The Unknown Photographer; a VR documentary — Interview with Marc Beaudet
@Interactive Storytelling Meetup #3 –10 March 2016
marc beaudet (Montreal, Canada), co-founder and CEO of Turbulent, a digital production agency, presented his virtual reality (VR) project ‘The Unknown Photographer’ at Interactive Storytelling Meetup #3. The documentary is co-produced with NFB (National Film Board of Canada) and was part of IDFA Doc Lab and Sundance Film Festival. The Unknown Photographer is a 2015 Quebec virtual reality work based around the stories of the found photographs of World War I.
Just before the meetup we interviewed Marc Beaudet (MB) about his work.
Can you introduce yourself and what your company Turbulent is all about?
MB: My name is Mark Beaudet and I’m a producer from Montreal, Canada. I work for Turbulent, which is quite a diversified company. We produce for the television sector, create websites and develop applications, games and platforms for educational purposes.
“In VR you can be completely surreal and pretend you are in someone’s mind”
Why did you decide to make a virtual reality documentary of the story?
MB: The idea to use the photographs in a documentary started 3 years ago. At that time, everybody was creatings apps so we decided to build something for the iPad. Based on our prototype, which was really cool, we received a grant to fund further development. However, after we had spend (overspend actually) all our budget on the app, we realised that something was missing. A story.
MB: At that point we could have easily decide to launch the app and settle for mediocracy. Instead, we opted to re-evaluate the project and explore other storytelling options and platforms. Eventually, we invented a character that would lead you through the experience as you were travelling in his mind. A character that was looking for what had happened and searching for reasons why the photographs were taken. As it turned out, VR seemed to be the best platform to do this, as it enabled us to become purely fictional and create the surreal illusion of being in someones mind.
What is in your opinion the future of VR?
MB: I don’t think that there is a clear answer to this question. When we decided to produce for VR, it was only after we realized that we could not make the app into a lasting experience. We had to iterate and prototype a lot in order to find a way to tell our story; there are so many different ways of doing VR that it is really difficult to see what it exactly going to be the most interesting. In that sense, VR is still missing a kind of common grammar.
“As of today there is not really a common grammar, a style or anything that looks like it is going to standardize working with VR”
Is there a difference between using VR in games and VR in documentaries, are there different techniques?
MB: The techniques are the same, it is really about how the audience plays with the content. That’s why I like to show our experience at documentary festivals, so we can talk to people about how the feel about it.
What do they say?
MB: For a lot of people, it’s the first time they try VR. Some people are impressed, some get sick, some hate it. However, I came to realize that whatever they thought of the experience, none of the users actually could remember the story!
You mean users don’t recall the narrative of the Unknown Photographer?
MB: Exactly. We developed a great story in collaboration with a best selling author. And people don’t remember it. This probably has to do with the fact that VR is still a novel technique and people have to get used to it. The first experience is always completely overwhelming. I like to compare it to the first movie-screenings, when people were running out of the cinema. As more and more people will get used to VR, the experience will probably last better.
“VR is still a novel technique and people have to get used to it. The first experience is always completely overwhelming.”
Looking at the structure of the story, why did you choose to use chapters?
MB: We used chapters to structure the story into smaller pieces. As a result, we rarely see people not finishing the whole experience, which last up to 25 minutes. By chaptering the story, we were able to change the ambiance and introduce users to a new stage. If we are talking about what will be the grammar of VR, chaptering I think is something that works very well.
Can you explain the audio work you used in the documentary?
MB: Binaural audio is one of the most important parts in a VR experience. But if the sounds don’t come from the right place, the mind won’t understand what happens. In VR, the sound needs to happen where and when the mind thinks it will happen. If these are not aligned, the experience will make you sick.
How did you find the balance between a lineair story and the non-lineair options VR offers you?
MB: Even though it’s VR and you have these options, the experience follows a linear path. So although it’s not a completely lineair documentary, I’d call it a lineair experience.
As a company focussing on game development, did you use game elements in this documentary?
MB: The game-developers at Turbulent wanted a lot of gimmicks in it. However, we kept the experience as simple as possible, in order not to overwhelm the users. And as I mentioned earlier, people are still so immersed into the visuals and sounds that they can’t remember the story.
I remember a reserach done in Italy with similar results. It was a research on a childrens game in a museum. The more engaging the game gets, the less children could remember from the exhibition in the museum. Isn’t that a challenge when looking at possible future for VR?
MB: There is an audience aquisition process that needs to happen. People have to try it and get used to it. Since VR is not fully distributed in the market, the only way to try it is at festivals or events. The feedback we get is therefore tainted, as we mostly show our project to professionals. It would be really interesting to see how people react if we would show this in museums.
So is this a piece of art?
MB: We showed it to a war museum and they regarded it as art in itself, instead of an expereince about war!