I interviewed Letters from Drancy director Darren Emerson at Venice Immersive 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.
This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.
[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 immersive storytelling, experiential design, 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 experiences from Venice Immersive 2023, this is episode number 17 out of 35 and the second of three of looking at the context of enemies and war. So this piece is called Letters from Drancy by Darren Emerson. done in partnership with the Illinois Holocaust Museum, where they had a number of different survivors of the Holocaust, and they wanted to use virtual reality technologies to tell a number of stories of Holocaust survivors. And so this tells the story of Marion Deichmann, who was a young girl during World War II who was with her mother. They escaped to Paris, France, and then with German-occupied France, her mother was actually taken away to a place called Drancy and then eventually sent off to Auschwitz to die in the Holocaust. And so she was sort of orphaned at this point and be taken in by some foster parents and then kind of follows her story throughout the course of these different beats and moments through this journey of losing her mother but also eventually comes back to some letters that were written by her mother to her that were sent but then kind of intercepted and then eventually she came across them and that's really the emotional core of the piece of her being able to read and to share some of these last letters and last words from her mother. So this is primarily around the context of the war and the Holocaust. It's a lot of dimensions of family. It's also this experience of becoming a refugee and going into exile. And so the primary center of gravity of this experience is very much an emotional presence. It's very well written and really took me to an emotional place like no other experience this year. In fact, this is my favorite of all the different experiences that I saw over the course of Venice Immersive. Yeah, there's a lot of savvy use of environmental presence and embodied presence where it's mostly a 360 video, but there are some sixth off scenes where you're kind of embodied into these different moments of the narrative and get a sixth off type of experience, but get this real sense of embodiment of trying to put yourself into the shoes of what Marian had to go through, through different moments and beats in this experience. And also just a lot of really savvy use of techniques like projection mapping and using virtual reality as a canvas for being able to project these different aspects of either 2D images and yeah, just kind of fusing this very seamlessly together from a lot of innovations that Darren's previously done with Common Ground as well as in pursuit of repetitive beats. Also, the final aspect of presence is different degrees of interactivity and active presence in these different moments where you're asked to kind of interact and engage with this experience as well. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Darren happened on Sunday, September 3rd, 2023 at Venice Immersive in Venice, Italy. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:11.348] Darren Emerson: Hi, my name is Darren Emerson. I am a creator. I'm a director and a writer. I work for a company called East City Films and I make VR.
[00:03:20.774] Kent Bye: Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.
[00:03:25.277] Darren Emerson: My background is that I studied film at university, and then I started working for MTV. I worked for MTV for like six years, which was quite fun. A lot of music, so music is a big influence for me. I set up my company in 2006, East City Films, with my friend Ashley Cowan, and we've been running it ever since then. really starting making music videos and live music, but then I just had a calling back to making my own work, films, in the form of 360. That's when 360 came along. And I really focused on documentary or creative non-fiction, I guess. And so I've been exploring that in the medium of firstly 360, but then my work very much fuses 360 with real-time animation, different forms that I'm interested in, in terms of storytelling.
[00:04:19.319] Kent Bye: Maybe you can just briefly recount some of the other projects that you've worked on ahead of this piece that you're showing here, Letters from Jansi.
[00:04:25.940] Darren Emerson: Yeah, so the journey for me started in 2015 with a piece called Witness 360 77, which was for DocLab. And so that was a 360 piece about the 77 bombings. In 2016, I made a piece called Indefinite, which was about indefinite detention in the UK asylum system. which was part of a Sheffield Dockfest Alternate Realities Commission. That was bought by the New York Times and they did a piece around it, so that was great. And then in 2019, with a scheme in the UK called Creative XR, I was commissioned to make Common Ground, which premiered at Tribeca in 2019. and toured around. That was about housing and the history of social housing in the UK but also focusing on a massive housing estate in London called the Aylesbury Estate. And really it was about regeneration and gentrification. And then in 2022 I made In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, which is still touring. It's going to be in Geneva next, then Taiwan and Kaohsiung. and then it's in Denmark, it's all over the place, but it won the award for Docklab most recently, and so that's been very, very successful. And just, I mean literally just a month after I finished, wrapped on In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, we started making Letters from Drancy. And that is why I'm here today. Letters from Drancy has got its world premiere at Venice Immersive this year.
[00:05:46.985] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I've had a chance to see In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats at IFA.club and really loved it. And also saw Common Ground at Tribeca and had a chance to record an interview that I haven't had a chance to publish yet. But, you know, I see that there is this progression from the 360 video into having more interactive embodied aspects. In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats have a lot of embodied aspects and then I guess you're going back to 360 video here, but maybe using more spatial immersive motion capture techniques and whatnot, which we can get into here in a little bit. But maybe let's start from the top and give me a bit more context for how this project came about, Letters from Jansi, which I understand is the first of a trilogy.
[00:06:25.053] Darren Emerson: Yes, so we were contacted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago. They're the second biggest Holocaust museum in the US. They were looking to work with people to make some VR for their museum. They'd already made a couple of films a couple of years ago, VR films, which they show in the museum and they have them on rotation. And they had three survivors of the Holocaust that they wanted to tell their stories. And they're slightly unusual stories in the sense of, I guess, in the sense that they are lesser told stories of the Holocaust. They don't necessarily feature the sort of death camps. And so, obviously, it's all connected. So they wanted to kind of shine a light on those sorts of stories. And also, obviously, they work with survivors in the community in Illinois. and so they had these three ladies whose stories they wanted to tell. So my company, East City Films, were commissioned to make these, working in collaboration with the museum. There's three films, they've all been made. I've directed Letters from Trancy, and then we have two other directors, Charlotte Mikkelberg, who has directed a piece called Escape to Shanghai, and then we've got Mary Matheson, who has directed Walk to Westerbork. and so they cover different areas so Escape to Shanghai really tells the story of Doris Vogel and her mother who leave Germany just before the war and are refused entry on a ship with lots of people and they're refused entry and they end up in Shanghai, China and so that's a really sort of interesting story and most people don't really know that that was a place that took in Jews and obviously the Japanese invade and it becomes you know there's more of a ghetto there but it's just eventually like the Americans liberate obviously China and so that's that story. Walk to Westerbork is set in Amsterdam and it's about the internment camp in Westerbork which is somewhere where they held people before they were taken east to the death camps and it's a story really about luck and on Rhody's side and also like the the dedication of her grandfather to try and free them from this by using any means necessary. And then there's Letters from Drancy, which is the piece that I was most drawn to. And it tells the story of Marion Deichmann and her mother Alice Deichmann, who are living in Luxembourg when the Nazis invade. They travel, well they smuggle themselves into France, to Paris, in the back of a truck. They get an apartment in occupied Paris and then eventually there's a knock on the door in the morning and policemen come and take away Marion's mother, Alice. From that point onwards, Marion doesn't know what's happened to her mother, and she goes into hiding with the resistance, the French resistance, in Paris over a course of six to eight months, staying a couple of nights here and there on people's couches, constantly being moved around, until a social worker takes her to a family in Normandy, and this is the Parany family in Normandy, who have been declared by, as just for nations, in terms of their historical role in protecting Marion. The Parany family run a cafe in this town called Saint-Hilaire, and it turns out that the father is part of the resistance, he's in that network, he fought in the First World War, and so they take her in, and really like, she becomes part of their family until D-Day happens where they have to leave the town. When D-Day happened, Marion describes how the Americans and the British dropped leaflets all over the town saying, you have to leave, we're going to completely bomb this place out before they kind of invade. And so she goes there and that's where she experiences D-Day and after that, Eventually she returns to Paris in search of her mother and that's when we find out that eventually that her mother was taken to Drancy, which is a suburb of Paris, but in Drancy there is a tenement housing essentially, like social housing. It reminded me a little bit of Common Ground actually. And that's where they were holding Jewish prisoners before they were taken to Auschwitz. And we find out that Marin's mother was taken directly to Auschwitz and was killed on arrival. So the story kind of finishes there in terms of the narrative flow of what's happening, but really it finishes with Marion more philosophically talking about her life, how she feels. The first moment I met Marion, it was her connection to her mother, who she hasn't seen, obviously, since 80 years ago. was so present it was like she was in the room with us and I just knew that this was kind of like such a powerful story and that Marion was going to be really good at telling it and that we could really work together to, I guess, just articulate it in this medium.
[00:11:24.606] Kent Bye: Yeah, as you were recounting each of the beats of the story, I had images that were from the film and I think that's the thing that really was striking to me. Not only is this just like on the face of it just an amazing story, all the different ways that her life kind of weaves in between the personal becoming the political where you get a slice of the larger collective actions that are happening, but through her own first person perspective and her memories of her mother getting taken away. And so using a lot of different ways of like, you know, you just told me the story, but in the piece, you showed me the story in a way where I felt like this piece was doing an amazing job of both showing and telling more of the mimetic representational aspects, but the diegetic, more narrative recounting of her telling the story and Yeah and as she ends up in Drancy she's also getting letters that were sent by her mother but intercepted but eventually she comes upon them so maybe could explain a little bit more context of the letters from Drancy the title of the piece and where that comes in at the end.
[00:12:26.092] Darren Emerson: Well yeah so when she returns to Paris and finds out that her mother's taken to Drancy they eventually find these letters There were two letters, kind of written on postcards really, that obviously were intercepted. You know, they were sent to the apartment that they had to flee to go into the resistance, but the lady who was their sort of landlady had kept them. So eventually they find these letters and in the piece she reads one of them to us, which is, you know, it's a very heartbreaking moment. We translated it. And in the interview that we did with her, we got her to read them. And what we do in letters is we project it onto the side of the buildings in Drancy. So you're present in the space that they were written. And it's heartbreaking, you know, it's hard for Marion to read. It's just the little things that affect you. It's the pet name, you know, like she calls her her little schnoofy. It's the name for Marion as a daughter, and it's hard, you know. But, you know, it's called Letters from Drancy not only because of those letters, but because when we were in Paris, we saw thousands of letters that were written by lots of people to their loved ones from that place. So, you know, the title of the piece is really trying to pay tribute to the fact that this is one story. And I think like all Holocaust pieces, you're showing one story of something that happened to so many millions of people, so many extended families. It's sort of overwhelming. And I think my approach to this piece was, I think at first, when I was at the museum, walking around, hearing stuff, I felt overwhelmed, actually, in terms of the storytelling sense. You get quite caught up in The extended families, you know, because everyone's important. It's like sitting with an elderly relative and they're showing you a picture book and they're saying, OK, this is your auntie and she was married to him. And when you're sitting with a Holocaust survivor and they're showing you all these pictures. All of these people have been murdered. And so you feel a responsibility. It's just like, you know, I need to tell the story of Marion's uncle. I need to tell the story of, you know, Marion's grandmother and all these kind of different things. But I quite quickly felt that to tell this successfully in this medium, I had to really kind of narrow the focus to really be that central relationship between the mother and the daughter, which is the kind of emotional heartbeat of the film. As you mentioned, you're aware of all these kind of things happening around them, like social workers, resistance, you know, the influence of the Germans and the Vichy government, and then the Americans coming in to liberate, and all these things are happening around essentially a child. I mean, we're talking about a nine, ten-year-old child. And so I wanted it to feel like partly a child's recollection. You know, these are memories from a long time ago. And so there are almost two perspectives that you inhabit. You inhabit the perspective of accompanying Marion back to some of these places, and then you are in the perspective of either witnessing or being almost sitting in Marion's shoes in certain aspects, like in the back of the truck when you're being smuggled across and you're hearing what's happening. So yeah, it was quite challenging in many respects to kind of find the story in a way is so obvious in terms of its beats. You know, it's like, hey, we travel here, there's a journey, there's a resolution. But trying to focus it emotionally was the more challenging element of it, I think.
[00:15:53.627] Kent Bye: Yeah, that moment when she's reading the letter just really cracked me as I was watching the piece. And as I was watching it, I really appreciated how you were visually telling the story as well as telling me the story. And the way that, you know, from Common Ground, you were using a lot of projection maps techniques onto buildings. And in this piece, Letters from Jancy, you were also A lot of times using either a CGI overlay of something on top of the spatial context or I don't know if you were doing actually any in-situ projection onto buildings and recording. It looked like more digitally added afterwards. actually being situated in those locations and then adding these layers of story on top of it. It's like this, as augmented reality comes up online, you can think about these different locations and then the history and stories that are connected to those locations. But in VR, you're able to use 360 video to start to overlay some of those aspects of that story on top of it. And I felt like you had really taken me on a journey of Marion's life and how her mother was taken away from her and those letters are kind of like the Closing of the loop of that disconnect and basically like the last words that she hears from her so yeah, I was deeply deeply moved by this piece and really appreciated how I you were able to really take me on this spatial journey of this story. Like I said, you told us the story just now, but it's a whole other experience to actually go to these locations where things happened. And as she's talking about things, most creating these embodied rituals of her at the monuments or trying to visually represent symbolically what's being told in the story with different ways of visually representing it.
[00:17:39.544] Darren Emerson: Yeah, I mean, we did it. I mean, obviously, you know, we projected the interview onto the buildings. And the reason I do that often, like I film like a 69 interview because it's the detail of the shot, being able to really see the face and the emotion. Sometimes I feel that that's better than standing somebody in a 360 shot and asking them to be interviewed or like to do something. Mainly because you have to be standing, really, in a 360 shot. I mean, you can be sitting, but it's a little bit clunky. You know, it doesn't feel very natural. So to be able to project something that has a little bit more detail fidelity onto those buildings, it works for me a lot better. But obviously, like, Marion was in Drancy with us. So there's a shot where she's by a sort of kind of train cattle cart, which was used to possibly take her own mother, you know, east. And that was the first time that she'd been to Drancy. And so she was actually having a bit of a, you know, it was quite hard. That was the hardest moment in the shoot, for sure. But I tried to sort of represent, I always had this idea that I wanted to show her standing with her back to us, isolated in lots of different positions, in places, in locations that we were. So on the beach, in Drancy, in front of the Eiffel Tower, and all these kind of places. to represent that this is a woman moving through these different places, but also she's on her own. She's been separated from her mother, who was the only real guardian that she was with, her parents. Her father wasn't really in the picture. So yeah, so it was kind of finding different ways of telling it. I mean, the animations as well were kind of really key of like telling these stories that I always, you know, the moment where her mother's taken away in this animation, I always knew that there's a certain style that I wanted to do it in. that would have a lot of negative space. It was a very ethereal, it felt like it could dissipate, that it was fragments of a memory that was so long ago, but also kind of seared into her consciousness that she's never going to forget it. But what we see and what we remember are those fragments that will stay there. You know, the mother putting stuff into a suitcase, the emotion of it really. And then I made a decision in that animation for the mother to turn into a bird and fly off. And then at the end, when it kind of goes back into animation, you see kind of birds as kind of like a theme there, which was really because when I first spoke to Marion, Marion is not, I mean, she's from a Jewish family, but she's not religious. She believes in science. She believes in nature. you know, that's her outlook on life, you know, that we're all homo sapiens and, you know, we're animals essentially. And I just felt that there was a connection between nature and the idea of her mother and the idea of a child seeing her mother walk through a door and never seeing her again, and that she would then carry her mother with her. all through her life, but she would see representations of her in the leaves and the trees. And that's why Normandy is so green, and we wanted to do lots of metaphors with that, like the birds and everything that's around us. So that moment at the end where she's on the beach in Normandy, which is where she had been with the Parini family, and it's by Mont Saint-Michel. is a really sort of poignant moment for me. That's the bit that gets to me right at the very end, you know, even now when I'm watching it back.
[00:21:04.509] Kent Bye: There's a scene where Marion's in a stairwell leading up to the apartment where she's pointing and saying, this is the last time I saw my mother before she was taken away. And then does the animation sequence of her memories of her losing her mother, does that come before or after that moment?
[00:21:19.616] Darren Emerson: Just after that. Just after that. So we go back to this place called, it's 12 Rue Cafarelli in Paris. And this is the apartment that her and her mother were in. We're outside the actual apartment. We didn't go inside the apartment, mainly because actually the stairwell looks exactly the same as it did in the war. It hasn't changed very much, because there's not much to change really. But looking inside the apartment, It kind of in a way, it's so modern and full of stuff. We were struggling to actually find out who lived there and if we could get permission to go in. So we decided to not go in there and then just represent the idea in animation, which was more effective. I felt like if we go into a modern day apartment that feels very, very different, that it kind of will remove you from that reality that we're trying to build. If there's a DAB radio and some TV, we didn't feel like we could go in there and just totally strip out this person's life to shoot there. So yeah, that's the reason you're in the stairwell. And it was also, Marion didn't have any desire to go in there. You know, she hadn't been in that place since the day after her mother was taken away. And so, you know, we were having to be sort of kind of mindful. We had a duty of care whilst we were there. Obviously, somebody from the museum was there. to try and tell the story and try and get what we needed. And just like the moment in Drancy, the moment in the stairwell was challenging in a sense of like, okay, we're here, we're somewhere very significant that she hasn't been for a long time. In some cases, I think Drancy was more upsetting because of the cattle car that they used, the carriage that's on display there. Whereas the apartment, it feels so everyday, almost mundane. You know, it's one of those things that maybe you build up in your mind and then it's like, oh, OK, it's just a hallway, you know. But that's why I think the animation was sort of significant and you know I use an animator based in Denmark who I've used for In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, Common Ground and I'm able to write a script for him and how I want things to move and then he did an animatic that the museum really loved and I really loved and it was kind of exactly how I kind of imagine the movement of the camera within that negative space, which works quite well. And then we did some motion capture. We did a motion capture session day, and then used that motion capture to then animate on top of. And actually, it's my daughter playing Marion. So whenever I see that animation, I kind of see also my own daughter, who's of a similar age as Marion there. So that's quite affecting for me, even watching it.
[00:24:04.743] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's another piece here called Emperor which is all about memories and fading memories and it's got this black and white. Lots of negative space with things being painted in and out but this is like more of a Bansky graffiti where you have the black and white outline as you animate it. There's a video that you did for the Biennale that has a little bit more of the behind the scenes. It sounds like it was an animator who was taking the data. What was he using? Was he just hand-drawing it on top of the points or taking the data and adding a style transfer thing on top of?
[00:24:37.771] Darren Emerson: Yeah, it was kind of like a shader that we developed and worked on. It wasn't hand-drawn, although originally when I was conceiving that, all my references were hand-drawn animation references. But the animator felt that his route to getting something like that was to use motion capture data and then use 3D models and then use shading and different effects on that. So he worked quite a long time. We looked at doing it in real time as well. So we looked at loads of different tests of animation and how we might do that scene before I settled on doing it actually as a freed off scene instead of a real time scene. We almost looked at fusing the two a little bit actually. to add some parallax and some changes to a freed off animation. But in the end, we just didn't go that route. So yeah, so that's how it happened in the end. But as I said, I work with that guy all the time. I mean, he did the scene in pursuit of repetitive beats where you're going for the flyers. And so there's a good synergy now between what I'm trying to communicate and what we end up getting. So yeah, it was a good relationship.
[00:25:41.637] Kent Bye: And I have some memories of some scenes and I actually can't remember whether or not they were CG, 6DOF, or whether it was all 360 video, like there's a scene where you're in a truck and another scene when you're seeing the flyers come down. So in those scenes, was that real-time CG, 6DOF, or was it all 360 video? I'm having a hard time remembering.
[00:26:00.962] Darren Emerson: In a way I'm pleased because I like to mix them but I don't want you to not really know if you're in 6DoF or 3DoF because sometimes I feel like going from 6DoF into 3DoF you have to make that seamless. We did it in Beats a lot and we're doing it here. So those scenes are 6DoF, real time scenes when you're in the truck. and also when you're in the farmyard barn where the letters are dropping. The thing is, one of the prerequisites of making this was that it had to be seated for the museum, for the final exhibition. They didn't want controllers because they didn't want to have to onboard people every day and explain controls to what may be mostly an older generation of museum visitor. So we had to kind of take those things into consideration when we were making it. But yeah, they're real-time scenes. There's also a real-time scene towards the beginning where it's kind of like the history. You're in what is essentially a replica of the house that Marion lived in in Luxembourg, but it's packed up because they're having to leave. And what's not really mentioned in the film is they did actually pack up all their stuff and they left it with this lady who actually, when they returned, like when she returned years later, had kept all her stuff, which is unusual because often Jewish people would hand their stuff to neighbours and say, can you look after it? And it would get sold and stuff. But yeah, so that was kind of a nod to this house. and there's a portrait in there, there's stuff under dust sheets and stuff, and we project onto those as an archive and stuff like that, which in a way is like kind of telling the beginning bits of the story, like who she is, her family, where they come from, and kind of sets the scene essentially for the first big moment, which is getting into the truck and smuggling themselves into Paris. So that was also a real-time scene.
[00:27:47.559] Kent Bye: Yeah, and is everything in Quest Space, or is this a PC VR with a link cable?
[00:27:53.012] Darren Emerson: This is Vive Pro. It needs a 480 graphics card. I think minimum is like 380. But also again, because the museum had already made a couple of pieces that were using the Vive Pro. So, you know, in terms of their investment already into tower PCs and their kit, That was kind of one of the things that we had to do. What we did end up doing was upgrading all their computers for the latest graphics cards, figuring out if they would run, you know, how hot they would run, and we had to test all that because, you know, they had already built these PCs. So, yeah, it's a Vive Pro experience, but we have made 360 versions of them for the Quest. And that's, I guess, for greater distribution, but for the museum, it's mainly to take it out to schools. You know, you can take a bunch of crests out to schools, you can't, like, set up loads of Vive Pros, it's not practical. So, you know, the fidelity in the Vive Pro is great. But obviously, you know, the Quest is so much more portable. So, you know, that's something that we knew we were going to do. We also made, obviously, like making our orientation films. We did a lot of stuff, so a lot of material that can be used in the museum setting as well as contextual and sonography and stuff like that.
[00:29:05.976] Kent Bye: Yeah, there are 43 total projects here, and I was able to see 14 before I came, 14 on the first day I was here, and then 15. And so it was basically like 43 projects very quickly. So my memory of them, I've remembered these moments, but some of the details I forget. But the thing that I really take away from Letters from Drancy is just the emotions that I felt from where you were able to take me in this story especially through to the end just how everything combined together all these different techniques all the 360 video all the scenes all of the sixth off moments that you had as well as the projection mapped and yeah, just that reading a letter and But the thing that I also remembered was sitting in the truck, like really creating this tension of like, am I going to be discovered or not? Yeah, I thought that was also really effective of that moment. Maybe you could elaborate on that a little bit because that seems like a scene where you can imagine that you're trying to smuggle yourself out to another country and then you get stopped by the police and you have an occluded view of you don't see exactly what's happening. So you're kind of in this Space like a lot of horror VR games will play on that like hiding information Jaws as a film is another piece that does that where you don't see the shark for a long time So the threat that you're being faced with you can't see in that not knowing it creates this tension and terror that I think actually works quite well of giving the viewer this embodied experience of this moment that she's Talking about so you get this larger arc of the story and you are then now of a sudden you're embodying Her as the character in that moment, whereas most the time you're a ghost looking at it But these other times of this sixth off you're more embodying her in these different moments
[00:30:43.783] Darren Emerson: Yeah, I mean, that was always a key scene, I think, for me. It's like she told me about that scene in the first meeting. I was just like, wow, OK, not to sound trite, but it felt very cinematic. I was kind of excited about like doing that. And so, you know, we researched what sort of truck it would be. She describes that she was hiding under sacks. And so we've got this kind of like cargo kind of a commercial goods truck, I guess, from the era. But it was a very sound driven moment, really. So the sound was really about, you know, like the engine starting, moving, you feel the movement and then it stops and you're like, oh, OK. And then the sound of like kind of distant dogs and like, you know, and there's a conversation in German that's happening between the driver, you know, where he's asking, like, what have you got in the back and all this kind of stuff. And so. And it's all kind of played out, and then he starts searching for her with a flashlight. And this is actually happening. And it comes very, very close to you. You're able, because of the sixth off, even in a seated chair, you're able to feel like you can move and just crunch up a little bit and try and avoid this torchlight, which is, for me, is kind of a really nice moment of interactivity, where you feel really present in that. Once we'd built the truck what we did was in the Vive, we had a Vive controller as the torch and I walked around the 3D model and we recorded myself as the officer like shining the torch into the model. You know, we did it a few times, you know, so I'm kind of timing it and trying to act. You know, often it's crashing because, you know, it's tech that's just like crashes the time but we got it, you know, so and just to try to see how just to give it a kind of arc and a feel, a naturalistic kind of feel of where the torch is going. You know, the torchlight works really nicely with all the stuff that's in there, you know, the reflections and coming through the slats, you know, so it's quite cool. And actually on the floor in front of you, which is from the previous scene, we were in that, and it's a transition, stays with the transition, is the suitcase and the doll that Marion took with her. and it kind of passes, the light passes there and it almost moves. And you think, oh God, we're going to get discovered. But yeah, no, I'm glad you enjoyed that scene. It was a fun one actually to do, for sure.
[00:32:56.050] Kent Bye: Yeah, I definitely remember the lights a little bit more than the sounds, trying to avoid the lights. But there's also another really like 360 video cinematic scene where you're recreating different moments from her dream, where you have this prismatic arrangement of mirrors and a triangle that creates this infinite repetition of this Nazi soldier running towards her. So yeah, maybe you could talk about one of the first scenes that you had, like recreating this dream.
[00:33:21.830] Darren Emerson: Yeah, well, I mean, we don't explain necessarily it's a dream. Hopefully, it's obvious that it's kind of a dream sequence. Although, you know, we had discussions with the museum. It's like, oh, do we need to say it? And I was like, I don't want to say it's a dream because you're looking at it.
[00:33:34.237] Kent Bye: You're in it. I was listening to the video that you did where you said it was a dream. So yeah.
[00:33:37.358] Darren Emerson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it comes from, Marion's written a book about her experiences. It's a very detailed book. And one of the things, when I was flying home from Chicago, I was reading the book on the plane. And she talks about these recurring nightmares that she had. And they're very evocative visually. One of them is she describes waking up feeling that she's in a nightdress, she's in a room, a mirrored room that she can't hide from a Nazi officer. And she's trying to get away and she can't. She catches her nightdress on a car or something like that. It's kind of like a crazy dream. And that really comes from the fear that they had in Paris. Like, you know, they would get on the metro, but then as they're coming out of the metro, they would see boots at the top of the stairs and they would go, oh, we'll go back, we'll get back on the train. So there's this constant fear living in occupied Paris that you're going to run into a Nazi soldier, a German soldier who's going to ask you who you are, where you're from, and that's it. So it's about that really. So we tried to recreate this dream and so we worked with a set designer to literally build a mirror prison. And then we were like, we'll figure out how to shoot 360 in a mirror prism, which was really, really difficult, obviously. But we sealed it completely. And we cut a hole so that we could put the lens in. And we were using, I think, a GH5 camera and doing it in slow motion. And it took the whole day to shoot, actually. And it worked, although we tried lots of different things. I tried to fill it with smoke and stuff like that. But then you could see all the mirror lines and stuff like that, which it looked kind of cool. But it wasn't really what we were going for. And so eventually we got that. And I think, I mean, I have to admit, I was a slightly, I was slightly worried about it, actually. I was, probably out of all the scenes that we've done, that was the one that I was least confident about. It feels weird dressing somebody in a Nazi uniform, it always does. I mean, I wanted the Nazi to be young, like, young soldier. It's not an officer, it's not like the SS or whatever. It's just some kid who's, like, in the army, you know, who you might encounter. And I wanted that representation because I felt like that would be somebody you might encounter in the street. In a way, that's a scarier prospect of, like, it's the general population, it's 18-year-olds, you know, it's not just, like, older officers or, like, people who are in the SS. So that was what the casting kind of was about. But I think my reticence was slightly just like, is it too much? Is it too on the nose, you know? And we discussed it with the museum. And one of the things they came back with was that actually, you know, there isn't often a lot of representation in Holocaust films of the actual Nazis or the officers themselves. It's really told from the perspective of the survivor and what they went through, but you don't actually see the face. And so they felt it was actually important to see the face of hatred. And so that made me feel slightly more at ease with it, even though it was something I wanted to do, having shot it. And I'm always somebody that I will try things. If we're going to make something, a VR piece, we're going to try things. We're going to go out there. And that was one of those things. But I'm always willing to, if we spent a lot of money doing it, if it doesn't feel right, I'm going to can it. I'm going to cut it. And that's happened before with interactive stuff that we were common ground. We designed a whole thing where you could push open the door, but it just didn't work the way I wanted it to. And so, in a way, making these things, you have to experiment, but you have to also be willing to say, maybe this doesn't work, or this doesn't feel right tonally. Yeah, so that was one that I was kind of worried about, but I don't know what your reaction is to it. But the museum were happy with it, and I was like, OK. But maybe that's just insecurity on my side as a creator.
[00:37:27.741] Kent Bye: I think it works. Part of my experience of being here on the press day was that there was a lot of different technical glitches. So the audio wasn't playing properly. So there was other things that I had to have it restarted a number of times. I think that's one of the first scenes that it starts with.
[00:37:42.584] Darren Emerson: Yeah, it is the first scene. I mean, I quite like, I mean, you'll know from Beats as well and Common Ground maybe, but I like to kind of open with something quite striking to go like, right, OK, I've got your attention and we're into the story straight away. I don't want to hang about, you know, so because I feel like the quicker I can get you into the story, get you immersed into this journey, the quicker you're going to forget you've got a massive HMT on your face.
[00:38:08.916] Kent Bye: My memory of that scene is like having to watch it like three or four times to get the technology like working properly. And so it was like a little bit of like being a QA tester sometimes being here at Venice the first days where everything's are still getting sorted out and the docents are getting and so yeah and like there's little glitches where the audio wasn't playing so anyway they got it all sorted out and I was able to get it but it impresses on my memories. So yeah, but I did think it is like very striking and alluring. And I think it's, I don't remember what happens immediately after that, but I guess the thing that I'm taking away overall is just like the whole arc of the story. And there's a moment when after Miriam, I believe this is after Miriam finds out that her mother has died. She's maybe read the letters and, but she's at this memorial where she's searching for the date and the name. And that was such a, a moving place just to have the names of all the people representing there with the days and you think about the millions of people that died like maybe you could give a bit more context as to that specific memorial and you know if that's like representative of all of the names or if there was some specific people from Drancy or where was that memorial that she was at to find her mother's name?
[00:39:22.774] Darren Emerson: That memorial is in Paris. So it's the Jewish Museum in Paris. There's a memorial there. I believe it's all the names of all the Jews who were living in Paris and France that were murdered. So Alish Deichmann's name is there. It's a beautiful memorial actually, but it's quite small. We filmed in one in Amsterdam for another project which is much larger and is similar, like lots of bricks with people's names in. The sequence there is, it's a moving shot sequence, so we're moving through and she's talking about, really this starts the beginning of her sort of kind of looking back and her philosophical sort of thinking around it. And she starts by saying, the inhumanity man has for its men. If you believe in absolutes, absolute good and absolute bad, then Auschwitz is the absolute bad. And when she's saying this, you're passing all of these names. It was before it opened. And I kind of arranged the shot so that as you pass through, one of the pillars of the walls kind of reveals her as she's laying a candle for her mother. So I wanted the shot to reveal her as she's kind of mid doing it and standing up. So yeah, it was a really powerful moment. And that scene then leads to the very last scene, which is very reflective. And suddenly you're on the beach and you're traveling in Normandy down a beach. And all the things that she says in that beach scene, you know, we're from an interview, and it was at a moment, you know, the interview was long, and it was kind of long-winded, and we went off into lots of different tangents, but I remember when I asked her to talk about those sorts of things, more philosophical, more about, like, how she feels about the whole thing in summary, she just nailed it, you know? It was just like, wow. So that bit was really easy to come. And she says stuff like, it feels for her, it's just like yesterday, it's so present. And that she has no hate. She doesn't hold on to hate. She has pity. Disgust and pity for the Nazis. But she can't have hate. And that you have to look forward. So it's all very soothing in a way. One of the best bits in that sequence is where she talks about... And this always gets me when I listen to it. And I remember why I put it in. She says, I think my mother would be proud of me. And you think, gosh, she's still, in some senses, she's still that little girl whose mother leaves her and says, you know, be good, Marion, be good, you know? And that stuck with me. But then the real human bit of it, after she says, I think my mother would be proud of me, and that's quite emotional, she says, well, most of the things I've done. And there's a little kind of sigh, you know, in that Marion is 90 years old and she's a Holocaust survivor and she was here yesterday, but she's not a deity. You know, she's just a human being. And this is the point. She has her flaws. She has a family. She's gone through a whole life after this that has, I don't know the ins and outs of it, but I'm sure it's had the same ups and downs that everyone else has had. And so it's important, I think, in these Holocaust stories to show that this is just human beings. This is mothers and daughters. They are flawed. They are good people, you know, and that's the nuance that I was looking for. It's not, this is a story about a Jewish family. This is just a story about a mother and a daughter. And so her outlook on life is remarkable and inspiring. And I think it was just a great way to close the piece, you know.
[00:42:56.726] Kent Bye: Yeah, just really deeply moving as a story in the way that you were able to kind of really bring everything together. And that there's certain aspects of her story that are very specific to that time and place of the Holocaust and being Jewish in that context. And there's also the more universal aspects of like losing a parent type of thing. People may have had their parents die or taken away in some context. And so there's a way in which earlier when she has her mother taken away when she's still in Paris, and she comes back and spends one more night in that place but then realizes she has to go somewhere and she's basically like in this liminal space of as I was watching it was just trying to imagine myself of like wow what what would that have been like for me to like have my parents taken away like that and be left to what to do and so then she ends up in Normandy with this family and Yeah, maybe you can elaborate a little bit about what happens from once her mother gets taken away and how she ends up with this family and she gets taken in and you know, there's some shots of her with what essentially becomes her sisters and then also the different scenes that you have in Normandy Yeah, so I mean I think you're right that I think about that as well as like your anchor point at nine years old is taken away and what's interesting about it is the more complex emotion that she describes is a feeling of guilt and
[00:44:17.252] Darren Emerson: Why her, not me? She wanted to go with her mother. They wouldn't have known where her mother was going to and what her fate was to be, but you know it's not good. But yeah, so she says, you know, I always think why her and not me? And that's a guilt that she lives with. Kind of interesting, you know, it's a kind of a survivor guilt. Yeah, so she's taken into the resistance and what she describes is basically that she's kind of moved around Paris and that some people are nice to her, some people are less nice to her. She can't remember the names, it's so fleeting, but she sleeps on couches and you know on the floor, but she knows inherently that they're in danger, and the people that are taking her in for a night or two are in danger, because if it gets discovered, you know. And then there is, in the book, there's a social worker called Marthe Laborde. Marthe Laborde is the social worker, and it turns out this social worker is working really hard under the radar to get people into safe havens, and she's the one who takes Marion to Normandy, to the Parony family. And one of the things that we talked about with the museum right at the very beginning One of the things that's most important to them is this idea of upstanders. People that, in difficult circumstances, still make the right choice. The choice to stand up and do something. So the social worker is an example of that. The resistance are examples of that. And the Parini family are an example of people that didn't have to do what they did, but they did it anyway. And the family, Mr. and Mrs. Parini, have three children. They have Danielle, a son. They have Claudine, who's also like their daughter. And Marion and Claudine are about the same age. What's striking about that, and what I feel emotional about that, and when Marion talks about Claudine, it's with a real love. Claudine died not that long ago, a few years ago, and when Marion talks about it, she tears up because this girl could have been awkward, could have been jealous, but she said she was none of it. She was like the nicest person I've ever met. They had like a sisterly love, and when she says sisterly love, you can hear the emotion in her voice. Makes me feel emotional. that people could find each other like that. So, yeah, you know, I mean, in a way, it's a part of that story and why we spend some time there. And she goes to the graveyard of Mr. and Mrs. Paranyi and she lays some flowers. And she says that, you know, she found out after the war that if she had been an orphan, if she had no family, that they would have adopted her. And she just says, you know, he was such a lovely man. And it just reminds you, I guess, in the in the face of incredible hatred that there is kindness and humanity should prevail and it does eventually prevail. So, you know, and they're an example of people that, you know, did what they needed to do and she owes her life to them.
[00:47:18.428] Kent Bye: Has Marion had a chance to watch it yet? What was her reaction?
[00:47:21.890] Darren Emerson: Yeah, no, she has. She watched it at the museum. Yeah, I mean, I think for Marion, being 90, I think it's more like, wow, this is like VR, you know, it's more like, yeah, I mean, she feels, I mean, I think she loves it. I mean, it's a hard conversation to have, you know, I had that conversation, I said, what did you think, kind of a conversation. In a sense, I think she's more relieved and pleased, and she was elated that it was coming to Venice. Apparently, when the museum told her, she whooped with joy. And it's really because her mission is to tell this story and to keep her mother's name alive. So whether she loves the medium of VR and all its affordances and what it does, I don't know, really. We haven't really had an in-depth conversation about that. But I think she's certainly impressed with it. But it's more meaningful for her that, in a sense, the museum chose to tell her story and all this effort went into doing it. I said this at the panel yesterday with Marion. We filmed in Normandy and in France for a week with Marion. And apart from some of those moments that were very sort of, you know, like, drancy and that apartment where it was emotionally quite difficult, the rest of the time we had such a good time. The crew were all laughing, we were all joking, we were all, like, having fun. And, you know, I was very focused, running around. doing what I'm doing but we have a really good team that everyone's looking after each other and so it was a really joyous and we have like we all took loads of photos we gave Marion a photo book I've got one and I will remember it as the most fun shoot I've ever been on I've done lots of shoots and it was just so much fun and so loving and yeah it was great it was really great I couldn't have asked for a better experience really and I think you know Marion had a really lovely time and We still joke now about crème brûlée. I'm obsessed with crème brûlée. And so the first thing she always says to me is like, I have not found crème brûlée here in Italy. You know, so we're looking for cafes and bistros where I could, you know, I need to eat less crème brûlée basically. But so it was great. It was a great time. So I think she loves it. The museum, absolutely delighted with it. and the other two films as well. So we want the other two films to be seen as well at festivals and our hope is for other museums to be able to take it, you know. Our experience with In Pursuit of a Repetitive Beach was a totally different subject matter, totally different sort of VR project, is that we've had a lot of success showing it and touring it around. Well we want this in a similar way to tour museums, so we're trying to actually here in Venice, we're trying to make connections with Jewish museums here in Venice, in Italy, when we go to London, it's going to be at the London Film Festival again, trying to make those connections because it's one of those things that needs to be seen and these types of stories need to remain in the consciousness, you know? When I first went to the Holocaust Museum in Illinois, I was aware of the fact that, you know, I know about the Holocaust, of course I do, like everyone does, but do I face the Holocaust? Do I actually look at it head on? And I walked around this museum, and I have to say, I had to leave quite a lot of times to cry. There were things I didn't know about. There were images that I remember walking around and seeing an image, and it was in the corner of my eye, and I was like, I don't know if I can look at that. It was an image of a death squad, a Nazi soldier shooting a woman in the back in a field, and she's carrying a baby. And I was just like, fuck. You know? Wow. And so it's difficult to face it, but you have to face it. The other thing about the museum is it shows how we all know about the final solution, we all know about Auschwitz, but the years leading up to it, where the newspaper articles are all about, oh, what are we going to do about this Jewish problem? Oh, we would take them in, but we can't. You know, we've got like, you know, the UK says, oh, we're an island, we don't have enough. You know, it's the same stuff. You look at those headlines, you look at the headlines today, and you see the same rhetoric and the same excuses. And so it's a timely reminder. And that's the reason that we as a company were so like, we have, we have to make these, you know, we have to make them now.
[00:51:36.594] Kent Bye: Wow. Yeah, it's really, really powerful piece that I personally find. deeply moving and just deeply moved by just hearing you talk about it as well. And yeah, I guess as we as we start to wrap up, well, first I want to hear what was Marion's experience of being here at Venice? You know, you said that she was very honored to be here, but what was it like for her to come out to the VR island here at the part of the Venice Immersive 2023?
[00:52:05.512] Darren Emerson: Well, you know, as you know, getting onto the island, you know, get anywhere in Venice is hard to get to. You're getting off of boats and stuff like that. So for a 90-year-old woman, there is some challenges there. But she's actually very sprightly. And she turned up yesterday for our panel looking absolutely fabulous, like a style queen. You know, it's just like, people are just like, wow, this woman. And she's coming back today. We're having some drinks. She's enjoying it immensely. I mean, we did a panel yesterday and it's lots of creators panels and she's sitting in the front row and, you know, I'd already spoken to Liz Rosenthal, the curator, about it. We knew that she was going to be there. I mean, there's no point really in me talking about Marion's story when Marion's sitting there. So quite quickly, you know, Marion stood up and was the star of the show, you know, and that was fantastic. And then, you know, people just want to talk to her. We had a lady here called Carol, whose mother was born in the same town, Karlsruhe in Germany, needed to speak to her, like people need to talk to her. And I don't know if it's about her or if it's about their own family. It's about their own family, that they see in her a connection to their own family, whether they're Jewish or maybe they've lost their parent. So I think her presence here is meaningful for people. It's meaningful for us, and it's a delight for us. She's having a good time. She's with her family. Marin's very independent. She lives in Chicago, but she's actually a European. She lived in Geneva for many years, worked at the World Health Organization. She lived in Paris for many years, so she's a woman of the world. And she fits in pretty well in Venice, I think.
[00:53:41.000] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable?
[00:53:51.562] Darren Emerson: I don't know technically where it's going to end up, but I guess I feel like it has the potential to teach us more about ourselves, about the human condition, about nature, about our place in the world. I think it has the ability to connect. It's at that stage where it's hard for people to still see it. You want more people to see the work, you want more people to be affected. But that's it ultimately, I feel like the gift of it is to take us to those places emotionally and to, even though it's called virtual reality, it really is the magic. that is the bit that makes sense. You know, it's taking reality and putting magic into it to show truth. I guess you're searching for truth, even in a documentary form. You know, documentary is about truth and what happened. But. I guess that sometimes what happened and truth are not necessarily the same thing. And the truth is what we carry forward. And so I think ultimately the potential is to connect us more deeply with each other and ourselves, to understand ourselves better.
[00:55:05.335] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:55:10.204] Darren Emerson: Just that I love them. They're cool. And it is a great community. Just being here. And, you know, I've been doing it for eight years. And I have to say, like, I've worked in TV and different things before, and I just love this community. I love the fact that everyone's supportive of each other. Everyone's experimenting. And it's a very open and inclusive place. And I just, you know, it's a good place to be.
[00:55:37.055] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Darren, letters from Gen Z was one of my top experiences that I saw here. Actually, I put it at number one on my list of all the different experiences I saw here at Venice Immersive, just because not only of all the different techniques and innovations you have, but more than anything else, where you're able to take me emotionally in this story. I just had put together the story of my mother from Latvia who had her grandparents taken away to Siberia for one of their prison camps and so I guess there's maybe an unconscious part of my reaction to this that I'm right now in this moment just really connecting with as well. Just that the ways of talking about the evils of the world and This is a story that's specific to the Holocaust, but it's a deeper story of how we've related to each other over time in many other different contexts. And I think that people could find traces of it throughout their own history, their own family tree. So I just really was deeply moved by it and I appreciate it very much. So thank you.
[00:57:14.210] Darren Emerson: Thank you, Kenton. I'm so pleased that you've connected to it. I mean, There's not much more to say in a sense, you know, it's like it's a universal thing, you know, and that's why it's important. It's not us, them, you know, it's everyone. And yeah, I appreciate your honesty and reaction. Thank you.
[00:57:37.503] Kent Bye: Thanks for listening to this interview from Fitness Immersive 2023. You can go check out the Critics' Roundtable in episode 1305 to get more breakdown in each of these different experiences. And I hope to be posting more information on my Patreon at some point. There's a lot to digest here. I'm going to be giving some presentations here over the next couple of months and tune into my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR, since there's certainly a lot of digest about the structures and patterns of immersive storytelling, some of the different emerging grammar that we're starting to develop, as well as the underlying patterns of experiential design. So, that's all I have for today, and thanks for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And again, 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 listen-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.