VR Visionaries: Eliza McNitt

Oculus Blog
Posted by Oculus VR
January 23, 2018

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of our Sundance 2018 VR Visionaries coverage. Today, we’re excited to dive into deep space—and the heart of a black hole—with SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime.

Narrated by Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game, The Martian), SPHERES artistically illustrates the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves and invites us to listen to the music of the cosmos. We sat down with Writer and Director Eliza McNitt to learn more.

What was the initial inspiration behind SPHERES? How has the project changed over time?

SPHERES is inspired by the idea that space is not silent—in fact, it’s actually full of sound. We’ve spent thousands of years studying the cosmos and trying to understand our place in the universe, but for the first time we’re listening to its music. The recent discovery of gravitational waves has revolutionized the way that we see the universe because for the first time, we listen.

I wanted to tell the story of the human connection to the cosmos, and as I dove into research and the science behind the project, I learned that the discovery of gravitational waves won the Nobel in physics, so that was a huge part of the development of this project. I wanted to capture the most cutting-edge scientific discovery, and, in fact, that was this idea of sound. The title is inspired by the ancient philosophical theory called the Music of the Spheres, that predicted that celestial bodies created a form of music—and we truly did prove that with the discovery of gravitational waves.

What was it like to work with Darren Aronofsky? How did his characteristically surreal style come into play?

The team at Protozoa is very focused on the connection between art and science, which is the backbone of my work, and both Darren and Ari Handel who are our executive producers, come from a deep scientific background. What’s really amazing is being able to navigate this project with their mentorship and their support—and have this story be so deeply rooted in science.

Darren is a filmmaker I’ve always admired and looked up to, and his work and force is so distinct. He has been so supportive in pushing me toward finding my fingerprint as a director and as an artist. This passion that we both share for science and storytelling has been such an exciting part of this project because Darren also truly believes that science is storytelling. And in collaboration with Dylan Golden, who’s the producer at Protozoa, he has really pushed for us to uncover the hero’s journey in this project. When I first met with Darren, Ari, and Dylan, they asked me, “What is the hero’s journey?” And I said to them, “Well, it’s an interactive experience. I don’t know if there’s a traditional hero.” And yet, I realized that the hero is you. You experience every step of the journey that you would normally be watching a character go through. Bringing that traditional language of film into this immersive new medium has been such a unique approach and something that Protozoa helped me to cultivate during the project’s inception.

I’m glad you mentioned Ari Handel. As a neuroscientist-turned-filmmaker, what unique perspective did he lend to the project?

Ari is so passionate about science, and he has been so supportive and helpful throughout this process to make sure that we’re pushing the science as far as possible. For example, one night in New York City, he brought the team to an event where they were doing a Q&A with Rainer Weiss, and I got to have wine and cheese with Rai Weiss and grill him about black holes. He had just won the Nobel in physics for the discovery of gravitational waves, so getting that opportunity to be sipping on cocktails and also asking the color of a star when it hits the singularity was kind of a mind-blowing experience and really informative for the project.

Ari has been a critical part of the creative process because of his deep knowledge of science that he brings to this project. He pushes us to explore these scientific ideas deeper and further—but through a poetic lens. Every time we show him the piece, he’s always questioning the science of it all and asking us, “Are you sure that star would be blue? Are you sure the texture would look like this?” He’s very meticulous and detail-driven, so that kind of feedback has been really critical to the greater process of developing the piece.

So obviously with a subtitle like “Songs of Spacetime,” music and sound play a really important role. Who did you work with on the music and overall sound design for the piece? What was that experience like?

This is very exciting to talk about because I love the sound team. Sound—and music—is a character in this experience, and at the end, it literally becomes the character. I worked in collaboration with Craig Hennigan, who was the sound designer on Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Mother!, Stranger Things—he’s a true master and legend of sound. That process was so amazing. When we began working, I sent him all the sounds of the universe that I thought were really compelling, and he then took those and used them to inspire a palette of sound for our experience. The way he creates sounds and individualizes them for a particular effect or explosion or moment is so thrilling, and he’s not afraid to really push the development of the sound in a direction that’s completely unexpected. So that’s been very exciting.

I’ve also worked in collaboration with Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, who were the composers on Stranger Things. I really wanted to work with them after seeing the show, and when we began working with Craig, I kept saying to him, “I loved the music from Stranger Things–I want to create something like that. I want to work with someone like that.” And Craig was like, “Well, why don’t we just reach out to Kyle and Michael?” So we reached out to them, and this is the very first VR experience that they’ve done—same with Craig. With Kyle and Michael, it’s been such an exciting collaborative process because they haven’t done this before, and yet they’re so smart and funny and creative about how to imagine the music throughout this piece. I would say my favorite parts of working on this experience have been the sound and music.

Why did you decide to incorporate interactive elements, like having the audience use their hands to pull objects into the black hole’s orbit? What kind of response have you seen thus far?

During Sundance, I got to watch Elijah Wood do the experience. At the end, we engage you as the character to use your voice, and Elijah Wood was, like, singing in the experience and really getting into it—it was so exciting to see the response. As you walk by our booth, you hear people screaming and whispering and sighing in the experience and getting kind of lost in the magic of it all, and that’s been really cool to watch.

I wanted to incorporate interactivity because it engages you as a character. Through the experience, you begin with six degrees of freedom, as you’re free to explore and move around and be an observer. You’re a fly on the wall watching a star be born. When the star supernovas into a black hole, suddenly you lose that sense of freedom—you lose the ability to move as you’re constricted and now on rails as you’re being sucked into a black hole. So I wanted to use not just interactivity but also the use of space as a storytelling device to push the narrative forward, to give you that sense of a loss of control and powerlessness as you fall into the heart of this black hole. At the end, when you hit the singularity, you’re able to reach out. When you experience that scene, as you’re getting ripped into a million pieces as you spaghettify and go towards the singularity, you must die as a star in order to make your way back up to the surface—and when you do, you become a black hole. You suddenly are the thing that killed you—you become the antagonist. That’s a story you can only explore with interactivity.

How do you think VR and AR will affect the art of storytelling moving forward?

I think the rules are yet to be written, and that’s what’s so exciting. We are the pioneers of the language of virtual reality, and we are the ones creating these experiences, telling these stories, and defining people’s expectations. With interactive storytelling, what I find most compelling is that this isn’t a video game, it’s not a documentary, it’s not necessarily a traditional narrative as well. We’re creating interactive experiences that define their own genre and their own unique recipe that can’t just be defined by our traditional labels for the kinds of stories we’re used to experiencing. I very much see SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime as a character-driven story where you’re sent on a journey and you experience change. Defining that through the lens of this new medium is what I find so exciting.

What’s next for you?

SPHERES is a three-chapter journey. We’re diving into production now on our next episode, and the whole series will be released later this year. After this project, I’ll begin to create my first character-driven piece—a human story connected to the cosmos.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

The team that I work with is truly the heart and soul of this experience. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with so many partners, from Oculus to Intel to Kaleidoscope, Atlas V and Novelab (the team behind Notes on Blindness), Jess Engel at Crimes of Curiosity, and Protozoa. We have a massive team that’s really brought this experience to life, and I’m very grateful to be able to work with them—to have each of these partners who represent different sides of creativity, interactivity, and filmmaking come together to create this very unique experience that you wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. That’s been really cool.

Also, I must say that working with Jessica Chastain was a dream come true—and it’s the very first VR experience that she has done. She did the voice for The Martian VR Experience, but SPHERES was the very first time she was in a headset and did VR—and she was a complete natural.

Thanks for the illuminating Q&A, Eliza. We’re excited to see what your team creates next.

We’ll have more to share on SPHERES in the coming months. In the meantime, catch up on any of our Sundance coverage you may have missed:

Next up, SXSW!

— The Oculus Team