In amongst the impressive Australian showing of feature films and shorts that screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, there was also Shaun Gladwell’s VR work Orbital Vanitas which premiered as part of the New Frontier Showcase. A six minute experience, Orbital Vanitas places the individual in Earth’s orbit, where they become part of a sci-fi world that stimulates a deliberation on life and death through skull symbolism, a recurring motif in Gladwell’s work.
Sundance selection was the perfect opportunity to launch Badfaith, an indie VR content collective, with members based between Australia, London and LA: mixed media artist Gladwell, video artist Daniel Crooks, writer/director Natasha Pincus, filmmakers Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Luci Schroder, indigenous artist Tony Albert, AR specialist and neuro-researcher Dr Jordan Nguyen, and producer Leo Faber. And next, the collective is undertaking a VR doco, Storm Rider, with production funding support from Screen Australia and SBS.
Badfaith is a reference to Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s questions around the idea of freedom and acting inauthentically, against our desires. Your medium is about pushing boundaries, but how much freedom is the audience allowed, given that they might be trapped in the headset?
Shaun Gladwell: The fact that you’re in VR means that you can’t really be held by the frame of a director in a traditional way because even in non-interactive VR you have the freedom of looking wherever you want. It’s one of the appeals for me and also for the people that Leo and I are getting involved in this network. Even the most conservative VR, you are led by the hands through the experience, but it’s what you do with your head, what you do with your vision, that’s kind of amazing. Back to this concept of Badfaith, we like the fact that it does have this connection to the term Badfaith that Sartre and de Beauvoir made up. It also sounds like a ‘70s punk rock band and we also put VR together kind of like the punk tracks. They just come together really quick and there’s a kind of energy to it that feels like we’re jamming and experimenting, and we just love that end of the spectrum. There’s big studios out there putting together work with the great traditional production process – we’re going a different way.
Leo: I’ll give an example which is Orbital Vanitas. It was made in 3 weeks, and when we tell that to people in the industry that are working in these big studios they just can’t believe it. When we talk about a punk band, what we’re talking about is this idea of experimenting and trying things. Shaun’s first ever VR work, 18-year-old Matthew Jigalin made it, who I met at a VR meetup. Sundance told us it’s got a shot, ‘we like the treatment but the deadline is in 3 weeks.’ We reached out to a visual effects house who told us we had unrealistic deadlines and $100k hard costs and soft costs. I was feeling dejected, and then I meet this 18-year old-guy. He said ‘I finished my NSW high school project and I came first creating an interactive VR video game,’ and I said ‘Can you make animated VR work?’ He said, ‘if I can’t, I’ll learn on Reddit.’ We rolled the dice, it was make or break, and there were about 15 people involved. Everyone was just giving it a go and it’s turned out to be successful and it’s making headlines globally. The New York Times included it in their Sundance wrap-up. They’ve acquired it so you can download it from the VR app on the New York Times. Shaun showed me the full back page-just on Orbital Vanitas.
When did you both discover VR and what’s the idea behind a VR collective?
Leo: What drew me initially to virtual reality is that after 19 years in the television and film game I was at the office of JP Marin, who was Head of Digital at SBS and he showed me virtual reality for the first time. They’d done a 360 Mardi Gras video and I was just blown away, and it was really low-fi. This was nearly two years ago and I could just see the potential and so I basically moonlighted. I was Head of Development at Essential Media, Chris Hilton and Ian Collie’s company, but I then got another job working for Australia’s largest virtual reality company and basically made a lot of commercial virtual reality work doing projects for brands like Samsung, Jaguar, Audi. I did that for about 7 or 8 months. I had this penny drop moment when I was showing my best friend VR for the first time and I was realising that all the stuff I was showing her wasn’t the stuff I’d been making, it was stuff that Chris Milk out of America was making and was much more experimental and focused on the experience rather than brand messaging. And I just thought, this is a great opportunity, the birth of a new medium, and I’m wasting it chasing brand dollars to make ads, basically. I knew a lot of people hadn’t tried VR and everyone I was showing VR was being blown away, so I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I blew away a true visionary?’ Shaun [Gladwell] is an artist I’ve been following for years who I’ve loved. I then gave Shaun his first VR experience. I already had the bug, and knew the potential, and also knew the gap in the market because there wasn’t anyone doing interesting work in VR. So then I put the headset on Shaun and the rest is history. Two days later we made our first work together.
Shaun: It was a really profound experience for me. I’d heard about VR, but it was like the Hollywood version of VR. It was like watching Lawnmower Man and dream catching Johnny Mnemonic style VR. I actually heard about VR when I was in Afghanistan [in 2009 Gladwell was the Australian War Memorial’s Official War Artist]. I hadn’t experienced consumer VR and when Leo put me in this headset, the first work I went into was by Chris Milk, who’s a huge protagonist in VR, a shining star within the scene. We call him “VR Jesus”. So, I saw this piece called Evolution of Verse and it was pretty mind-blowing. It showed me in one six-minute hit what’s possible in VR, so we were very keen to make a work straight after that.”
VR now has reach in gaming, documentary, TV, streaming… Is it going to become the new normal?
Leo: It’s a new medium and we haven’t actually experienced, as artists, as creatives, as journos, as industry professionals, as humans, a new medium for a very long time and that’s actually what this is. There is no frame. It is not film. It is not TV. It is not video content. It is a completely new medium and that is the moment when I realised ‘Far out, we need to be doing something that is a little bit different and interesting.’ Yes, now, there’s lots of different people doing lots of different things in VR but still there are very few people that are able to justify making work that has no real reason to exist beyond it just being an interesting experiment. And that is what we’re trying to do. It’s expensive to make VR. The people that are making it are investing heavily in a lot of camera gear. In the early days, what happened was rich dudes, VCs [venture capitalists], would say ‘Let’s invest in these VR companies,’ and then they think ‘You better start making some money.’ How do they do that? They’re going to start chasing the work that’s going to start coming along.
Shaun’s a contemporary artist, I work at Red Bull as Head of Content in Australia, so Badfaith for us and the collective is to try and pull resources and skill to try and figure out what the hell is going on with this new medium and try to create interesting stuff. Eventually we will tackle larger projects on bigger scale. We have some staff development funding now which is a must.
Can you comment about the thinking behind the particular members of the collective?
Leo: Shaun reached out to the art world, I reached out to the film world and introduced it to these people that never tried VR before, and then said let’s challenge this with an experiment. So we’ve got down Natasha Pincus, who’s a well-known director and [artists] Tony Albert and Daniel Crooks, and Lucy Schroder who was also at Sundance with her film Slapper. We also got an amazing artist, Samantha Mathews who’s out of LA; she’s an indie VR guru, she’s taken it to the next level where it’s almost like a religion. We’ve got a pretty amazing group of people in terms of the variety. Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work compared to Daniel Crooks’ work, I don’t think you can join the dots; they’re completely different as artists.
Shaun: But at the same time they work perfectly within our collective because it’s all about challenging the medium and making interesting stuff and that wide spectrum of skillsets and experience that really helps us. To justify the collective word, rather than it just being a bunch of people working on VR sharing resources, we have projects in development with everyone in our collective and it’s really exciting. Dr Jordan Ngyugen, who’s also in our collective is an AI, robotics, neuro-researcher.
It’s funny how on screen their work all comes together but as individuals you’d feel like they’re worlds apart.
Leo: Everyone’s different but we’re all connected through people that we love, or who we’ve worked with in the past and everyone just wants to do something that’s a little bit different.
Your VR doco Storm Rider is about a young Muslin woman from the East End of London. Do you think VR holds the power to attract ground-breaking stories that can be shown to a larger scale of people who might not otherwise see these films?
Shaun: I think it’s hard for anyone to calculate the novelty value. Will they go as it’s VR or are they going because of the subject matter? I think a project like Storm Rider has to happen in VR because the idea and its attractive element is immersive 360. Regardless of whether people will see it in VR, it just has to happen in VR. The language of documentary can be pushed and extended through what happens in VR. You get this incredible sense of embodiment and being immersed and there’s all these theories of VR being capable of generating empathy, because you feel like you’re close to the subjects. I’m really interested in exploring those ideas, around VR and potentially in the doco format.
Leo: I think distribution, being able to hit a larger market by traditional broadcast methods of TV, film, online; that is always certainly going to bring a wider audience because everyone has TVs, phones and laptops. For us, when we went to write it, it was always about the story and about the film itself and it is such an important film to be produced in VR because of the nature of the content. We’re trying to hold our cards close to our chest in terms of what that is, but certainly when it comes out you’ll see. When I pitched it to Screen Australia, they challenged me. We were up against documentaries, TV, those were the people in the round that we were up against. They challenged me, ‘Why does this have to be VR? Why not just a documentary?’ And I explained it was because we’re trying to help the viewers to look into the window of another person’s experience as their own, and in doing so, VR’s the only way to do that.
Shaun: One of the things I’ve been interested in is documentary. The Guardian recently issued this experimental documentary of sorts, 6×9, where you’re basically stuck in an isolation cell. That for me was a radical use of VR. All of a sudden the tables were turned and I was given a claustrophobic experience where I’m in a solitary confinement cell. Notes on Blindness which was a Tribeca Film Festival project where you actually experience going blind through someone else’s recordings… I’ve never had that kind of emotional response to documentary subject matter. VR was the powerful platform. We’re interested in pushing that, really exploring that.
Leo: The Displaced [following 3 – among millions – refugee children] was the one that really hit me. That was the first time I was actually crying in the goggles! That’s another whole technical issue when you’ve got steamy wet goggles…