Meet the creator behind the third VR project acquired at a major festival this year.
Virtual reality specializes in transporting audiences to places we’ve never been and may not otherwise get the chance to go. But what if that place is the human mind? Can you bring a person into someone else’s memories? That is what director Aaron Bradbury, producer Paul Mowbray, and their team attempt to do with their 10-minute, room-scale VR film Vestige.
In Vestige, you are surrounded primarily by blackness, grasping at emotions and memories that emerge as you navigate the space. You’re guided by the narration of Lisa as she recalls life with her young husband, Erik, and the events leading up to his tragic death. The project has already touched hearts—so much so that it became the third ever sale of a virtual reality experience at a major film festival, joining Zikr: A Sufi Revival on the slate of the UK’s new VR distributor, Other Set.
No Film School spoke with Aaron Bradbury during Vestige’s Tribeca premiere about how the project was developed and created.
“Even though you can't actually feel someone in VR, you do feel their presence.”
No Film School: Why did you feel this particular story needed to be told as a VR project instead of a more traditional interview doc?
Aaron Bradbury: VR is really a medium designed for intimate experiences. So being able to connect with people is something which is quite unique to VR. I mean, you can connect to people in a traditional medium but there's a certain credit that people have in the medium which allows you to connect with them on a different level. When it comes to emotional stories, things that are real human emotions, for me, kind of makes sense in that way in VR. I think even though you can't actually feel someone in VR, you do feel their presence.
Especially for Vestige, having Lisa present and in front of you, you really connect with her on a different level because she is there in the room with you.
NFS: How did you approach the screenwriting for this piece?
Bradbury: I guess it began back in 2016 at a creative workshop called DevLab, which was specifically 20 artists invited to present a project and also then to go through two days of workshops and develop that project idea over those two days. I remember in my presentation the thing I highlighted is the big challenge for me was going to be writing this piece which is going to be about memory and grief, having not been through an experience like that, at least not losing someone who was very close to me like wife or a child or anything like that, whether or not I could tell the story sincerely from a fictional point of view.
That was when Jill, one of the producers at Kaleidoscope, who put me in touch with her friend Lisa. Lisa had lost her husband six months prior. She needed someone to talk to and I needed someone to talk to for research and so we chatted and I think it was maybe my third interview or something like that. I'd been putting together parts of the interviews and trying to form some kind of narrative out of it. Ultimately, her testimony was just so powerful that there was no way that I could write that fictionally, you know? From that point on, it became more of trying to find the narrative in her story rather than writing the story myself. That's how that developed.
“I was thinking of it like, ‘this is a multi-narrative piece,’ but actually when you take a step back, you think, "it doesn't all have to be multi-narrative.”
NFS: What about the screenwriting process? What does that look like in this case?
Bradbury: Obviously having all the words there, there is no writing any dialogue. How I approached this was to have each of our interviews laid out in an edit, in a traditional editing program with a timeline on it, and I would chop them up. Initially, because I didn't really know what the narrative would be, I was chopping them up into sections. There were memories, so I literally blocked them out and had tags on each of these things. Some of them were memories and then others were to do with now, or how her life has changed now since Erik's death.
Each of our interviews were really quite long, so we spoke for two and three hours on most occasions; altogether we had about 15 hours worth of interview material. And then when I started putting these together, it was actually more creating diagrams, so I'd use an online piece of software called Mural and I would be collecting bubbles together so it'd have like, topics that we would discuss and I would be moving them around and trying to understand a narrative plan and placing them on different narrative arcs.
A big part of piecing it all together was trying to understand the sections of branching the narrative. At first, it was going to branch all the way through—there was going to be branches from start to end—but that kind of changed over time. Initially, I was thinking of it like, ‘this is a multi-narrative piece and at any point there could be triggers,’ but actually when you take a step back, you think, "it doesn't all have to be multi-narrative.” There can be parts which are multi-narrative, parts which are interactive, and parts which have different kinds of interactions as well.
A big chunk of it is trying to figure out where the multi-narrative is going to happen, and how the stories were going to change, and whether or not actually what I wanted was the same narrative throughout the whole piece. I realized you would have to get multiple versions that all sat at the same place on that line and build towards a peak.
Mapping out 'Vestige'
Credit: Aaron Bradbury
NFS: So the way I understood it is that every audience starts in the same place and ends in the same place, but the middle part could branch out. Is that right?
Bradbury: Yeah, if you consider it like a five-act narrative, then the second act would be branching. Within that would be five trigger points. You've got three variations on the first branch, and then two for every four after that. There's like a number of different pathways through the second act, but then as soon as you get through the third act, everyone's in the same place again.
And even then, right at the end, there are two versions of the ending. Both of the endings are actually cut from a number of different interviews, but the sentiments are very similar and I cut two endings together and really loved them both, to the point where I was like, "I don't really want to choose between either of these two.
When it comes to normal filmmaking, you have to cut one of those things even though you love it, and with this, I thought, "why not put them both in?" And the visuals are the same for both, but the words that you hear, are completely different. It has the same sentiment, but it's a very different thing, what she's talking about.
'Vestige' storyboard sketches
Bradbury: There's a number of interactive moments throughout which aren't branching narrative, but they do allow you to see different perspectives on the story for different reasons. Interactive in the terms that depending on how you look at the film, depending on how you react to what you see, can change what you see.
So for instance, when you're in the black abyss, which is kind of this point which is the lowest point for Lisa when she's in cycles of memories of all of these things which haunt her, so the memory of the hospital, the memory of him dying on the dining room floor. And when you're in that moment, it's quite hard to look at. Lisa becomes visually very chaotic and there are sounds emitting from her which make you very uneasy.
And if you turn away, you see two different versions of Lisa right beside of you. So if you turn one way, you'll hear Lisa saying that these are the memories that she would erase, and if you turn the other way, you hear Lisa saying that she wouldn't erase these memories because they're part of her story, the idea being that the way it interacts suggests you're turning the way you don't want to see. You don't want to see or experience this moment where Lisa is in turmoil. It makes you feel uneasy, but the reality of it is that part of her life is important if you want to transform.
This is how she feels she's transformed through the experience, by feeling the extreme lows that she's felt and trying to give that experience to the viewer, to say, "You need to experience this because this is part of her story."
NFS: How did you map out those various branches?
Bradbury: Mapping them out was basically a lot of scribbles on paper. It started off with writing down some of these individual story elements and mapping them out and drawing arrows that connect different ideas together and then kind of formalizing it a little bit more so it ended as a kind of diagram which has these top-down views of the scenes.
And especially with the branching narrative part of this, what was really useful was understanding the layout space, how characters flowed throughout the scene, so entry points and exit points, but also what they are talking about within that scene and why it connects to another scene—being able to come and see where they fit together, who you're looking at when the trigger happens and the contextual link.
There's a certain line that’s created between the memories which kind of makes them feel a little more fluid, that would be like, subliminal connections in some way.
"There are certain things that you can do as the director to push people around where you want them to be."
NFS: I didn't actually know when I was experiencing the project that there were different paths. It was seamless for the viewer, which I thought was a remarkable feat.
Bradbury: I think it's one of those things, although people can explore this 360 and can move around, there are certain things that you can do as the director to push people around where you want them to be. So they have a certain agency within the experience but at the same time, you're able to curate the experience exactly as you want it and able to kind of create the peaks and troughs and those important moments. For instance, if there is a table in the scene, that table is like a physical block and people don't walk into the table, it's just something people are very aware of when they're walking through it.
NFS: What kind of technology was used to make the project? How is it physically produced?
Bradbury: A lot of this was produced with volumetric capture. And to do that, I used a piece of technology called Depthkit, which basically brings together an infrared camera on a Kinect, which captures depth and a normal color camera, a Canon DSLR. Then it calibrates the two together, so it can remap the color data back onto the volumetric data.
The reason I got to choosing Depthkit was because it's an off-the-shelf really cheap setup. And it meant that throughout the last year of development, when we didn't have any funding to do anything, I was able to just kinda do a lot of the experiments myself. The camera's just a really light-weight thing to, you know, set it up in your front room, do a bunch of tests, and then get it into VR really easily to kind of get a sense of how people move through the space, and what effect that has on the viewer.
We could have gone a bit further into that which is to have more cameras, more depth perspective and create a much more refined, full volumetric experience, but I think it kind of lent itself using just the one sensor for capture just because having a very surreal kind of image, even though you do sense that presence of the reality, you still see it through a kind of veil of a dream, or a memory, or something like that. Like not all the details are quite captured.
Bradbury: So that was the main technology we used. I guess the big difference for me is real-time, so with the Unity real-time engine, you can playback the experience rather than having it as a 360 video experience, which was much more my background in pre-rendered video. That was a real challenge but at the same time I was quite lucky because my brother is a programmer. So when me and my brother were kids we used write games together in a really old school programming language.
We worked together quite well as kids and then we went into our career paths like I'm into the graphical stuff and he went into the programming stuff. We've been doing games for the last like 20 years or so, not quite 20 years but a long time. So for this one, he had took a job in freelance so we thought it would be a perfect time to connect together and make this thing. He's been working on the project for as long as me really trying to figure things out. So it's been a good experience.
NFS: What do you think you've figured out the most? What clicked where you knew how to make this successful?
Bradbury: I don't know because this wasn't really finished until just before Tribeca. I wasn't completely done until we got to Tribeca. We got in based on the prototype and we talked to Loren [Hammonds, Storyscapes programmer] about the experience and where it's going and we kept him updated with the progress of it. It really wasn't finished until two days before we actually opened. So the thing I'm most happy about is seeing how people flow through the experience.
They have moments where they look a certain character at certain times and follow that character and it triggers into this next branch of the story and the next character materializes in that place. Then they follow that character through the scene and that’s kind of exactly how I was hoping people would experience it. There is enough variation there in how they switch between the characters and then follow the other characters out of the scene, so people are definitely going down all of the different paths that you can go down. It was a little bit of a scary unknown as to whether or not it would work.
“For VR, I think the first thing is just to experience it. Watch everything you can get your hands on.”
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who want to explore one of these new platforms?
Bradbury: As a storyteller, my perspective on how to tell stories and how the medium has changed is always evolving. I've been working in different kinds of immersive media for the past 10 years.
For VR, I think the first thing is just to experience it. Watch everything you can get your hands on. I see a lot of students, say over the past 10 years, recreate the same things over and over again. It's really interesting how people follow the same pathways to understanding the medium using these tropes, but if you explore them yourself first then you kind of navigate to where else to work.
Another thing is perhaps not sticking to rules. A lot of the rules aren't really written yet. The number of times I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you can't do this in a certain immersive medium” but then someone goes and builds that thing and blows everyone out of the water like, “Wow! That's an incredible example of doing that thing!” happens a lot.
The rules always change and not sticking to those, as least not totally listening what people sa,y are the rules currently because it's ever-changing.