VR pioneer: Elijah Wood is exploring the boundaries of virtual reality with his production company Spectrevision Glenn Copus
Elijah Wood, the Hollywood actor best known for his role as Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has a high horror threshold. He’s describing a new video game he’s worked on as “a little unsettling”. Less hardened players have said the virtual reality thriller Transference is scarier than that. At its E3 debut gamers were left swearing in shock and needed to decompress afterwards.
Speaking on the phone, Wood sounds relaxed but chooses his words carefully. The game, he explains thoughtfully, is about a man called Raymond Hayes, whose brain research lets you experience other people's consciousness. In the demo, the Oculus Rift headset transports players into the glitching brain map of a post-traumatic stress disorder sufferer, exploring a creaky house where interactive objects unlock sometimes visceral traumatic memories.
It’s not what you expect from a former hobbit. But Wood, 36, has moved on — the American actor is now using his star power to back cult horror films and explore the genre’s untapped potential in virtual reality.
Fresh from cult film hits such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Greasy Strangler, Transference marks the first VR game from Wood’s production company Spectrevision .
The game is the fruit of a collaboration with publisher Ubisoft, and self-proclaimed long-time gamer Wood is reluctant to divulge any of its dark secrets. Even the E3 taster demo experience was more an indication of the project’s general direction than the final gameplay.
“Part of why it works is how little information you have,” he teases. “There’s a sense of discovery. The experience unfolds itself as you navigate in the world that you’re in.
"VR feels like the wild west. The rules aren’t fully defined. There are so many people innovating still, which is what makes it so exciting. I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out the best way to use VR. Prior to really getting into it, I think we saw it as an extension of cinema. But it’s not cinema, the player is essentially controlling the shot, we can’t do that for you. Weaving narrative into the structure of VR is challenging and unique — you have to allow for a sense of discovery rather than pointing people in the right direction all the time.”
Wood describes his first use of the Oculus Rift as “completely game-changing”, adding that he’s been impressed by narrative documentaries in VR. “The best aspects of the medium are essentially transporting you to a place you’ve never been and giving you an experience that you’ve never had.”
Could that include some kind of Lord of the Rings VR experience in the future? “If it was something that Peter Jackson and a number of the original cast was involved in, perhaps,” Wood says. “I certainly would be open to it, and curious as to what that would be. Industrial Light and Magic did a very small Star Wars VR experience where you’re on Tattooine and the Millennium Falcon lands — that’s awesome. There’s not much to it, you can’t really move around, but the idea that in that moment you can be in the Star Wars universe is incredibly impactful.”
Escapism is something we’re all desperately in need of in 2017, with British and US politics heading into uncharted territory. Wood remarks that he has seen Twitter users compare him to Jeremy Corbyn’s son Tommy (the resemblance is remarkable), but is yet to check out the similarity for himself.
“Corbyn’s got a lot of attention of late, which is fantastic,” he says. “I don’t know much about him, but what little I do, I find him quite impressive.” He supported Democrat Bernie Sanders, who has been compared to Corbyn.
While admitting he has less of an emotional connection to the Brexit fall-out from across the Atlantic, Wood says he sees it as part of a worrying shift in world affairs. “There’s a trend that is happening of anti-globalisation, which I find a little frightening,” he says. “I think that closing off the world to the rest of the world can be dangerous, it comes out of fear. We’re experiencing something very similar in the US currently with the notion of closing our borders and the awful ‘Muslim ban’. I think at times like this it’s important to look outward and to be inclusive as much as possible.”
Aside from his work with Spectrevision, Wood is a noted podcast fan, appearing on the last series of My Dad Wrote a Porno — but he’s yet to start listening to the new third series. “I’m so behind,” he concedes. “I still have to get through the second season.”
Confirming he’s still “fully committed” to play the so-called “Young-ish Man” if a film adaptation of the podcast were to go into production, Wood sounds less sure about how My Dad Wrote a Porno would work in VR: “It would probably be… very disturbing and uncomfortable.” For now, he has his hands full with Transference.