Surreal and Haunting, Orbital Vanitas Takes Video Art to New Spaces

Orbital Vanitas is now available on WITHIN. Learn about its creators’ stories, production process, and inspiration below.

By: Shaun Gladwell, Director

What are the key points of interest about this project? In other words, why should someone watch it?

Most human beings are interested in concepts such as time, space and their own mortality. The work connects to the tradition of Vanitas, which definitely connects to the last of those ideas. In addition, you might have a sense of wonderment for new technology. Consumer virtual reality is a revolution taking place before our eyes that offers very powerful simulation. It’s the perfect time to experiment with that simulator, and that’s what we’ve done here. Then there’s the artful qualities. For the same reason anyone would want to see anything that resembles art or expressive communication — which is something you can’t really find out a definite why for at all — Orbital Vanitas has an instinctual draw in its abstractions.

What was the inspiration behind creating this project?

I’m inspired by everything from renaissance painting to satellite imagery and science fiction cinema. Throw in the culture of skulls, claimed by bike gangs to skateboarders to every other subculture interested in skulls and skeletons.That’s how we found ourselves with the Orbital Vanitas you can experience today.

How does your project push the boundaries of storytelling?

I’m not really interested in traditional storytelling in this particular piece. I’m more interested in the idea that without a clear narrative, you are just left in space to experience the piece for itself. There is probably more projection from the viewer than there is intention from the artist coming through in this piece — that’s where I’d like to try to leave the story. In that way, we’re more story-enablers than storytellers. We want to provide a framework for the experience and then let the viewers fill in the blanks from their own imaginations and vantage points. Virtual reality is the perfect medium for that mission.

What were some of the most challenging moments when creating this project?

Coming from a studio practice where I’d paint and produce an image from end to end, the fact that I didn’t have my hands on the actual final production tools was a challenge for me. I handed that part of the process over to incredibly talented producers and animators. Not to mention that we made the first version of the work in just two and a half weeks time to meet a deadline for Sundance — that was most definitely a challenge.

What role does sound play in your project? How do you use sound to increase immersion into the story?

In this case, the sound was a very big part of the concept. Specifically the use of a field recording of a storm. It seemed appropriate to have the recording reverberate within this huge skull quite simply because it could have been anything from volcanic activity or a storm to distant artillery fire. We also utilized Dolby Atmos in our sound design for positional audio, making sure that the sound really was as important as the visuals.

Is there any precise moment in this experience that you find most impactful or awe/wonder-inspiring?

While it’s hard for me to pinpoint just one moment, you could say it was the moment of entering the spinal hole — the foramen magnum of the skull. In that moment, you go from an exterior to an interior simulation and have to assess what it’s like to be quite small in an anatomically accurate skull. It’s a bizarre, wonder-inspiring sensation.

How would you describe this project to a person aged 5? How would you describe it to a person aged 70?

In the same way: you are about to meet the interior of what you’ve got on your shoulders.

What made WITHIN a good partner to distribute this experience?

I have a lot of respect for WITHIN as pioneers within VR. I like the idea that it’s a platform for promoting experimentation. Chris Milk is taking the field forward and we felt that Orbital Vanitas was a serendipitous match for their mission.


Shaun Gladwell is a contemporary artist based in Sydney and London. Since capturing the attention of the art world in 2000 with his compelling video Storm Sequence, (now part of the MOMA permanent collection), Shaun Gladwell has remained at the forefront of the global art scene. In 2016, Gladwell co-founded BADFAITH, an independent virtual reality content collective, with film and TV producer Leo Faber. They have been dubbed VR pioneers by Vogue and Vice described their approach to the new medium as “punk”.

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