#977: “The Changing Same:” Volumetric Storytelling Innovations, Connecting the Past to the Present with the Cycles of Racial Terror

The Changing Same is one of the most ambitious pieces of volumetric filmmaking yet since it combines all sorts of volumetric capture techniques with Scatter’s new Depthkit Studio multi-depth sensor set up, photogrammetry, and a fusion of rigged avatars and volumetric capture. It also has scenes with multiple captures, and new innovative spatial storytelling techniques like fusing multiple realities together, magical realism, a rich set of symbolic and visual metaphors, and using the spatial affordances of context to draw out similar archetypal patterns of oppression, systemic racism, and white supremacy that repeat throughout the course of history.

The Changing Same is the fourth production from Scatter (Clouds, Zero Days VR, & Blackout), and they continue to use these immersive storytelling pieces to innovate on their Depthkit volumetric capture solutions as well as content pipelines and workflows. Depthkit provides a democratizing impulse into volumetric capture by using a single or multiple commercially-available depth sensor cameras paired with a DSLR camera.

I had a chance to get more of the backstory The Changing Same and the exploration of the history racial terror in America by talking to creators Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson, and Yasmin Elayat. We talked about the backstory and evolution of this project, the struggles of funding independent and experimental works of volumetric filmmaking, and how they were exploring questions like What does an an American Pilgrimage look like? What is Magical Realism within context of The Changing Same? And what is the definition of Afrofuturism from an American perspective?


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True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So in today's episode, I'm going to be starting to dive into my coverage from Sundance 2021. So I'm going to be starting with this piece called The Changing Same. which is about the history of racial terror within the United States. And there was a collaboration with Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative that looks at how there's been these cycles over the course of history that moves from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration and how oppression and systemic racism are essentially staying the same. The filmmakers wanted to use the volumetric affordances of immersive storytelling to be able to start to tell this story. So I had a chance to talk to each of the directors and to go into their creative process as well as starting to experiment and expand the narrative language of immersive storytelling. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wasted VR podcast. So this interview with Michelle, Joe and Yasmin happened on Friday, January 29th, 2021. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:16.489] Yasmin Elayat: Hi, I'm Yasmin Allayat. I'm an immersive director and co-founder at Scatter, the company behind Depthkit and pioneering volumetric filmmaking. And here at Sundance 2021 with a new frontier project called The Changing Same, episode one, as one of the directors and producers.

[00:01:36.504] Joe Brewster: And hi, Yasmin is my collaborator. My name is Joe Brewster. I am a filmmaker. And now, XR, director, producer of The Changsing Seng, and really honored that you'll have us on your show.

[00:01:58.481] Kent Bye: Of course, yeah.

[00:02:00.261] Michèle Stephenson: Okay, my name is Michelle Stevenson, and I am a nonfiction storyteller. I'm based in Rapport Green, Brooklyn. This is actually my first foray into the immersive space. I have done some interactive work back in the day, a long time ago, but I'm mostly sort of a linear flat, I guess, storyteller is the right way to say it, I guess. So yeah, but this is my first experience with the immersive storytelling.

[00:02:27.085] Kent Bye: Okay, great. So maybe you could just give me a bit more context as to how this project came about.

[00:02:33.406] Joe Brewster: Well, it came about through a fellowship with Sundance. And they offered us an opportunity to pair with a nonprofit with a criminal justice background. And that happened to be Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative. And so we were given the option of collaborating with them to create a story, which basically helps tell their story. but would mutually allow us to tell something that we were interested in. So it was supposed to be a mutual obligation, and we chose to tell a long story of racial terror, beginning with slavery, looking at mass incarceration, and ending in criminal justice system. And so we started that process And they gave us a little bit of money to do some research. And that research was, what other ways, if we had our option, would we tell this story? So that is the process through which we met VR, XR, and Yasmin Alayat. Remember those moments, Yasmin?

[00:03:58.434] Yasmin Elayat: Yeah, I remember those moments. It was four years ago when we were actually founding Scatter. It was the beginning of Scatter as a company, and I was also in the middle of Zero Days back then, producing Zero Days and directing Zero Days. Yeah and you know like when I met Joe and Michelle they were also the origin of this as you know Joe was talking about was this documentary and this story that they were working on and when we first met I found that the story they're telling first of all was a really important one and also I was drawn to their approach themselves as artists and how uncompromising and bold I saw in their vision and the storytelling and so for Scatter as you know we were always excited about what are the most important stories of the day and me personally, I was excited by this idea of thinking about 400 years of history and also approaching it from a magically realist approach. And I just found a challenge that I was really excited to take on and collaborate with them on.

[00:04:53.988] Kent Bye: Great. Yeah. I know that I saw the documentary about Bryan Stevenson's work on HBO, True Justice, which really quite inspiring his work. I think I actually read a book about him a long time ago as well. He's quite an inspiring character. And one of the things in the movie that I was really struck by by was a lot of the work that he's been doing in this truth and reconciliation of going back and doing these healing rituals to be able to honor the truth of the history and have people bear witness to that. And I feel like there's a similar thread within the Changing Same here. Maybe we could take a step back and just sort of like describe what this project is. It's a multi-episode series. So in that context, try to describe the intention for what you were trying to cover in this first episode and then further on in future episodes, this idea of the changing same.

[00:05:41.413] Michèle Stephenson: Well, the Changing Sane were definitely inspired by the work of EJI. It was kind of in the zeitgeist. We had started with this short film that was about this young man who was commemorating in his small town in Mariana on the panhandle of Florida, the spectacle lynching of a man who was in 1934, Claude Mille. And so the short film goes around in present day, this young man takes a marathon to commemorate, and he stops at all of the spaces where Claude Neil was tortured until his ultimate lynching and death. And he does this every year as a ritual. And the tension that he faces in the community, and when we visited and understanding the weight of history that exists there, when we had the opportunity to not just finish this film, but look at it from a larger perspective and see how else can we talk about racial justice that brings in the past and how it's still present. That's how we came to the volumetric filmmaking and working with Scatter. And our intention and the story that we're looking to tell is really inspired by this notion that I think it's Faulkner who said, the past is never past. It's something about the past is never the past, it's the present, it's now, right? And so how do we represent that in a way where we can actually feel the past and the present together? And that was kind of the crux of what 3D could bring to us. And so what we have is we start in Mariana, Florida. And what appears to us is Lamar, who is our guide, and he takes us through specific periods in time, but through very personal experiences of racial terror, but also of resilience and of what, you know, our communities have done throughout these 400 years. And the tools that we use as he takes us through these different places through the series, episode one only takes us through is really an introduction to the world, the world that we build, and the different spaces in time. And it shows how you are going to take this journey, the mechanisms through which Lamar is going to guide you. So we have this time travel element that maybe Yasmin and Joe can elaborate on. That's what we call the back lot. That is where time sort of collapses. So you're in this moment in space. It could be the past. It could be the present. It could be the future. But all of a sudden, it collapses. to take you and transition you into another moment in time that you experience a particular scene. But that transition is history. It's history in front of you. But it's history that is magical. You see fear, but you also see joy. So you see all of these different emotions, of which that has built our very DNA. I don't want to give too much away, but more of this episode one is really an introduction to our world. And Lamar says it, you know, this is my world. And I'm going to take a moment. But a dilemma. Talk about the dilemma, because you are confronted with a dilemma at the end of the chapter one.

[00:08:40.961] Joe Brewster: So what we wanted to do to bring to this forum as a story, but we wanted to bring emotion. So the quandary with VR is, who's going to get emotional? It's the user, right? And so we wanted to make this a user-centered experience where you're not pushing buttons, but you're feeling. And so that's an issue, because if I want to move an audience, I take my protagonist and I rough him up. I let my protagonist feel failure and success and obstacles. It's hard to do that with a user. And so what we did is we paired the user up with a character. And so the user is paired with a guy. Now we've seen this before. This is a common device, right, in storytelling. I like to think of, what's that James Stewart movie where the angel comes down and he takes him on a tour of past, it's a wonderful life. Lamar is kind of like the angelic avatar who takes you, but when your angel falls and scrapes his knee, right, that's an audience response. That's a visceral response for the audience. So we can't beat up the audience, but we can be the angel. And that's what we were experimenting with, with that character. How could we impact audience by making them feel that they were the embodiment of Lamar? And so we were working on a few things here, but we're very excited about this. I wouldn't call it nascent, but this industry. where it's like the Wild Wild West. You get a chance to invent shit. You get a chance to manipulate the tools of storytelling in a way that's different from film and that there are a hundred years of cinematic devices used to tell the story. We mix it up. One of the things that I loved Yasmin, she said, OK, we don't have to enter through the door here. We can put the door underneath. We can put the door. What did she tell me that for? The next session, I got doors everywhere. They're coming. Doors in the back of people's beds. I'm kidding, but I'm not. Isn't that right, Esme?

[00:11:08.906] Yasmin Elayat: That's 100% right. And Kat knows exactly what you mean.

[00:11:15.021] Kent Bye: Yeah, Yasmine, maybe you could talk a little bit, uh, just briefly about the volumetric aspect here. Cause I know in your Sundance artist interview, you had said that you see this piece as one of the most ambitious volumetric capture pieces that's out there. And I know that you've been using the depth kit, but also like, I couldn't quite tell sometimes whether or not if it was a combination of like photogrammetry or if you were modeling stuff or it was. things that were volumetrically scanned or developed directly in Blender. I mean, it was sort of, it was kind of hard to tell in some of the, and it felt like a fusion of a lot of different stuff, but maybe you could sort of describe the aesthetic side in terms of the technology, because what I see Scatter in the dep kit is sort of like this DIY scale of volumetric capture that allows creators to be able to have a lot more latitude to be able to create pieces like this that can have actors that are giving these performances in a virtual reality context, whereas normally you would do something in CG or do motion capture or do something that is on the other side, which is completely synthetic, but you're able to capture the essence of these people and their emotions in a way that I think really suits a piece like this.

[00:12:20.833] Yasmin Elayat: Yeah. I mean, you said all the things we've done. This project is a cocktail of different technologies and approaches, and I'd love to talk about them because a lot of them also we invented along the way to make this happen. You know, one thing I wanted to say was sort of like part of what's interesting about this project being in development for a while and as a company building volumetric tools and specifically depth kit is I don't actually know, it's almost like we needed to wait for our tools and technology to achieve the sophistication now that we've gotten to, to pull this project off. And so the approach for changing S.A.M.E., there's actually something quite poetic. There's a lot of convergence of technology and the intentions behind this project. Just starting from the world you're talking about, the world building, we actually went to Mariana. We sent a reality capture team to capture the sites of this lynching of Claude Mille and to mark these unburied sites. Essentially, we were like, capturing them and they are part of the world. So the cracker house, that dirt road and the swamp, that's actually an oak tree. Those are all from that location. They're all from Mariana. And so you do see photogrammetry, but it's not just any place. It's the place where the origin of the story started. And there's also this element of recontextualizing and we're not only memorializing, but it's also recontextualizing it. And also from a depth perspective or volumetric filmmaking, To achieve the changing scene, there's actually several elements. There are these characters that are volumetrically captured in very important performances. And then we also have Lamar and Lopez and we have these other characters. And then we have a hero, another hero character that is larger than life, that stands at 13 feet tall and needed to be, you know, she's a force of nature. And to create her, we actually had to combine two workflows. So we're using depth kit and motion capture to create this hybrid avatar, which is Harriet. That in itself was a little challenge, but we've been iterating and testing it, and I think she's quite beautiful. And then the last thing I wanted to mention was within the VR approach, even, there's a lot of this kind of poetry I like to think of between storytelling and technology, where this time travel mechanic that Michelle was speaking to, which is, you know, collapsing time, essentially, where you're existing in both past, present, future. at the same time. So there is the backlog, but to get to the backlog or to get into these eras where the story is taking place, the mechanic itself is actually you are rendering two cameras. So it's like two cameras at the same time in HDRP. So you're literally seeing and existing in two worlds at the same time. and then we collapse you into one. So I love when technology is that poetic and serves the story. And so there's a lot to say about the approach, but there's a lot of it also that is using also just new tools. This is the first time we used our DepthHit Studios, our multi-cam solution. I know Blackout was kind of an early generation of this, but it's come such a long way, which I hope you can see, Kent, as someone who's followed our work for so long, that we've been working hard and still trying to keep it accessible and democratize it.

[00:15:18.983] Kent Bye: I wanted to go back to this magic and dreamlike quality here that you have in this piece, because it's actually one of the provocative conceits, which is that, well, first to go back to true justice and Bryan Stevenson, a lot of things that he was doing was going back into these sites where there was a lynching, collecting the dirt from those sites and then putting it in a jar and then bringing it back into his Equal Justice Institute. And so I feel like this in some sense is like a virtual version of that, where you're going to these sites and capturing the virtual representation of these places and really bringing this story together of the history. But also this other concept of the difference between monochronic versus polychronic. So the polychronic meaning that there's lots of cycles that are happening all at the same time, but also these cycles of history that in some sense repeat themselves. And I think that you're really tapping into that the past is in the present because it's the next iteration of the same thing. And actually in true justice, Bryan Stevenson makes that point in terms of going all the way back to slavery and then lynchings and then the Jim Crow laws and then mass incarceration. There's the same type of white supremacy and systemic racism that gets iterated at different phases of our culture. And I feel like this piece does a really beautiful job of grounding you into a modern context of policing and mass incarceration, and then going back into the times of slavery, trying to show the parallels and I think give an embodied experience of how similar it's always been with this type of systemic racism and white supremacy embedded into our culture. So I thought that was a beautiful way of using the affordances of spatial computing because you're able to really start to blend those two worlds together because you're in this modern context, but you see these change floating in it. And it's a trigger in my mind that it feels like I'm in a dream because it's like, okay, that shouldn't be floating there. And it sort of primes me to be like, okay, this is something new here that I don't know quite where it's going or what to expect. And then once you sort of are mashing together these different realities that are kind of stacked, literally stacked on top of each other, and you're flipping up and down between these similar storylines. I don't know, for me, that was one of the more powerful experiences I've ever had in VR, because I think it's like, there's so many different ways where you can boil down to the essence of human experience and then see how that plays out through time.

[00:17:41.638] Joe Brewster: Well, thank you, because that was our intention.

[00:17:45.760] Michèle Stephenson: Yeah, we've been spending four years working.

[00:17:52.443] Joe Brewster: But I think what you saw in episode one is our attempt to say, these are the rules. Things that are up, sometimes they're not up. The way you leave a scene, it may not be up or down. But I think when we come back, it'll be a little more on steroids. Because you have to introduce audience to this. Like, I'm saying, OK, Yasmeen, why do we have to walk up, right? Why can't we walk perpendicular to the street? I mean, there are things that we want to do. There are conventions that we want to break so that we can tell these stories. But with the intention of not flaunting the technology, but augmenting the story.

[00:18:36.776] Michèle Stephenson: Sorry, just in our iterative process also, we did reference films that had to do with dreams. Inception, Joe, was one of the big films that you wanted us to. not sort of internalize, but think about as we're thinking about what does this space look like. And I think dream is really important in terms of what you're saying. It's our subconscious, it's our unconscious. Dreaming is how we process, sometimes pain, sometimes work, sometimes work stuff is through our dreams. And I think that it has a huge symbol here too, in terms of our collective dream, right, as a society.

[00:19:13.447] Yasmin Elayat: One thing too, to add on to this, we had a very iterative design process and the world building part of it, which is getting to these environments and these worlds and this approach that you so beautifully described, Kent, is one thing that like, Joe and Michelle were part of the lab. They use this word about this is an American pilgrimage. And what is an American pilgrimage? And when we were doing this world building and this design process, one of them was, what is magical realism in the changing same? And for me, the other one that was really an interesting process was, well, what is the definition of Afrofuturism from an American perspective, which I know, Michelle said, and I was like, Oh, yes, that's really interesting. Like, what is it for the changing same and not borrowed from other cultures? Like, what is the American version? And what will it be? And I think there's something really interesting in this world. Our magical realist world is the definition, how we built it, what it is. There's a subtlety to it, I think, but also there's these, a little bit on steroids, as Joe mentioned. But I think a lot of what you're describing came from this really intentional world building and making sure that it is rooted in a lot of this research and intentionality behind what we're trying to say.

[00:20:18.865] Joe Brewster: One of the things, Kat, is this film was hard to finance. And we think that that is the key to our success. And someone had given us a million dollars, and that's our budget. We didn't get close to that. But what it did is it gave us time to coalesce as a team. People were working for us in a way that you don't normally. You can see the work. And these were highly skilled technicians not sleeping. And so why? It's because we spent so much time with design that the designers owned the project. Like, I'll tell you a story. One of our designers, Rad Mora, a commercial designer. He's not cheap, but he's very good. And so there was the killing of George Floyd, right? So we called Rad, what are you doing? I'm working on this piece. I'm redesigning everything. And like, what I am saying is that it was his piece at that point. And I think the same thing for our engineers, Elliot, James, George. At one point, the design process took on a whole different level, not because it took a long time. It's because they had belief in it, they were seeing results, and they just owned it. And so I don't recommend that. But it's certainly in line with the thesis of this piece, is that even when you're in the worst situation, you're facing lynching, redlining, police brutality, there is a way to find joy and resistance. And so when we were struggling making this piece, our process of continuing to struggle and to be, Yasmin describes it in these interviews, oh yeah, we were uncompromising. We compromised a lot. In fact, this piece is supposed to have a lot of AI with the audio, which we dropped at the last minute.

[00:22:31.617] Yasmin Elayat: So, I would like Ken to be a moderator here because Joe told Shari how much we compromised and Shari came over and she's like, I'm sorry to hear you have to compromise so much. I was like, Shari, these projects are so ambitious. There's motion capture, there's depth captures at the same time, and even the time travel mechanic is something that's never been done before. We had to hack Unity and it's not even the rendering file. I was like, there's nothing, nothing compromising with the project, but I know, I know Joe and Michelle, a lot of challenges more, but it is quite a beat this project.

[00:23:02.439] Kent Bye: Well, you'll never, you'll never be done innovating all the things you want to create. So you can shoot for Mars and land on the moon, you know? Yes. I mean, some of the other things I was really struck with the lighting and the sound design, you know, just creating a mood throughout the whole piece and the fog and the lighting that you had. And I want to focus in on this liminal space that you transition and you have all these symbolic metaphors for these cultural places, whether it's the Apollo theater, the cotton club, you have slave areas, there's cop cars, the Olympians who are holding up with the black Panther fist at the Olympics. And, you know, you have these different parts of a cultural history that. I recognize a number of them and other ones are either abstract or either are specific references that I didn't know a specific location. Because what it feels like is that when you're getting introduced into a culture, these are symbols that are a part of a history that may not be well-known to everybody. And so you're putting in this soup of dream-like metaphoric symbols that are floating around. Either, you know what they refer to or you don't, but it seemed very rich and symbolism and metaphor while I was going through there. And I'm just curious to hear a little bit more about the types of things that you wanted to include there.

[00:24:14.875] Joe Brewster: I would say that some of this comes from an understanding that history is very complicated and there's a lot of it. And what we wanted to do is try to show resilience. oppression, joy, and a soup. And the question is, how do you do that, right? And sometimes you don't show the big events. You show the little events, someone dancing or smiling or jumping rope. And those are the moments that we thought could be added, small moments, not those specific moments. as representatives of resistance. It's not firing back. It's not protesting with the sign. It's what we create to make tomorrow a better day. And sometimes that's music, and sometimes that's sports, and sometimes that's changing your son's diaper. So one of the experiences that led us to that is that Yasmin, she doesn't remember this, went to South Africa to work with some creators. she came back with a reference to, what is it, Kentris Alexander?

[00:25:32.546] Yasmin Elayat: William Kentris. I remember this exactly. William Kentris.

[00:25:36.587] Joe Brewster: I apologize.

[00:25:37.908] Michèle Stephenson: William Kentris had an installation that is a cyclorama. And it's all silhouettes of South African protest history, I guess, or other kinds. And you could see it sort of morphing all around in the silhouette. But it was through music, and it was very sort of Joyful. It was joyful, but it was also kind of inspirational, but also, you know, acknowledging the difficulty. And that was really a point of reference for us. We wanted this time travel to be also everyday life, you know, and it serves sort of an emotional connection to, you know, that dreamlike space allows you to transition out of a pretty, you know, brutal moment that you're coming from out of the beating by the cop car. and then as you're brought into this jail space. So it serves an emotional purpose as well as sort of this exposition too, in terms of these are all the different things that you may not understand it, but it doesn't matter if you don't understand. Others will go through it, will have other references. And so we want to leave that abroad, that you don't need to understand everything to understand the experience, all of the references.

[00:26:45.131] Yasmin Elayat: There's one element also that didn't get into Sundance but is part of this piece that will be V2, episode 1, which is you're supposed to actually see, you may have seen in one of the time travel backlots, a silhouetted figure. If you caught her, she was hanging out in the backlot. There's actually supposed to be a layer on top of all of these sets of time periods that are the silhouetted figures actually that represent ancestral figures, or people from past, present and future. And, you know, we don't have enough time to integrate all of those expressions there, these captures, but there is a whole other layer to this, that's going to be this moving, dancing, silhouetted daily life, all the things that Michelle was describing, on top of all the visuals you already saw. And so speaking about more volumetric, it's going to get even more volumetric very soon.

[00:27:34.272] Kent Bye: Just a couple more questions to wrap up here. I'd like to focus in on the end part, because you start in the slightly past, you go even deeper into the past and present, mashing those together, but then you jump into the future. You've done this exploration of intergenerational trauma in this piece, but then jumping forward to say, okay, now that we in this conceit of this hyper speculative fiction, you're going into this world of Afrofuturism and starting to paint a picture of a future. And so I'm just curious to hear a little bit more elaboration on your intentions with this like hyper speculative fiction, as well as Afrofuturism elements that are embedded into this piece.

[00:28:11.945] Michèle Stephenson: Well, I guess for us, that space could be the future, but it could also be the present. Because there's also this argument that Afrofuturism is now, like Detroit is Afrofuturism, or Baltimore is Afrofuturism, in terms of thinking about innovation in the here and now. And I think for us on this particular journey, the question that Lamar poses at the end, which is the dilemma, are you going to plead guilty or not guilty? And then Harriet sort of plays with that. She's like, you can earn this space, but if you decide to kind of give in, if you decide to buy into the system and stay within the system and not resist it, you're not going to earn this larger space where I dance, where I experience joy, and where I feel more liberated. And so for us, it's not so much that we're playing with Afrofuturism in the sense that our imagination, our ability to struggle towards more liberation is about making those hard choices. You can't get there without those hard choices. And both Harriet and Lamar are rooting for you, the user, to make the right hard choice. And so it's a bit of a tease, the space that you find with Harriet. of where you could end up at the end of the series. We felt it was important to include, you know, all these different time spans and how we could imagine them. And then, you know, initially the original script didn't really have that future space in episode one, but we felt that we needed to, again, in terms of world building and giving people a sense of where they might go and tease them into wanting to get further into episode two and three, we needed to bring Harriet in earlier and that space.

[00:29:56.122] Joe Brewster: And I think it's very interesting because whenever we would come together as a larger team, people were focusing on a character that was barely in the first episode. They wanted to talk about what Harriet meant, how she was dressed, how she moved, what she represented to them. Mother, liberator, someone who is supposed to be on our $20 bill, right? So we couldn't move forward without creating a glimpse of her when she was supposed to appear in episode three.

[00:30:28.014] Michèle Stephenson: Now, there's another notion that the future, or where she is, could be death, right? Could be heaven. Because certainly in apocentric rituals here in the Americas, as in voodoo, the idea of death is return to Africa. You go back over the water. back to Africa, where you came from, and some of these spiritual beliefs. And we talked about spirituality also. So it's not necessarily our carbon selves in that space. So you could interpret it that way also.

[00:31:00.275] Joe Brewster: Well, then I'm going to interpret it differently. Because death is coming. Yeah, that's true. But what I can say for me, it's a place of joy.

[00:31:14.016] Yasmin Elayat: Yeah.

[00:31:14.536] Joe Brewster: And that's how it's designed. It is designed with music and spirit and comfort.

[00:31:23.278] Michèle Stephenson: And a little sass.

[00:31:25.979] Joe Brewster: And so hopefully folks will come back. The question is, how are we going to show something like this? It's kind of ambitious. And we have a plan. First, we're working on COVID, right? Because we think we want to roll this out. And then we have to think like the same resistors that we portray in this piece. So we want to take it on the road. We have a couple of people who said they want to help us with fat once they get back on the road. One is Afropunk. That's a non-traditional place for an installation like this. But They have concerts that bring 20,000 to 40,000 people over a course of three days in New York, London, South Africa, L.A., and Atlanta, and Brazil now. And so all of those places are talking about these same issues. The issues that we're talking about here are being discussed worldwide, and we hope to take this on the road with the help of 350 million vaccine shots. But we're open to other things. But I think we are just excited about collaboration, partnership, and continuing the creativity and continuing to build.

[00:32:50.797] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of immersive storytelling and virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:33:03.087] Joe Brewster: Well, I'm going to take that first, because I'm a talker. Without hubris, I think that we're stepping into a different realm for immersive storytelling. You know, I really think it's more theater than cinema. And there are technical problems with it. But I think that what we're doing now could translate to making a more interesting theater. And so the boundaries that we're trying to overcome are going to lead to that, the first step in that transition. I mean, imagine this, and I know I haven't discussed this with Yasmin or Michelle, but imagine I'm not a Lion King guy, right? In fact, I hated taking my kids to that, but I took them. And it costs tens of millions of dollars to build that. And they build it with actors. And I'm saying that you can create these performances immersively and set them in the Andes or in the Amazon for a lot less money and a lot more dramatic intensity. And I think it's going to be part of the CGI toolkit soon. I'm excited about the near future. So somebody approaches from off-Broadway and we're going to do a bang-up theatrical performance and tour it virtually.

[00:34:30.626] Michèle Stephenson: Joe wants to do an August Wilson play in VR. Make that cheaper than a Broadway ticket for a few people.

[00:34:38.869] Kent Bye: Yeah, what about you, Yasmeen or Michelle? What do you think the ultimate potential of immersive storytelling might be?

[00:34:43.150] Michèle Stephenson: I'm still thinking.

[00:34:46.581] Yasmin Elayat: I mean, it's a hard question for me to answer because I feel like that's like my work is seeing where the potential can keep going. I feel like that's my current practice, artistic practice, and also the like mission, you know, my collaborators. So I don't know. I guess for me, it's about the fact that you are completely building the rules as you go. I think that's what's fascinating to me. And also the fact that as it's maturing, immersive media and immersive storytelling in the XR space, I'm seeing a lot more of this marriage, I think, between the craft of filmmaking and storytelling and really maturing, and also the technology itself really maturing. So I'm seeing kind of this before when maybe it was still early days, what I'm seeing right now is really this whole other experience. And as someone who's been doing this for a while, I get taken aback sometimes now. Like I haven't had that kind of awe or wonderment in a long time. And I think that means that there's quite a big step in this space. And I don't think it's about more cutting edge technology or more interesting things. I think it's really that it's becoming really more mature and moving in this direction. So I guess that's what I would say.

[00:35:54.469] Michèle Stephenson: I mean, I don't have much more to add, just I think this maturity aspect that Yasmin was mentioning is key. I think if anything, like the immersive storytelling, immersive experience is going to become even more relevant and important in these spaces where pandemics are happening in terms of being able to give us more opportunity to experience things virtually that, quite frankly, we may not be able to experience outside our door, depending on how things evolve for us as a species. I think the XR options will become more and more important. And that's why I think being able to lay a stick on the ground in terms of how and what stories are told and what stories are told in this space are really crucial. I only see it becoming more relevant, not less so. And it's interesting because some of what we're seeing too is we see a lot of 2D series about people putting on VR headsets and having these alternate experiences. Some of the best series I've watched in the last six months while I was in a pandemic was following a person becoming obsessed with their headset in their headset in another world. And so it's becoming more part of our sort of popular culture is part of our space. I'm just hoping, as with all sort of art and story, that once it becomes commercialized and only certain stories are told. So I think that's where we have to be sort of wary and keep pushing the barriers.

[00:37:29.779] Kent Bye: All right. Well, I'd like to just thank you for joining me here on the podcast and I'm really impressed with all the different innovations that you made here and just the look and the feel and the story and yeah, really powerful moments that I had with mashing together these different realities. And, and I'm really looking forward to see where you take it in the future. And this is just a little sneak peek and a little bit of a taster to see how your ambitions are going to continue to grow. And hopefully you'll have more resources and time and energy to bring it all into fruition. So. Yeah, thank you each for joining me here on the podcast and helping to unpack it all. Thank you, Ken.

[00:38:02.048] Michèle Stephenson: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, Ken.

[00:38:04.829] Kent Bye: So that was Yasmin Elia. She's an immersive director and the co-founder at Scatter, who worked on Depthkit, which was used in this experience, as well as Michelle Stevenson, who's a nonfiction storyteller, as well as Joe Brewster, a filmmaker and XR director and producer. And they had the piece called The Changing Same, which premiered at Sundance 2021. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all well there was a really really powerful moment in this piece where you're in this prison scenario and they have a scene that's playing out with these different characters and then you teleport into a dreamlike space that's actually directly above you, and you go back in time and you see a very similar archetypal expression of the same type of oppressive dynamics with the same actors but in different clothes, and they're kind of playing out the exact same scene that you just came from. And so, it's really trying to get at this sense of the changing same, of how, while there's evolution and progress of society as a whole, there are certain issues of oppression and systemic racism that are essentially staying the same. And I think that's the big point. that is trying to be made in this piece, but also in the work of Bryan Stevenson. There's an amazing documentary called True Justice, Bryan Stevenson's fight for equality, which premiered on HBO but is actually free on YouTube. I highly recommend folks check it out. It's a really amazing documentary that dives into the life of Bryan Stevenson, who was a collaborator and inspiration for what the Equal Justice Initiative is doing for this piece of The Changing Same. So this is a provocative piece in the sense that it's blending aspects of exploring racial trauma, but also covering all these aspects of oppression, but also these other aspects of hope and joy and optimism as they start to pull together this soup of archetypal images as you're blending between different realities, you're kind of slipping into this dreamlike state where you're floating through all these spatial metaphors and references to things that both represent things of oppression and systemic racism, but also ways that are bringing hope and inspiration and joy into people's lives. And so all these things are kind of mashed together. One of the things that Joe said is that, you know, history is complicated, and that this kind of liminal space that you're floating through as you're going from scene to scene, and Yasmeen Elliott was talking about how they actually had to, like, create this unity render where you actually have two cameras rendering at the same time, so you're actually within the virtual reality experience in two realities at the same time as one is blending in from one to the other, which is a really, really cool technique. I think there's a lot of really interesting innovations when it comes to the affordances of spatial storytelling that they're exploring here. And I think that's a big reason why I'm such a fan of Depthkit. Depthkit does have a kind of a lo-fi aesthetic where it is kind of glitchy, so it doesn't always work for every single context. But I think the trade-offs of accessibility and some of the different stories that get to be told is, for me at least, definitely worth that trade-off. And over time, the technology is just going to get better and better and better, and that there'll be kind of less of those digital artifacts that you see in that Depthkit scans is in contrast to something that's like Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture. But I think Part of the point of what Joe was saying in this interview was that they tried to raise lots of money and resources to be able to really do this properly, but because they weren't able to raise the money, they just had to end up spreading it over the last four years of working on this piece. And it's really quite timely, just in terms of all the stuff that's been erupting over this last year, in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, and especially in the wake of George Floyd's murder. There's just a lot of people that wanted to get involved in a project like this. It's, I think, a very provocative piece and also is pushing forward the medium of storytelling. And like Joe said, there's just an opportunity to kind of like experiment and to invent shit and make shit up, I think is the phrase. So, using these technologies to be able to experiment. And, you know, at the end, you get this lens into this hyper-speculative, Afrofuturism scene where there's this 13-foot character named Harriet, and she's giving you this moral dilemma as to whether or not you're going to stay or go, whether or not you're willing to commit to this experience overall. And I think it's very interesting to hear how they wanted to give it a little bit of a sneak peek for where the overall series is going to go, kind of blurring the different layers of reality. And Michel gave the Faulkner quote, which is, The past is never dead and it's not even past. So just the fact that there's so many things that happen that the past forms the context of our current reality and that especially if it's unacknowledged or there's a lot of trauma there, then it's just going to unconsciously repeat over and over and over again, which I think is like a main point of what they're trying to express here in this piece. But at the end, they're trying to give you this vision of the future, of this place of joy and resilience and optimism, and to give this vision, this sci-fi depiction of a female character who's like this 13-foot avatar with fashion and the way she's moving around. Yeah, I'm just really curious to see where they take this in the future, of their going to the past, into the present, and into the future, and blurring all these different contexts and time, and to be able to see what's the future that we want to actually live into. So I'm just super excited to see where this goes. And I actually had a whole in-depth conversation with a couple of the other co-founders of Scatter with James George and Alexander Porter to be able to dive into some of the more technical bits of the technology that they're using in this piece and where that's at right now and where it's going in the future. So I'll be diving into that into the next episode here. 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 enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is an unlisted supporter 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 voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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