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April 12th, 2022 | by Agnese Pietrobon

“We are now thinking about the philosophy behind VR and the stories we want to tell with it” - Uri Kranot (WE ARE AT HOME)

After its success at the Tribeca Film Festival and NewImages in Paris, WE ARE AT HOME, by filmmakers Michelle and Uri Kranot, entered the Inter:Active section of CPH:DOX 2022, which recently ended. An in-depth look at this work for those who have not yet had the chance to experience it.

CPH:DOX just wrapped up, and once again its Inter:Active selection brought with it a variety of immersive works that the in-person event was able to give ample space to and venues whose goal was to highlight their key features and meanings, and give people a chance to discuss them (here’s our interview with curator Mark Atkin).

Among these works, we find WE ARE AT HOME, a multi-user version of THE HANGMAN AT HOME, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Immersive Film in VR at Venice7 and is inspired by Carl Sandburg's poem of the same name (1922) and by the question ““What does the hangman think about when he goes home at night from work?”.

Produced by Floréal Films, WE ARE AT HOME tells five interwoven stories and through them, like its single-user predecessor, reflects on issues of acknowledgement and participation and questions the consequences of our actions. Most importantly, though, WE ARE AT HOME is a way to explore the connection between people and how a collective interactive piece develops around the group dynamics created by the various people who join it.

We spoke with Uri Kranot, co-director of WE ARE AT HOME with Michelle Kranot, to find out more about the physical installation at CPH:DOX and the role the audience plays, and uncover the meanings behind this piece.

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From THE HANGMAN AT HOME to WE ARE AT HOME

AGNESE - Thank you for meeting with us, Uri. What you and Michelle presented at CPH:DOX is a multi-user version of a piece we know very well - THE HANGMAN AT HOME, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Immersive VR Feature at Venice77. How was your experience in Copenhagen?

URI KRANOT - WE ARE AT HOME was located at the Art Hub Copenhagen, so a bit far from the center of the festival. Nevertheless, the installation was fantastic and for the first time it worked without any kind of technical problem. Venice was just the beginning but at the time we already knew that we wanted to expand this work, make it a film but also a performance. The version you can experience now is probably the definitive one for this production.

A. - How do THE HANGMAN AT HOME and WE ARE AT HOME differ?

U. K. - THE HANGMAN AT HOME was of course an individual journey. WE ARE AT HOME allowed us to break it down and rebuild it almost completely, and the biggest difference is that now this work is a collective experience shared by four different users.

The onboarding and offboarding parts are very important. First there is an introductory moment where the four users meet in a room and sit together for five minutes with a cup of tea - simply to meet each other. Then, one by one, they are led into the installation, which consists of a projection on three walls in a very minimalist set reminiscent of a house. There they familiarize themselves with the mechanics of the piece; when they are ready, they begin to interact with each other and we offer them a matchbox with one match each that they must light to begin the story.

From there they descend into the city together and enter an apartment (an optimized space that feels very large) and split up again, each headed for a different door and a somewhat different journey.

A. - People's reactions must have been interesting to observe....

U. K. - They certainly were! Different crowds behave very differently. We rehearsed the piece with teenagers, for example, and they talked the whole time. They were less interested in the story and more interested in the collective experience itself. But we also tried it on scholars, and in that case they really enjoyed the work and didn't talk at all. It's very interesting to see how each team allows a different group dynamic to develop, but I have to say it became a very talkative experience.

A. - What happens next in WE ARE AT HOME?

U. K. - The four users come together again for the last scene, and this is where the question behind the play is raised, and the play itself becomes a kind of social experiment: you only have one match left, and there's a woman who needs your help and a book you want to burn. Some people decide not to use their last match because they simply refuse to burn books; others do so willingly. Some pass the matchbook to each other, and this is becoming an important part of the piece that didn't actually exist in the first version. Some people take responsibility, and it triggers the end and then when offboard, we bring them back into the common room and there's some discussion about what happened.

Learning from the collective experience

A. - It's a complex experience. What did you learn from it?

U. K. - We're actually still learning a lot because even though this piece was at the Tribeca Film Festival and at New Images in Paris, the CPH:DOX is the first time it's been working properly. Before, it was very glitchy and we couldn't get enough data from it. Now, after it's worked for a few days, we can really analyze it better and my conclusion is: when you're working on a collective experience, you don't really need a rigid narrative. Sure, we have a narrative and the user is following a story, but the virtual existence of people in space is already such a strong component that it seems to me that a more flexible narrative could open up more space for these people to express themselves. That's something I didn't imagine before.

Michelle and I are filmmakers and we love to tell stories, to take people through a journey. But once you venture into a collective experience - and that's something we're planning to do in our future projects - you realize that creating strong settings for your users and a context might be enough. You no longer need a complete story from A to Z.

I find it fascinating to see how people behave in VR once you just let them be. It's kind of liberating for them, you have more freedom than in real life, less barriers somehow. Just look at what happens in VRChat! I'm not saying we should allow total freedom, because storytellers still have a role and need to create a world and more importantly an opportunity for discussion - after all we are working with specific questions and our pieces are quite political. But instead of telling a linear story that might end up being a bit rigid, we could leave some room for user improvisation.

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A. - Also, an open approach allows the user to draw meanings from the work that sometimes the authors themselves didn't anticipate and it's amazing to see! Uri, I know that you work at The Animation Workshop as a professor. Are these pieces part of your research there?

U. K. - Yes, it’s research. I'm a professor at the school, but I think almost half of my time is spent in the research department. This is an animation school and our students are trained to make movies and games. VR is still in its infancy. So what we're trying to do is improve immersive storytelling and make it stronger, and my job there is also to bring back into education the conclusions I've reached through my own work.

On using the right medium for the right project

A. - There are several iterations of The Hangman at Home, and a separate animated film, and you mentioned in a 2021 interview that you and Michelle were interested in how different media could reflect your concerns about accountability and responsibility. What did you discover during this year?

U. K. - So, we started with the single-user experience in Venice and about six months later we released the film. Both had a great response on the festival circuit and the VR piece was presented in all kinds of venues.

The film doesn't leave you with the same open question and while it's not entirely linear, because that's not how we usually make our films, it's still more linear than the VR piece. It's also based on formalism and what we know about editing the camera position. There are five scenes that are edited one after the other and they keep repeating, so you have these five rooms that come back again and again and again. A very specific style, I think.

Of course, the absolute thing that sets the two apart the most is the reaction people have to the film rather than the VR. With VR in general, just putting yourself in the story almost as a character makes a big difference. It turns it into a more individual experience. You can choose your point of view, you can get really close to the characters or decide to keep your distance. You can act because it's immersive or just be an observer. It all makes a huge difference... but I still don't know what I like best (laughs)

A. - You beat me to the question!

U. K. - We made our first VR project, NOTHING HAPPENS, which was also at the Venice Film Festival, around 2017; that means we've been making VR for about 5 years! And in that time Michelle and I have been labeled as VR and 3D creators... but I still like movies and I love animation. That's where I'm coming from. I will continue to make them.

What I do know is that the medium we use depends on what the project requires. We're currently working on two different projects, one is in VR but the other will probably be a feature length animated film... because it has to be! In the case of the feature film, there’s no reason to put the audience inside the scene like you would by creating it in VR.

A. - Some do VR for the sake of doing VR.

U. K. – VR is fresh, it's fascinating, so I get it. But after working with it for a few years, I think we've become much more aware and much more critical of its use as a medium. Many people now have more experience with VR, and I’m sure they feel the same.

2 or 3 years ago, if you asked among my students how many of them have tried VR, you would have seen very few hands raised, and those who raised them were mostly thinking about video games. Today this technology is much more accessible and I think our brains are adapting to this medium. Now we're beyond the ‘Wow effect’ and we're thinking more about the philosophy propelling it and the kind of stories we want to tell with it.

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On VR, audience and distribution

A. – Why use VR today?

U. K. - It depends on what you want to achieve with it. How do you want your work to resonate at the end of the day?

When we first started working in VR, NOTHING HAPPENS was a project about watching and being watched. It was about people coming together to watch something and we wanted to try and put you in the middle of that crowd. In a way, in creating that film, we wanted to break the fourth wall. We were working with animation but we felt that no matter how hard we tried, everything would always remain a flat screen.

So we started asking ourselves: how can we push it further? And that's when VR and its immersivity came into play. I think that was a good choice. Since then, when we think about a new project, these are the questions that always lead us: what is the meaning of this piece? Where do we want to position our audience, not just physically but philosophically and politically? What do we want them to hear at the end of the day? And how would it be different if we were watching this work from the comfort of a dark theater or at home, rather than being manipulated into physically experiencing it?

VR byproducts - make a movie and then turn a single scene into VR - is something I don't really understand. They seem a little redundant, if I may be a little critical of that.

Sure, they generate a certain amount of hype. VR does that. There are fewer works in VR and so there's a lot more curiosity around it. It's so funny to me to see how people, without knowing anything about the work, put on their glasses and jump in! In cinema, you're much more critical! Before you decide to watch that movie, you read what it's about, what genre it belongs to, who's behind the camera, and so on. This attitude shows how people are much more open-minded about VR and explains why it's a great time to do things using it. Your audience will be much less critical, because they are much less experienced! But that's not a good enough reason to work in VR. You need more than that for it to work.

A. - How does this reflect on distribution?

U. K. - In terms of distribution, we're trying to figure out what's the best way to go about it. Sometimes you have several projects going on at the same time with the same title, so it can be pretty confusing. When we did NOTHING HAPPENS we released both the VR and the film at the same time and I think they helped each other a lot. Quite a few festivals took both the film in the film section and the VR in the VR section. It was ideal for us because if people could do both, they could compare them and their responses would be interesting to watch.

With The Hangman at Home, things worked a little differently, partly because we released it in parts - and of course because of Covid. However, perhaps because we are labeled as VR filmmakers, several festivals took the VR piece and left out the animated film. This was a bit disappointing, honestly. After all, very few people get to experience the VR piece. Even if you run it for a week, we're talking 200 people max and that's at a very efficient festival. A movie... it can have thousands of people watching it! So the question we'll have to ask ourselves in the future, if we decide to do something like this again, is how to make the different platforms help each other instead of getting in each other's way.

A. - Do you already have any ideas on how to work towards this?

U. K. - We're doing a museum tour for The Hangman at Home and creating an installation that includes both the film and the VR piece. There's a room where you can watch the film but also experience the VR version. If you have the time you can do both, or you can choose one or the other. But you still get a taste of what's there and can appreciate the differences between the products.

With film festivals it's more complicated. I would imagine that because the amount of films is so much higher, it's probably wiser to get the film out before the VR; that way the curators don't have to keep the film out to just pick the VR for which there's a lot more room available.

A. - That's another thing to research. After all, distribution is still a huge problem we have.... You mentioned VR byproducts of films... What about films that are byproducts of VR productions?

U. K. – There are quite a few adaptations of VR pieces into movies, and I really think it's not something you plan ahead. After all, there should be a reason to make the movie version and it should be significantly different from the VR piece, offering a different perspective or feel.

A. - More on the transmedia side of things, then.

The role of animation

A. - As far as animation goes, I admit I'm not an expert: how do you choose a specific animation style for one of your works? Do you adapt it to the subject matter or does it always represent you as an artist in some way?

U. K. – Good question. Technique is probably one of the most crucial decisions made in animation products. It's just like casting actors for a movie. Or at least equally important.

There's going to be a big difference if you made your characters look like puppets, or if you transport the viewer into a 3D world, or even if you painted everything by hand. Each decision gives a specific feel to the piece. Michelle and I both went to art school and even though we've worked in film and even 3D works, if you look at our fingerprint, our style, you'll find that it usually comes from painting, which is where I recognize our origins.

Of course, depending on the specific project, we might take specific directions. However, there's always something that connects our productions and for me it's that each one has a kind of organic imprint. Paint splatters, ink... it doesn't look cold and it definitely doesn't look digital.

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A closer look at Sandburg's poem

A - Your works have a very vibrant soul, but the themes you address are also very timely. I'm curious: do you still remember the first time you heard the Sandburg's poem that inspired this work and the first time you came up with this idea?

U. K. (laughing) – Actually, I do! We didn't just open a book, find the poem and say, "That's a great poem, let's make a film out of it." It didn't work that way.

Michelle and I have a drawer - a literal drawer - called “the drawer of bad ideas". It's the fullest drawer in our studio, and every time we discuss something and come up with an idea, we say "this is a bad idea" and put a note about it inside.

But, you see, when you're an artist, whenever you finish a project you always fear not knowing what to work on next. suddenly you're not busy anymore but you need to be, to justify your choice to be this free radical. Not having a project kind of shakes up your whole existence.

That poem has been in the drawer for ten years, if not longer. I remember hearing it for the first time on a podcast, and someone was reading it in such a beautiful, intense voice and the words resonated so strongly with me. And we bought the book and it's been there all this time. But then you're in between projects and maybe it's wartime or maybe it's peacetime and it all hits you and you realize that maybe that bad idea isn't a bad idea anymore. Suddenly it's relevant. That's why we keep that drawer.

The Hangman at Home? It might be 100 years old, but it is still relevant, no matter what. It just took the right time for us to realize it.

A. – Did you find out what the Hangman is thinking about when he comes home?

U. K. - The whole poem is an open question. From the beginning, we have been trying in some way to reach Sandburg, to communicate with him. He talks about the concept of the hangman, sure, but the poem is more than that. It's about us and our behaviors. About how, in order not to hurt others, we should be more aware of what we do.

A. - There are works that have the power to haunt you. You can enjoy experiencing them, sure, but they're also meaningful because of what they leave you with. Is this something you sensed in your audience at CPH:DOX?

U. K. - When you go to festivals, especially when you're alone, you tend to try and experience absolutely everything and hardly take the time to think about what you saw. This is why we gave the people who visited us a space to discuss their experience of WE ARE AT HOME. We wanted to give them time to acknowledge what had just happened.

In the various WE ARE AT HOME presentations made over the months, there were some very meaningful moments. For example, we did a test in a library in Paris. At one point all four of our users were librarians and none of them, in the end, would burn the books. It was simply against their whole way of thinking. It was a virtual moment and they knew it, but they still couldn't go against what they believed in. It was a very interesting moment to witness.

And then on the other side you might find that some people just don't care about the topic, they just want the interaction, or maybe the ultimate reward.

That's something I'm going to take with me as well: in some ways it would be nice if we created something that contained everything, that gave you the option of not moving forward or not doing things that you don't agree with but still satisfy the feeling of accomplishment. That's something I'm learning from this experience and all the reactions I'm seeing.


WE ARE AT HOME is directed by Michelle Kranot and Uri Kranot and produced by Floréal Films together with Late Love Production, ONF - Office National du Film du Canada and Miyu Productions. Find out more about it on its page in the XRMust database.

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