"Fractured memories within the black abyss."AARON BRADBURY
Vestige uses VR to communicate grief, loss, and love in ways no other medium can.
Over the past five years, much has been written about VR's capacity as a storytelling medium -- but few experiences make such a resounding argument for these unique capabilities as Vestige.
The documentary brings audiences into the memories of Lisa Elin with her husband Erik, who she unexpectedly lost in 2016. We watch scenes play before us in 3D vignettes over black while Lisa narrates; in actual fact, these audio recordings are from phone calls between Elin and Vestige Director Aaron Bradbury.
The experience was on display last month in Montreal at The New Storytellers 5, an event curated by Phi Centre and Future of StoryTelling, where I sat down with Aaron Bradbury to discuss the creative process behind translating grief through storytelling, the use of invisible interaction, and VR's capacity to create emotional intimacy:
Like any documentary, Bradbury's creative process was framed by his source material. But with Vestige, there wasn't a clear linear narrative in place per se -- and the emerging story only featured one living character. Through recorded phone calls, the whole world of Lisa and Erik's relationship began to develop shape and texture.
“The interview process was around a year-and-a-half of interviewing, and that started 6 months after Erik had died," Bradbury said. "What I got was...this fascinating snapshot of Lisa’s grief and how she changed and transformed during [the] two years after his death."
And even though one run of the experience might only log 15-20 minutes at a time, those hours of recordings don't go to waste. When you enter Vestige, you're warned that this is not a "static" experience; your participation impacts how it proceeds. You haven't been given controllers, which means that where you stand and what you look at determine what memories you see next -- even though the experience itself feels seamless.
"People don’t realize it during the experience, but it’s essentially branching narrative. So there’s a number of different stories that are within Vestige," Bradbury said. "It’s not actually fully linear, it’s subliminal."
This invisible interaction is a more fluid take on a branching narrative than one where users are given active choices (i.e. presented with drop-down or pop-up menus). It allows each experience to stand alone as a complete document, while also giving audiences reason to return to it to deepen their understanding of the couple's story. It also mirrors the way memory doesn't work chronologically -- or even consistently -- a fact Lisa herself was contending with in sharing her story with Bradbury.
"From the very first interview we had, she mentioned that she felt like she was losing Erik...and she wanted someone to guide her back to the memories of Erik," Bradbury said. "She's already lost Erik, but it's the idea of losing the memory of someone, as well, [that] is terrifying."
Vestige was created with Depthkit, whose volumetric capture solution also powered standout VR documentary Zero Days VR, so we actually experience Lisa and her memories in 3D. The result is more than just a unique aesthetic. Form and function align to create something that feels real rather than rendered, as if shot on film rather than produced in a game engine -- yet which still allows us to move about it in physical space.
Still from 'Vestige'AARON BRADBURY
"Using Depthkit for doing the volumetric capturing was something which was very useful to the actual final idea, so that was something where it was very fast and rough, like the look of it...it doesn't look real, but that was to the benefit of the story, because actually memories don't really look that real," Bradbury said. "When she's in her deepest grief moments, her psychological state feels spiky, it feels shattered."
On the set of 'Vestige'AARON BRADBURY
Not only does this stylized reality capture the impressionistic logic of memory, it drives intimacy in its immersive virtual format.
"I always talk about VR as an intimate medium because you're in that place with somebody, and that changes how you feel about them and what they say," Bradbury said. "You have this connection with somebody that is very physical; it's not tangible, you can't actually touch them...but it feels like you can. And I think that's why it's so powerful at telling some of those more emotional stories where people want to reach out and they want to touch somebody; they want to hug someone."