"We wanted to create a cinematic journey with a level of interactivity perfectly fitted to that goal" - Jon Rowe (BIOLUM)
BIOLUM is one of the VR experiences that has been touring a lot in 2021 in festivals, winning prizes at SXSW or the recent GIFF in Geneva. Let's take a look at the conception of this virtual reality "blockbuster", halfway between film and video game, with its scriptwriter Jon Rowe.
Try BIOLUM on Steam (just released!)
On the production of 30-minute VR blockbuster and the influence of Sci-fi classics
Jon Rowe - Abel and I were in the same arts collective, about 10 years ago. He would do film or animation, I did some photography and TV development. We kind of worked in parallel ways but never really together before BIOLUM. I had a working knowledge of immersive (live installations and events), I'm a casual gamer - but the thing is Abel needed someone to get on the same ship to work on the dramatic narrative part of it, which is my primary skill as a television script writer. And I’m always looking to widen my horizons in terms of form and format!
J. R. - Screenwriting is often opposite to writing a novel: it’s a constant process of distillation. With Abel (Kohen, the director and co-creator) we are two different people. He has very strong visual, compelling and existential ideas. I’m more on the craft of everything, how to turn ideas into a character or situation. I just really continue to offer up lots of bases as a story producer and as a writer, building blocks around the story and the characters. And, as often we say in a writing room “beat that”, show me what you can do (in a non-aggressive way of course). That was the ambition around that 30-minute arc for BIOLUM, constantly questioning ourselves, distilling ideas in how to build everything in a single story as the world Abel imagined was way bigger.
J. R. - We were, absolutely by design, inspired by blockbuster and Sci-fi movies. We had a lot of conversations about that. We wanted to operate in the same territory as the likes of ALIEN, 2001, or even INDEPENDENCE DAY, taking inspiration from great sci-fi storytelling and then twisting and evolving ideas to surprise and innovate. When I joined the project, they were looking at a story-driven writer. We could develop multiple episodes of BIOLUM as Abel had the whole world and creatures in mind, with the bioluminescence of it. And yes, these references were for us templates to build our own thing. We definitely knew we couldn't aspire to the scale of that, but we definitely wanted to have a slice of blockbuster ambition and storytelling values.
Building the world of BIOLUM: beneath the surface
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J. R. - How do you twist the classic narrative “extraterrestrial invader style” story? How to feel both enticing and scary at the same time? We tried to make Rachael (the main character, and the user perspective) a character that is being drawn into this world, with a sinister element. They're not there to kill all humans. They have a deeper purpose - that we lightly touch on. The twist is… Well, are they also seducing you? Are they also doing something unexpected? Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, even the bad guys. In BIOLUM “it” has its own purpose. I think what has been gratifying - and why people enjoy the experience - is what you can see beneath the surface. It's deeper than just a journey into the ocean. There is something about an existential quest for that central character.
J. R. - The BIOLUM story world began with a series of animations Abel made on Reddit about bioluminescent creatures. That way we had some visual references at the beginning of the project - This was not totally driving the story, but was definitely always being built alongside and in front of my writing. We are delighted with what we were able to achieve visually, although there’s always an ambition to push ever further visually - especially with this whole section of the self-transformation section towards the end of the experience. There is this adventure to explore an unknown alien world, as we love this in the first ALIEN movie. But there is more!
J. R. - In VR you need to understand that sense of scale, depth and how things affect you viscerally - and it’s not just visually. What people responded to when they were in production or pre-production - or even funding the piece - is that we always designed it from the ground up as a true immersive experience story. It wasn't dictated by VR technique, but by that sense of gigantism, seeing these creatures and their sudden changes of scale. And it is a big difference compared to a flat screen! All these references fed our story, interlocking with a character journey, a voyage of discovery and how to make that the most emotional and immersive it could be.
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How to balance interactivity and storytelling
J. R. - The kind of stories I like to make, I want to strive to make, are genre stories elevated to existentialism - and that's like a very pretentious thing to say but this is what I've always loved. Horror films with a bigger message, in a very Cronenberg way. This is how you can elevate a genre and use these ideas and techniques to tell a deep, characterful journey. We started from a place of great characters and a 30-minute story. We needed a strong dynamic, to surprise and keep the audience hooked and engaged - without a total mechanical approach. There's a fairly clear sort of hero's quest in BIOLUM, with the excitement of adventure, the first setbacks, the moment of crisis etc. Highs and lows.
J. R. - When we first talked about BIOLUM, everything was on the table. From a very interactive game, which would involve a lot of puzzles (a lot of interactions with the creatures), to the least interactive sort of 360 video. And we decided very early on to create a story with a degree of interactivity that improved and embellished and deepened the immersiveness - but didn't sort of take you out of the story. Not in a way that required you to be a gamer, as often. It was an active decision that we would use interactivity mainly as a way to heighten the storytelling and the emotion of the experience, to make you feel part of that story.
J. R. - We deliberately didn't overcomplicate the interactivity. I think the simple things of being able to explore makes you feel really at the center of the story. We wanted to tell a cinematic journey, and that's the level of interactivity that works for that. If we had the resources to produce a more complicated game, it would have been a different beast. The likes of HALF-LIFE: ALYX are unreachable. It’s an incredible example, using the interactivity to massively deepen the experience with environmental storytelling and a brilliant game engine. It’s impressive for the player! I like to say we did it with intent and we saw what worked well for our story, what didn’t. I absolutely think there's a whole world of interactivity that can both deepen your emotional engagement and your enjoyment in the experience. HALF-LIFE: ALYX is probably the prime and most successful example of that.
The audio narration: a dialogue definition (and Charlotte Rampling)
J. R. - We worked (and reworked) really hard on the dialogue - to avoid a simple instructional voice. We had to focus on the dynamic between those characters, and their evolution through the story. We had to be hard on ourselves to keep the human factor, making them feel like real people and allowing from time to time a joke i.e. How do we tell the fact that these characters have known each other for a long time? They are annoyed with each other's music taste! You get their relationship that way. Being subtle about how you can introduce backstory, just bits and pieces just makes you feel that they're real human beings. We wanted them to have a clearly distinguished characterisation. There was no confusion about these quite different characters and no technical confusion about who's speaking.
J. R. - There's so much credit to how Charlotte Rampling and Dominique Tipper portrayed those characters and how they elevated those characters in performance. The energy that Dominique brought, this kind of enthusiasm alongside the sort of fear is not easy to do. At the same time you have the coldness, steeliness, austerity that Charlotte brings to her performance. We did some final, last minute rewrites a couple of days before when she had been confirmed. We definitely tweaked Charlotte Rampling’s voice in our head knowing that she could bring that kind of steeliness.
J. R. - And of course you have to be really careful with dialogue. It was basically a feast or famine situation. You can try and limit the dialogue as much as possible because it can get annoying - you can either just work really hard on the environmental storytelling. Or you can really tell a story through the dialogue and make sure that it's really in sync with the world. So we work to respond to key moments. There are also moments of quiet. I work on a lot of high end television (BRITANNIA, LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, SILENT WITNESS, VIEWPOINT…) and I wanted to bring that really high bar / premium storytelling quality to the show. And that includes dialogue!
Last week Jon Rowe’s project FOOL’S GOLD was announced on the Brit List of the best unproduced UK film and TV scripts. (on the 5th position).