#1249: Experiential Design Breakdown of “Reimagined Vol II: Mahal,” A Stylized & Mythic Story of Personal Grief

Reimagined Vol II: Mahal is the second edition of the Reimagined VR series that premiered at Tribeca Immersive 2023 (see my interview about Volume I from Venice 2022). It’s a Quill animation piece that has lots of stylized cinematography, deliberate environmental and character design, a personal story that’s very well-told through the lens of mythology. The synopsis says, “Inspired by Philippine mythology, the story focuses on Apolaki, Mayari, Tala, and Hanan, the four immortal children of the recently passed creator god, Bathala. As each of these deities wrestle with the grief of losing Bathala, their all-powerful actions create ripples throughout the universe.”

I had a chance to catch up with the co-creators of the Reimagined series Michaela Ternasky-Holland (director of Volume II) and Julie Cavaliere (producer of Volume II) to unpack the experiential design process, their shared connections of grief, and innovations in visual and spatial storytelling.

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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. It's a podcast that looks at the potentials of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my series of looking at different immersive experiences from Tribeca Immersive 2023, Today's episode is about a piece called Reimagined, Volume 2, Mahal. This is the second volume of Reimagined. I had a chance to see the first version of Nisa back at Venice of 2022, and also talk to both Michaela Tanowski-Holland and Julie Cavalier. Julie was the director there, and this time Michaela is directing this second episode, which is looking at the Philippine mythology of the gods behind the sun, the moon, and the stars. in other liminal phases of the celestial realms. This is a piece that was produced in Quill and has quite a distinct cinematic quality to it. So a lot of really innovative camera movements and moving between different scales of reality from physical reality and exploding out into another fractal dimension of the transcendent realm of the gods. and different animation style. And yeah, there's a lot of really sophisticated way that each of the characters are being developed and how the characters are being designed. And yeah, I just really enjoyed not only experience, because I think the experience is really just a well-told story, and using the affordances of the medium in a way that I think is pushing forward the grammar and language of immersive storytelling, but also a lot of the other aspects of storytelling that are being developed in the spatial context. And also the use of Quill as a storytelling medium. I'm seeing lots of different experiences at each of the different immersive festivals that have at least one or two experiences that are exploring the potentials of Quill. So I'll talk a little bit about that as well. So yeah, I really enjoyed unpacking not only the story of this experience of Reimagined Vol. 2 Mahal, but also a lot of the process and the thought, because there's a lot of deep thought that's going into these experiences from both Michaela and Julie. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Michaela and Julie happened on Monday, June 12th, 2023 at Tribeca Immersive in New York City, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:26.927] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: My name is Mikayla Chernasky-Holland. I've been on this show quite a bit. Sometimes I wear multiple hats. Right now I'm wearing my Reimagined hat, which is a co-creator of a VR animated series, but in virtual reality. I'm also well known as an impact producer. I've done a lot of work in the realm of social impact and nonfiction storytelling in VR since 2016. So I'm really excited because this is my first foray into narrative with Reimagined series and with Julie Cavalier. And we are here today to talk about Volume 2 Mahal, which is the volume of Reimagined that I directed.

[00:02:57.755] Julie Cavaliere: Hey, my name is Julie Cavalier. I am the co-creator of the Reimagined series and the producer of Volume 2 Mahal. And the Reimagined series is actually my first foray into VR. And before that, my background is in traditional film, TV, theater, narrative podcasts. And I am traditionally more of a writer, director, creative and strategic producer and actor.

[00:03:24.523] Kent Bye: Maybe you can each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into the space of immersive storytelling.

[00:03:30.406] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Sure. I started with virtual reality in 2016 because I was obsessed with immersive interactive stories. And that obsession came from my background in journalism. I really wanted to tell journalism that was more ethical, that was more equitable. And I really felt by giving the audience agency to explore a story or see the story from a 360 perspective that we could make journalism feel more human. And that obsession came from my background studying journalism but also being a dancer and performer on Disney Cruise Line and Disneyland and SeaWorld and Legoland. I often say that I had an experiential degree outside of my university degree.

[00:04:04.638] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah, so Tribeca is a bit of a full circle moment for me because my first foray into VR at all was in 2019 at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was here with the film producer. We were seeing films that I had some time to kill and I wandered into the immersive section. And I was really blown away, and it reminded me quite a bit of Theatre in the Round. Yeah, and then I started to percolate on all of these different ideas as a different engine for storytelling. And then that's when I started asking around for people who might know more than I do in VR, and I was introduced to Michaela. And yeah, and then we hit it off, and we formed this partnership, and what you now know as the Reimagined series.

[00:04:45.293] Kent Bye: Yeah, so I first encountered the Reimagined series at Venice in 2022, where we had a chance to talk about and unpack Nisa, the Volume 1. Now we're with Volume 2 with Mahal. And maybe before we start to dive in, you could give a broader context to this Reimagined series.

[00:05:00.068] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah, so as Michaela mentioned, it's a VR animated anthology series. And basically what we're doing is finding lesser known folk tales, mythologies, fables from around the world, and we're reimagining them through a gender inclusive lens. So as you mentioned, Reimagined Vol. 1 Nisa premiered in 2022 at the Venice International Film Festival. And now we're here with Reimagined Vol. 2 Mahal.

[00:05:26.876] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: I think one thing to add is that this experience is all built in a platform called Quill by Smoothstep, which is almost like we're going back in time to the Disney days where animators would sit and hand paint every single environment, every single model of character, and then hand animate every single character. And that's exactly what we're doing, but just using virtual reality 3D hand painting, 3D modeling. And it's really beautiful and magical because it means that we get to work with different artists and different art styles for every single volume, as well as different directors and different scripts.

[00:05:56.752] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love to hear where you began with this piece. I know the last time we talked about Nisa, there was a lot of the script writing, and in this piece, there's a lot of very cinematic shots that feel like that this was well storyboarded or at least very finely directed for what you were going for, because there's a lot of compositionally distinct shots and a lot of cinematic innovations in terms of how you were moving the camera around and the way that this story was told. It felt like a moving comic book in a lot of ways. So I'd love to hear where you began with architecting both the story and how it was going to be shot.

[00:06:28.749] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: That's a great question, Kent. I mean, architecting the story was a journey. And Julia, I'm sure, can attest to this just as much as I can. I always knew I wanted to do Philippine mythology. And I always knew I wanted to focus on the characters, Batala, Apalaki, Mayari, Tala, and Hanan. And these are all characters in the Tagalog pantheon. that are more anthropomorphic, so they're more like human-like. And Bathala is the father, and then the other deities I listed are his kids, which is very similar to like a Zeus, Apollo, Artemis kind of dynamic amongst characters. And when I first started talking about the story, I knew we were going to use all the affordances of VR. I knew we were going to use scale with the deities. I knew we were going to use really epic camera movements. zooming in and out of the mortal realm. I used to call it sort of like the Rainbow Bridge aesthetic from Thor when he gets teleported down to Earth and teleported back up to his homeland in Asgard and so really using this idea of fantasy mythology to really think about the style and aesthetic of the story but really struggled with the theme of the story for a really long time. When we first started out we were gonna make a story of compromise between the Sun God and the Moon Goddess as a sort of all for the throne kind of aesthetic. And as we were working with Ryan and Goro at Meta, they were like, you know, this can be deeper. This can be clearer. This can be more emotionally centered. And it really forced me to go inside myself and be like, I guess we're going to kill off Batala and we're going to make this a story of grief. And that's interesting enough. It's actually really specific to my personal story of losing my father and even Julie's story of losing her own father. So we're both sort of like going into this with these personal ideas of grief, and I think that really helped us build these characters together to really find their essences of what they represent, whether it's anger or resentment or people-pleasing or trying to find normalcy by forcing everybody else to act normal, right? All these things that we see that happens in a family dynamic or happens in a singular dynamic in one person around grief.

[00:08:22.011] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah, absolutely. So as Michaela said, it was a journey. But I mean, I feel like each volume has been its own journey in discovering actually who these characters are and what their arc is. And a lot of conversations that Michaela and I were having about this volume specifically is, OK, it's an ensemble piece, which as a short is quite difficult to pull off, to give each one their own due. So we were talking quite a bit about what each character wants versus what they need in this and what their conflict is and so that was kind of written at the top of each page like for outline again and again. That was something that was done with each rewrite of Nisa as well like I literally had to scribble it on top and I think what that did For me, and I suspect for you, Michaela, but you'll speak to it directly, is it forced us to really hone in on this character, even though it's a short, these characters as three-dimensional people. And then I think a camera style came from that. And that's always been the goal for Michaela and I with the series, is to kind of apply these theatrical, we both have a background in the theatre, and cinematic techniques and bring them into the story. But the way we've developed each individual volume's character has come from the characters themselves and what they want, what they need, and what that camera represents.

[00:09:43.339] Kent Bye: Yeah, I wanted to first focus in on this theme of grief because I feel like there's some really powerful what I would say like almost like a grief ritual as I'm watching it because you have the family coming together, you have their tears are swirling around them. And I wanted to go back to you said that you're basing this upon the Philippine mythology. So isn't the original myths with Baha'u'llah, has he died? Or is this something that you adapted in order to fit the story to be more resonant with your own personal story?

[00:10:13.292] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, it's really curious. There's many different versions of the story, as there is in all mythology, but the version that we honed in on was where Bathala does actually leave his children, his legacy, and says, I'm moving on, retiring, leaving. There's not really a specific through point of that. And there's many stories of Bathala fighting. There's many stories of Bathala, like, defending the world. And so we conglomerated those into our piece, where it was, He actually decided to give himself up to protect the world and leave his children behind. And in the original mythology, that led to an all-out war between Apollochi and Mayadi, where they were fighting over domain of the sky. And in the original mythology, Apollochi actually is the one that removes Mayadi's eye through their fighting and felt so terrible for hurting his sister. that he said we can share this we can share domain of the sky and of course that's why his eyes glow brightly with his two eyes he has the sun and her moon doesn't glow as brightly because she has one eye which is the moon and then there's another version of the story too where Thala the goddess of the stars gives her stars to Mayadi and Apalaki gets so jealous that an eclipse happens when Apollochi is trying to steal Thala's stars. And so there's all these like nuances of it that we played with, but at the end of the day we really reimagined it just like we did with Nisa. We really reimagined what this story could be for a more contemporary audience. And that theme of grief, you know, writing it through, like you said, the ritual of grief, but also the isolation of grief. We really start with isolation at the top of the piece and these characters are each kind of moving through their grief in a very individualism kind of way, which you sometimes have to do. But unfortunately, that affects people around you. And for these gods and goddesses, it affects the mortal realm that their father left behind. And then that guides them and leads them to have these huge climactic moments that are really epic in VR until they finally find their resolve in that acceptance. But just like, you know, I've been hearing a lot of people tell me grief is like a stone. It never really goes away. And I feel that deeply. Right. The stone just might get smaller with time or smaller with help or support. And that's really, the project is about being seen by your chosen family.

[00:12:20.667] Kent Bye: Yeah, I thought it was very emotionally moving both times I watched it. I feel like knowing that there was a little bit of your own personal story and there's a dedication to your father at the end who died at a very young age. And so, yeah, curious to hear any elaboration from each of you of how your personal stories were woven into this piece.

[00:12:39.973] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, so like Kent said, my father died in a car accident when he was very young and I was very young. You know, it's funny because my mother watched the piece and I'm the oldest of six kids and my mother immediately tried to project what she thought each of those deities represented into my siblings, right? She was like, oh, that one looks like Jared and that one seems like Zach, but it's more like Austria and like immediately put her framework on it, which I was very grateful for. But after she told me her expose, she was like, well, what do you think? How did you make these characters? I said, they're all embodiments of me, you know, like We have Abalaki trying to act normal and trying to be normal, even though he's suffering from depression and grief. We've got Mayari with all this pain and anger and resentment and abandonment. So she feels like she has to be the strongest and the toughest and fight her way through everything, which I was very much a scrappy little fighter all through growing up. And then you have Tala with her workaholism and her creative isolation and feeling like everybody's forgotten her father. I felt that way growing up after my mom married my stepfather, having five other children with another person. I really felt like everyone forgot my father and I had to keep a piece of him to myself and I had to be the one to give him my own memories as a way to keep him alive in myself and Tala's our character struggling with that and then of course there's Hanan who's like people-pleasing she's like I'm fine my emotions are fine and I'm just gonna make sure everybody else around me is okay. And believe it or not, I really felt like I had to do that for my mom growing up, because after the loss of my father, I think she was emotionally traumatized and emotionally just very paralyzed. And so growing up, I really felt like I always have to take care of my mother, and then by extension of my mother, my younger siblings, who are also looking for a mother figure. And so each of these siblings are really the embodiment of me and the forms of grief I've dealt with growing up.

[00:14:23.099] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah and unfortunately Michaela and I are part of this like grief club. I lost my father very suddenly at the age of 15 and so from the beginning when we were discussing these characters and Michaela was writing early drafts I related to this idea of everybody sort of embodying a different coping mechanism for grief. And I've always been of the mindset that grief is unexpressed love, really, that you carry with you. So it was really important. As we were doing drafts and Michaela was talking to me about what she wanted from these characters, I think one thing that was important for both of us is that there's no villain here. Everybody is just trying to figure it out and there is love underneath it. It's just getting to that place of acceptance is a journey. And it is quite a bit of a wave, you know, and as Michaela said, it's a stone. You have it always, but it grows and evolves. And I think that there are these beautiful moments of that in the piece that you realize that actually it is unexpressed love, it is a unifier, and allows you to connect with other people who are going through the same thing. So that was always something I connected with very strongly. And then, yes, the idea that you're constantly taking on these other things in order to process this extremely complicated thing that isn't really spoken about that much. You know, I think sometimes it's just such a deeply ingrained part of life that I think people have a hard time truly tapping into it in an honest way because it is so traumatizing and scary.

[00:16:02.233] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: And that's actually where the title of the piece comes from. Mahal means love in Tagalog, but it also means expensive. Like, usually when you're looking at a shirt and it's like, oh, mahal, like it's so expensive. But for me, the idea of mahal being love and mahal being expensive is love comes at a cost, you know? You don't grieve somebody just like what Julie was saying if you didn't love them. And so this double entendre we're playing with with the title is really that unexpressed love that all these siblings have, not just for their father, but also, I think, for each other. But they're doing their best figure out how they express their love in this new era of grief that they're existing in, when we find them in the story.

[00:16:39.659] Julie Cavaliere: It's very much a new normal that they're finding. And I think it was a similar thing with Nisa, that the end of the piece is Nisa's beginning. And I very much felt that way with Mahal, that the end of this piece is the beginning of their new life together.

[00:16:56.372] Kent Bye: Yeah it's a really beautiful piece and quite moving like I said because you're going into this transcendent realm of the realm of the gods and you're also making this metaphor of the constellations in the sky and so there's this duality between the mortal realm and this immortal realm but also the ways in which as people die they go into this other place potentially we don't actually really know what happens but you have this in some ways a reunion moment that I thought was really quite beautiful in this piece but I think anytime that you're putting so much of yourself into a piece, I've found just from creating my own VR pieces, exploring aspects of grief, that there's so much technical stuff that you have to even get through, that you have to jump through all these hoops and quill and unity, all this stuff that you have to bend together. But then I've found that there's moments where you can actually just be able to just see it and witness it all come together. So I'm just wondering, because it's such a personal piece of grief and emotional catharsis, I'm wondering if you had that moment where you're able to just really sink in and receive the story and all the ways that it connects to your own personal story.

[00:17:58.614] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, I think that moment for me was like early on in Rough Assembly when we finally started to see the characters come together. It was like post Vertical Slice, which is Vertical Slice is when we do a scene that's fully rendered to the point of animations, VFX, all of that. There was moments I had in Vertical Slice, but the true moment I had I think was mid-Rough Assembly when you could really see the characters really start to come to life and And at that point, we were really just polishing some VFX, polishing some animation. But at that point, score was coming in, sound design was coming in. And I had that moment, exactly what you were talking about, Kent, at the end, where there is that cathartic moment in the constellation in the sky, which is the moment we leave the audience, where I started crying. And it was so beautiful just to see that constellation. And I actually had feedback that it was like, oh, I think this constellation in the sky moment at the end of the piece is going to be cheesy, and it's going to be cheapening the product. And then, and then. And then there was this moment I was like well why don't we play with the constellation instead of it being all the kids at the very end in this very still moment what if the kids one by one animate into that pose that we created and that was the piece we were missing just the moment of seeing all those separate characters coming together as a whole coming together as a full unit in this, like you said, abstract, constellation-esque, god-like way from a Mortal Realm perspective. And that was the moment I think I definitely cried. Or like, mid-Rough Assembly.

[00:19:20.384] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah, you know, it's funny. You're so deep in this process, right? You know, and for Michaela and I both being creators and then switching off director, right? And then there was an overlap between Nisa and Mahal, and so we were just like going a hundred miles an hour. you know, tapping out the story and all of these things, and then you're seeing little flickers of something. You're like, oh, this is good. I don't know if this is it, but we're going to keep going. We're going to keep going. And then when we got to Vertical Slice, which Michaela described, I remember looking at it, and once that camera was solidified and smooth and we really just had those images in, It was the first time I think I was like, there's something here, like we're on the right track. And then as Mikhail is mentioning, probably midway through Rough Assembly, once we had the full models of the characters in, we had this rough kind of blocking, even with the temp score, just watching the pacing of the story and tapping out and even like the rough animation at the very end. that end sequence certainly nails it for me. But I remember there were just moments where I think out loud when I was watching it with you, Michaela, I was like, yes, yes, yes. And then I took off the headset at the end and it was like, there's a story here. Like, we're onto something.

[00:20:39.172] Kent Bye: Yeah. Well, let's go back to the architecture of the piece because, you know, we talked a little bit about the writing and for Nisa, it was much more like write the script and then produce it. But was there more of an iterative process in this? Because there is so much of the spatial dimensions. If you had to work out whether or not some of these transitions would even technically work, but love to hear if you had done this back and forth between the spatial design and the writing process.

[00:21:01.157] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: So actually the writing process was going through its own iterations and then I was working with our lead animator and incredible camera expert Lucas Smarker who works with Studio Syro a lot on their pieces and I would just give him little tasks. I'd be like, Lucas, make the camera feel like a shooting star. Lucas, make the camera feel like it's flying, and in a way that doesn't make you sick. And I was really just building a template, a texture. I said, Lucas, I want to see what whip pans look like in VR. And he would just go, as we were iterating on the script, he would go and just start iterating on the camera. And I knew very clearly, I have my dance choreography background, I knew very clearly how I wanted to structure the island. I was in quill with all of my artists. doing every single piece of layout. I was placing every home, I was placing every prop, I was placing every character in the village. And then in the deity scenes, I was working with Lucas in real time to show him, okay, Hanan moves here, Mayari moves here, Apalaki moves here, then we're going to have the camera transition down here, and then we're going to move. And so I was working with him in real time, in headset, with working environments. And then with those assignments I gave him, like, okay, Lucas, the shooting star camera we've been working on, goes here. The whip pan camera we've been working on goes here. The smooth transition camera of going in a circle goes here. And it was really just a big collaboration with Lucas and I and Headset. Almost like twice a week we'd have like three plus hour work sessions at the beginning in Headset. I was in Headset sharing my screen. He'd hop into Headset, share his screen. But a lot of the camera and a lot of the choreography of the characters really came from me just speaking to Lucas in real time what the vision was.

[00:22:33.226] Kent Bye: There's a lot of really amazing cinematic innovations and polish that reminds me of a piece called Battlescar that has a lot of a similar type of cinematic quality. Was there any specific pieces that you've seen that give you any design inspiration for the type of camera work that you're doing here?

[00:22:48.060] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: It's a great question. So, you know, I really think for me, I've just absorbed all the pieces I saw. I was watching a lot of the VR animation player, so I was watching a lot of Nightmara, I was watching a lot of Soda Island, I watched Nisa a ton of times, because Julia, I think, really created a gorgeous cinematic camera that no one else has. And then I was watching pieces like Battlescar, pieces like The Line, which I think The Line really inspired me, just how you think about making these characters feel real even though they look blocky, right? And that was a big inspiration for me for the characters. And then, you know, I think a lot of pieces like Notes on Blindness and On the Morning You Wake, which I worked on On the Morning You Wake very intimately, really play a lot heavily into, like, that quality of particle design and that quality of pulling the environment in and out where you are. And then I was like, what if I did the opposite? Instead of feeling like the environment gets sucked away and then the environment kind of fills back up in a way where it pours into the scene. What if I pulled you out of the environment and pulled you back into the scene? I have a character in mind for this camera and I can talk to you about it more and that was really my inspiration. And so I think really what I hate to say like there wasn't one big inspiration point but I had just been consuming so much VR medium at the time and then I think I just had a really clear idea of how I wanted the piece to feel. and how I wanted the piece to move and it just kind of unfolded in real time in the process too.

[00:24:10.501] Kent Bye: It's got a real fluid nature from the camera movements, but also this stop motion animation quality to it where there's like a low frame rate as people are moving. It was very stylized in that sense that I think it works quite well, but you get the sense of movement, but it's not like a fluid 30 frames per second movement, but it didn't need to be. It was just cutting it down to the bare essential essence of the movements to get a sense of the characters as they're going through it. So it gave me this both the stop-motion animation but also like I said this graphic novel quality of just the way that the shots were framed and The combination of all the movements and everything gave me this sense of motion and real dynamic nature to it So yeah, I just thought it worked quite well So a lot of innovations of how the story was told but also just I feel like the story itself was also really powerful So both of them were really playing off each other. So yeah, I don't know if you have any comments on that

[00:24:59.547] Julie Cavaliere: Well, yep. I mean, what you made me think of is when you said that the characters didn't move that well, I'm like, well, they're demigods, right? They don't have to. Like, that's part of the conceit. It's like that old adage, like, the king sits. Like, that slower frame rate, I think, really speaks well to, like, the style of the piece and sits quite nicely in terms of what Michaela was trying to convey.

[00:25:22.180] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, and we also play with two totally different animation styles, right? Like the mortal realm is really inspired by this idea of like a dollhouse, which is very clear at the very beginning that it's almost like this dollhouse that lives in the celestial realm. And so those villagers are built like dolls and they're also animated like dolls. They have very low frames per second animation. And then we tried to kind of up the ante just a little bit when you go into the deity realm to make those Celestial figures feel slightly more fluid or slightly more keyframed and slightly more in-betweened and very much more athletic, have big, big, big powers that sometimes don't have to come up in these big athletic jumps, but sometimes do, right? Depends on the character we're kind of playing with. And that was purposeful, too, because we really wanted to establish, like, these are two totally different realms we're talking about.

[00:26:06.096] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love to hear a bit more about how you were creating what is essentially like this mortal realm and then into the realm of the deities where you're going back and forth between those. I thought that works quite well as well, this fractally nested context of the smaller context and into this transcendent realm. And the first time I saw it, I was like, ooh, I'm beyond space and time right now. I'm in this other realm and put me into this kind of altered state of like, ooh, what are the rules of this world? What's happening here? You know, it seemed like the interactions for what's happening in this, say, platonic realm of ideal forms and how it's interacting with the mortal realm.

[00:26:41.037] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, I mean, I'm a huge mythology nerd, but I'm also a huge, like, retelling mythology nerd, and so there's this big part of me that has, like, read a lot of literature, like Rick Rordon, lots of young adult novels, lots of adult novels, lots of Disney novels, that, like, rethink mythology as, like, Contemporary context and so like just even like I said like the earth pottery is what we call it It literally looks like this little piece of pottery that sits in the celestial realm and anything that happens to this pottery When you zoom in happens in the real world, right and that's really me like Modernizing some of this mythology. I don't know if there was a real earth pottery I don't know if people thought of it that way but I really wanted it to feel like a this little tangible token. And then that's the beauty of VR. You know, we talked about the afforded sense of the medium. You really get the sense of scale. So when you zoom into that mortal realm and then suddenly you're inside of the home of one of those little villagers, you're like, oh wow, like now I'm suddenly fully immersed in a whole nother world. And I understand that there's like miniature unfolding of narrative happening. And now there's this like macro unfolding of narrative. And you feel bad for both, right? You understand both sides. And I think that's the beauty of what we're doing when we zoom you in and out of the world. The inspiration for the mortal realm is definitely indigenous Philippine culture. We used so much research of what the Philippine islands are named after King Philip, what these islands were like before colonization and really got inspired by spiritual advisors like the Catalonian who were often played by women or trans women. We got really inspired by indigenous artwork like to talk tattoos. You know fishing was a huge part of Philippine lifestyle when you live near the coast. And if you actually look at the island from an aerial standpoint, we actually played a lot with nuances. The island itself kind of represents a moon. There's a little star island, and there's these little clouds, like smaller islands around. So the actual architecture of the island is also speaking to the story that's happening above you in a really nuanced way. And every single villager prop and every single villager home was also concept arted purely from the actual text and purely from the research of Philippine indigenous islands. But the problem was in Celestial Realm territory and this like space outside of space and time is there's no really good research about what the Filipinos thought or indigenous or Tagalog people thought of afterlife. And actually some texts I saw were actually talking about afterlife being underground and heaven being underground and heaven actually not being above but the hell being above. And so what I played with in the story with Celestial Realm was actually this idea of being underwater. So actually a lot of the nuances of the scene, even though you feel like you're in a cloud-like universe, some of the aurora borealis are actually inspired by light refracting off water. You'll see a lot of water movement happening throughout the celestial realm, almost as if it's going upward. And so really playing with some of those ideas of what the mythology gave me and then how we could be authentic to Philippine culture or Philippine heritage. as well and I think that it works really well for VR because those camera movements are really dynamic. We call it like the Bifrost, right, the Thor Bifrost, like we're zooming in and out of these dimensions and it really helps you understand that there is a world happening with the deities and actions happening with the deities but the direct consequence of how it affects the mortal realm I think is some of the most compelling moments of the piece. beyond just the big, cool fight scenes that we have. Like, these moments you zoom into this little mortal realm, you get this really microscopic moment of what's happening, and you really start to feel connected to those villagers in a specific way.

[00:30:09.265] Julie Cavaliere: I think what this piece does really well is answer the question that we're constantly asking ourselves, which is, like, why VR? Why are we telling the story in this medium? Why are we bringing this story? Why did we choose this story as part of the trilogy? Like, why, why, why, why, why? And there was just an endless amount of research. And as Michaela so beautifully stated, just pulling all of these references and trying to build this world out around you in that way. And I think it was, yeah, I think it was really successful and subtle. And there were so many little Easter egg moments that I hope drive whoever is seeing it to go back and like do their research about the mythology and about some of the stories that are documented right now. Because, you know, obviously that was a launching pad for Michaela and then because of our own desire to modernize it and because of just the lack of information available, Michaela did such a beautiful job just kind of using it as a launching pad.

[00:31:07.162] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: And I think the final thing too is we're really playing with color. I think color is a really big part of what we're using. The way we use color in the mortal realm is totally different from the way we use color in the celestial realm. And even the deities themselves, I don't want to give too much away, but they actually have two kind of forms to them that really play into that color theory, right? Where they feel like really approachable, Philippine royalty almost like very much like oh these are just kids and then suddenly they have this color effect that happens to them where you're like oh wait no that's a God that is like an all-powerful God using their all-powerful powers right then right there right and I think that color theory is a huge part of VR too where you're really playing with the pixels on the screen that are so close to your face How are you making them enjoyable and compelling? And I think what's really beautiful is that you do feel like you're on the beach sometimes. You do feel like you're on vacation and making it really pleasurable to be in VR is a big thing I wanted to do with Mahal.

[00:31:58.216] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that's the thing that's really striking to me is all the ways that you're not only using the affordances of VR with the scale, but also overlooking different vistas and being able to have this dynamic nature of being in a spatial context, but see the characters interact and how they're all connected with these action scenes that are happening in the celestial realm. I did want to allow you the opportunity to maybe elaborate a little bit more of the connection between the sun and the moon and the stars and the liminal spaces in between, I guess we could say. But yeah, just some of the design of the characters as an example with the boomerang and even the ponytail that looks like a crescent moon and then the boomerang that goes around very quickly, which the moon goes around every 27 days. And so there's all these things that I don't know if that was a part of the existing Philippine mythology or if these other aspects of you giving other design affordances to these characters that are also embodying these different dimensions of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the luminal spaces in between.

[00:32:52.793] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, I think this comes back to me being a huge mythology nerd, like poring over how you can make gods and goddesses feel like real humans from all the YA novels I read. And I really felt one thing about the mythology is all about their eyes glowing. When they are using their powers, their eyes glow, right? And that's the reason why Apolloky's sun burns brighter than his sister Mayati's moon. And so that was something I kept Struggling with whether or not we were gonna make eyes glow and and with that conversation. I mean Julie was with me It was like how would we make it really clear like people are walking into this knowing its mythology? I think pretty soon you can find out it's sun moon and stars, but we actually never use the word sun moon and stars in Mahal We use the words out out which is day or Sun we use there is one which is moon We use the words between which is stars and then we don't really name the dawn moment in Tagalog but we never use sun moon and stars and so There was a huge conversation about clarity. How are we going to make sure people get it? How are we going to make sure people aren't questioning what the F is happening? Why are these words being thrown at me? Who are these people? Why do they matter? Why do I care? And even with our EPs, Ryan and Goran. I don't know if you can make the Tagalog work. I think you just need to use sun, moon, and stars. And I was like, no, we're going to make it work, right? And that's really where a lot of those design nuances had to be pushed forward. That's why when we were designing Mayati, she has a gorgeous crescent moon. Her boomerangs are inspired by Kali, or Arnis, which is the Philippine national sport, which is a martial art where you use your hands or sticks or knives in a really offensive and defensive way. And so that's what her boomerangs are sort of inspired by, this art form of martial arts in Philippine culture, but I knew I wanted her to be able to throw them and catch them in a really dynamic way, and I wanted them to be shaped like a crescent, just to, again, pull you into the fact that she's a moon. Even her, there's a subtle detail where her sheath for her boomerangs, the piece that comes across her chest to hold it together is actually all the different phases of the moon. It goes from Crescent, to Waxing, to Fool, to Waning, like all the different. So like, immediately when you look at that character, you're like, that is the Moon Goddess, right? And then the same idea for Apalachee, even to the point where his hairband is shaped like the sun rays, his necklace is shaped like the big gorgeous rays off the sun as well, his character style, even he has like a little Anklet that's shaped like the Sun rays like there's nothing about that character that doesn't say Sun until his eyes glow and he's literally Controlling the Sun with his eyes, but again just to make it really clear I think the last two for me the last two sisters of our Pantheon are actually my favorite just in design wise because you know you think about stars and you think about well, what do stars do and I was really inspired by You know, the Philippine indigenous tribes were explorers and they used the stars to map and chart their way. They used constellations to find their way around oceans and rivers and so I was really inspired by the idea of Ala, D&D, Tala being like an artisan, her being a crafter, her being an artist. Like her constellations are her artwork and then she has this really cool control over these stars and so I was playing with this idea of her having a hammer and a traditional Tagalog shield and how, you know, she has a bit of that warrior in her but she kind of just wants to pull back and focus on her artwork and really inspired by those like classic middle-aged apathetic artist children that you find in family and so, you know, thinking about her as a craftsperson and really playing into, again, her nuances. She literally has like a pocket of stars in her little sling. She literally like cast stars, her stars twinkle, her stars have all these very specific effects that we wanted to make sure people got it, like these are stars, without basically drawing your normal five-shaped star, right? We're trying to be like, here's just enough information and you can figure it out without giving it or handing it to you. And then Hanan, the goddess of the dawn, I always love this idea of giving a bit of a meta quote-unquote nod to Quill, right? My artists are hand painting and hand animating in VR. I was like, what if one of our other sisters was like a painter? And what if, you know, you think of the gorgeous colors of the sky. What if she paints the dawn every day? Just like all the beautiful yellows and reds and purples. And so bringing Hanan into this form. which is not a form she finds right away but bringing her into this form of like a painter and an artist and painting the dawn and literally using her magical paintbrush to like create the dawn. in the world. And so that's my little family of athletes and artists. And just like I think any Filipino family recognizes, we're very multi-hyphenate. So we've got athletes in my family. We've got artists in my family. And I really also wanted to give them homage to feel like every single sibling was unique in their own way with their own little flavor. And I really feel like we did that. And I also think that's one of the reasons it's a successful piece, because you really feel like each of these characters have such a unique style and flavor and archetype to them.

[00:37:37.441] Julie Cavaliere: And I think, just building on that, I think what was interesting, just in terms of as the characters were being designed, and as the world was being designed, and as you mentioned Kent and Michaela, just the world and the clarity of the world, as Michaela was mentioning, I think one thing that became an asset for the project was the development of the script at the same time. So I think there was a lot of this cross-reference happening, where these iterations on story and script were happening, and at the same time it was like, oh wait, let's go back and put that in. Or, as Miguel was saying, there were so many discussions about the clarity at the beginning, Like, OK, what if we structured the intro this way? What if they said it here instead of here? What if, you know, visually this happened? And so there was a lot of this cross-referencing. And at the time, I think there was a lot of question between Michaela and I whether that would work, like that process, that workflow would be successful. And I think the proof is in the pudding in terms of that. So I think it allowed a lot of detail-oriented thinking, a lot of creative thought in order to make sure that the story was translating into the art in real time.

[00:38:44.518] Kent Bye: Yeah, I definitely took away, obviously, that it was all the different associations with the sun, moon, stars. And I couldn't remember the Tagalog words for each of them, but I definitely remember that it was a successful spatial storytelling. It's a good constraint, I think, because without relying upon the language, you have to find other ways to tell that. And I think that's the strength of what you're able to do, is make all these metaphoric connections by both the character design, but also the correspondences between the celestial realm and the realm of the mortal realm.

[00:39:12.034] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Exactly and again, I think that was the beauty of wanting to do something in VR that was mythology based because I was like There's such a beautiful nuance of not handing the story to our audience, right? I think sometimes in traditional film it's like and we're gonna cut here and we're gonna cut here and we're gonna move this camera here and I really was like I want my audience to be Engaged and I want them to be kind of figuring it out as they go I don't want to just hand it to them and even the prologue scene which I was inspired by Eleanor Thibeault, our incredible co-writer, who really helped me clarify some pieces of the script alongside of Julie, who was really like, what if we did a Beauty and the Beast-style prologue and created our own world of flames and mythology storytelling, just like the storyteller would do, the spiritual advisor would do? And really, that was a moment to set up the fact that this is a world, and you don't really even know what you're talking about in real time in the prologue until you see it actually happening in the real pieces, and I think That beauty of, like, the audience isn't going to be spoon-fed in my piece. The audience is going to have to figure it out as we go. I'm going to give them as many clues as possible, but I'm not going to spend time making sure I'm holding their hand. I'm going to let them feel like they're on an adventurous journey. and let it all unfold. Because when Tala casts her stars and you zoom down into the mortal realm, there are stars in the sky, right? When Apalikee's eyes are glowing and you cast down into the mortal realm, you literally see the sun. But I'm not going to be the one to say out loud, that's the one-to-one connection you need to be thinking about. I'm going to let the environment speak for itself. I'm going to let the characters speak for themselves. And when we have a huge, really epic moment that most indigenous tribes would actually, in fact, probably think of as the gods are literally fighting, which is an eclipse, that I'm going to make sure you don't have to play, oh, is this an eclipse? Is this not an eclipse? Because I'm just going to show you that it's an eclipse and not say it's an eclipse. And that's a big thing I really think I want to try and do with my continuation into VR storytelling is really lean on the show, not tell aspect of it, because it is really a powerful medium for that.

[00:41:07.351] Julie Cavaliere: It's funny because it almost goes back to old movies that way you know where it just relies on like pure craftsmanship on these kind of match cuts you know it is in no way the same thing but when Michaela you were just talking about that show not tell and and all of that and not spoon-feeding I was thinking a lot about Hitchcock sensibility especially in rear window when when the murderer realizes that Jimmy Stewart's been watching him that whole time. Like, there's no spoon-feeding of that moment. You just have the murderer looking directly into the camera for, like, a second, and you realize he sees Jimmy Stewart in that moment, or those kinds of very strong visuals to catch you and to guide you, but not to hand it over to you. And I think it goes back a lot of ways to more classic forms of storytelling that just purely relies on craft and story first.

[00:42:01.655] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Even the moment where Hanan gains her powers, like we didn't say explicitly, oh my God, you're gaining your power. Like we just let you go along for the ride. Right. And I think my hope is that we can continue to do more smart storytelling in VR as much as we do it in traditional film.

[00:42:17.803] Kent Bye: Yeah. And that's why I think that there's so many different immersive storytelling innovations that are in this piece, both in the way it's told, but also the story you're telling here. So yeah, very well done as a story. And I thought it was deeply moving as well. But yeah, just as we start to wrap up, I'm curious what each of you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling, and what it might be able to enable.

[00:42:39.033] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: I think really it's everything we've been talking about. If you have a story that has specific constraints that you really feel like the 2D medium does not fit for you, you know, I think this would have been a beautiful film as a 2D film, but there's something about being in VR where you actually feel like you're following Hanan floating over the celestial realm, where you actually feel like you're being pulled literally out of the mortal realm into this realm outside of space and time. Those feelings really connect you to the story in a deeper way, and I think that VR storytelling deserves its best chance. We deserve the best storytellers. We deserve the best level of quality and craft and I think we're trying to do it slowly but surely but I think we still deserve to give it our best. I don't think it's time for us to give up on the medium. It's time for us to continue to find the ways that artists and storytellers and people with really strong vision for this medium can continue to express themselves because I still Even as a director, I'm really grateful that you feel like this piece does all those things and really innovates. And I think there's another world where I was like, and we can keep innovating. And I think that's the beauty. It's like such an open world, open environment. And film had years to figure it out, and we're just getting started.

[00:43:47.580] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah, I think that's exactly it. And for me, as a newbie, right, and coming from that film side and theatre side, I think what's always been so interesting to me about the medium is just this endless possibility. Like, the way I think about the Reimagined series as a whole is kind of in that way that when you're being told a story as a child, the story happens all around you. So if we're reinventing these stories, it just made very strong sense to me to have it done in this way. And so when I was here in Tribeca for the first time experiencing it pre-pandemic in 2019, that's the first thing I thought of is, wow, you can bring some of these cinematic ideas and theatrical ideas, these concepts and techniques that have been around and merge them into the medium versus making these mediums so staccato, like creating this kind of fluidity where you're borrowing all of these Ideas and techniques and ultimately for me. I'm really a story first Person so bringing that sensibility and fighting for that in this medium and translating that into this medium I think it's been really exciting Is there anything else that's left and said that you like to say to the immersive community?

[00:44:57.418] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: I would say stay tuned. You know, we've got one more of these things in the hopper. Volume 3 is currently in production and I feel like we just keep surprising ourselves with what we put out in the world and I think it's been such a beautiful journey from Nisa to Mahal and now to Volume 3 and with Mahal we are gonna release later this year. I can't tell you when quite yet, but we're hoping to have a wonderful run and You know, I think Julie and I are always thinking about how this reimagined series can also transcend its traditional medium of VR and maybe even be the one that gets pushed over to a 2D medium or a comic book medium and so we're excited to see all the different explorations once this series is fully packaged up. gifted as a trilogy to the VR community, where else we can maybe bring this IP or where else we can bring this sensibility that we've been exploring. And even if that's continuing this in VR with more stories and more scripts and more quill pieces, we don't know. But we know that we don't want the Reimagined series to end on Volume 3.

[00:45:55.328] Julie Cavaliere: And I mean, I think there has been a great response to it. Ken, thank you for always being so supportive of it. The series is Webby nominated at this point. I mean, and it's funny to think that this whole thing started over like a coffee Michaela and I had just kind of like chatting and comparing notes on like our different backgrounds and sort of how that overlapped. and I agree with what Mikaela was saying, we have one more, it is a trilogy and I think what's going to be really interesting is to see how that visual style is different also because it's coming from a totally different part of the world, a totally different story and that storyteller coming from a very different sensibility as well so that's really exciting and I think we're just constantly inspired by watching other pieces. I know Mikaela and I very often been like, have you seen this? Did you see this piece of art? Did you see this? And I think constantly bringing that in. But there are so many amazing stories from around the world that haven't been told and haven't been told through a gender-inclusive lens. So I think we have eyes on the future in terms of any way we can to continue to shine light on all of those.

[00:47:04.160] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yeah, and the beauty of the ageless audience, right? Like, Nisa on paper is about this little witch, but like Julia said before, it's about fear conditioning and women. And then Mahal on paper is this really cool story about Philippine mythology and gods and goddesses, but in a deeper sense, it's a story about grief. Like, continuing that nuance to the project as well, I think, is something we're also looking for these stories, and then how we can tell these kind of deeper, richer, more frustrating themes with those stories as well.

[00:47:30.161] Julie Cavaliere: Yeah, and making sure that all of these characters have agency, I think, is a lot of things. Like, when you look back on some of these stories and the way that they're told, you know, one thing that keeps coming up is a lot of these stories, you know, some of their characters are lacking agency. So I think we have eyes on that as well as we, like, you know, pull these stories that might not be known to the larger audience and sort of retelling them in that way.

[00:47:56.320] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I started the conversation talking about the graphic novel quality of this piece and I think it set up for me at least to have a pretty nice translation into this comic book format as well and in 2D film, I think as well, I think would work quite well. So yeah, just really appreciated having the opportunity to see the piece and see all the visual style innovations in the storytelling and looking forward to volume three sometime here soon. So thanks again for taking the time to sit down and help unpack it all. So thank you.

[00:48:23.260] Julie Cavaliere: Thank you so much, Kent. It's such a pleasure, always.

[00:48:25.381] Michaela Ternasky-Holland: Yes, Kent, thank you for everything you do for our community. It truly is, like, wonderful. You are one of a kind. And without you, we wouldn't have this incredible, in-depth, archaeological, like, treasure trove of projects that you've spoken to and interviewed over the years. And it's always such a pleasure to be on your show.

[00:48:41.607] Kent Bye: So that was Michaela Tarnowsky-Holland, the co-creator of the VR animation series called Reimagined, and is the director of Reimagined Vol. 2, Mahal, and also works as an impact producer. Also, Julie Cavalier is a co-creator of the Reimagined series and producer of Volume 2, Mahal, and is her first foray into virtual reality and background in traditional film, TV, theater, narrative podcast, and traditionally more of a writer, director, or creative and strategic producer and actor. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I really, really enjoyed Reimagined Volume 2, Mahal. I felt like they're not only using the medium quite well to be able to explore and tell the story and to use subtle nuances and differences between the mundane physical world and the celestial transcendent world, the character design and the way that they're moving the camera around, just a real evolution of the grammar of storytelling within virtual reality. and using the affordances of the spatial medium, especially from a volumetric sense. There's no interactivity or agency in this piece, but I feel like that's on par for a lot of the different types of immersive stories. So I'd also really appreciated how they were able to take these mythologies and to kind of reimagine them for contemporary context, and also to really personalize it for both Michaela and Julie, who both happened to lose their fathers at a young age, and how they're able to weave that into this story that was talking about these mythological gods that are over the domains of the moon and the sun and the stars and the luminal spaces in between. And yeah, just the way that they're able to talk about all these different dimensions without mentioning any of those names. They're able to visually communicate those in a way that made it explicitly clear and also the character design and so many other aspects of the environmental design and the differences between the different worlds. Lots of different thought and attention behind this piece and it can really feel it. Yeah, definitely really, really appreciated this piece and felt that it was quite moving. It was one of my favorite from the whole entire festival. And also just really appreciated hearing the depth of insight that both Michaela and Julie have whenever talking about both about the process and the character and, you know, immersive storytelling. You can tell that they're deeply invested in the medium and they're watching all these things and being inspired by what's happening and trying to continually push forward what's possible in the context of immersive storytelling. 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 support podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you could become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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