“Community as a big part of storytelling” - Ryan Griffen, Zoe Roellin, Nathan Anderson (LUSTRATION VR)
With impeccable worldbuilding and an exciting story to follow, Lustration VR, currently at SXSW 2022, is one of the most effective examples of how to create an active and engaged audience around a work, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by VR but always keeping accessibility at its core.
Weird question now: have you ever watched a VR experience and suddenly... you're hit by an epiphany? You're still in the piece, but a part of your brain is screaming at you that there's an answer in that work to something you've been looking for for a long time.
To this day, I still remember three major epiphanies in my XR life: the first, when I first discovered VR, which also coincided with my discovery of live performances created using this medium. The piece was Alice: The Virtual Reality Play, it was mesmerizing, everything I had wanted to find and will forever hold a special place in my heart. The second: The Metamovie Presents: Alien Rescue, which we recently talked about here: an ongoing challenge from director Jason Moore and his team to bring a real-life, D&D-worthy role-playing game into a cinematic story and create a strong community around this movie.
My third moment just happened, and it happened with something that on paper seems much simpler than the previous two works: Lustration VR, whose first two episodes are currently available at SXSW for all accredited guests, is not an interactive work in the way we classically understand it, it doesn't ask you to talk with its characters, and at least from these first two episodes it doesn't seem to offer you have the power to influence the story… And yet.
Frankly, what Ryan Griffen (director of the work and author of the graphic novel of which this VR is an adaptation/extended version) and the fantastic team of artists and producers have done with this piece is just... brilliant.
We'll talk about this work in more detail in the coming days on XRMust. For now, let's just mention the fascinating world and exciting story told in the graphic novel and skillfully transposed to VR, the visual design that really seems to put you inside a graphic novel, and the opportunity offered by Lustration VR for the viewer to choose their own perspective on the scenes... A choice with much deeper narrative implications than the pilot, already available on Oculus TV, might suggest.
All of these elements - and others we won't go into now - show a deep understanding by the people working at Lustration VR of what is most needed to take VR from where it is now to mainstream status. And what we need is to create fans of our works. To create a fandom.
And on that note, I can't not mention the panel by Nathan Anderson, producer of the work and CEO of New Canvas, and Wadooah Wali, the company's Chief Strategy Officer, taking place at SXSW tomorrow, March 14. Titled "Metaversing: Immersive Media, Tokenomics & Fans", it will take a look at the current "evolution of creation, ownership, engagement and monetisation [...]" and how it can reward fans in new and distinct ways.
In the meantime, here's what director Ryan Griffen, producer Nathan Anderson and lead artist Zoe Roellin had to say about Lustration VR.
When a graphic novel meets VR
AGNESE - Thank you for meeting us! I would like to start with The Question, Ryan: why was it relevant for you to have your graphic novel, Lustration, meet VR?
RYAN GRIFFEN – Years ago I wrote a pilot for television on Lustration, and presented it to some production companies: they liked what I was building, but they also told me that it was a very big world and therefore it would be a very expensive production. They wanted me to create some hype around the story, to get people interested in it, before they would consider it.
At the time I was already working on my Cleverman comics with Gestalt Publishing so I pitched them the idea and they immediately took it on board. That was the first step.
Then, when the opportunity came to work with Nathan, I took the idea of Lustration forward once again. VR can bring the world of Lustration to life more than a graphic novel ever could. For me, this was the biggest advantage of placing this story in a VR space: people could experience this world in a way that was much broader than simply turning some pages would have allowed them to do. They could actually be in the space and physically inhabit it. Then, of course, having the ability to tell multiple stories that go on at the same time and intersect with each other, but have different motivations moving them? That's definitely why we wanted to tell this specific story, but more importantly why we wanted to do it through VR. It was an exciting concept!
A. - Nathan, I know you believed in the idea of bringing this graphic novel into VR from the very first moment. Why?
NATHAN ANDERSON - I'm very interested in the rich visual environment that comics and graphic novels feature, but coming from a VR perspective, I also see VR as an opportunity to expand them in a way that's not limited.
If you're adapting a movie or a TV show, there are a lot of existing concepts that people have about how characters sound and what the world should look like. With an adaptation of a comic book, you definitely have more freedom, but also a source material that is just as strong and provides, by its very essence, a very good and sophisticated aesthetic.
When I started working with Ryan, we were looking at a few different projects he had in development, but this seemed to be one that had a lot of pre-existing material to work with but also a wide potential for further development.
A. - Are there other elements that influenced your decision?
N. A. - I think there are a lot of opportunities for VR animation. I've worked with a number of live action films and it's great, sure, but from a production perspective you always have a number of restrictions, like the room scale, that don't allow you to move around the environment the way you want to. Animation offers something different, and I think in the next five years or so we're going to see a lot more of that in VR.
And finally, for me it's also about finding talented creators who are passionate about what they do and helping them bring that passion out into the world. In a way, I'm more interested in the creative process and the passion for the story. The execution? That's kind of a by-product in some cases!
Behind the story of Lustration VR
A. - I watched the first two episodes of Lustration VR presented at SXSW and I am seriously in love with it. What you created there, both story-wise and visually, is brilliant. What does this story represent to you, Ryan? How would you describe it to those who have not watched it yet?
R. G. – I would start by saying that it is a noir detective story set in the afterlife, with several characters to follow. In my works I always try to stay true to the genre and present the tropes that characterize it and that's something I've done here as well.
The world-building in Lustration VR is also a very important element. In general, I'm very interested in creating worlds specifically for Aboriginal actors where they can play characters they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to play. Hunter Page-Lochard, who was Koen West in my TV show Cleverman, and plays the Oracle in Lustration VR, came up to me after the recordings and thanked me because he never thought he would have the opportunity to work right alongside some of those actors that he grew up loving and admiring. It was really meaningful to me to hear this.
In terms of themes, then, for me, in the end, what Lustration VR is really about is the lengths that all these characters will go to protect the people they love. Ultimately, all of their actions are controlled by love in one way, shape or form. All this feels very poignant to me, especially nowadays when all over the world we lack a bit of empathy and we don't put ourselves in other people's shoes as much as we should.
A. – Does the VR experience cover the whole novel?
R. G. – In Lustration VR we touch on parts of the first issue, and then extend the story. We also get the chance to look at the world from the perspective of multiple characters and navigate it through the eyes of those characters. We now hope to have the opportunity to continue the world of Lustration in both the VR space and as a graphic novel and allow them to feed off each other, so that people who are reading the novel get new information from VR and vice versa.
A – A very transmedia approach, which is an important part of today's audience culture. Another important thing is to allow users to have an active response to your work. If you only follow one of the perspectives Lustration VR offers, you don't get the whole story... do you?
R. G. - You definitely have to put work into it as an audience. One of the reasons I chose to create the story in this way is because of my Aboriginal heritage. I was taught, culturally, that you have to prove to yourself that you're ready to listen to certain stories from your culture. And that's something I've always wanted to explore in all forms of my writing.
I like the idea of making the audience active in consuming a story. I've never been a fan of television programmes that you can watch while cooking dinner. I like TV shows that force you to pay attention to every frame, every word. That was definitely something I wanted to implement in Lustration VR: we're forcing the audience to pick up bits of information here and there if they want to get the whole picture and put it together. I want people who visit Lustration to earn both sides of the story!
N. A. – There are different layers to this: we're really interested in exploring how linear storytelling and parallel linear narratives can be reinterpreted through a sense of agency that the audience has. In this context, you have a linear story, but you're challenged by the fact that there are simultaneous plots unfolding, so your perception and understanding will be somewhat unique to your experience. This all relates to a more game-centric narrative style, but I also think we need to reinvent a format because immersive storytelling differs from traditional linear narrative but also from game narrative.
At the same time, we still created a narrative arc that will allow us to hit emotionally meaningful moments. In a way, Lustration VR is partially inspired by immersive theater, where things happen and it's up to you to consume the experience in the way you prefer. You are active in that consumption. We want to explore this concept further.
On the influence of fandom and the importance of creating a community
A - All three of you are connected to the world of fandom. How much has being a fan influenced your life and who you are today as artists?
ZOE ROELLIN – For me there are two answers to this question. The first one is very simple and straightforward: fandom has always given me the motivation to create new art, which has been great for me to learn the tools. Some of my early VR works, when I was trying to learn how to use Quill and work with it, are fanarts. Knowing that other people who are part of that same fandom will easily get excited about something I created on it is something that always energizes me.
On the other hand, fandom is full of people who care deeply about a particular piece of media whose characters are extremely meaningful to them. Seeing this happen, having experienced it myself... made me think about the media I consume and made me want to create stories myself that could be so meaningful to someone else.
R. G. - I grew up with pop culture and it's still a huge part of my life. I couldn't read or write properly until my mid-teens, so consuming any literature was out of the question for me. It was all TV shows, and watching them allowed me to connect to the world of storytelling more than anything else... And having the chance to talk to other people who were as passionate as I was about those worlds and characters made me realize that community is a big part of storytelling. Nothing excites me more than seeing a new film or TV show and chatting with my friends about it.
This is something I try to put into all my works. On a side note, when we were looking at artists' illustrations to find collaborators for this work, I remember seeing the fanart Zoe did on Critical Role (a/n a livestreamed show about a group of actors playing a live D&D campaign). Since I also roleplay every week, knowing that someone we were considering for this job was enjoying the same things I was and had the same interests as me as a consumer made it easier for me to connect.
And of course I think my love of pop culture can easily be recognised in the cast of Lustration VR! These are actors that I've been incredibly lucky to work with because they're incredibly talented... but they're also the same actors that I've spent so many of my afternoons making sure I get home in time to watch! (laughs) To have the opportunity to work with someone like Kevin Conroy... I didn't even think it would ever be a possibility for me! I was a fan of their work even before I got into this project. When Nathan and I were discussing the cast, this is something I mentioned, actually. I suggested people like Kevin precisely because of the fanbase: I know how this community works, being part of it myself, and in some way I want to support it and support the people who are significant to it. Yes, the fandom has really helped build what Lustration VR is today.
A - Nathan, your company, New Canvas, emphasizes the need for mainstream adoption of immersive media. You also have a panel on this at SXSW (a/n “Metaversing: Immersive Media, Tokenomics & Fans”, available online to all accredited visitors). What is the role of fandom in your work?
N. A. – I'll probably echo Ryan's answer here, but I think to be a creator, you have to start by being a fan. I don't think you're going to find any creators out there or anyone producing content that wasn't a fan to begin with, and if they say they're not... they may not have a good sense of why they're doing what they're doing! (laughs)
What's really interesting to me is something Ryan mentioned earlier, which is the community aspect. Take The Mandalorian: I enjoy it immensely but I enjoy it even more when I watch an episode and then call my friends and talk about it, sharing what we liked and what we didn't like. To me that's the basis of enjoying something: you can share it with your fandom and feel a sense of connection through that work. What we want to do in New Canvas is try to generate that kind of experience and take it out of the hobbyist and enthusiastic practice and make it more mainstream. To have immersive productions that are consumed by more people and talked about even after you take off your visors.
A - VR is perfect for this kind of discourse and yet sharing is something you still don't see happening very often in this medium. Where do you want to push this as far as Lustration VR is concerned?
N. A. - We were thinking of incorporating social co-viewing components in later seasons, which could happen before or after the viewing to give you the perception that you are watching the episode with someone else.
When you go to the cinema you usually meet up with someone in a foyer, talk to them before the movie starts, maybe share your day, and then see the movie. You're focused there, so you don't talk much (hopefully...) but you're still living that moment together. And then, when you leave the theatre, that’s when you talk about what you've just seen. It's the 'before and after' moment that we want to explore more in our future productions and potentially around Lustration VR as well.
This is an important area, in my opinion. If we really want to develop a Metaverse approach to content in immersive media, social consumption needs to be considered. And I'm not just talking about multiplayer gaming: there have to be other elements as well, because there are different ways of socialisation and competitiveness is not always a part of it.
Pushing the limits of Quill as a narrative tool
A. – Zoe, I was watching your Lustration VR behind the scenes video, and I’m curious about the most exciting moments and challenges of your work on this piece as lead artist.
Z. R. – For the pilot Nathan contacted me when a large part of the background had already been created. But for the episodes we're presenting at SXSW I was pretty much on board from the beginning. One thing that was really, really exciting for me was doing the entire scene setup and storyboards and discussing with Ryan and all the other amazing artists who collaborated on this piece where to place the characters to make Lustration VR more cinematic and interesting from all angles. I loved the early stages of projects like this, where there are endless possibilities and things to figure out!
For this work we used the VR painting and animation app Quill: I'm a Quill artist, and I really enjoy working with it because it allows you to do most - if not all - of the steps right in there, in virtual reality. Other tools, like Unity, create a certain disconnect between the piece and your work, because you can't just experience what you're creating right away: you have to program it from "outside" and then put a headset on and see if what you've done works in VR.
But of course there are also some limitations to working with Quill. If you want to create something that works with Oculus Quest, you have a very strict set of rules to follow about how complex a scene will be or how many levels can be active at the same time. That's something we took into consideration very early on and we ended up having a lot of discussions about what we could do with what we had, how to make it interesting, and all that.
Lustration VR is a very ambitious project, where several points of view are in play at once. Usually you can hide things that don't work perfectly if you use only one point of view, but that's not an option we had, as each scene can be seen from different angles.
N. A. - We're really pushing the functionality and structure of Quill to the limit. If you compare it to what you can do with Unity or Unreal Engine, there are certainly some limitations we've had to adhere to, but the good thing about Quill is that the energy you end up seeing in the art and on the screen isn't absorbed by the technical development and functionality you code.
It's nice to be able to pour everything into your world and get almost instant feedback on how it looks and feels. From a creator's point of view, this medium feels much more artistic than others: you can have a more direct contact with what's being made than you have in a video game, for example, where there's coding and you add the characters, and then the world, and then the game engine and you end up feeling a bit disconnected from the final product.
A VR that looks at the mainstream
A. - Have you encountered any limitations in working with VR, Ryan?
R. G. – There are certainly fewer limitations than elsewhere, but all platforms have limitations, whether they are technical, or related to the ability to reach an audience. But for me that's all part of building the story, part of the process. What's exciting for me is that we're in an incredibly young environment, we're still exploring the rules of how people consume VR. When you make a film or a TV show, you already subconsciously know how people are going to consume it, what they expect in terms of how you're going to edit it or what you're going to show them... but in VR the rules haven't been established yet and sometimes you don't even know there should be a rule until you try it! We have this incredible opportunity today to start discovering a lot of these things in the VR space. For me that's fantastic!
A. – It is, and I think what you've created with Lustration VR could actually be a great step towards solving one of the main limitations of VR: in fact, this piece is incredibly accessible! This is a first step towards your mainstream goal, Nathan!
N. A. – Absolutely! Having Lustration VR streaming on Oculus TV and freely available is great for us. You download the app and don't have to pay anything. Let's hope this is one of the ways forward. We'll see...
A. – What are some other ways we can follow to make VR really more mainstream in the future?
N. A. – There are a lot of different things we have to do, but the first one is: we have to create good content. If you look at what's in the online stores at the moment, you'll find some great games and some good interactive works, but there's a very limited amount of sophisticated, mature narrative with the same complexity and depth that you find on Netflix, on Disney+, on Amazon. We need to create something that is interesting to the audience out there!
But this is also a chicken-egg situation, because right now it's hard to support productions that are trying to do that, because they don't have enough audience yet... but the audience won't follow them until the content is there.
I think we need to approach this medium with a bit more maturity, and that's what I really like about our project. There's a depth and complexity to it that would seem at home in a high-budget TV production. I think that's really important.
I've already mentioned the concept of socialization and the idea of dealing with the isolation that sometimes characterizes this medium. I think that's a challenge we have to overcome, to find ways in which we can be able to share our experiences with other people, but in ways that don't derail the story. I don't know the answers yet, but I feel like this is an area we should explore more
Z. R. - There is also a very practical component of the technology becoming more accessible, there are already several steps forward in this regard. Just recently a friend of mine got a Quest for her birthday and suddenly there's someone who can actually see my work without me taking them to my house and putting them in a VR headset! (laughs)
But I also absolutely agree with Nathan and am very excited to see a widening range of narratives created for VR. I feel like Lustration VR could actually add a new piece of puzzle to the table and I'm very excited to see this direction explored with more complex stories, more multifaceted characters, and more focused storytelling.