The Last Moments immerses users in the discussion about euthanasia with a VR film that reveals the process of an assisted death.
Virtual reality and empathy go hand in hand. The very nature of being closed off to the world, void of all peripheral distractions, is an effective aid to focussing on powerful subject matter. Directors are realising that putting you in the shoes of those having to make life or death choices can have a profound effect on the viewer.
One such director is Avril Furness whose short 360 degree film The Last Moments I watched at Grand Central Recording Studios (GCRS) in London. Doning the Samsung Gear VR headset, I found myself in a very ordinary room, bed bound with my emotional wife sitting at the end, trying to offer comfort through tears and jokes, as she was about to become a widow.
A mentor from Dignitas—the Swiss based not-for-profit organisation that offers assisted dying services—robotically described how the cocktail I would drink would put me into a sleep I would never wake up from.
My choice was to continue to live or take the cocktail and die. Out of curiousity I chose the latter, but was surprised to then learn that 86% of real Dignitas volunteers don’t go through to the ultimate end stage.
Furness based the thought provoking film on a script she had penned exploring an overpopulated dystopian future where salesmen sold euthanasia packages door to door, as if some innocuous household product.
During her research, she visited an exhibition called Death: The Human Experience at the Bristol museum which housed a replica of a ward from Dignitas. Sitting in the very ordinary room, Furness described having a profound emotional experience, which she felt could be transferred to others as a 360 degree short film.
Furness studied video documentation of approximately fifteen assisted dying procedures, transcribing the script into one narrative.
“It is not always as bleak as you might think” she said. “In the videos there were lots of nervous jokes and agitation to keep it light hearted for the volunteer. I wanted to bring that out in the script.”
The Last Moments was premiered at a euthanasia conference in Amsterdam, attended by specialists, volunteers and pro right-to-die campaigners. The presentation moved many to tears with one gentlemen not able to watch to the end such was its intensity.
Initially, The Last Moments struggled to get off the ground.
“It was a really difficult relationship with Dignitas at first” admitted Furness. “They were very sceptical and negative. As the conversation developed, they were quite specific about filming in the replica room in Bristol rather than at their premises to ensure this was a tasteful artistic representation of what happens.”
Such was the turnaround, at one point Dignitas even proposed putting a 360 degree rig on a real volunteer to die on camera but Furness wanted to avoid anything that could cross into morbid voyeurism.
The result is a powerful 360 short that stays in your head long after you take the Gear VR off. It is the ordinariness of the environment and the procedure that is at odds with the gravitas of the situation. The contrast of the emotion of your loved one and the clinical nature of the Dignitas mentor is just as difficult to process.
Looking at the experience from a production standpoint, I really appreciated how passionate and supportive the companies involved in the project were. The Last Moments was a collaboration between Framestore, VISYON 360, Grand Central Recording Studios and theatre company Punchdrunk, which would have had a fraction of the budget of the productions they would typically be involved with.
With just three hours to shoot the entire sequence, a GoPro 360 rig was placed on a mannequin with an ambisonic microphone. The 3D audio was vital for the realism of the experience led by Steve Lane and George Castle of GCRS. This was their first commercial foray into virtual reality, having traditionally worked on sound design for high end movies and commercials.
Looking back Castle reflected “It was relatively early into our foray into the VR world and a great learning experience. What excites me is what is possible now compared to 6 months ago is massive.”
Lane is equally excited to work on sound design for VR projects, appealing for a more standardised process. “Spatial audio is great but there isn’t a defined format. We can chose from four or five delivery methods so that is going to have to become a more streamlined process. With The Last Moments we only had to consider the Samsung Gear VR but in the future I would love to see software coming to market that makes this possible. We are having to use an older Oculus Rift development kit headset because Pro Tools is only Mac compatible but the new Oculus is only PC compatible. It’s just all over the place at the moment.”
Framestore were bought in to do the post production under the guidance of Executive Producer David Hay and VISYON 360 did the final stitching for the piece that was painstakingly as close to the real procedure as possible, right down to the labels on the bottles.
There was genuine altruism behind the project and a reminder that virtual reality can excite and bring out the best of pioneers keen to showcase the power of the medium.
The Last Moments is currently touring festivals and will be made available on YouTube 360 once the tour is over.