By Yifan Xiong
Words count: 1,244
When Gene Youngblood mentioned in his 1989’s article Cinema and the Code the wraparound head-mounted display used in NASA’s virtual environment project, he implied that this prototype of virtual reality (VR) headset could realize the objectification by making the cinematic space become a place to live and therefore, make the cinema become the reality itself. In spite of the fact that whether the VR technology can lead to an ultimate cinematic reality still remains debatable today, the almost total immersive experience it can bring to the users has already been widely acknowledged, which could be further enhanced by interactivity, one of the technology’s inherent main features (3I including interactivity, immersion, and imagination, stated by Grigore Burdea and Philippe Coiffet in Virtual Reality Technology). However, in Penrose Studios’ latest VR experience Arden’s Wake, the first installment of a larger animated series, the creators managed to intensify the narrative and emotional immersion for the users by limiting the interactivity.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Arden’s Wake is a 15-minute coming-of-age story following its young female protagonist Meena who lives with her father in a lighthouse atop an endless sea. They remain haunted by the loss of Meena’s mother, who drowned in an event only hinted at in the prologue (Figure 1). After Meena’s father goes missing on an underwater scavenging trip, she has to descend into the dark ocean to rescue him. In her thrilling and breathtaking underwater journey, she encounters ruins from an ancient civilization, wonderful creatures, and a fantastic beast, leaving viewers with more questions than answers, and expectation each step of the plot.
Similar to the affects aroused by panoramic paintings discussed in Söke Dinkla’s The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art, the underwater opening sequence of Arden’s Wake brings to the viewers the ‘perfect illusion of space’ and shifts the boundaries between real space and natural space (Dinkla 28, 29), creating an immersive experience of being surrounded by the ocean in reality. When I was introduced to this sequence, I got hit immediately by a body of emotions witnessing Meena and her mother falling into the depths of the ocean. Her father then comes into the picture to rescue his family, but he is only able to rescue the daughter, leaving the mother into the dark abyss. If I were given any methods to interact with the film or to alter the plot, like using a controller, or a gaze or touch trigger, my emotional coherence might be interrupted. The helplessness, desperateness, and immense grief in this irreversible tragedy are exactly the emotions we are supposed to feel in this ‘being-forced-to-watch’ process.
After the quick emotional scene, the story transitions into the characters’ humble cabin above the water (Figure 2-4). When I followed Meena and her father to surface on the serene present of their life, my visceral feeling changed quickly from suffocation to relaxation. In this next sequence, I was fascinated by the enormous details in the diorama-like above-the-sea world. The lighthouse where Meena and her father live is like a sophisticated dollhouse filled with family photos, books, hand drawings and living appliances, creating a warm family atmosphere yet reminding us of the family loss happened a long time ago. By giving the viewers a god-like perspective, Arden’s Wake demonstrates its effective spatial storytelling and makes the viewers feel like they are playing the role of the camera. In one scene, I was directed by the dialogue between the characters and the sound source to see a young man teasing Meena with a guitar. When I turned my focus to the inside of the lighthouse, I saw Meena watching the man from a window, while her father threw a bucket of fish at the suitor. At some point of the film, I turned my head to another direction and then I saw the peaceful view of the massive ocean. I stayed on that direction for a while just to enjoy the ocean view and I felt like I could almost smell the fresh aroma in the air and my hair was gently fluttering in the sea breeze. Although I was still only allowed to look at the film, there is a right amount of interactivity in this sequence that can keep me feeling immersed without being distracted. The miniature characters moving in the scene grant me the freedom to be the camera and to create my own shots and angles. I could choose to peak around the corners of the cabin, take a closer look at the characters’ facial expressions, or lean over to get a glance of the view beneath the water surface. In this way, I was following the plot as I adjusted my attention according to the characters’ dialogue, but I was simultaneously playing an active role in the film.
In the last sequence, Meena leads the viewers to slowly descend into the sea to look for her father, bringing the set back to the panoramic ocean (Figure 5). Based on the experience from the early sequence, the viewers can instantly tell that something horrifying or amazing will happen after the characters return to the deep sea. Instead of a cut from one scene to the other in traditional cinematic language, the transition in Arden’s Wake is seamless and natural, realized by extremely smooth movement. However, this submersible deep down aroused my most intense sensory and mental reaction during the whole experience. I was resistant to be pulled into the ocean and I felt a strong urge to cling to the cabin above the water. When I was diving down with Meena, I looked up to the light source rising farther and farther away, which terrified me badly and made me feel claustrophobic. I even started to doubt myself if I had minor thalassophobia at that moment. The deeper I sank into the water, the greater depth I felt in immersion. Even though the story was happening outside of my control, I could still move and look at the surroundings and Meena’s submarine from any angle without feeling disoriented. Again, the limitation of interactivity contributed to the increase of immersion. When a dragon-like beast appeared on the screen, I moved along with the sound source, trying to determine where did the creature come from and what exactly it was, just like what Meena was doing in her submarine. At that moment, I felt like I was another character in the film, and I was about to face the unknown danger together with the girl.
Arden’s Waked ended with Meena being swallowed up by the beast, leaving a great amount of suspense that sets high expectations for the viewers towards the next episode. Since the film itself is already embedded with a large quantity of detailed visual and aural information, the limitation of its interactivity can, in fact, help the viewers to concentrate on the narrative and the visual exuberance and therefore become invested in the story. According to Erik P. Bucy, viewers with lower cognitive capacity would prefer interactive films without actual interactivity (Bucy 378). On this basis it may be inferred that the appropriate amount of interactivity in Arden’s Wake could help the film to reach a wider audience, for the reason that the film’s storytelling strategy could allow the viewers with greater cognitive capacity to be their own cinematographers and enjoy the information complexity, while the audiovisual effects could amplify expressive storytelling and appeal to the most passive viewers even if they remain immobile during the entire viewing process.
(Arden’s Wake had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2017, and I got the chance to experience it at 2017 Animation Nights New York (ANNY) Best of Fest annual symposium. The short film will be available on a variety of VR platforms soon.)
Youngblood, Gene. “Cinema and the Code.” 1989.
Dinkla, Söke. “The Art of Narrative – Towards the Floating Work of Art.” 2001.
Bucy, Erik P. “Interactivity in Society: Locating an Elusive Concept.” 2004.
Additional links and pictures
Maestro – the VR creation tool for Arden’s Wake
Pictures of using Maestro in the creation process of Arden’s Wake
Gif of Penrose Studios in response to receiving the Best VR Film award from 2017 Venice Film Festival