Yesterday, we kicked off five days of VR Visionaries posts dedicated to the Oculus-supported projects debuting at Sundance 2018. Today, we’re back with a deep dive on the first project from Fable Studio, Wolves in the Walls.
We sat down with Fable Studio Co-Founder & Director Pete Billington and Producer Jessica Shamash for their take on this lovingly rendered adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s gorgeous children’s book.
Early in the experience, Lucy (the protagonist) redraws the audience to adjust their height down to her own. Do you think this helps adults better connect with her character?
Pete Billingon: Absolutely. That’s the intention of this moment. We want you to see and hear this world the way that Lucy feels her world. We call it the Emotional Lens of the character, and it’s our attempt at solving VR cinematography. There are moments when the entire set changes to reflect the way that Lucy is feeling at that moment. Making you her height is the first way that she draws you into her world.
Jessica Shamash: It was important to us that the audience experiences the world through Lucy’s eyes. We want you to feel like you’re a child on this adventure with her. We want to take you back to those feelings of endless adventures and long summers, where anything is possible and everything is larger than life. That early connection and bond to Lucy, where she redraws you, establishes that intimacy. The two of you are in this together.
You worked with immersive theater company Third Rail Projects on Wolves. How did you blend choreography and immersive theater to bring this story to life?
PB: Working with Third Rail Projects was an unexpected and amazing adventure. Jess and I were so moved by their work—it really made an impact on us and changed the way we thought about interaction. Then to have the opportunity to collaborate with them was an instantaneous “yes!” The entirety of Wolves is choreographed like a dance. Lucy really never stops moving, and this activates the audience—it draws them in and gets them to bond with her. Immersive theater is largely about natural performance. You’re sharing an intimate space with another person. If we made Lucy perform like an animated character, it would feel awkward and even threatening. This was a big influence from the immersive theater world.
What kind of response have you seen to the light interactivity employed in Wolves? How does the interactivity change the nature of the story?
JS: Our guiding principle for interactivity was always asking ourselves, “What brings you closer to this character?” Wolves in the Walls is about bonding with Lucy. She is your creator, your friend. All creative choices were filtered through that interpersonal lens.
PB: Exactly. There’s actually quite a bit of interactivity in the piece, but because it’s natural and intuitive, the types of things you do with your body every day, you don’t realize that you’re interacting—and that is completely intentional. We wanted to move away from the novelty of interactivity and find a way to engage the audience so that they play a meaningful role in the story. Response to this has been very positive. We’re hearing from people that this is the first time that they haven’t felt overwhelmed, anxious, or lost touch with the narrative.
Did you have the opportunity to work with Neil Gaiman and/or Dave McKean?
PB: We didn’t have the opportunity to collaborate directly with Neil or Dave, but we did get a chance to hear what was really important to them about the story. This is Lucy’s journey, and she needs to be the protagonist. Neil communicated that the book is about the nature of fear—and that our fears aren’t as scary when they’re faced head-on. We worked hard to honor those elements from the original material.
Who did you work with on the music and overall sound design for the piece? How does their work contribute to the overall experience?
PB: From day one, we knew that sound was going to be essential to the project. Our earliest prototypes had the audience listening to the walls with Lucy. We were incredibly fortunate to partner with the Facebook Sound + Design Team. Their contributions to wolves have been some of the most chill-inducing moments in the development process. There has been a lot of thought put into the ambiguity of what it is that Lucy is hearing in the walls. At times it does sound like wolves, and at others it is the kinds of sounds that old houses make to fuel our imaginations. The score for Wolves that the Facebook team created is this ethereal blend of suspense and excitement that Lucy embodies. The team spatialized all of this to make it feel like the music was emanating from every corner of Lucy’s attic. We feel very lucky to have collaborated with such and amazing team.
What motivated you to adapt Wolves in the Walls for VR?
PB: Saschka Unseld originally identified the project as something that just felt right for virtual reality. He and Katherine Rundell worked on an outline that was focused around a six-episode arc. From the very beginning we knew there were things about Wolves that were going to be very compelling: a character-driven story, an old house that makes ambiguous noises, and a theme that plays with imagination and perception rather than reality. We’re huge fans of Neil and Dave, so that was a big motivation as well.
Did you encounter any technical challenges while developing for the Oculus Platform? How did you overcome those obstacles?
PB: Wolves began before Rift launch, and we knew from the beginning that it would use Touch. Developing within the chaotic alpha and beta stages of the development of these platforms was invigorating and challenging at the same time. There was no one with experience doing what we were attempting to do. It was a great time in VR—when everyone wanted to help each other learn. I believe the constraints of any technology are storytelling opportunities. When we faced a technical limitation, we wrote a storyline to exploit it.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
JS: We’re so excited to continue to reimagine storytelling and push the boundaries of what we know stories to be. For me, exploring stories that are emotional and meaningful will always be my guiding compass. So yes, we have many exciting projects in the works!
PB: There are so many exciting things to explore, but social experiences are next for me—groups of people contributing to the story in a way that AIs and scripted experiences will not be able to for a long time.
How do you think VR and AR will affect the art of storytelling moving forward?
PB: We ask ourselves every day, “Why VR? What can only be done in this medium?” So we’re looking for a differentiator—something that isn’t simply a 360° version of traditional media or an adaptation of a game. We hope Wolves represents a foundational layer of that language. We’re starting to understand how a character can fluidly respond to an audience, in a way that feels natural and not programmatic. I believe this is the future of entertainment. Experiences that adapt to their audience and their environment. Characters that persist across media, that help you do your daily routine, and then tell you a bedtime story at night.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
PB:Wolves exists because of the hard work of artists and engineers and dancers, choreographers and producers, gameplay engineers and AI programmers, hardware developers, social media visionaries, and more. Great things happen when you put diversity in a room together and set a goal.
JS: I couldn’t agree more. When I think about the history of Wolves, it’s easy to attribute its uniqueness to the remarkable team of diverse experts that came together for the single purpose of breathing life into Lucy.
Thanks for shedding some light on Lucy’s world for us, Pete and Jessica. We can’t wait to share Wolves in the Walls with the broader VR community later this year.
If you happen to be at Sundance, you can catch the world premiere of Wolves at New Frontier. To learn more about Fable Studio and their first project, click here.
— The Oculus Team