything in Premiere as an MP4.

[00:15:12.772] Kent Bye: Okay, and was it monoscopic or stereoscopic? I don't remember.

[00:15:15.235] Ioulia Isserlis: Uh, stereoscopic. Okay, okay.

[00:15:17.137] Kent Bye: So yeah, so you're rendering a PNG sequence, but it's basically two PNGs or one that has the two views that then gets composited within the Adobe Premiere. So okay, so that's a different workflow that I haven't seen a lot, so I appreciate elaborating some of those technical details. I did want to talk a little bit about the other aspect of how it was almost like you're capturing a oral history from your father and then almost taking like a still life because it's like you're taking a moment that is either referenced in that interview or either waiting for that moment or they're just kind of like statically standing there. I thought that aesthetically it felt like a bit of a still life but then with some dynamic motion but you're not kind of like fully animating the whole thing but you're picking one moment that I thought was also an interesting aesthetic decision that I haven't seen a lot of. I'm curious to hear how you came to that.

[00:16:05.209] Ioulia Isserlis: It was for me like I actually got a lot of criticism when I first was showing the examples that it's not moving there's not enough action but I really really stuck to it because I wanted to create a sort of like meditative space even that you can immerse in the spaces and even just really think about what is said there, that you're not constantly turning around and there's action here, action there, and you cannot even focus on the words that I said, but I wanted the visuals to be accompanying what is said in the interview without really distracting with a constant overflow of visuals. It's 12 spaces, so it's rather meditative spaces where you immerse yourself And just also like think of your family, think of what's going on in the world. And all the scenes I call the memory domes that you enter. And I wanted them to be quieter and to be well paced, that you just immerse in them even better.

[00:17:03.220] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the experiences I had, which I was sitting in a chair that wasn't swiveling, and so I had to... There's a lot of subtitles in this piece, and I found that it was helpful. Like, I used to not watch subtitles on shows on Netflix, but sometimes, just lately, I've just been watching almost all these shows with subtitles, because I just find that if I miss something, then I can see it, and it just helps for me to read it. So, in this piece in particular, I also wanted to just read along, and so I found myself trying to find the subtitles because they were kind of moving around and so in hindsight I almost wish I was like standing up and looking around or in a swivel chair to be able to see it because it felt like you were deliberately trying to direct the gaze around and not have people just like sit there and watch it like a movie but to really look around and be immersed within the scenes.

[00:17:47.446] Ioulia Isserlis: That was definitely like we wanted to have those chairs and it was a bit of an organizational problem I have to say like also when it comes to the decoration of our booth like we still had a neon sign that didn't come on time and then we wanted to have this chairs but then like I have to say that like we came from Berlin here and we were so overwhelmed in the last couple of weeks that I even thought that it's surreal that we're gonna even go like I still until the last 48 hours before our flight I didn't know if we're even gonna go and if it's possible like it felt all surreal so when we're gonna show the piece it needs to be whether standing or in a swilly chair because I actually build it so you're not what what I don't like about a lot of VR pieces that you have to constantly sit still and just look straight which is for me actually 180 degree piece and However, I wanted to play with the space. I wanted for you to turn and discover different things at different times from different sides. But yeah, that was unfortunate in our installation here. And with the subtitles, we have a version with and without subtitles. And for me, it's very important that my dad is doing the voiceover. His English is not the best. So sometimes you might not hear his words very well, but I was absolutely against a professional speaker talking for him. And I needed his voice here, no matter if he's pronouncing the words correctly or not. Hence, we tested it on a couple of our friends and they were not quite understanding him correctly. So we thought let's just like do also a version with subtitles. However, I was completely against having somebody with great diction over his testimony. So I'm very happy that and it was actually it was difficult, like he learned English in school and he didn't believe in himself that he can even do that. And we did that for many, many days. I was just coming over and it was just me and my dad recording just half an hour each day with pauses, because it's also very strenuous for him. And then we had a lot of soundbites that we had to cut together. but I'm very happy that he did it and he was brave enough to do that. Later he was so positive which was incredibly sweet. So like when he was watching the version he was so happy first of all obviously about the work and second of all proud of himself that his English is so good. So that was very sweet.

[00:20:09.526] Kent Bye: Yeah, I really appreciated hearing his voice. I would never imagine doing anything other than that, but I appreciate the subtitles for accessibility reasons as well, and sometimes I would prefer it to be lower than higher, or sometimes it's higher is okay, but I also found myself kind of looking up more, so I don't know, I feel like This is maybe a broader discussion within the VR industry in terms of the best practices for accessibility. Like I've seen sometimes people like have the subtitles move when you move your head or they'll put them in three different places so that you can look around and always have them within your site. So just playing with the location and the placement of those I think is the one piece of feedback that I would have in terms of like making it a comfortable experience to be able to have them available but to be able to feel free to look around without having to kind of lock your head in one place to be able to catch all the what's being said.

[00:20:56.938] Ioulia Isserlis: Definitely. No, that makes sense. That definitely makes sense. And it's a little bit my fault. The subtitles were done really quite before we left for South by because I still didn't want to have subtitles in the environment. And I was strongly against it because I thought they're going to put away from the attention. And I think it's good that we did them exactly because of accessibility. But it was really done like 24, 48 hours beforehand. So we definitely going to like play around. So it's even more accessible.

[00:21:26.892] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think it's an interesting trade-off because sometimes having the words breaks immersion because you're reading and, yeah, I can definitely see, like, the tension that's there of how the story is being communicated with words, but yet you want to be immersed in these environments and kind of get lost in the environments. So it's one of those tensions of meshing these mediums together. But I did want to say that, you know, one of the other big aspects that I experienced from this was feeling like I went through a spatial journey through these different steps of the way of essentially escaping the Holocaust and getting onto a number of the last trains out of certain locations, which, you know, in my own personal family, my grandfather got onto one of the last trains out of Latvia and escaped into Germany during a Russian invasion of Latvia, actually. So, it's a part of my own history that my mom was born in a refugee camp. So seeing this piece, you know, and all the things that are happening in the world right now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, kind of step through each of those journeys and to take us through those different places and to pick those moments, I felt like it worked well as a piece to be able to really imagine these moments that just seem so Like if y'all were just to hear the story, like the moment when they're waiting for the train to stop and the train doesn't stop and they're still just waiting there. And other moments of meeting the grandfather. It felt like the story of survival through being a refugee and to really pick those moments and to take us on that spatial journey. I've heard lots of different refugee stories over the years but this is the first time I've seen from this point to this point and just these moments along the way and just really unpack that personal journey I thought worked really quite well and I'd love to hear your process of trying to figure out those places and those moments that you're really trying to highlight.

[00:23:15.070] Ioulia Isserlis: That was really a close work with my dad, because how I even started making this project is, for me, he wrote down everything that he could remember about that time, that was 50 pages. And I remember reading it first and I was just crying through all the 50 pages, and I needed a couple of hours, days to really digest what I read. And then I thought that I want to tell his story because it's a very universal refugee story in VR. And when I started this process, I was talking to him of which moments out of all of his experience are really burned into his memory. And then we were working and all the scenes that I'm showing are the ones that really never left him. And this is why it's, let's say, like 12 snippets out of five years. And I was working only with the snippets that were really following him, like this was already 70 years ago. And in some of these environments he could still remember, even the train, he could still remember the bombs and how they were lying in the field. And one of his strongest memories really constantly having his mom's body over his to protect him from the missiles that are falling from the sky and how his mom tried to constantly watch out for his psyche and was trying to tell him like those are nice flashes in the sky so he's not too afraid. However, she was still Schildjangim and those are the stories that were really ingrained in his memories and this is why I also wanted to show exactly only those. Because we are entering memories here and we know that memories are not linear, right? We always remember something, we jump to certain points. And we don't remember what happened before, we don't remember what happened after, but it's always certain snippets that we remember. And this is also in this piece, I wanted to show it and I wanted to represent how memories work. What I think how they work, obviously.

[00:25:21.455] Kent Bye: So as you were producing this piece, were you making a scene and showing it to your father? Or did you just wait to the end to show it to him?

[00:25:28.106] Ioulia Isserlis: I waited till the end. I waited till the very end. He didn't see anything in the process. I was just constantly talking to him and getting more and more and more of his feedback. And obviously he saw the script because I condensed the 50 pages into three pages of script. So we went over through the script and when we had the okay, then I was developing the visuals. However, he only saw it when it was half finished and then he had some other feedback. For instance, like of things that maybe were not that important for me, however, were obviously super important to visualize for him. So then obviously we did changes. It was beautiful experience for me for him to watch it for the first time and his reaction was actually not like I was a little afraid to show it to him because maybe I'm gonna reawake his trauma and PTSD and I was very very very afraid to show it however, he went out of an experience with a huge smile of his face because I he felt like he was in Samarkand again and he has such a love for the city that saved his life and his main scene was really the scene in Samarkand like he felt like he's just a little boy in the city again and I'm getting a little emotional right now sir and I was so positively surprised and I was very happy that that he got out of the experience on a very positive note. Sorry. Getting a little emotional here.

[00:26:58.701] Kent Bye: No, let's just let it come. That's totally fine.

[00:27:01.582] Ioulia Isserlis: Yeah, so that was very beautiful. And right now showing the piece, what I very much enjoy is talking to people about it, because we're exchanging stories, as it is a very private and personal piece. I talk to people who watch it and they share their story with me, which is absolutely amazing. And then after watching it to create this bond with everybody who watches it. It's kind of even therapeutical for myself and I hope for others. And everybody who watches it, like for now, was an amazing experience of us just then talking and talking through our family history and because everybody has a story to tell. And for me, it's amazing to hear other stories and actually how also it's a little scary to see that everybody has this trauma in the past and we're not talking about it constantly. However, it's for me even freeing that we are in this festival, in this piece. Yeah. Sorry.

[00:28:09.595] Kent Bye: Yeah. So when you said there was 12 snippets, does that mean there was 12 different scenes within this piece then?

[00:28:15.368] Ioulia Isserlis: Yes, it's 12 different environments and 12 different scenes. They are chronological, however, the time frames that we jump can be sometimes two weeks, can be three months, can be four months, or can even be two years. It's 12 scenes over the period of five years. So we just really go to the snippets that are the most important, that are really the memories that are the most important ones.

[00:28:42.532] Kent Bye: The city that your father was referencing, was that the one that had lots of blue and white colors? What is that city and what was the relevance of that?

[00:28:50.888] Ioulia Isserlis: The city is Samarkand, and he spent four years in Samarkand during the war. This is a city in Uzbekistan, and this is actually one of the most ancient Islamic cities in the world. The environment that we're showing there, that is blue, is the main square, the Rajasthan Square, which is insanely beautiful. It was just renovated, and we were actually supposed to go, and I wanted to go also with my dad together in 2020. However, we know what happened. So we just recreated it from pictures, like we built the whole square ourselves from, unfortunately, only pictures. And we're not there by ourselves. But it's this insanely beautiful city in Uzbekistan that took in a lot of Jewish refugees, also in Samarkand and in Bukhara. And I met, actually even here, I met people who said, oh my God, my grandfather was also in Samarkand during the war and also fled there. And they had in Samarkand, they also had a specific Jewish quarter where all the refugees were. And my dad is talking about the conditions there. However, like what he has is just this pure love for the city that gave him shelter. And also his grandparents, they died in Samarkand and they're buried there. And they have a very big Jewish cemetery in Samarkand. And my dad, last time he was in Samarkand was in the nineties and he was able to find their gravestones. And they were able in this city to also live as religious Jews during the war. They were able to celebrate all the festivities. He still had his payas, he still was running around as a religious Jew that he was. And they were talking in Yiddish and they were not oppressed. which is amazing and I think this is why he has such a love for the city and for us building this was obviously the most challenging environment and we needed a long time to build the whole square but it is also a testimony to the city and yeah.

[00:30:45.109] Kent Bye: So that was the city that, as I was watching it, I was like, wow, this looks like Islamic architecture, and it ended up it was, that Uzbekistan was an Islamic country. So the Jewish refugees were there, and the buildings were beautiful. I had no idea that a place like this even existed. It felt really quite magical. So I could see, after hearing a little bit more, why he was so happy to go back there again.

[00:31:07.499] Ioulia Isserlis: Absolutely, and I forgot to tell also how we see it, it's always the color blue in the city, but I work a lot with colors in the spheres. For instance, in the first spheres, the fog and the steam out of the train is red, and then later it continues, it starts to become a little greenish, and then once we arrive in Samarkand, the lighting and everything is blue, and I work there with symbolism of Jewish colors, because I wanted to make also the scene of Samarkand blue, because blue is the holiest color in Judaism, and it's the color of peace. So there is also like this gradual continuous one like you really have to watch out for the colors in the piece of red which is violence of going down to blue to very blue and then the last very last scene is also very intense blue colors and that represent peace.

[00:31:57.405] Kent Bye: Some of the other elements that were sort of mysterious in this piece, I would look up and I would see almost like a rip in the fabric of space-time, or there'd be like these little symbols, or sometimes there'd be like trains flying above, or you have flying trains. You could talk a bit about some of these more mysterious symbols that you have throughout the piece.

[00:32:14.557] Ioulia Isserlis: So the trains, I would start with the trains, because with the trains driving above you in a lot of spheres was a symbolism for... It's actually they're driving in a spiral, that there is no beginning and no end. And this is also a little dark symbolism from my side that history is constantly repeating itself. that this train never has an ending and there are always refugees on these trains. Although my dad arrived in Samarkand, the train is still driving and it's still driving other refugees and it doesn't have an end, it doesn't have a finish line. So this is basically my symbolism for the train. And the ribbons in the sky is part of my memory domes. For me it was interesting to know, like, are there any visualizations of memory cells? And I found out that there was one research that shows or attempts to show memory cells, and there were these little ribbons too. So these ribbons, I attempted to show memory cells with them.

[00:33:14.017] Kent Bye: So it's sort of like a dreamlike scape where as you see these ribbons in the sky, it symbolically represents that you're kind of in a dreamlike memory.

[00:33:21.162] Ioulia Isserlis: Exactly, exactly. So like I work a lot with symbolism in every scene when it comes to colors, ribbons, or the train. Exactly.

[00:33:30.053] Kent Bye: I'm trying to remember if there's a scene in the forest, and then was there fog that was coming in at some point? Maybe you could explain that scene, what was happening there.

[00:33:36.957] Ioulia Isserlis: That is the second scene that we see, or my memory sphere, and it's my dad is talking about his childhood before the war, and he starts in a positive note, he remembers how they worked, the walks, and in his mind he still had the positive childhood memories before the war, and his memories were based off walks in the forest and nature and enjoying nature. However, this fear, because at the beginning it's rather light and you're in a beautiful forest environment and then becomes darker, darker, foggier and foggier, that at the very end it's very oppressive, because he then at the end talks of what happened to the city or what happened in the city that he was born. And what happened is that him, his mother and his grandparents were the only ones who managed to survive. And just a day later, his whole family was shot and murdered. And in this city, Soshtetos in Belarus, the Jews didn't even come to concentration camps. They were just shot in place. So it was a complete massacre down. So this forest represents that.

[00:34:42.301] Kent Bye: Oh, wow. Yeah, the thing that comes to mind is that there's moments like that in your piece that give me this eerie feeling. I saw your previous piece at Venice of this kind of horror genre, and I'm just curious if there's other lessons you've learned from how to evoke the sense of unsettledness within a medium, particularly horror genres trying to create this tension. I don't even know how you conceive of what the horror genre is and what that means to create that unsettledness, and what you learned from that to be able to start to apply to a scene like that or other elements that you were embedding within this piece.

[00:35:23.223] Ioulia Isserlis: I think with the horror genre we definitely what we learned through all our productions is lighting and how to create like you said also atmospheres because also in our games we don't have jump scares or we don't show any blood or gore. We really much work with creating an atmosphere and this is I think for me also one of the most interesting parts of VR that we can create immersive spaces and just work with very subtle visuals actually to create a certain atmosphere. So that definitely helped for the eerie environments. But I was not even actually thinking about it. When I created all the scenes I was just working with my emotions and I was only thinking of how can I show what I feel now. So in that case it's also a very emotional piece that I was not conceiving anything beforehand or thinking how can I guide the viewer. It was a very egotistical piece because I was really just thinking of how can I show what I feel in the models and how can I visualize what I feel basically.

[00:36:26.318] Kent Bye: Yeah, this piece in general sounds like that you're digging into a lot of these traumatic experiences of your father that's connected to you and that you said that there is a 50-page script that you read and just cried and had to just digest it for a few days and I've been involved in creating VR projects that are around an emotional experience I had and what I found was that it was this kind of surreal process of like channel switching into this really wonky technical trying to fix the bugs and just even get it to work And then there's these moments where you just kind of settle in and receive what you've created. But then you're also looking at it through the creator's eye, but also trying to really drop in and feel what's happening. And that sometimes, for me at least, I've had the process of just having these waves of emotion that comes up and really just processing those. And it sounds like this has been a very similar process for you to channel switch between the technical doing and then the emotional processing and feeling and digesting. And so I'm just curious. how that process was for you?

[00:37:27.096] Ioulia Isserlis: That was completely, that was really like splitting my brain, like it's obviously when we rendered the scenes I was only looking at them as the creator of which bugs do we have, what do we have to re-render, are the movements correct, like it's really like first when we rendered it out was all about really the developer brain. Where is the lighting bad, where is this, do the particles work correctly, are they jumpy, do I still see something glitching in the floor level? or are the characters glitching inside of the floor level. So there was all that, which actually was helpful for me because I could kind of isolate my emotions there and just focus on the work. And once we've done that, then of course I just try to really like to activate the creator's brain and just watch it with my eyes open and if the feelings that I tried to tell are coming through. and I think they very much did. However, I, to be honest, like myself, with a very finished piece, when I was done and I thought all the glitches are gone and this is good and this is my final version, afterwards I only watched it once. So I really, once it was all done and I knew that's done, I watched it once, I knew that's something that really resonates and I wanted to show exactly in that way and I didn't watch it again.

[00:38:45.059] Kent Bye: Oh wow. I understand that. Yeah, that's kind of an interesting like leap of faith in some ways of like, I guess the question I have is like, did you ever feel like you were just able to really receive the full emotional impact when you watched it?

[00:39:05.413] Ioulia Isserlis: I think I sort of did. I think for me that really the emotional impact was mostly in creating the scenes of like going deep into my emotions because obviously my personal experience was nothing in comparison to my dad's but we also were refugees like we fled Russia in 98. And I also, like, when I was 9 till I was 11, we lived in a refugee home in Saxony, in Germany. And, like, my first experiences in Germany was three weeks after we arrived and I was on my way back to the refugee home. We had to go through a wood and I was waited up by a couple of 15-year-olds who just, like, beat me to pulp and I was in hospital for a week because I was a fucking Jew. and also the question of anti-Semitism that followed me until very much the time that I finished high school and moved to Berlin. And it was kind of like really just emotions of inherited trauma in my dad, but there were also a lot of emotions of my personal journey that went into the visualization. So the actual creation was incredibly emotional for me. And my partner Max, we have the company together, but we also live together. He didn't have the easiest time, because sometimes in the evening I was just sitting on the couch and crying. And I think that was very therapeutic catharsis for me. And when we were finished, I was just very much happy that it all went out. It was rather a relief, I think. than anything else, like it was a certain catharsis for myself too.

[00:40:39.417] Kent Bye: How has it been here and being able to watch other people watch it and talk to them about it?

[00:40:45.335] Ioulia Isserlis: Absolutely, it's the most amazing and the best experience and I think it's just amazing that there is this trust that some people watch it and then tell me about their stories which is, I feel really blessed that they trust me with their emotions and to kind of like talk together about it, it's yet another catharsis and I'm incredibly grateful for it and I hope that through my piece also people are thinking about theirs and how they can overcome their trauma to us. Obviously, they're not going to overcome it by watching it, but just they're reminded and maybe on the way of how to deal with it. But I'm really, really grateful for everybody who is trusting me to tell about their stories too.

[00:41:35.619] Kent Bye: Yeah, what's next for you in this project coming out of South by Southwest then?

[00:41:40.934] Ioulia Isserlis: I hope that afterwards we can show it in more festivals around the world and I would very much hope to. I'm gonna right now talk to museums and cultural institutions or even schools to show the project there. It's obviously not a project that is going to be released on Steam or anything like that. So it's very much of a rather educational or cultural institutions project. I think the maximum that would make sense maybe on the Quest store. However, it's really like my purpose is to show it as much as I can and in museums or schools.

[00:42:15.108] Kent Bye: Yeah, this topic is something that for myself and probably a lot of people have maybe been in abstraction living here in the United States and being relatively safe, but watching it I felt like it really embedded me into that context and like actually connects to my own ancestral lineage of my own history and familial trauma in this impact of war and refugee. And like you said, it probably literally impacts everybody on the planet in some fashion from an ancestral perspective. And so, yeah, I just appreciated the ability to really personally connect to that story in my own process, but also what's happening in the world.

[00:42:50.596] Ioulia Isserlis: Absolutely. And I'm very, very, very happy that you had this reaction because that's exactly what I wanted to say. Of course, it's a very personal story. However, it's a very universal story. It's just that 75, 80%, 90% of humanity whether their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents went through it, or they're going through it just right now. And it's also kind of like freeing to talk about it for everybody to share and to talk about it, and this is, I think, uniting. And, yeah.

[00:43:25.016] Kent Bye: Finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling, and what am I able to enable?

[00:43:33.070] Ioulia Isserlis: I think what I really love about VR right now is how much different content is produced. If it's gaming, art, it's just like we don't have so much genres yet. And we just had yesterday somebody coming over our booth and not understanding why, like I thought VR is only gaming and was just really surprised that no, it can also be film or an artistic expression or an art piece. And I think that's wonderful. I think VR is still, although we are so many years in, still in the process of finding itself, and there's still a lot of experimentation going on, which is fantastic, and the experimentation is still gonna go on for a couple of years. And what I wish very much for VR, this is going to be right now very dry for better headsets. I think the only thing that is prohibiting all of us is really the tech for now, the ability of the Quest, of the mobile headsets, of not being able to play real-time higher graphics, or just buggy gear that is, I think, a big hindrance for everybody to properly express themselves. But this is also just things that are going to be solved in a matter of five to ten years. Yes.

[00:44:41.877] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:44:46.924] Ioulia Isserlis: I'm very proud to be part of the immersive community and I think like all of us are doing groundbreaking stuff and that VR is getting more and more and more popular also with the mobile headsets and we're all on the very right path and we are right now really defining a completely new medium and I think that's absolutely exciting.

[00:45:07.243] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, Julia, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast and explaining a little bit more about this project and, you know, this kind of aesthetic of memory snippets. Taking oral history and converting them into these memory snippets I think is a really powerful conceit that I hope to see more of that in the future because I think it's really a powerful use of the medium to blend that aspect of those stories and to be able to not only connect to your father's story, but also this larger universal story that unfortunately is really connected to what's happening in the world right now in a prescient way. So thanks again for making the project and being so emotionally vulnerable throughout the entire process of not only creating it, but in this interview today. So thank you so much for joining me today.

[00:45:48.657] Ioulia Isserlis: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me on the podcast. Thank you.

[00:45:52.978] Kent Bye: So that was Yulia Surilis. She's a creative producer, director, and CEO of Another World VR, and creator of the piece called Comas Olaf Ol. So a very timely piece, and just beautifully told in the way that you're transported into a series of these different memories. And just really powerful to take another approach of trying to recreate memories in collaboration with their father, to share this part of their personal history that ends up being such a universal experience that so much of our ancestors have gone through, even if it's way back that we don't even realize. But yeah, just a really powerfully told story. 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 Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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