Feature Image Credit: Sundance Institute, Royal National Theatre
All Kinds of Limbo: a beautifully-choreographed volumetric performance for the ages.
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival has brought us some of the most interesting VR and AR projects we’ve ever seen on the festival circuit. From an aquatic VR experience that had us lying face-down in a pool to a multiperson mixed reality piece that tracked our breathing, there was no such thing as “too crazy” at New Frontier 2020. And while we came across a plethora of exciting use-cases and advancements, one project, in particular, showed us how immersive technology is changing the way we enjoy musical performances.
Tucked away at the back of New Frontier Central, the Biodigital Theater served as a venue for multiple VR projects. Unlike normal demo stations, however, projects featured in the Biodigital Theater could be enjoyed with others simultaneously in real-time. One such offering, All Kinds of Limbo, immersed us in an intimate 15-minute journey that spanned multiple genres of music, including reggae, grime, classical, and calypso, and featured some of the most technologically impressive volumetric video we’ve seen in VR.
Commissioned by the National Theater, composed by Raffy Bushman alongside the NuShape Orchestra, and performed by Nubiya Brandon, All Kinds of Limbo revolves around Bushman’s life growing up mixed-race in the UK and the impact of West Indian culture on the UK music scene.
“Everyone just kind of said, why don’t you just write about you and what your upbringing has been like and the complications that you have faced?,” said Brandon while speaking to VRScout. “And it was really difficult. I really had to look at myself in the mirror to challenge myself; what I thought about myself in terms of colorism, features. These are very hard questions to ask yourself if you have to acknowledge that you’ve embodied certain elements of things. So I think that’s why I didn’t want to write about it initially, but I was ready to say what I needed to say.”
The result is a shared volumetric VR experience in which Brandon guides users via musical narration through the most impactful genres of music in the UK, both past and present.
“We were looking for a way to produce projects that reflected the really positive influence of multiculturalism and mixed heritage culture on the UK and the world,” said Toby Coffey, Head of Digital Development at the National Theatre while speaking to VRScout. “And knowing that Raffy had come up with the idea for the musical evolution, I thought that was just a very beautiful idea. So we commissioned him to make that music, which is a 10-minute piece, and he brought in Nubia Brandon, who’s the lead performer in it.”
“She co-composed it with him and she’s written the lyrics of her own story. So you’ve got this decades-long musical evolution in the sound score, and then you’ve got Napier’s kind of contemporary reflection of what it’s like to grow up as a young black woman in the UK today.”
Right off the bat, All Kinds of Limbo hit us with some of the most impressive volumetric technology we’ve seen to date. As Brandon performed, her 3D volumetric representation moved naturally throughout the digital space. Everything from the subtle movements of her outfits to the various expressions on her face have been captured with stunning clarity. As a result, I felt a genuine sense of physical presence throughout the entirety of her performance. Viewing the action from a fleet of Oculus Quest headsets, each of us in attendance was represented in-headset as thin white lines. According to Coffey, this was an important strategic decision.
“It was really important for me that a group of people got to do it together and also for it to be a life-size performance; we very much wanted to rest on the ceremony of performance. The reason avatars look the way they are is because I want you to know where the audience members are, but I don’t want you to see them dancing necessarily. Nubiya’s the performer here, not you with your bad dancing or moving around or whatever. So we made very specific decisions about how exactly the environment would be portrayed, how Nubia would be portrayed, and how the audiences would be portrayed as well.”
“We did the whole show in a day, which is quite intense and quite significant I think, especially when you’ve got four costume changes and they’re completely different characters. But you know, the whole team is great; the process was great. We were the next people in after Madonna, which added a certain vibe to the room. It was good because there are two musical performances back to back, but I think our performer is slightly better than the one that was in there before…”
Over the course of the 15-minute musical epic, we were immersed in four wildly-different genres that have proved immensely important in the UK music scene: reggae, classical, grime, and calypso. Each genre offered a dramatic change in scenery as both Brandon and the environment transformed to better fit each respective time period. For example, while exploring the calypso genre, we found ourselves outside a neon-lit nightclub standing next to Brandon, who had since changed into an old school white dress.
“A live performance to me is a real way to understand the fragile personalities that we as the artists have, which I know is like an age-old thing—that a lot of us can be quite complicated as human beings, but that’s what makes it performance,” added Brandon. “And I felt like, you know, it’s quite weird watching myself, but it was really interesting. I got to really experience the idea of feeling my own pain through someone else’s eyes in a weird way.”
As for the future of this volumetric masterpiece, Coffey hopes to eventually tour the project in North America.
Image Credit: National Theatre
“So we are looking at U.S. venues at the moment. This piece is about the history of U.K. black music, which isn’t really known in the states. So it’s great for us to be able to bring that message out. We’re also being asked when it will be available in platform stores. Yes, we want to get on stores so we can get downloads, but I also think that communal location-based entertainment is the more significant hurdle that we need to get over as an industry. I feel like I need to put my energy in that a little bit more, then we’ll release it to the stores, but I’m not sure about that yet.”
For more information on All Kinds of Limbo, check out the official Sundance profile or visit https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/all-kinds-of-limbo.