The Book of Distance is one of the best VR narratives or immersive stories I’ve ever seen. Director Randall Okita tells the story of his grandfather Yonezo Okita’s journey from Hiroshima, Japan to Canada in 1935 to begin a new life. It has some theatrical staging with motion-captured actors as you move from traveling to homesteading, and then eventually being forced into a Japanese internment camp during the World War II and exploring the nuances of the state-sanctioned racism that followed.
There are moments when you become an embodied participant going through the motions through each of the scenes, which allowed me to drop more fully into the story and have a much more immersive and viscerally emotional journey. It’s as if the story is in my body now in a profoundly deeply way, and even just writing about it brings back swells of emotions as I think about my experience of it at Sundance.
I had chance to unpack the experiential design process with lead artist Randall Okita as well as National Film Board of Canada (NFB/interactive) producer David Oppenheim during Sundance 2020. We explore the design aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints, evocative character design, the choreography and motion captured scenes performed by Okita himself, and the subtleties of interaction design. Overall, The Book of Distance packs in so many immersive storytelling innovations that I really hope that general audiences will be able to experience it soon because it really showcases the power of what virtual reality narratives can achieve.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.
[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So continuing on in my series of looking at some of the XR experiences at Sundance 2020, specifically some of the immersive storytelling innovations, the technological innovations, as well as the experiential design process of the creators. So on today's episode, I'm going to be talking about one of my favorite experiences of all of Sundance this year, Book a Distance. So Book a Distance is written and directed by Randall Akita, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. And this is an experience that I think really pushes the boundaries for what you can do within an immersive story, blending together different aspects of sculpture and immersive theater type of elements, some embodied interactions, and really felt like they were able to tell different parts of this story, a story of a Japanese internment during World War II in actually Canada, which was happening in the United States, but it was also happening at the same time in Canada. And to be able to fill in the gaps, the memories of this case of Randall Akita's grandfather, who actually went through this. And then his father as a young boy was there as well. And just was an experience that they just didn't really talk about that much. And so Randall set out to try to recreate a lot of the larger context around these circumstances, but then to allow you to really step in and have these variety of different embodied interactions to really feel like you were immersed within this story. And, you know, like I said, it's one of the best VR narratives that I've ever seen. And when it comes out, definitely try to see it. So that's where we're coming on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Randall and David happened on Monday, January 27th, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:53.587] Randall Okita: My name is Randall Okita, and I'm the writer and director of the Book of Distance, which is here at the New Frontier Program.
[00:02:02.050] David Oppenheim: I'm David Oppenheim. I'm a producer at the National Film Board of Canada, working out of the Toronto studio. And I'm here with Randall and the piece, Book of Distance.
[00:02:10.983] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could each give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into virtual reality.
[00:02:18.510] Randall Okita: Sure. I am a writer-director of films. I'm also an artist that creates sculptures that are mechanical, interactive, as well as installations and physical spaces for people to move through. And a few years back, David Oppenheim reached out to me and we were aware of each other and we had made a film together. And he reached out and asked me if I wanted to sort of do some experiments and some testing in the world of virtual reality. And those experiments and conversations led to eventually making the Book of Distance.
[00:02:56.655] David Oppenheim: I guess for me, I started to study some of new media, I guess it was then called New Media, at the Canadian Film Centre's Media Lab in 2000, and then promptly started working in film. It was just happenstance, but from there I sort of worked across both linear film and interactive storytelling until I joined the National Film Board about five years ago. So at the film board I produce about 75% in interactive storytelling and about 25% in linear film.
[00:03:30.540] Kent Bye: So maybe you could set a broader context for this piece of the Book of Distance.
[00:03:35.842] Randall Okita: Yeah, I, like many people, you know, I had these snippets of history from my family's history, my grandparents' story, and I had always wanted to share those moments and explore those moments. I'd always wanted to tell their story or the parts that I knew about it, and as we started experimenting in this medium and Seeing what was possible, it became clear that this attempt to know my grandfather, attempt to know his silence and to fill in the blanks that I have around his story would suit this kind of exploration and this questioning that we can do in this new way in virtual reality.
[00:04:20.510] David Oppenheim: I guess the film board is a place that, I mean it's beyond the five years I've been there, it's been doing this for 80 years, but it's a place that has, since 39 as a public producer, been focused on creating art for people, experimenting with new forms of storytelling. At the time it was film, but always doing so in the service of story. And also wanting to tell stories that are about the world, that are about the world we live in, that have something to say, that come from a strong authorial voice. We're an artist-centered studio, a series of studios across the country. And so, you know, that's our studio and the film board that have been making interactive work for less than 80 years, for the last maybe 10 or 12. Yeah, that sort of set the stage for us inviting four artists in 2016 into the studio. We hadn't yet produced any work, but we had been paying attention to this sort of third wave of VR. And Randall's one of the artists. I mean, for me, he had this incredible background of sculpture, mechanical sculpture, strong storytelling, linear storytelling in film, and even some of that film work had incredible both visual language but also a real physicality to it. So Randall's one of the artists we invited into the studio and we basically said, you know, I said to those four artists, you know, what are your top three questions about this medium? You know, let's not sort of look at a story in particular but what are some questions you have? And for Randall, it took the form of a couple of experiments that over the next four years, not consecutive, but over the next four years, various prototypes, many iterations, ended up with the piece we have here at New Frontier.
[00:06:06.882] Kent Bye: What were some of those questions that you were asking?
[00:06:10.702] Randall Okita: What is possible? How difficult? How long? What does it feel like? What does it look like? What meaning does it take on given a series of interactions, given an amount of timing? How does space feel for objects, for characters? Because it's a little different. How close is close? And how do you position things? How can you get people to move in different ways? and really just playing, you know, responding to the questions that would come up, consuming work, having conversations. And one of the first tasks that we did was to take an interactive installation that I'd created, which was essentially a temple made out of feathers suspended from above, We said, OK, well, let's recreate that because it's visual, it's spatial, and it has a somewhat simple interaction. And so we took that on to see. I just wanted to test what was possible and how much effort that would take and what the visual fidelity of certain things would be. And that was the first question we took on.
[00:07:17.013] Kent Bye: Well, this is an extremely moving piece, one of the best immersive narratives that I've seen. And I think there's a lot of things that you're doing with embodiment, just with the aesthetic and the art style. But another thing was just how you could reduce down into the microcosm of a single story of your relatives, but also to be able to blow that out into the larger context. And so to be able to get a lens into history in a way through the journey that you're Ancestors and your family has gone through and so I realized there's a certain aspect of that journey That is sometimes people don't want to have too many spoilers as to what happens in the experience So, how do you sort of like set some frameworks around? How do you end up talking about that that? Connection to that individual story and the larger story and just I'll let you lead for how much you want to share
[00:08:01.450] Randall Okita: Sure. Well, usually, you know, I think of it as a very personal story. I do believe that, you know, this phrase that the universal through the specific. And for me, when we entered into the adventure of telling this particular story, you know, it came from a very personal place. It came from a very real kind of series of questions that I have about my grandfather and about his life. And You know, it's really about my journey to kind of recover what might have been lost and to find meaning in the things that might have been erased when he was treated as an enemy in his own country. And, you know, starting from a place that's personal, I think that means something to you that also has a sense of play and a sense of question allows us to spend the amount of time that you have to spend when you're creating these things to really have a deep resonant meaning for me that I would like to think comes through for other people and because it's a story of family and intergenerational trauma and it's a story about immigration and what it means to occupy space and to pass on identity to your family members. I think that people can connect with that and if you tell a story honestly, you know, I think people will respond.
[00:09:18.547] Kent Bye: Well the other interesting aspect to this is the National Film Board being in some ways a representative of the Canadian government and so you have this story that's really implicating the traumas of the past where you know there may have been some ethical boundaries that have been crossed and It feels like in some sense a form of truth and reconciliation to be able to support and fund this type of story, to be able to give people an experience of maybe some of the things that happened in the past. And I think, you know, Canada is maybe a little bit more unique in that willingness to take that on just in what's happening with indigenous communities and the land claims and trying to do this whole decolonization aspect. So it feels like there's a lot of similar awareness that's happening in Canada. So I'm just curious if you could comment on a little bit of that sort of deeper context.
[00:10:04.492] David Oppenheim: Sure. I mean, I think some of that's happening. I think we as a country, we as individuals, maybe aren't as quick and as good as we think we are as a country in addressing those. I think it took a long time, I want to say 50 years, not exact, but before the Canadian government actually formally apologized to Japanese Canadians. I think you mentioned indigenous truth and reconciliation. I think There's a lot of positive steps but, you know, it's taken a long time and a lot more can be done. But, I mean, I think on the positive side, I think part of the film board's remit is to tell stories by Canadian artists for Canadians and the world, but to also really look closely at points of view and voices that maybe historically haven't been as represented. And I think this is something where there have been attempts to tell the story, to tell the story of Japanese Canadians, to tell this larger history in different mediums. But we sat down with Randall as these experiments moved forward. And we really asked sort of hard questions around, why are we approaching this at this time? And we really wanted to make sure that there was something we were bringing to the conversation, both in a narrative sense, in a point of view, in terms of the point of view of Randall as an artist, but also in terms of the way that we wanted to tell the story and approach it. In that particular aspect, it was looking at this medium and how we could approach this in a unique way and embrace those affordances. But I think to circle back to your original question, I think for me that really meant, yeah, it was still a story that we needed to tell ourselves. It was still a story that has resonance today even. in terms of immigration. So yeah, I think we need to keep telling these stories. There's no sort of end to them and there's no shortage of resonance that this story has today in Canada and the States and globally.
[00:12:05.379] Kent Bye: So the other thing that I think was really striking about this piece was the fact that you're taking a very embodied approach. So you're setting these different contexts, and then there's these opportunities for you to interact in different ways. And your interactions aren't necessarily changing the story as it's unfolding, but it's more of you to be able to get a little bit more context, allow you to explore around, to be able to read the captions on the photos. It's almost like if you were in a museum, like, do you want to read all the placards? And how do you want to spend your time engaging with this world that you've created? And I felt like By going through the series of embodied actions, I was able to feel a lot more connected to the base humanity of your family. And that it was really powerful when you start to see the boundaries get crossed and to have that separation that happens and really heart-wrenching. And so I feel like that there's something about those embodied interactions though that are changing the way that we are experiencing that story. I'm just curious how you start to think about that and design those different interactions.
[00:13:02.397] Randall Okita: Well, first of all, you know, thanks for checking it out. Thanks for the kind words about it. And in terms of those interactions, I mean, I love that you had that experience. That's you know, really what I'm hoping for and the idea of, for me, the language of interactions, like how you're describing it is really what it's about. We want it to be sort of a natural and seamless engagement with the story. A lot of the actions are very simple but we try to imbue them with meaning through the narrative and we tried to create a language, a visual language, around, you know, the archival materials that show up as these sort of historical anchors in combination with this sculptural interactive theater and magical language that we have. There's a reference to Japanese woodblock print art style that is clearly imagination and where we're filling in the blanks between the moments that we do know about. And for me, I really wanted to work on how to delicately bring somebody into the story without giving them a particular role. For example, early on in the piece, you pack your bags with this sense of adventure and this is something that's familiar to us and we know that we're going on a trip. and we're imagining what my grandfather was thinking at the time and this is a simple interaction but then circles back, we see it again later when people are being forced to relocate and having to pack for different reasons. So, you know, we thought a lot about that and we wanted things to feel natural and to not have a lot of onboarding or instruction but for people to little by little become part of the story or to feel like they were able to have an embodied experience.
[00:14:48.118] David Oppenheim: Yeah, we spent a lot of time on that, I think. We were looking at what does it mean to tell a personal narrative in VR? What does it mean to tell a story that's anchored in history but has a very contemporary lens? So there was a lot of conversation around interaction design, the intentionality behind that, the relationship between interaction and pacing. you know that for me often the holy grail of the power of a linear narrative but what you can bring to it with some degree of agency and then how do you balance that you know and so some of that you know what you mentioned that local agency that doesn't impact the narrative through line but it impacts your your understanding of the narrative of character you know your interactions which you know again don't change it's not a branching narrative but imbue in some way either as Randall mentioned with the story with some meaning or let's say in some cases just the physicality of the action that we hope impacts you in a way that maybe isn't necessarily a narrative level or cerebral level but you know is on a physical level. Picking up rocks you know as the family is building their farm in this new country you know when you move through immigration and you watch Randall's father go ahead of you Randall turns to you and says, and here's yours, you know, and you grab that passport and you move through immigration. So those kinds of conversations were a large part of the iterative process that we went through.
[00:16:23.412] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I think about those embodied interactions, I actually think a little bit more in terms of context rather than the character. Because there's different contexts of long-distance travel, of working, of family, different aspects of identity, and also eventually exile and then reunion. this experience of doing those actions, I feel like, is able to allow you to set the broader context. And once that context is set, then there's certain individual aspects of the character of each of the characters. But I feel like it's less of the character of you as a user and more of you trying to be grounded in that context and that sense of embodied and environmental presence.
[00:16:57.686] David Oppenheim: I'm wondering, did you happen to wave when you were on the ship at all?
[00:17:02.630] Kent Bye: At the very end, I did. I think they noticed. And when I did wave, they did stop at some point. So they did react to my wave, which was nice, yeah.
[00:17:09.801] David Oppenheim: Yeah, so I mean that was, you know, one of those things where clearly you didn't have to wave, but, and for different people it does different things, but I think, you know, as an example that sort of grounds you in that context, in that place, you know, it puts you there because you're physically waving to the characters across from you, but, you know, I mean, and that's its principal intention, I guess, yeah.
[00:17:30.237] Randall Okita: Yeah, I think context is exactly what we were thinking about in terms of, you know, you want the right amount of interaction, you want the right amount of participation, and the context that grows around, as the story grows, so that you are thinking about the situation. You're thinking about the actions that you just participated in, that building a farm, which isn't physically a lot of work, but you do participate, and therefore when you're removed from that place later on. It has a little bit of a different context and similarly with the style of art, you know, we wanted people to be focusing on the characters as representations, as imagined representations of my family members, you know, my grandfather as a young man. because I don't have those images, so you and I are collectively imagining what that would have been like and the amount of detail was carefully considered and calibrated so that you are spending time thinking about the situation as opposed to, you know, looking for facial performance or looking for a reaction. You're thinking about the questions that are brought up by that context.
[00:18:36.116] Kent Bye: And one of the things that I'm noticing is that as I watch these different immersive stories, whether it's a 360 video or a computer-generated I'm able to gain a broader context to understand somebody else's experience. And as I do interviews, it's really quite interesting. It's like I did an interview with seven people from the Still Here team and black women who are actually incarcerated. So, you know, how do I have a conversation on my tech podcast with them? And I feel like I was able to get such a deep context that I was able to ask, like, well, what? was striking to you what really stood out when you were watching this and then they were able to Talk about their own context and their own character that was coming forth whether it's around their Relationship to their children or whether it was around not being able to get work that you're almost creating this archetypal representation of all these different aspects, but then providing a deeper context after people see it to be able to then dive in and say, well, what really resonated with you? What was your experience of that? And potentially even get to the point of people who don't feel like they have enough of a broader context to be able to talk about things, for them to have a shared experience with a bunch of other people and then to be able to unpack it through some sort of engagement process.
[00:19:42.843] Randall Okita: Yeah, well, I mean, for us, you know, this was a really important part of the story as it developed. We wanted to be clear that it was my search to try to find out things that you might not ever know 100% and to put that bias and to put that struggle into the piece. So I'm a character in the piece and you see me trying to manipulate these sets and ask questions about moments that I wasn't there for or moments that we don't have images of anymore and that's why you know it's important for me to imagine being there you know I think that to think about these spaces and what they actually felt like and looked like but to give the audience a clear indication of that and to be honest with them about it I think allows them to participate in that imagining which then you know opens up the connection to it I think.
[00:20:31.983] David Oppenheim: You know this is a conversation where you know over the various prototypes and you know it's something where we had the luxury and as a public producer and on this project it really felt important to take the time to go through various iterations to sit with it but over time it evolved into a piece where Randall became our guide in this story and you know this is a conversation that we had showing the piece to our executive producer at our studio in Italy and you know something that resonated with her was the power of watching this character in the case you know it's Randall that you meet but who's filling in the gaps between memories and you know one thing that struck her was the power of both watching but participating in this journey where really most often, more often than not, we have to sort of make do with these gaps in our memories, the spaces in between. And here's this world in which you step into and you travel alongside this character who is actively, both physically and mentally, filling in these gaps and through the medium of VR as an artist is also able to in a way not have to live with those gaps in memory or those spaces in between and that Strucker is something personally is sort of quite powerful you know so those questions and that act that's basically that act of imagination being something that we sort of hope resonates beyond even the specific narrative and that universal narrative.
[00:22:05.108] Randall Okita: Yeah I think You know, one of the things we ended up centering on was this idea that engaging with our history can be an act of imagination. It can be playful. It can be embodied. It can be uncertain. And to do that is to make things come alive and for it to be embodied is for it to be more visceral and to be more connected and more participatory. You know, history or the understanding of it doesn't have to be, you know, just memorization and just dates and facts. Like, it can be something that is playful and imaginative and useful to imagine those spaces and to put ourselves in those situations and imagine what it would have felt like and what it would have looked like and how people stood and this allows it to live in your body in a way that I think lets people connect with histories that sometimes can feel, you know, a little too distant a little too quickly.
[00:22:56.364] Kent Bye: Yeah, and speaking of that that connection to the history and bringing it alive that feels like that as I was watching characters, your grandfather in the cage, I was like, wow, this is happening now. And there's a certain amount of that separation of the history is in these cycles and does repeat through these sort of dialectic between the fear and the otherness and seeing that someone is other and different. And to draw these strict boundaries of a number of times where you draw either explicit lines or have cages and other metaphors for these separation. And then on the other side is this depth of the human experience that is universal and that we all connect to each other. And I feel like there's a certain amount of those embodied interactions that maybe allow you to forget those aspects of the fear and that otherness and allow you to identify with them a lot more.
[00:23:45.119] Randall Okita: Yeah, I mean, there's so many layers of that for me and so many discoveries, you know, in the building of this piece and in the ability to more deeply consider and imagine my grandfather's experience, you know, in this case. I ended up doing the motion capture for my family members and so a couple of the incredible experiences were just, initially was just going to be a test, a quick test. I was going to do some motion capture and we'll do it and we'll hire some better performers later on but it became really deeply meaningful and powerful to embody, you know, my young grandfather who knows his walk more than, better than me and in doing those actions and portraying some of these scenes It was a really powerful experience, counterbalanced by the incredibly tight suit that I had to wear in the studio and with the headband and with the bright orange stripes on the side, so we had moments of levity as well. I think to feel actually close to some of those spaces and those situations, even though they are clearly imagined, is a different experience than sitting back in a classroom or hearing something on the news where things can become familiar. And to go through that act and to participate in what is actually a little bit playful and a little bit fun experience to kind of get into those stories, to get into this story and those histories, I think is really interesting and it's a really powerful way, I think, to explore those situations.
[00:25:18.758] David Oppenheim: Yeah, I mean, you mentioned, you know, the resonance with contemporary culture with what's happening in the world today. I mean, what's been amazing is, you know, at New Frontiers, it's out in the wild. We've been ensconced in our studio for a while and to have some people come out. You know, people are different. Some people, you know, take time to process. Some people want to share something. But to hear from people, things like, you know, I'm going to go and look through that family shoebox. Or, you know, for people to think about their grandparents in a way that, you know, they want to actively explore those stories. Or even just to sort of connect it to things happening in the world along borders today. You know we as Randall is an artist as you know creative producer as a team of artists and makers I mean you want to create something that you know leaves the space for people to bring their own selves you know their own makeup their own stories to it and if it resonates with people in different ways versus You know us being quite didactic I think that you know that's all we can ask for a piece as it makes its way into the world
[00:26:29.040] Kent Bye: And just to expand on a little bit on those reconstructing those memories is that you have this really amazing mechanic where you're setting the deeper context of a scene and a scene plays out. And I think at some point you say something like, you know, when you take a photo, you're capturing a moment. And so it's almost as if each of these scenes are starting off with not a lot of context and you're kind of building up to this moment of capturing it and then being able to connect that actual photo with what had led up to that. So this reconstruction of those memories, but you're having the user actually push the button to take the shot. So you have that same type of, this is an important moment to document. And then when you see the symbolic abstraction into what people actually look like, there's this very interesting connection to that history in a way that it makes it real. It was actually like those photons were captured in this photographic medium. And now we're able to set even a broader context to allow you to appreciate this larger story and journey.
[00:27:24.965] Randall Okita: Yeah, I mean, you know, so much of the piece, you know, we have this backbone of this conversation with my father, you know, him and I talking about my grandfather and about his silence and trying to know him more and understand his journey more. And, you know, there's a through line in the piece that is, you know, we kind of move through and we're swimming in imagination. And the reason for that and the reason for creating it in VR is because so much of that imagery had been lost when their property and their house was taken from them. And so, for much of it, we have no choice but to imagine. And, you know, a lot of those stories weren't told by him because of what had happened, because of the shame associated with some of those situations. And so, to be able to have those anchors and those moments of these rare photographs and these rare documents that have somehow survived, allowed us to kind of create these historical anchors, these moments of reality, which both bring us back to the trueness of that line of the story, but also remind us of that layer of why we capture things and why some stories are told more actively than others.
[00:28:42.737] David Oppenheim: Also what lies outside of that particular frame in that archival piece. They appear in front of us framed and we're in this world that obviously goes well beyond those frames of those individual archives. On top of that I think there's this sort of analog feel to the photos that are brought in, this sort of non-fiction or documentary layer that Once we started bringing them in, really sort of started to resonate with the team. Your question reminds me of when Randall first, you know, this was I think one prototype, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was one, at least a prototype in, where, you know, you had brought this album of family archives in. It was something about having been working in grey boxes and then working with sort of temp art and character design and Randall bringing into the space where we've been working with Pixels this album and flipping through this correspondence from Randall's grandfather to the government, you know, back and forth, you know, looking at, wondering where my property is, what's happened to my farm, what's happened to what I built up. But seeing the actual letters and the signatures and the sort of, the patina of the paper, I mean, flipping through was just incredibly powerful. And then as we started to bring those in and figure out how do we use them, how do we tie them into the interactions, perhaps, was, yeah, that was kind of a bit of a turning point, I think.
[00:30:10.005] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's this nice cultivation of this bureaucratic, not really embodied or any sort of empathy or human soul to see these letters that are going back and forth. And, you know, it reminds me of like Terry Gilliam's Brazil or, you know, pieces that try to explore this extreme corporate bureaucracy of, you know, not being able to actually get anything done with this red tape. But, you know, how to tell a story of red tape and bureaucracy is not necessarily easy to do. But I think there's something really powerful by having the artifacts of what you have from these interactions that your grandfather had had with the Canadian government, where he's obviously getting responses to inquiries that he's putting out, but yet, you know, there's not necessarily enough time to, like, read through each of them, and you're kind of just being overwhelmed, and you get this feeling of, like, oh, wow, this is just, like, this endless pit of, it's not even worth trying to parse, but your grandfather probably had patience of a saint to try to, you know, get through and keep trying to ask, like, this has been taken from me, how can we get any answers? And so, But trying to tell that aspect of that story, I think, is very difficult. I don't know if, like, you found that it was easier to tell within the spatial medium.
[00:31:16.109] Randall Okita: That was a tough one. I mean, a lot of these pieces were difficult to treat because, you know, that particular angle is... We have one side of the story. We have the... I have the responses that they kept because this was the official word coming back. And in trying to reconstruct this timeline and figure out what happened, one of the saddest parts of it for me is that I guess I would say often I start with, you know, but what was the moment? What was the moment that they learned this? You know, what was the moment they learned that they didn't have a home to go back to? That it was never coming back? Or what was the moment he learned about what happened to his family back home? And in trying to reconstruct what that might have looked like, you go through these letters that they have. and you realize there were multiple government agencies with swarms of employees and it was just to delay to send you know letters back and forth and send us another list of what you have and then transfer it over here and well now there's a new department and so not only discovering that in the historical context but then how do you how do you share that how do you share that feeling how do you share that length of time and represent that and represent the experience of, you know, being stuck in the prairies, living in not so great conditions while trying to figure out what's happening to your family and to your belongings. And I think, you know, what was interesting about the space that we were working in is that you're able to represent that in a few different ways, both with the archival objects that you're interacting with but also a more abstract space that could represent some of the time and some of the players at work.
[00:32:50.966] David Oppenheim: I mean it's a that's a surreal moment in the experience. I mean you're you're just you've been following this journey and The home and the land has been taken and the family's working on this beet farm as an internment camp. And these letters start arriving from these, you know, and you see in the distance. And that's where I think we played a bit with scale, but it's, yeah, it's surreal. But at the end of the day, it's all human beings creating the system. And it's, it's ultimately grounded in othering or, or sort of a racism that exists. And in this case, state sanction, but underlined by individuals.
[00:33:25.300] Kent Bye: And I really appreciated the ways in which the user was guided to do these different embodied interactions, because it is fairly open-ended and abstract. And so maybe you could talk a bit about this cultivation of certain design patterns. I imagine eventually, in 20 to 30 years from now, we're not going to be able to need to have these training wheels on a bicycle to teach people how to actually engage with an immersive experience. I imagine eventually it'll be obvious about how to engage with these immersive environments. But we're still so early where I imagine there's people who go into some of these experiences and don't even know that they can look around. And yet to then require them to do these different interactions, then how to subtly guide them towards these actions.
[00:34:04.444] Randall Okita: Yeah, I mean, I would say that was a big part of the challenge and a big part of the fun of working in this space, which is so, which is so young. But for me, I come at it with a sense of narrative. You know, what is a satisfying, what is the story that you want to tell? How do you invite people to connect with it? And for me, as an audience member, you know, in other experiences and other stories, what works for me and what bumps for me. And I think one of the principles that we set out with is that, you know, we wanted to minimize the amount of distraction, the amount of things happening behind you, the amount of feeling that you might miss something. And we wanted to do that through design as opposed to instruction because that allows you to connect with story more because any percentage of your brain space that is spending trying to, you know, figure out a puzzle piece, you're not engaging with the situation and the characters which we wanted to prioritize in this piece. So a huge amount of our design and thinking was sort of about that and making it invisible in some ways.
[00:35:06.869] David Oppenheim: I think there was also a lot of conversation around, and it wasn't that this came first, but this sort of the first scene, which is, you know, in some ways functions as that space, you know, when you first put on the headset, you shut yourself off, but you find yourself in front of a bookshelf. Ultimately, actually, I mean, at the moment, it's a book that's in English. We'll be producing a French and a Japanese version, perhaps some other language versions. But what we know now is definitely there will be three books on a bookshelf in English French and Japanese and you'll Select the book that that is in your language version But you place it on a podium and you're off and it's been interesting watching I mean you kind of you see people faced with that who they don't have to think about the fact that if you see a bookshelf and all there is is a podium to your left and there's curtains, you're going to grab it. You know, I think it's been interesting to watch. Some people will reach out, don't have a sense of distance in that environment. Maybe they haven't done as much VR. They're a bit unsure of how to move and so they reach and they don't, you know, they're too far. You know, when you're doing usability testing it's so hard but you have to just sort of remain quiet and you gradually watch them kind of to gain the confidence of walking a bit further and then understanding, okay, you know, this is an object that I can reach out and grab. And that wasn't the first moment we designed, it was almost the last. But I think that system of interaction, that set of rules, which were only rules in the sense that once they became codified into sort of the language we were using, we were basically saying, we're going to stick to these unless there's a good reason to break it within this sort of coherent world. But yeah, that was a big amount of time in terms of getting those interactions and those mechanics. And then, once we sort of felt we had that working well, it was sort of really going through and deciding, did this interaction need, does it need to be there? What's its purpose? And, you know, if we take it away, do we miss it? And so we ended up at a place, I hope, you know, we'll see, but I think where there's a good balance.
[00:37:11.613] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think so. Has any of your family had a chance to see this piece yet?
[00:37:16.154] Randall Okita: Yeah, they have. I was able to show them over the holidays, which, you know, it's quite late in the making of the thing because early on started recording these conversations with my father about my grandfather. And initially he was fairly hesitant that other people would be, you know, hearing about our story. It's very, very private. But I promised that he would have final approval on things. But of course, you know, you start working and a few years go by and You get this wonderful news about being able to share the work at Sundance and then I had to bring it home and share it with him. He's 73 and this was his first ever virtual reality experience. he's essentially starring in it, and it was pretty profound. It was pretty incredible. You know, he's pretty quiet. We didn't talk a lot about what it meant to him afterwards, but, you know, there were a lot of tears, and I could tell how much it meant to him, and, you know, we still talk about what's happening with the project now, and I think it's incredibly important in ways that I'm still discovering and ways that I'm still understanding as this makes its way out of the world, you know, the fact that he knows that this story is out there changes the way he feels about it and the fact that people are interested in the fact that people are responding, you know, the fact that his sister, my aunt, you know, my grandmother knows about it. And my sisters know that people are learning about it. And particularly my nephew, whose middle name is Yonezo, which is my grandfather's name. And for him to know that this is a story that people are experiencing and that it's worth telling is pretty amazing.
[00:38:54.953] Kent Bye: And so for each of you, what do you want to experience in VR?
[00:39:00.717] David Oppenheim: Huh. I mean. I think at this point, and this Sundance to me is a good example, it's work from other artists and makers that just gets me to think in different ways about the sort of power of a medium that is in its nascent stages. You know, I think we're starting to see really sort of fully realized work that don't feel like experiments. So I think I always appreciate coming across those, but I think what I want to experience, I think it's just something that just takes me out of my analytical mind and just I don't quite understand in the moment, but it's making me feel differently. It's making me just question something about the art form and how we can tell stories. Kind of to be just sort of taken out or shocked in some way into just looking at the medium in a different way. Yeah, and this is a great place to do that.
[00:40:01.030] Randall Okita: Yeah, I mean everything. I'm so excited and curious about what people are doing and seeing the work here at the festival and you know seeing where people's minds and hearts go when presented with new possibilities is is pretty amazing. I think it's a pretty amazing time to be at where things are moving so fast and people are, you know, just taking things in all different directions. I think ultimately intention and voice and seeing work that people just put a lot of heart into is something that I respond to and I think, you know, that will continue to happen as things develop and people find ways to get into stories or ideas that they really care about.
[00:40:42.936] David Oppenheim: I think, just to add one more thing, I think, you know, at the risk of focusing too much on where things go, but yeah, I mean, I'm definitely interested in seeing what artists are doing with the medium, but I think I'm also, importantly, I think it's interesting to see how the public is interacting with these pieces, and so conversations around, you know, making art for people and how you, functional questions of user experience design and distribution and considering not just what you're designing within the headset, but what you're designing outside of the headset. All of those touch points and, you know, trying to sort of both experiment in your studio, in your cave, wherever you are, but always, always keeping, at least from my perspective, always keeping the audience in mind. So it's been interesting being at a festival where you, you know, it feels like a festival of ideas and it feels like a place where people, you can both have conversations with artists making work, but you can also have wonderful conversations with cinephiles and people who appreciate art and new forms of storytelling and those are equally valuable.
[00:41:50.373] Kent Bye: 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?
[00:42:02.165] David Oppenheim: I mean, I see, I think it's, to me, it's the power of art. It's maybe in some ways, you know, fundamentally no different than the power of any art form that is in human hands that can do what art can do. And yeah, it's obviously approaching it in different ways. I mean, you know with the way we engage with it is going to be different the way we engage with you know other art forms, but you don't mean ultimately the full potential or the ultimate potential is The power of art I guess I mean, I guess that sort of Is maybe a non-specific answer, but I think it's a fundamental one for me Yeah, I don't really see a limit I think
[00:42:44.028] Randall Okita: It could change everything. I mean, when I think about it, I get excited about stories. And I think that's just one way. But for me, stories are the containers that humans use to exchange meaning, exchange feelings, information, ideas. And that's a tool that you can use to change pretty much everything. And this is another medium that I think is making people think in new ways about that context and those possibilities. And yeah, I can't wait to see what happens.
[00:43:19.084] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?
[00:43:24.607] David Oppenheim: You know, I mean, I think we've been saying it in the past five days we've been here, which is just, you know, it feels like a community that is just open and, you know, people who are interested in sharing each other's work, promoting each other's work. Yeah. So it's just a good feeling to be part of that over the last five or so days and look forward to future conversations.
[00:43:46.699] Randall Okita: Yeah, and as a newcomer, I feel, you know, it's just, it's a wonderful community of a lot of really open hearted, really interesting, really smart individuals. And I'm so, uh, I've had such a nice time kind of connecting with a lot of new people here at the festival. And I really appreciate with the skepticism around a lot of the technology, but also the intentions that people have, which are to really use the tools to make the world better and to make things more interesting and better for humans. And I think that that's, that's really great. And I hope we can all keep trying to do that.
[00:44:14.873] Kent Bye: Hmm. Well, as I was thinking about all the different experiences that I've seen here at the Sundance New Frontier, I think the book A Distance gave, I think, the most moving emotional impact. And I think just a lot of the different narrative innovations that you have, a lot of really interesting stuff that you're doing there. So thanks for taking the time to unpack it a little bit and to share this knowledge out to the community. So thank you.
[00:44:35.446] David Oppenheim: Yeah, thanks so much for the thoughtful conversation and all of those many, many thoughtful conversations that you're having with people making in this space.
[00:44:44.094] Randall Okita: Yeah, thank you so much for taking the time. We really appreciate it and appreciate the feedback and Expanding the conversation and elevating.
[00:44:50.558] Kent Bye: It's really been wonderful So that was Randall Akita. He's the writer and director of the book a distance as well as David Oppenheim He's the producer out of the National Film Board of Canada in Toronto So I have a number different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, this was an extremely moving piece I was telling my partner about my experiences in this piece and I As I found myself telling a story, I just felt like this visceral emotion, like just the ways that they were able to take these embodied interactions made me feel like I was a part of a story. So the thing that they're doing is that they're trying to have these different scenes and then have a variety of different embodied interactions within some of the different scenes. And so At the very beginning, you're throwing horseshoes, you're picking up the book, you're going through different checkpoints. And for me, a big turning point was when they're on the farm and you're able to actually feel like you're a part of the family by doing these different chores, picking up the rocks, helping to put these poles into the ground. And they're different, simple interactions, but give you the sense that you are a part of this family, this familial unit, and that you were in some sense cast as a family member. When the government comes in and takes away the house and separates the family apart for me I just felt the emotional impact of that a lot more You are initially traveling in this experience and you're packing your bags and you're taking all the things that you want and you're trying to set forth into like what would be the context for you to go on this long-distance travel and What would be the context of you packing your badge under this context and then they revisit that later on? when they were asked to repack your bags again, this time, you can't take your radio, you can't take your camera, even if you did try to put them into your luggage, you would say, okay, actually, you can't take this. And so it gives you this direct embodied experience of revisiting this context of packing your bags. But in this case, it's for you to be exiled and put into this internment camp. And so essentially, like this prison, So packing your bags initially was with a sense of adventure and going and traveling, but now revisiting that same embodied interaction, but in a completely different context. And so finding ways like that to see how there are these different turning points. That was one of the things that Randall had said is that he really wanted to find like what was the turning point of some of these different experiences and then try to like put you into the essence of a time as they're going through these different phases. Another moment that I think stuck out to me was after the family had been split up and basically living in this chicken coop and you look out the fence and you see these wolves and at the same time all of the house and all the belongings were confiscated and it's like what was the status of my my home and all their belongings was, in essence, what his grandfather was writing, all these letters. And they only have one side of the letters, so they're only seeing the responses that were coming back. But it was clear that his grandfather was diligently following up and trying to navigate the bureaucracy and the red tape. And the only thing he was getting back was all of these letters. And so to try to give you that experience of the bureaucracy through this flood and overwhelm of all these documentation, then way too much for you to even actually read through. But you get the sense of this overwhelm of, people being hired just to keep them busy and to do this gross injustice of having all of their belongings and property confiscated by the government and redistributed. So the experience of book a distance is, like I said, one of the most powerful ones that I've had. And I think that there was a combination of a lot of things that just the way that it was told to this personalized narrative, the theatrical elements that set design and all the sculptural elements from Randall's background, but also having this very stylized take on a lot of the different scenes and being able to have these cutouts but it's hard to describe the emotional impact of what difference all of this makes but you know this is one of these experiences that i hear from other people as they went through it that it was just really emotionally moving and really personal and i think part of it is that you know we all have families in different lineages that we're a part of and in this experience, just starting with a handful of different photographs and to recreate these entire experiences of his grandfather as he's going through all this. I think there's different aspects of my family that has gone through exile and, you know, my mom was born in a refugee camp. from Latvia. And so there's just different archetypal experiences that they're experiencing here. And, you know, this is a differentiation that Shari Freelo gave to me later in the week, but just saying that, you know, this is not like you're going to be able to go through this experience and know what it's like to have your, your family split apart and for you to have your entire life be basically acquired by the government. And with no acknowledgement and retribution later. And so you're not getting the full trauma of that experience, but you're able to at least tap into the human emotions of that. And the fact that Randall was able to both act that out from him as a narrator, but also to start to embody, you know, do the motion capture for his other family members, super powerful to be able to see those performances that play out in this piece. And I think that there's something really powerful to seeing the story but then having these different moments to be able to drop in to really feel the full context of the situation. You know, we talked a little bit about the expression of character versus an exploration of context. I think it does a little bit of both. There are aspects of working hard and due diligence and trying to make a living in this new world, but there was also just being able to set the broader context of these scenes and these situations and then when there came to be a certain moment then the camera would drop down and you would take a picture and then from that picture it would tie it back to the actual picture and you were able to be connected to the people who were actually being photographed in these different scenarios and so it serves the function of filling in a lot of these gaps of memory and We all do that to our histories. If we don't have the full information, we take what we can of the stories and start to imagine what we can and really extrapolate it. And I think this piece was just an absolute masterful job of being able to do that and really blending your sense of having these little short embodied interactions to really ground you in this deeper context and then to have the story as it unfolds through all these different scenes. So, like I said, really super powerful. It's a story that after going through this experience, I have a whole new appreciation of. And I look forward to this process of how to take stories like this and break them down into these different turning points or find these different embodied interactions to allow you to have this deeper sense of that context and to really give you this sense of time of a story that's being unfolded. Because, you know, Japanese internment that was happening in the United States and Canada, you kind of think of that as an isolated moment of people being put into these different camps, but to really set the full context of what was leading up to it and then afterwards, it really, in a lot of ways, mirrored a lot of the similar types of situations that we have going on today of trying to draw these from boundaries and characterizing you as yourself and the others and then labeling people as those others and then putting them into these internment camps or in the case of the United States, there's putting kids in cages at the border and splitting up families at the same time. So there's mirrors for different aspects of the story as it's told that are still happening today around the world. And I think that's in part what makes a story like this so powerful is because it's alive. It's not something that has completely gone away, but there's echoes of this same story that is still playing out today. You know, there's an element of truth and reconciliation of just being able to tell the story and to have the story heard. And, you know, as I asked David from the National Film Board about this larger issues of truth and reconciliation in various aspects of the indigenous communities, you know, there's still a lot of work to be done on all these fronts. And it took over 50 years for the Canadian government to apologize to the Japanese Canadians. But I think there is something powerful about telling these types of stories and enabling people who have a direct connection to tell the story. Because like Randall was saying, they really love to find the universal through the personal. So this is a collective story, but he's telling a very deeply intimate story. And as he tells that intimate story, he's able to tell aspects of the history and the deeper context and tell that larger story, that universal story. And I think that when stories are able to really find that balance between the personal story, but also tapping into the deeper truths of this archetypal story and the collective story, then I think that's a sign of a great story. And I think what the Book of Distance was able to do is to achieve that level of being able to really tell a really powerful and emotionally heart-wrenching story and just absolutely well done, top of the notch. And looking forward for this to get out into the world so that more people can experience it since it was a half hour and Only six to 10 people or so could see it per each 90 minute session. So only hundreds of people were able to see it. And I'm looking forward to it eventually getting out there and more people getting to see it. So that's all that 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, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a less supported podcast. And so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.