Body/Mind/Change is a trans-media experience that was built to accompany a recent celebration of film director David Cronenberg and his work. As part of the project Blair Renaud, developer of Technolust, got to meet the man behind Scanners and The Fly. Renaud shares his experiences and we talk with the team about how the project came to be.
David Cronenberg, one of the most divisive directors of his generation, is undeniably one of a kind. With classics such as Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) and eXistenZ (1999), his works have regularly explored an uncomfortable yet potentially prophetic fascination in the convergence of flesh and technology. 1999’s eXistenZ in particular predicted the resurgence of virtual reality, and contains much that could be seen as prescient echoes or warnings against the dangers of truly immersive entertainment platforms.
It was this man that developer Blair Renaud, Game Designer and founder of Iris VR – creator of Oculus Rift demo favourite Technolust – got to meet. Renaud was there as a member of Occupied VR, a VR development collective tasked with bringing something of Cronenberg’s unique vision to virtual reality through a trans-media project celebrating his work.
The team behind the VR project, heavily influenced by Videodrome, had been commissioned by CFC (Canadian Film Center) Media Labs, working in collaboration with TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) to produce a ‘digital extension’ to the ‘David Cronenberg: Evolution‘ exhibition of the director’s work. The exhibit extension was called Body/Mind/Change (BMC for short) and was conceptualised as centring around a fictional organisation (the titular BMC) who were marketing a new form of bio-enhanced experience. Recalling Cronenberg’s 1999 picture eXistenZ, a film about a VR game designer no less, BMC purport to offer a bio-engineered organism called POD (Personal On-Demand) through which customers can step inside Cronenberg’s mind.
Occupied VR created the ‘VR Edition’ of Body/Mind/Change, a short experience built for the Oculus Rift. The ‘on-rails’ presentation is a disturbing journey
Blair has shared with us his Cronenberg experience, originally posted over at /r/oculus. We wanted to dig a little deeper however, so be sure to catch the Q&A with Renaud and J. Lee Williams of Occupied VR below.
I had the pleasure today, to visit the home of David Cronenberg (which happens to be only 2 blocks from my place) and demo the DK2 for him and his son Brandon. Along with my friends Ana Serrano from the CFC media lab and J. Lee Williams from 1188 and OcupiedVR, we walked them through a bit of Technolust as well as the POD 3.0 experience developed for a TIFF event this year. The experience is loosely based on a variety of Cronenberg’s films as well as being an extension of the Body Mind Change exhibit from the previous year.
Over the roughly 2 hours, we chatted about various things from municipal politics to his new book to VR and beyond. David and Brandon were both excited about the technology and had some really great questions about it. I described the ultimate goal of achieving presence which led to a discussion about the minds ability to fill in gaps in input (including the literal one in the center of our vision).
David was very interested in things like what the highest perceivable frame-rate and resolution of the eye actually are. I explained low persistence displays and talked a bit about the Crescent Bay demo. There were moments when I could see that they both really got it and saw a glimpse of presence. There was a scene with the large TV with lips on it from VIDEODROME was right in David’s face and he reached up to touch it and examined the chair he was sitting it. Afterwards he described what sounded like presence to me. In another section, a fly buzzed past is face as he was being put into a Telepod. He dodged a little bit and chuckled. “I like the fly”. He stood on the Chinatown streets in Technolust and drank in the sense of scale you get from looking up at the sky.
I mentioned that he is a bit of an icon to us VR nerds, and we discussed the prophetic nature of Videodrome. All in all it was a very pleasant visit. I look forward to meeting with both him and Brandon again soon.
We wanted to know more about how the VR edition of Body/Mind/Change came to be, so we asked Blair Renaud and co-founder of Occupied VR J. Lee Williams to tell us more.
RtoVR: How did you get involved in the BMC project? Who got you involved?
Renaud: This is actually a bit of a long story. I was introduced to Timur Musabay (Tim), through a composer friend of mine. I had come across some of his work and instantly fell in love (with his work :)
Tim is a crazy analog video hacker. He has a ton of 80’s video equipment and custom electronics that he uses to create amazing visual effects. I wanted to use some of his work in Technolust. When he found out what I was doing, he introduced me to his friend J. Lee Williams, a self-proclaimed “Director of things and stuff” (check out his demo). J is an award winning VFX director (among many other talents) with a deep interest in VR. Together along with J’s production company 1888 Films we formed OccupiedVR. A sort of collective. We’re all working closely together to make great VR.
J had directed the original Body/Mind/Change experience in a co-production with CFC Media Lab, Tiff and Canadian Heritage. We wanted to do something awesome in VR for Tiff in 2014. J introduced me to Ana Serrano the founding Director of the CFC Media Lab. The CFC Media lab is a world-renowned new media research, training and production think tank environment created in 1997 by the Canadian Film Centre (CFC). Another perfect match for VR. With Ana as Producer we got the permission we needed to make the Body/Mind/Change VR teaser, and so, here we are.
RtoVR: Who initiated the project?
Renaud: Not sure about the original Project, but for this one it was an Ana and J combo. So, the CFC.
J: Both Ana and I we’re looking into VR and had an interest in working in the space. Since we we’re right in the middle of finalizing the B/M/C project, we thought it would be great to wrap it up with a final short VR extension. With the great talents of Blair, Tim and 1188 we built the first version of the teaser and presented it at the CFC Annual BBQ during TIFF. Due to the tremendous response we quickly got into a discussion with our partners at TIFF to extend what we had created into a larger experience. They thought it was a great idea and ‘Body.Mind.Change. Redux’ was born.
RtoVR: Are you personally a Cronenberg fan? Was it daunting meeting him? What’s your favourite film by him?
Renaud: I’m a huge fan of Cronenberg. Mostly 1980’s Cronenberg. Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone and The Fly are some of my all time favorite’s. I don’t enjoy all of his work, but I appreciate it none the less. Not sure there is anyone out there who’s work I enjoy 100% of.
RtoVR: Was it just POD and Technolust you demo’d or were there others? Did either David or Brandon get sick?
Renaud: Yes just POD and Technolust. Neither of them felt the slightest bit sick. They had both had experience with 90’s VR. So I think the were used to a lot worse. Brandon mentioned that they had the VFX1 in their home. I didn’t let David move around much in Technolust. Just teleported him around and let him take in the scenery.
RtoVR: What were David’s aspirations for BMC? How creatively involved was he?
J: I can’t speak directly from David on this question, in fact the original Body/Mind/Change project was designed by amazing creative Lance Weiler. Lance designed the blueprint for the full BMC Transmedia experience, where I was in charge of directing the retrospective film component. From what I know, he did very much enjoy the base concept, that BMC had licensed the works of David Cronenberg to use in their development of POD (Personal On Demand). I think overall that David’s lasting relationships with both CFC and TIFF had him leaving the development of the project to the people they put in charge of creating the works. Almost as if he enjoyed to simply stand aside to see what we would create based on his work. He has been very supportive along the way.
RtoVR: Did you get the impression David might investigate or pursue VR projects in the future?
J: Maybe ;)
RtoVR: Did you discuss VR movie making at all?
Renaud: We did a bit actually. Mostly about the issues with telling a proper narrative with it and the failures of films shot entirely from the first person POV.
RtoVR: What was your impression of David? Was he what you expected?
Renaud: I liked him! I’m not one to be star struck. I generally try to surround myself with artistic and intelligent people. To me, he just seemed like a good person. Intelligent, genuinely interested, and obviously, creative. If he was overly eccentric, I’m not sure I would notice. haha!
RtoVR: BMC was a digital extension to the TIFF experience. Might it live on as an autonomous entity?
Not sure I can talk about that :P
J: The original VR experience was created as a digital extension to B/M/C, but has gone on to become something of its own. The final will be a stand alone experience.
RtoVR: Were Occupied VR entirely responsible for production / content design? Did you have a hand in the creative side too?
Renaud: The only real source material I had to work with were the minds of those that had worked on the original experience, a beautiful model of POD that Matt Bilweicz created and all of the fantastic video footage from the original B/M/C. I had a ton of creative input.
We only had three weeks to create it from concept to completion. J, Tim and I furiously brainstormed and came up with the concept, then I dove in. I came up with a lot of it on the fly (pun intended). For instance, I created the telepods from The Fly in about an hour one night on a whim. It all came together thanks to the brilliant team that destiny built.
RtoVR: Will there be a public release of the POD demo?
Renaud: Yes. Very soon. I’ll be pushing out a copy to my Technolust backers in advance, and we’ll follow it up with a release on Oculus Share.
My thanks to Blair Renaud and J. Lee Williams for taking the time to share their thoughts. The POD 3.0 experience teaser will be available shortly to Technolust backers. You can find more on Occupied VR at their site here. Pre-order Technolust for the Oculus Rift right here.