I interviewed Texada creators Josephine Anderson & Claire Sanford at IDFA DocLab 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this is episode 7 of 19 of looking at different immersive experiences from IfADocLab 2023. Today's episode is with Texada, which is an immersive nonfiction documentary VR piece from Josephine Anderson and Claire Sanford, who are filmmakers who are coming from a documentary background. So I'm going to read a little bit of the synopsis here to give you a little bit of a taste of the themes that are being explored in Texada. So the virtual reality documentary Texada contrasts these two experiences of time, the human and the geological. The images alternate between shots of the island and more abstract animations. Meanwhile, island residents talk in voiceover about their lives and someone else tries to impress upon us the incomprehensible immensity of time and the insignificant role of humanity within it. We're just a little twig on the great big tree of life out there on a limb somewhere. So it's going into this limestone quarry within the context of this island off of Canada called Texada and using 360 video blending with this more abstract animations to symbolically represent the geological time while you're going into the 360 video and looking at the context of human time. So really exploring all the different relational dynamics in the context of limestone and this specific location of Texada. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wizards of VR podcast. So, this interview with Josephine and Claire happened on Tuesday, November 14th, 2023 at IFFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:52.125] Claire Sanford: Hi, I'm Claire Sanford. I am the co-director of the piece, Texada, that's premiering here at IDFA. And I'll just pass it on to this person.
[00:02:01.128] Josephine Anderson: I'm Josephine Anderson, and I'm the co-director of Texada as well. And from Vancouver, actually from Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada.
[00:02:11.971] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.
[00:02:16.765] Claire Sanford: So we're both linear documentary makers as a principal practice for the last little while. This is our first VR piece that has come to life in full and I've made a few short films that play with narrative in a sense, but not in a VR sense. So this has been like a really interesting way to think both about the artistic part of VR, the technical part of VR, but also the narrative and storytelling possibilities as well.
[00:02:46.729] Josephine Anderson: Yeah, this is my first VR piece. When I first started out in film, I actually did an interactive web doc and I started dabbling in that side of like atypical documentary. What does that look like? Spark the curiosity and then put it to sleep for a few years. So it's been a real joy to get to like open up that Pandora's box with this project. But yeah, my background as well, similar to Claire, I have several short films. I may just finish the first feature, but it's such a joy, again, to get to play in the sandbox of VR. And hopefully it'll just spur more projects in the future.
[00:03:19.640] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm wondering if you could give a bit more context for how this project, Tuxedo, came about.
[00:03:26.766] Claire Sanford: Sure, this is a project totally born of collaboration. The starting point was really wanting to work together and I think that's something that's pretty unique about our process is that we knew we wanted to work together and we thought where could we go. It was around the time when the proliferation of accessible 360 cameras was happening and it felt pretty easy to pick one up and give it a try and just to think about what does this mean for the storytelling process of documentary. We're both really rooted in the documentary practice so whatever we do as strange or artistic or bizarre is really always rooted in documentary. So we picked up a camera and decided to just play with it to see what our language was of collaboration and It was a really beautiful process. We wanted to go somewhere a bit unique to sort of figure out how it was best used, what were the potentials of bringing us to places where you may not expect to go. And we decided we would go to this island called Texada, which is where I grew up, which it's a rural island. It's beautiful off the west coast of Canada, full of nature, just trees and deer and whales and all that sort of thing, but also several active limestone mines. And so we thought, what if we get into the minds, take some shots and take people to this place that they would not normally go in their daily lives, but really unexpected to be here in this context. So I think the unexpected was sort of something that had spurred our desire to bring you into the world of VR as well, rather than in a platform. So, yeah.
[00:05:03.892] Kent Bye: And so maybe you could each talk a bit about how did VR first come onto your radar? Were there any specific experiences or films that you saw that inspired you to want to make the turn and go from 2D into immersive 3D?
[00:05:19.181] Claire Sanford: Well, I'm a cinematographer, I'm a documentary cinematographer by trade, by practice, so cameras was the route in for me. I wanted to, I just love shooting, I love the idea that you have your hands on a lens, control really how you steer the viewer through a narrative, through a story, through an emotion. And there was something so challenging about the idea that in 360, that control's taken away. You know, you can't push in on a close-up, you can't do movement, you can't create soft focus that steers you in your heart, but you need to find another way to do that. in VR and taking away some of that control, it felt like such an amazing creative constraint based on what I had been working on so hard to create that practice of really steering people's emotion. And so I think that for me was my first spark of curiosity. What happens when you take away the maker's direct control as to what people are looking at, you know? I think maybe if I'm thinking about one of the first pieces, I did like, you know, the 360 films that started to come out, early days documentary, I could see the potential of what was going on to bring someone somewhere where they couldn't go. But I think Notes on Blindness was a piece that really made me realize that It was more than just sort of a bring someone somewhere new. It was like trap an experience or an emotion in a new form that really surprises people and makes them think in another way. And I think it's such an exciting way to try and do something brand new. So, yeah.
[00:06:57.188] Josephine Anderson: There are so many projects out there and a lot of VR projects are more game oriented in general. And we're not, we don't have a background as gamers, as you know, like we're really more storytellers. One of the projects that we saw as we were starting to explore our own was this one called Hovering, which is in some ways kind of simple. You know, you're just, you're moving through this space and a landscape of abstracted elements are shifting around you. It's all black and white. But it's a very fluid project, it's very beautiful, and it really plays in a really interesting way with your sense of place and sense of reality. So that was, speaking to our aesthetic and our creative approach, that was a project that we really used frequently as a reference for what it could look like to move through space and to morph an environment around a user.
[00:07:52.035] Kent Bye: Yeah, it reminds me of one of the distinct features of this piece is that you do have these abstract visualizations of the limestone with morphing rock is pretty static. So in some ways this representing like maybe how it unfolds over long periods of time, but maybe you could talk about this abstract visualization element that you're weaving in and how you came about some of those fluid morphing rock formation dynamics that you have in this piece.
[00:08:20.257] Josephine Anderson: Yeah, well, we knew we didn't want to be realistic with our representation of rock and create some kind of more science-oriented version of geology we wanted to create something that would expand your imagination and so that automatically puts you into a question of like what do you want that rock that's going to be everywhere in the project to look like and we were really drawn towards a painterly kind of feeling something where the essence of the rock is ever-changing, full of a dynamic spectrum of color and texture. And yeah, one of the principles that we had in mind as we went was, as much as possible, try to make it so that every single piece, I guess, of geometry within the kind of rockscape was always moving, like the edges were always moving, or at least the internal kind of textures were always moving, which was like, our game developers had to work hard to make that happen, especially within the Quest headset that has a little bit, well at least the Quest 2 that we were developing on, you know, obviously has hardware limits at a certain point, so we definitely tried to push every time as far as we could, while maintaining that aesthetic that we strove for, of like constant movement.
[00:09:35.630] Kent Bye: And at what point did the NFB come on board to help produce the project?
[00:09:40.172] Claire Sanford: Yeah, the NFB, so we, projects are long. And we started the process of collaboration probably in 2016, you know, or 2017. Yeah, as a duo, just thinking about what can we do. And, you know, the NFB came on board maybe We should know this.
[00:09:57.059] Josephine Anderson: I think I would say I think the NFB officially came on board in 2020 and there was like discussions and relationship. You know, you know how it is early days of a project. It's not necessarily like you're working full-on. You're just toying with the concept. Maybe we'll light the fire. We'll see. But yeah in 2020 the NFB came on so we were working together for about three years.
[00:10:18.405] Claire Sanford: Yeah, and we had a prototype at that point, which was a monoscopic 360 video that we were able to do. You know, we were relatively technical people, but we sort of pushed ourselves to the brink of what we could do without really getting an institution or an organization behind us. And yeah, and things really shifted when the NFB did come on board. We were really able to push a bit farther, which is amazing. Yeah.
[00:10:41.739] Kent Bye: I know that NFB has been involved with a lot of different storytelling projects over the years. What kind of feedback were they giving you as you were trying to continue to develop and shape your project?
[00:10:52.746] Josephine Anderson: To be honest, they were very open and supportive of our concept. They didn't do a lot of micromanaging whatsoever. It was more like being an amazing soundboard for decisions we were making. For example, one of the challenges of any project, whether it's VR or other, is always time, right? You want it to be the best possible thing you can make in not necessarily the shortest amount of time, but like in that direction. You don't want to just take up extra time. User or viewer is going to get bored. So that was something they were extremely useful in giving us feedback. Like, how can we continue to sculpt it and make it as tight as possible? Although we had that mindset as well. I would say the biggest gift that they gave us is the sort of like holistic support. of holding the net for us to make the project, bringing us together with a game development company to help us actually like build out the project, and then giving the infrastructural support of, you know, headsets and whatever else we might need, as well as just their incredible staff, production coordinator Jasmine, producers Nicholas and Dana, and executive producer Rob. They're all so awesome and really became the sort of like a glue between all of our moving parts and making sure that we were always keeping things moving. Yeah.
[00:12:08.960] Kent Bye: Yeah, as I think back on this piece, I feel like, you know, in some ways the main character feels like Limestone or at least Texeda. And so maybe you could describe how you structure a piece when you're telling the story of Limestone, but also how Limestone is connected to this specific location of Texeda.
[00:12:27.594] Claire Sanford: Well, the piece is really about time. I think that was something we wanted to figure out how to communicate and how to really like smash together human time and geologic time. A central question we had at the very beginning was like, how would you go about trying to make a piece that de-centers humans, us as humans. How would you, and is it possible? I mean, I think the jury's out, or maybe the jury's not out. You know, it's not really. We're humans making this very technologically-oriented piece. It's a very human endeavor to make VR. There's nothing non-human about it. But that was the central exploration, is what does it look like when you do want to have Rock, you know, as a central character to guide you through the story? So limestone is this rock that's found on Texada Island. It was created over hundreds of millions of years through the death and decomposition of life. So, you know, there was something just so beautiful and dynamic about this particular rock. You know, you think that rock is static and still and really through long enough amounts of time it's very active and never changing and in fact completely different forms in the past life that has become rock that we then use. in our daily lives as humans and we wanted to just try and bring these time scales together in a way and one of our like formal constraints that we put on ourselves was to create these two different times and to figure out what are the elements you know the little bits of craft paper and pipe cleaners that we can put together in each section to really hold each idea, but also let them come together and smash against one another. So with the animation section, we thought, okay, this is our limestone section, our geology section, where we are gonna really make rock come alive. So really using maximalist colors to evoke a feeling that yes, this is rock, but there's more to it. There's something going on. In this section we also have a character who we've called the philosophical geologist, who happens to be my dad, but he was a teacher and geologist for a long time, and the way he spoke about limestone sort of gave voice to our sense of deep time, to the rock, to the island, so he kind of holds that space there. And then we put it together with the 360 video, which is, you know, you're more still and grounded, Colours are grey, you're in this more realistic version of rock, but at the same time, you understand humans through the soundscape of their work, through flutters of their voices, but you never feel really grounded or connected directly to one story or another, you're kind of in and out of that experience. And so, I think by creating that sort of very fleeting and fluttering connection to human stories, rock feels a little more grounded as a character, and that's what we were trying to portray.
[00:15:26.090] Kent Bye: Yeah, because I was trying to remember if I actually remember seeing any humans directly. Was it all voiceover or did you actually show any humans in this piece at all?
[00:15:35.156] Josephine Anderson: So our intention was to... show almost no humans, so that's why you didn't notice anyone, but there are just a couple shots where they show up. There's almost like a climactic moment in the film where you release from the chaos of the animation and are plonked into this shot where there's a few teenage girls and they're jumping off of a cliff into the water, which is actually an old limestone quarry that has been just naturally refilled with water and reclaimed by nature. so you might not know that if you're a viewer but it's kind of like this little hidden secret I guess that you're watching yet another limestone based location but humans are interacting with it in a completely different way and then there are just a couple tiny moments where you might see in the very far distance a person maybe on a piece of machinery or walking on the beach but they're so tiny and so inconsequential in the scope of the shot that it feels like for the most part the project is devoid of people, which was very intentional.
[00:16:39.128] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's why I was saying like the central character was limestone because I was like having trouble like connecting to any single human story but I do remember the shot of the girls jumping into the water because one of the girls was afraid to jump in and so she kind of like takes a little bit extra time and then they kind of disappear behind the rock and so it's yeah there was a certain amount of the humans being included but it makes sense that you were trying to decenter the humans in that way.
[00:17:02.807] Josephine Anderson: And similarly, like the way that the voices in the piece, like it's not a completely visual piece, right? There is this strong audio voice element, but the treatment we chose is so fleeting, right? Like you hear flickers of a voice interrupted by another flicker of a voice and maybe a tiny little anecdote from a character that you get just a glimpse of their life for a moment and then they're gone again. So for the most part, humans in the piece are treated like we come and we go. and we're not necessarily the central character of our narratives like we think we are. And at the same time, you have this narrating voice that feels almost abstracted from humanity in a sense for most of the piece until the very end where, yeah, I don't think it's a spoiler alert to share it, he kind of reveals that he grew up on Texada and becomes a lot more human when he speaks about breaking rocks open on the beach and finding joy and beauty in doing that. So that's a basic act that I think a lot of us can remember doing as kiddos. And so that was a really fun thing to play with as well. How do you basically decenter humans as much as possible and then at the same time basically acknowledge that we can't do that. Like we have no way to see outside of our own perspective. All we can do is guess at it through these like imagined, what we represent through imagined landscapes.
[00:18:22.448] Kent Bye: Yeah, there was at the very end, it was a reconnection to the human element because there's almost like a land acknowledgement statement of acknowledging that the indigenous or unceded territory aspect of this specific location. But it almost felt like a little bit of afterthought, or at least at the end, where sometimes you have stuff at the beginning, but at the end, it almost felt like, oh, wow, this feels like it's a whole other dimension of the story here that is being dropped in. But I know that in Canada, there's certainly a lot of awareness of trying to become into right relationship to the indigenous populations. And so, yeah, I'd love to give you an opportunity to kind of elaborate on that point a little bit.
[00:18:58.844] Josephine Anderson: Well, it's definitely not an afterthought, but we thought that the appropriate place to put the statement was the tail end for a few reasons. We are both white settlers, so it would never be appropriate for us to make a project that actually tries to do justice to an Indigenous point of view. So we didn't want to put something up front in the story that would create an expectation for the user that the project will somehow address that or do justice to a point of view that we can't do justice to. at the same time obviously there's no way to untangle the histories of the places where we live and you need to acknowledge that and especially Claire and I as settlers like we need to show gratitude um not just need to we feel the need to because We don't live in isolation, and the places that, especially Texada specifically, is a place that has its own rich history, not just geologic, but also human. So we can say the human point of view is inconsequential in the grand scheme of geologic time, but we also wanted to make sure to not discount that the human experiences that we have done and the pains and injuries that do exist in these places, we shouldn't just wash over those or make those seem like they don't matter in the scope of our lives, which they very much do.
[00:20:14.798] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so in this piece there's a lot of shots where you're in like the middle of a quarry where it feels like the 360 spatialization of being in that place would go above and beyond what you can do in just like 2D frames. I'd love to have you maybe elaborate as you're going from 2D to 3D why you felt like the story was particularly well suited to be told in VR.
[00:20:38.632] Claire Sanford: Yeah, I mean, quarries are very neat because they're kind of like moonscapes, you know, they're grey rock that has some sort of texture and there's the act of exploding and mining creates these sort of holes in the ground. You're sort of at the bottom of a crater. Then through time they sort of fill with water and become man-made lakes. And so you have this sort of evolution of the land. You can see what's in the earth through what's in the quarry. It's, you know, in a lot of senses you can describe quarries as pockmarks or scars on the landscape. And certainly they are, if you take an aerial view of the island, it's trees, trees, trees, trees, trees, big hole, you know? And that's a really interesting thing to think about. Well, what happens when you go into this big hole, you know? There are walls on either side of you a lot of the time, so it has this potential to sort of, you feel like you're at the bottom of something, which we felt would really be effective in VR. We also have an explosion in the film, which we filmed a couple of times, some more successfully than others. I mean, this is another reason why working with the NFB was great, is they're very forgiving when you blow up one of their cameras. So we just tried to get as close as possible to the real experience, and I would have loved it to be closer, but we took the one where the camera didn't get destroyed.
[00:22:06.221] Kent Bye: That would have been an extra immersive experience there.
[00:22:08.242] Claire Sanford: Yeah, it was too immersive, too immersive. But also, we film places around the island that are more maybe typical. You know, we film in the middle of a road. But, you know, we could film in the middle of that road all day and no car would go by. I think we were able to bring people into sort of new places. But the 360 nature, you know, like we spent time standing in the middle of the road with no sign of humans. So it was that sort of thing that we were trying to do to sort of make this island feel as quiet and loosely populated as it really is, yeah.
[00:22:40.189] Josephine Anderson: I also would add that one of the things that working in VR allowed us to do was mesh together senses of reality. So you have that real world 360, you have the animated spaces that are obviously imagined, and then you have these points of overlap that sort of increase as you go through the project. And so what does it mean when you have just like flickers of sparkles around you? That could happen in film, that's not a big deal. But once you start to move through the project and those overlaps become increasing, you have rocks and a boulder flying around you and exploding near you and you have massive rock formations rising up right beside you on the beach and then evaporating. You're creating a sense of embodied experience that you just cannot do in 2D and we were really excited about the opportunity to like merge 360 live-action with animated in a very physical fully surrounded VR sense.
[00:23:38.497] Kent Bye: Yeah, I remember throughout the course of the film, there's some distinct context switches where you go from live action 360 video into the animation. And then when you start to kind of fuse them together, there are some scenes where you start to see like a machine that's moving rock, but you're coming out of the undulating rocks that you have in the previous kind of metaphoric symbolic representation of the rocks life over a geologic time. And then was there another scene where you're kind of overlooking water and there's also like things in the distance and yeah.
[00:24:08.743] Josephine Anderson: where there are glaciers rising up which in some ways more subtle it's like these massive glaciers but they're at a distance rising up in the middle of a 360 shot of a quarry and an ocean and you're just I mean it's like it's just acknowledging I think the way that like you feel like you understand how everything works we understand our world but we really don't and if you start again, merging time scales and you put geologic time right up against real time. I think that's very interesting and fun.
[00:24:40.670] Kent Bye: Yeah, it reminds me of, as I think about things like process philosophy, the underlying principle is that the underlying nature of all reality is this dynamic flux and change and how things are unfolding over time. And we tend to have this substance metaphysics orientation where we think about reality as these static concrete objects that have change as a property of that. But that if you think about change as the underlying nature of all of reality, then you start to see that even with rocks over the long geologic time, then you start to see this more undulating and dynamic process of how it's this loop of life that is also integrated into the rocks and how it is changing especially as you have humans coming in and changing it so as you are in some ways having the 360 video your time speed is like normal speed that we experience and that the undulating rock is kind of like this metaphoric hyper time-lapse sequences that are also playing with how fast time is unfolding in the context of this piece as well, so I
[00:25:37.405] Claire Sanford: And what does that do for creation of meaning? I think that was a big part of what we were trying to do. We were trying to talk about how do we create meaning as human beings? How do we feel that things are meaningful? And when you have change as your main axis, does that make things less meaningful or more meaningful as our little experiences here on earth? just tiny little blips because of that? Or are they just the most potent and important because of all this change that's something that we here can grab onto in the here and now? And it was really interesting to try and think about, like, what do we do with our time when it's so fleeting, right? What do we do with our time? And so spending time with people who choose to work in this field of mining, talking to people about you know, about their families and about these are little bits of pieces that come in through the human flutters. We want to sort of represent that despite this sort of grand change that's happening all the time that makes us feel really small. Yeah, we are pretty special to ourselves.
[00:26:38.536] Kent Bye: Yeah.
[00:26:39.197] Claire Sanford: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:26:43.139] Kent Bye: And in this piece, you also explore all the different variety of uses that humans use limestone for. Maybe you can elaborate on that a little bit.
[00:26:50.672] Claire Sanford: toothpaste, paint, glass, rubber, cement, everything. It's really using everything. And that was, honestly, that was a challenging thing to integrate because it is such a crucial part of why limestone, right? Like, why would we focus on limestone? It's so important. It's a society builder. It's a civilization builder. and has been used for many years and developed into many things that we rely on today. But it really wasn't the focus of the project in terms of it's the context, it's really what we want you to know and understand because we're builders as humans and that's part of this whole creating meaning, right? We build things and we want to make things better and more developed and new and that progress has been facilitated in a lot of ways by limestone. So we do in the piece have a little flutter at the beginning that tells you all the uses of limestone, which I think people are often really surprised by. It's in food as filler, it's in pills as you're eating it, you're ingesting it all day, it's paint. What else have we got?
[00:27:51.015] Josephine Anderson: Well, so many things. Like I don't know, the list goes on forever, but I think it's like It's sort of the next onion layer. I guess is like using limestone as it's like it's so fascinating It's underappreciated and it's an amazing rock. But also it's kind of wacky that like it's like this is the You look at humans trying to master our environment so to speak which is obviously very Conflicting and complicated thing that we do like we're digging up earth and like Claire said creating these scars on the earth but also that's allowing us to like live these modern lives and it's like a really complicated and thing that we do as people right on this earth and the way that you said like we're builders we're trying to make things better and newer and yet is that always better and newer sometimes it is and sometimes it's not better and nature always comes back and reclaims everything in the end and we are not as powerful as we think we are and so we just really wanted to create a tug-of-war really between again thinking about how much we center ourselves or how much we decenter humans like we just wanted to create a tug-of-war between how much control we really think we have, what's good and what's not so good, like just mesh everything together and turn everything upside down and create a lot of questions for the user to leave with.
[00:29:03.987] Kent Bye: When I think about story and storytelling, I think about like Robert McKee and how he talks about how stories about characters that are put under pressure and then they make choices and they take action and then through those choices and actions and their essential character is revealed. But when your main character is Limestone, then there's not a lot of agency or decisions or actions that Limestone can take. And so then you end up Having to take more of a relational approach to say how is limestone connected to the humans? But if you're decentering humans, then how do you I guess as you're thinking through like how to structure a story? About limestone then how did you think about the? Dramatic arc or the structure that you wanted to really put into place in order to tell the story
[00:29:46.833] Claire Sanford: I think that was another big privilege that we had which working in VR where people at this point don't have the same expectations of story as they do in the linear sense. We were allowed to play a little bit and that was incredibly important and I think should be the way for Story is not one thing and storytelling is also about your senses, it's about how you feel when you're in a place, it's about how you relate to an object, it's about how you feel surprises. I think you're allowed to do some of that story processing yourself as the user. And that, for me, is what's so exciting. You give the palette of materials that you want the user to piece together. You're still doing a lot of steering as the director, but you're giving a palette of materials for the people to put together in their heads and feel a certain way. And I think this piece is linear. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. and if you mix them all up the project would make no sense anymore, but at the same time it really does have this looseness that lets the user sort of bring their own experiences to it, their own understanding, are they more interested in rock, geology, what is this limestone thing, how does it relate to us as people? Or is it really about emotion and nostalgia of childhood? That was, for me, was a big piece to really embed the feeling of nostalgia, you know, being a kid and relating to rocks that you find on the beach or jumping off of a cliff, you know, these are such human moments that can come out of this big story about the foundations of time in the way that we understand it, yeah.
[00:31:32.606] Josephine Anderson: I think what you're speaking to as well is like we don't have like a central character that you see evolve and you're not also the central character in let's say an experience where that you change and evolve but instead what we did was we kind of created maybe three threads that just weave in one of those is the voice of the people right and You have a sense of a teenager, then you hear a worker, you hear like it's like a bored teenager, then you hear a worker who's like really engaged with her work and the experiences that she had when she was working. And then you also hear the narrator become human and talk about just like the joy and beauty of like things we can discover as people in the world. And then you have the thread of Texada specifically. You're introduced to this place. It's a beautiful place on the ocean. And as the piece progresses, you kind of recognize that Texada, like all places that holds all these memories for people, it's going to just be obliterated again. Like everything else will just be iced over and morphed into yet another thing in the distant future. And then you have the final thread is really geology and geologic time. and you have this sense of how limestone specifically is introduced as like this very human thing early in the piece, this thing that we use for all these objects and like glass, cement, et cetera, whatever, and then you discover as you go that like, oh, it's actually comprised of basically the mushed up skeletons of marine animals and it's a part of its own cycle of life and you keep going and keep going and you just realize that like the geology and the limestone is kind of what's going to remain at the end of all of this and so you have those three threads basically interweaving throughout the whole piece and each one has their own evolution but it's so subtle and that again it's just the beauty of VR that you can have narrative evolution but treat it in a way that's so different than you would be able to in like a linear 2D documentary.
[00:33:26.678] Kent Bye: Yeah, so and being from Texada, I'm wondering if you could maybe comment on your personal connection to this place and what it was like for you to both record the place and then also experience it in VR to have all these other associative links and memories that are captured within this piece for you personally.
[00:33:42.942] Claire Sanford: Yeah, it was really special to be able to capture the place. Yes, to share it. I mean, I'm in Amsterdam with bringing people to this tiny little island off the west coast of Canada that I grew up. It's very lovely. But also just to capture it and to figure out what is its essence to me. I was just rooted in my memories the whole time, thinking a lot about how I experience the place in a really tactile way. It's very small. There's less than a thousand people. I grew up with a couple of kids in my grade and had to take the ferry off the island to high school every day. So, you know, it's a particular way to grow up and sometimes you love that and sometimes as a teenager you don't so much and, you know, to be really embedded in it helped me, I think, just sort of appreciate What an amazing place it is. It's so complicated. It has this history of mining that goes back to the early days of the gold rush where it was actually the largest city north of San Francisco when they found gold for 35 seconds or however long you know. So it has this very rich industrialist history which is fascinating when you arrive today on the ferry the first thing you see is this open pit mine and which is now defunct. But you see that mark. It's announcing itself. This is a place where industry takes precedence. So you're sort of confronted with that all the time. What are we doing as people? What are we doing to the planet? What do we need to do? Like Josephine was saying before, there's a lot of grayness. And I think I could appreciate that through being there and trying to harness my memories and feelings into tangible 360 shots. A lot of nostalgia, like I said before, just capturing also the freedom of living in this place where you're just there with nature. It was very special, yeah.
[00:35:41.458] Kent Bye: Yeah, and going back to 2016, that's the first year that I had attended Sundance New Frontier and started covering immersive stories. So there's been quite a lot of changes over the last seven years that we've been working on this project, but also what's happening in the broader industry. And so I imagine that as you're working on this project, there's a lot of experimentation, trying out things. Some things work, some things don't. So I'd love to hear if there's any things that you tried that didn't work, but also any broader lessons that you have after working on this project for the last seven years.
[00:36:10.807] Claire Sanford: I guess, I mean, the heart of the story is key. I think that's the lesson, right? And all of the other stuff is very cool. The technology of it is wonderful and exciting and interesting, but it's a bit cliche, but the heart of the story is key. It has to have that oomph, that feeling, and has to be rooted in something that you're really trying to explore. And it's greatly interesting to try new technologies, but that's really where it is. But we did have some trials that we did and then didn't do. You want to talk about that?
[00:36:41.180] Josephine Anderson: Yeah, well, there's a couple of things. I mean, in the end, we use the Insta360 Pro 2 for majority of our shots. We use the Pro 1 for some of our early shots. But even before that, when we first started collaborating, we were messing around with just like a Ricoh Theta, being like, could we just like get in there and like almost be unseen because it's so tiny? But obviously, the quality of that is so low. So that's one dimension. But maybe more notably, you know, we really intended on having interactivity from the early stages. And through a mix of factors, we decided to pull it out. We actually had developed a few instances of interactivity that we stripped from the project because we decided that it wasn't fully merging with the artistic sensibility of the rest of the project and the sort of like smooth emotional quality of the project. It felt a little bit out of place, a little bit gamey in a project that is a little bit more story oriented. And so that was definitely a point of experimentation. Even still, I'm sure there's a way to make it happen, but you have to work within certain constraints. Time, money, who all your collaborators are, all those factors play into what a project becomes. And I guess if we had another five years, maybe we could have found a way to, not five, a couple more years, to do an interactive element that would have really supported the project and even elevated it further and merged with its sensibilities. you make choices, right? And I think we're really satisfied with the experimentation we got to do in this project around the overlap of animation and 360 and how those collide. Yeah.
[00:38:16.005] Claire Sanford: I think something that I found really interesting that I learned through the process was about the viewer's attention. You know, we do come from linear documentary and so whether or not we wanted to, those for me were my principal instincts, you know. And it's not the same. When you put somebody into a space that they need to explore, their senses go there. They need to look around. They need to use their neurons to figure out where they are and what they're doing. It takes time. Definitely depends on how experienced the user is in VR. But regardless, people's brains are firing completely differently. So for us, it was a big exercise in stripping back to the essential as well. When we had more complicated or more nuanced stories with other characters, which we did for a long time, people weren't able to take in all of the layers. They felt that they hadn't spent enough time in the piece because they had been hearing a complicated story, but the shot was a minute and a half. People's sense of time shifted with how much information that they had to process as well. So that was a really delicate balance because you still want to create a complicated and beautiful story, but there's a degree of minimalism that's really needed. And so how do you counter that? I think we tried to counter that with sort of maximalist animations and colors and getting a bit extreme in some ways, but also just letting there be just enough of the stuff you need to process so that you still could feel you weren't working overtime in your brain to just be there and see what's going on and hear what's going on. Yeah.
[00:39:49.530] Kent Bye: I think one of the things that is evolving in terms of both the structures and forms of storytelling in VR is that there's things that the creators can do and push forward all the technology and weave everything together, but then there's this developing genre. Genre meaning the forms that the audience expects and Nick has a certain way that they can consume it, knowing the conceits of sci-fi, that you go in knowing that it's going to be sometime in the future, there's going to be technology, there's going to be different rules, that you're going to understand how that plays out. And so, I feel like as you are pushing forward these different braids of the story that are coming through, after watching 32 projects here at IFADocLab, I would have trouble articulating all the beats of the story. I remember at the end of it that it was a well-told story, but it was now a couple days later after watching a bunch of other stuff, it's like the expectations of those braids as I'm watching it is not something that I'm processing and encoding in a way that I could articulate in a way that you're able to articulate as a creators. I'd have to watch it you know another time to be able to kind of unpack it so I feel like there's this interesting dynamic between as creators you're pushing forward but also as the audience they have to also have their own expectations for how they even parse and digest and watch and consume and to pick up on all the different dimensions because if it's their first 360 video then it may be even overwhelming for them to be able to digest it so after seeing a number of different pieces I've been able to understand some of the different conceits of how to watch a 360 video, but even then, the ways that the stories are being told are also still developing. So, even I have to have these conversations with the creators to help parse it, understand it, and understand it even more.
[00:41:28.223] Josephine Anderson: Yeah, it's like, I think that's like the beauty of I think of making a VR piece in general is you talk about here phenomenal friction is the theme, right? Like you are creating friction. You're putting someone into a headset. It's kind of awkward and then you're putting them into an experience that's going to be a little bit different each time and outside of our narrative expectations or filmic expectations when you go into a theater. That's so fun. It's like weird like it's hard to process it all as well and so users have to expect that it's gonna be a little bit harder to process it all and makers have to know that you have to become really clear on what your central intention is because you might only be able to convey an essence of something at the end and for our project one of the coolest points of feedback that we've gotten I think is when people finish and they said like that they just felt like they had like a reset and they felt like really grounded and relaxed in the context of considering these really like challenging philosophical ideas that maybe make you feel inconsequential but yet you can feel at peace with it or maybe reset and I think that's awesome like you can lose all of the tangible narrative beats that we've very intentionally sculpted into the piece and just it's totally cool if you just take away from it something very basic like that an experiential kind of essence.
[00:42:44.747] Claire Sanford: But I think, correct me if I'm wrong, Josephine, but I think for both of our practices in general that can be said, that for me making a film is more about what feeling you're left with when you leave than about remembering what happened. You know, I actually have quite a bad memory, but the things that you come away with from a film that really affects you are so much more important than remembering the beats, the plot points. And I think just in our regular documentary practices as well, we have a lot of focus still on the senses. And I think maybe that's why we were kind of geared towards VR filmmaking. It's because even our two-dimensional stuff has a huge focus on sound design, sensory things, associative editing and sound editing. And really rooting you in your senses even when you're seated and looking at a flat screen. So I think there was a natural fit for us. And I think if coming away from any film with just a feeling, that's a big success, yeah.
[00:43:47.070] Kent Bye: Awesome. I definitely had that after watching this piece. And yeah, it felt like I had gone on a journey, but also exploring more of these abstract, difficult to know exactly what the forms were. They were novel in the sense that I hadn't seen them before. And they're also like symbolic in a way that it was representing the rock. So it was sort of like this dreamscape that is matched up with these shots of these quarries and not a lot of people to hang on to. So that was something a little bit unique and different. But I definitely thought, oh, wow, this was really unique and kind of a well-told story at the end was my thought. So yeah, I'd love to hear what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable.
[00:44:30.236] Josephine Anderson: Oh, that's a big question. Oh, gosh. Well, I think people, you know, we'd love to put our foot in our mouths as humans. Like, we're like, OK, like VR has the potential to, like, save the world. And, you know, we've had so many dreams as societies, right, around VR. I don't know. I personally, when I think about sci-fi oriented versions of our future, it scares me a little. I don't want to be a cyborg, personally. And I don't want us all to live in a virtual reality. So for me, an ideal version of what virtual reality might enable in the future is more dope stories and experiences that surprise us and teach us new things about ourselves and each other. And also maybe surgeons can learn to do their work better too and all that stuff. That's great. That's my version of what virtual reality can do.
[00:45:24.428] Claire Sanford: I'm trying to analyze my, I've done a few experiences here that kind of pushed my knowledge of what's happening in VR right now. I mean, that's another thing to maybe say is that this is our first piece and we're not coders or gamers. And so we're coming from this documentary practice. So I love embodying something new in virtual reality, being like put in a comfortable position where you have to make a decision and you're really engaging with yourself. within a very clearly curated set of constraints, I think that's such an interesting prospect. So I think just as an art form, it's going to be different than a flat film, but it still reaches for the same things, like connection, like human connection, like understanding our place here in this point on the planet and in time. and just really folding in as much emotion as well. I think there is heightened emotion that you can feel in VR that is really special, that you can put people into an emotionally vulnerable but still safe position to feel something new. I think if you can make, yeah, let's make new feelings, that's what I say, yeah.
[00:46:42.466] Kent Bye: Awesome, is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:46:49.215] Josephine Anderson: Oh yeah, okay, I would like to say thank you because honestly I'm not the pioneer of like necessarily at this stage at least in terms of like what an experience can look like but it's so fun to get to witness and celebrate the people who are like truly like breaking the form apart and rebuilding it over and over again each year. It's just so fun to see and we learn a lot from that so I'm super grateful to all those folks who are like deep in the immersive community and doing that type of work. Yeah, allowing us to do this. Well said.
[00:47:26.168] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I really enjoyed Tuxeda. And I think that you're coming up with new structures and forms of immersive storytelling. And yeah, I just thought the kind of blending of the animation and the live action 360 was also quite unique. And I look forward, as time develops, to see what other types of stories that you feel compelled to tell within the medium and see where it goes in the future with the futures and potentials of immersive storytelling. So thanks again for taking the time to share a little bit about your process and journey and also the story of Tuxeda. So thank you.
[00:47:56.463] Claire Sanford: Thank you so much. Thank you.
[00:47:59.546] Kent Bye: So that was Josephine Anderson and Claire Sanford. They co-directed a piece called Texada, which is an immersive fiction VR documentary that was showing at FIDOC Lab 2023. So I've had a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, there's this hybrid nature of both the 360 video capture of these limestone queries and Texada. Then blending that with more fluid dynamic aesthetic that you see kind of this morphing Symbolic representation of rock that is much more on a geological time obviously when we look at rocks we think of them as very static and not really changing all that much but in the context of the geological time is actually changing quite a bit. And so by blending these two forms of both 360 video that represents the human time and then the more CGI fluid dynamics components that are symbolically representing the geological time, then you start to kind of blend together these different timescales within the context of this documentary of Tuxeda. And also you're really quite immersed within the rock quarries. If you were only looking at a 2D frame, then the look and feel and experience of what it actually would feel like to be immersed within the context of these rock quarries. And there aren't really a lot of humans within the context of this documentary. There's only like a scene or so where you hear humans with the voiceover, but you don't really see them and not really prominent within the context of the piece. And so really the limestone is the main character in a lot of ways. Also looking at humans relationship to the world around us and all the different variety applications and uses under which that we're using limestone in our lives, including things like toothpaste. 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 enjoy the podcast, and please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of 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 ER. Thanks for listening.