A Year in VR

I was catapulted into the world of 360˚ filmmaking last year when I made my first immersive film, I am Galway 2020 for the final presentation of Galway's successful bid campaign for European Capital of Culture.

I was lucky enough to be involved at a time when the focus was on a Virtual Capital of Culture, incorporating Virtual Reality (VR) in film, animation and gaming, mixed and augmented reality, holography - the works. So I made the big leap into what was exciting uncharted territory for me, and for many others as I soon discovered. That was eighteen months ago and so much has changed in the world of immersive filmmaking and Virtual Reality since then. New technologies are rapidly evolving, converging and colliding, and right now is the best time for media artists to experiment and explore this new world of possibilities.


As an independent filmmaker with an interest in more experimental and poetic cinema, I wanted to find out how best to approach creating meaningful work within this medium. Over the last six months I've had the opportunity to explore the VR frontier further in Ireland, Australia and Germany with the support of Galway Film Centre, Culture Ireland and Screen Training Ireland.

Keeping up with technology is neither my motivation, nor my area of expertise. It's all about diving into new possibilities for working with the moving image in the immersive realm. Accepting that the two can't be separated and finding new ways of collaborating has been an important lesson. I've discovered what others already knew; that absolutely everything is possible and that the world, or 'worlds' of immersive film and VR are boundariless. The lines between disciplines and art forms have completely dissolved. 

When I was first figuring out how to approach making a 360˚ film, I had a moment when I wondered if I had wasted my time learning the craft of making 'flat' or 'traditional' films and TV. I don't believe that for a second, but an important part of the process was to question everything, and then to throw away what I thought I knew about film and start again. I reminded myself that I have very sophisticated sensory technology of my own. So I stopped looking at the screen and a swivel chair became an essential tool during the ideation phase. I made unusual looking circular storyboards from an aerial perspective, and was pleased to learn later that Hal Kirkland from Here Be Dragons did exactly the same thing to map out his more complex projects. The affordable smaller 360˚ cameras available now hadn't quite landed here yet, so I visited all of the locations multiple times armed with a free panoramic photo app. I soon learned which skills I could bring with me, which I had to let go, and how to evolve my thinking to expand beyond the frame. What is required are finely honed story-telling skills from other mediums, that with an open mind can be adapted. Instincts gathered and applied to the craft of traditional filmmaking translated into another form.

I am Galway 2020 was shot in 2D with a 10 camera Go-Pro Rig by Virtual Reality Ireland, who were extremely helpful in helping me to navigate this new medium. I have to admit it was a very strange feeling to lie down behind a wall at Galway docks shouting directions into a megaphone. It's still trial and error, but if you are a one wo/man band, 360˚ cameras are improving all the time and becoming more affordable. The stitching is now done for you without any delays. This is the perfect time for experimentation.

Due to time and budgetary constraints, it had to be quite simple but fit for purpose, which was to impress a panel of European judges with a risky move. James Latimer who recorded and mastered the sound could have created a spatial mix, but we were under time pressure to deliver before the final presentation. Since the piece is driven by a poem and the nature of the sound is unanchored and ambient, we decided that the stereo mix created in the edit with Julie Flavin worked just fine.

One thing we struggled with was fixing the first perspective after the first cut. We couldn't find a way to solve this issue at the time, because there wasn't a simple solution. So once again, a swivel chair became a prop to get the most out of the experience. It really doesn't matter where you look, but fluid movement in the 360˚ sphere is important so that it flows. This issue can now be solved with Liquid Cinema's forced perspective tool, which allows you to choose the first view a user sees after a cut, no matter where they are looking. So you can direct what people are seeing, to a certain degree, at least by anchors or markers, and then a spatial mix will also help to attract attention to action happening in one direction or another. If I were to do it all again, I'd make sure it was filmed in 3D, use the forced perspective tool and have a spatial sound mix.

Eugene McCrystal of Outer Limits Post Production took on I am Galway 2020 as a research project since it was the first immersive film through the door, which was a godsend. Otherwise it would have cost a lot more to make, and a good paint job and colour grade were essential. 

A great example of thinking outside the box is the work of Lynette Walworth, who gave a brilliant workshop at the 360 Vision conference in Sydney in April 2017, hosted by Screen NSW. Walworth is an acclaimed Australian director and artist working with immersive installations and environments for the last twenty years. In 2015 she made Collisions, an Emmy nominated VR experience that came of out of the Sundance Institute New Frontier, Jaunt VR Residency Program. 

 In Collisions we are taken on journey to the land of indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe in the remote West Australian Pilbara desert, a man whose life was 'dramatically impacted by a collision with the extreme edge of Western science and technology'. Nyarri witnessed an atomic test firsthand in the 1950s and he shares his story with the filmmaker in a powerful and poetic experience. I was particularly moved by the arranged meeting between Nyarri and Oppenheimer in the desert. Walworth is a true innovator in VR, motivated by a desire to create connection and empathy through experience. The technology serves this, not the other way around. I was inspired by her approach to immersive art and filmmaking, her philosophy and motivation.  

Barry Pousman, one of the producers and directors of Clouds over Sidra (2015), was also in Sydney for the conference. In this award-winning VR film about the Syrian refugee crisis made in partnership with the United Nations, the story is told by Sidra, a twelve year old girl who shares her experience of living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan after her family fled war and violence. The film has been used to advance the UN's advocacy for the Syrian refugee crisis, to create empathy, and ultimately to influence decision makers. 

 360˚ immersive film can take us anywhere to experience, or to at least gain a deep insight into the conditions of another external world as an observer. It is also an inner journey that can completely shift our perspective through experiencing someone else's reality. We can walk in someone else's shoes. Presence. Empathy. The power of full immersion to create connection at a deep level is quite astonishing. Whether it's documentary, live action drama, a line drawing made in Quill, or a Tilt Brush painted sky in a simulated world. It is not an emotional response to an external trigger, or an intellectual calculation. It's a brain hack and your heart must follow.

Having been seduced during my first attempt by the strange symmetry between the abstraction of a poetic narrative and the nature of immersive experience, I felt like I'd already found the space I could work in within this medium. I made a decision that I would focus on live action immersive filmmaking incorporating elements of CGI, keeping interactivity to a minimim to create mindful, poetic experiences driven by sound. I have never been particularly interested in gaming and I didn't see it as that relevant to the kind of work I wanted to make, or the types of immersive film experiences I was interested in.

I have completely changed my mind about that after attending a week long intensive VR Creators' Lab hosted by Astrid Kahmke of the Bavarian Film Centre. 49 media professionals from 19 countries came together in Munich to explore VR without borders in a safe environment, supported by mentors such as Brett Leonard, Thomas Wallner, Sara Lisa Vogl, Fabrizio Palmas, James Kaelan and many more. I got great insight into how the game engine works after attending a Unity workshop at the lab. I realise now that my attitude towards gaming was dismissive, largely based on ignorance, both of the technology and the possible uses for it to tell stories and create narrative worlds.

Rapid prototyping was a brilliant way to dive into developing ideas with like minded people, giving birth to ongoing creative collaborations. The writer and filmmaker Maxime Coton and I have continued to work on a project called Living Pages that translates poetry and other forms of literature into immersive experience. 

Pics courtesy of VR Creators'Lab

Pics courtesy of VR Creators'Lab

There is groundbreaking work being made that transcends the boundaries of what we would think of as gaming. One example is the work of Irish artist and animator David O'Reilly whose Everything game has just won the award for best computer animation at the Prix Ars Electronica.

The biggest revelation for me was discovering the galaxy of possibilities in the space where immersive filmmaking and the game engine meet. Everything really is possible, and the only limits are your imagination. Oh yes, and your access to the technology, good coders, funding and resources. There are challenges certainly, but nothing that can't be overcome.

It's an exciting and experimental time in immersive storytelling and VR; anything can and probably will happen. This is a transformative moment in our media landscape where form and identity are shifting, and a critical time in the evolution of the new immersive media multi-verses we are now entering. "Transmedia" is a great word to describe this particular moment where everything intersects, collides, converges and transforms. Our challenge is to grow and change with it, and to be brave enough to be a part of shaping it.

One thing is for certain; the future belongs to immersive experiences.



Thanks to Declan Gibbons, Director, Galway Film Centre and Tracy Geraghty, Galway 2020 for the invitation to take part in the campaign bid as Filmmaker in Residence, and to Niall O'Hara, Galway 2020 Campaign for my first VR experience.

Thanks also to Galway Film Centre for the invitation to attend the 360 Vision Conference 2017 in Sydney hosted by Screen NSW, travel supported by Culture Ireland and Galway Film Centre. Attendance at the VR Creators' Lab in Munich hosted by the Bavarian Film Centre was supported by Screen Training Ireland and Galway Film Centre.

I'll be taking part in an Immersive Content Creation Day held by Screen Training Ireland in Dublin on September 23rd!




LIVING PAGES is a collaboration with Maxime Coton (Belgium), bringing literature to life in an intuitive, immersive environment. This unique project was prototyped at the VR Creators' Lab in Munich 2017 and is now in the next phase of development. www.livingpages.net


View I am Galway 2020 at this link with Google Cardboard or VR Headset:

Produced by Saoi Media in association with Galway 2020 and Galway Film Centre. Producer, Director, Writer: Paula Kehoe, Editor: Julie Flavin, VR Camera and stitching: Terry Madigan, Ian Fitzgerald, Virtual Reality Ireland, Sound recording & Mastering: James Latimer, Post Production: Eugene McKrystal & Andy Clarke, Outer Limits Post Production, Production Management/Casting: Bridge Barker & Síle Nic Chonaonaigh, Runners: Oisín Barker & Tara Murphy, Executive Producer: Tracy Geraghty, Galway 2020, Associate Producer, Declan Gibbons, Director, Galway Film Centre

Cast - Woman: Olwen Fouéré, Young girl (voice): Róisín Seoighe, Man: Peadar Ó Treasaigh, Young boy: Tristan Warner, Youth in black: Macnas Youth Ensemble, Community of Galway