As part of our Sundance 2018 coverage, we’re excited to kick off five solid days of posts in our VR Visionaries series—one for each of the five Oculus-funded experiences debuting at Sundance this year. From space exploration to a child’s imagination and beyond, we’ll take a deep dive on the latest narrative innovations from some of most creative artistic minds in VR.
Hot off its premiere at Sundance, the Masters of the Sun VR experience is now available for Gear VR on the Oculus Store. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Director will.i.am for his thoughts on art, technology, and the evolution of narrative entertainment.
Masters of the Sun is an excellent example of transmedia storytelling. How has this project developed over time?
will.i.am: Storytelling, like technology, has evolved. VR and AR give artists a new way to tell stories that immerse the audience deeper into the plotline—and up closer with the characters. Masters of the Sun started in print as a graphic novel, and in less than a year has come a long way to entertain and inform audiences in three formats.
You’ve assembled an impressive cast of vocal talent, include hip-hop legends Rakim and KRS-One. What was it like to bring all of these unique voices together?
will: We brought together some of the most important voices from the hip hop world to make the Masters of the Sun VR experience an authentic story. The print version is unique and different from the VR version—both are amazing, and fans tell us that the actors who starred in the VR experience drew them in, in a good and uniquely separate way.
What was it like working with Hans Zimmer? How did you blend his compositions and your own original recordings to create a cohesive sound for Masters of the Sun?
will: Hans and I have worked together on past projects, and the opportunity to work with him again was huge. Hans has composed some of the most memorable and iconic soundtracks in film and television, so securing him as a collaborator on Masters of the Sun was an indicator that this project would deliver for fans as the story migrated from print to VR.
How does the sound design and music contribute to the overall experience?
will: The sound score, or soundtrack, for the Masters of the Sun VR experience is a complex, layered blend of music, sounds, and cues that take the audience back to the 1980s—the early days of hip hop, and the early days of Black Eyed Peas too. Tracking with the storyline, the sound cues and musical elements take the audience through conflict, characters who oppose each other, the menacing influences of crime and drugs, and finally characters who realize the need to team up to win and triumph over evil. The soundtrack isn’t an album or a substitute for an album, but it’s integrally tied into the world of Black Eyed Peas because the story weaves in elements of our lives in the formative days of our band.
Did you encounter any challenges while developing for the Oculus Platform? How did you overcome those obstacles?
will: VR is a relatively new medium, and Black Eyed Peas are new to VR, too. We learned a great deal in the process and found it extremely helpful to have Oculus as our partner on the project. Our biggest challenge was creating a compressed version as our official entry into New Frontier at Sundance—approximately 20 minutes vs. the original VR experience, which runs 90+ minutes, more along the lines of a feature film. It was a two-part process, deciding which chapters and key plot points were absolute musts, and then either adapting or creating new VR elements and a sound score to accompany them.
What motivated you to have the audience’s perspective shift from character to character? How does that change our understanding of the narrative?
will: Each character represents different struggles and hope within the African American community. This includes Lady Nix who opened a club for those seeking refuge from the oppressive realities of being Black, ranging from gangs to corrupt police. Our hero Zulu-X uses hip hop as a way to spread positivity and knowledge. Those who understand the crack epidemic in Los Angeles during the late ’80s should find a parallel between the realities of that and “Z-Drops.”
There’s obviously a lot of symbolism at work in Masters of the Sun, with drugs turning people into zombies—essentially characterizing addiction as a kind of living/social death. Did you draw upon the work of theorists like Orlando Patterson, Frantz Fanon, or others while developing the story?
will: Patterson and Fanon are two of the greatest writers and intellectuals of their eras. However, growing up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles during the early ’80s, this was my reality. I saw what drugs did to my community as well as other communities across the nation—this epidemic was up close and personal.
Both hip-hop and comics have a long legacy of addressing social and political issues, and both are also often sites of technological innovation. Why did you choose comics as the medium through which to tell this particular story?
will: Hip hop is more than music—it’s a culture steeped in music, art, dance and technology. Masters Of The Sun is simply an extension of that notion. Taboo, Apl.de.ap, and I are each individually and collectively huge fans of comic books and absolutely geeked out when we were granted the opportunity to work alongside Stan Lee. Using a graphic novel, and now VR, to illustrate very significant moments in history that were important to share with the public—some may say this is conspiracy theory nonsense, but others continue to ask tough questions and challenge the white-washing of the history of Black culture in America.
How would you characterize the role of social critique, particularly at the intersection of art and technology?
will: Art is a powerful mechanism to convey information about a serious time in history and many stories of social injustice tied to gangs, drugs, crime, struggling communities, a woman-owned nightclub and a hip hop act trying to make it in the music business. Art comes in many forms, and technology continues to drive the possibilities for artists, giving us new ways to tell stories and new ways for audiences to absorb them. Technology continues to evolve and provides new options, in contrast to the false assumption that one technology will render another obsolete (radio vs. TV, and home video vs. going to movie theaters).
How do you think VR and AR will affect the art of storytelling moving forward?
will: We’re in the early days of experimentation that will allow VR and AR to go off in many directions. Each director and creative team will pursue these technologies, including mixed reality, with a different point of view. Technology, when used to give the audience the best possible experience, will take fans to new levels. However, the use of technology for technology’s sake—losing sight of telling a great story—will drag these emerging media down.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
will: I have a few things going on. Black Eyed Peas just dropped our first single in eight years called “Street Livin,” which includes a number of important social justice themes: immigration, the prison-industrial complex, and what a lack of investment in education does to society. I’m about to debut my Young Adult novel Wizards and Robots, a science fiction story in which the science is real rather than fantasy. Wizards and Robots will be out in stores in the last week of January in the UK, and is available for pre-order on Amazon.com now. Masters of the Sun is also moving into a new stage, with the second book now underway. I’m also in the midst of Season 7 of The Voice UK, currently in production in the UK through early April.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
will: I’m beyond thrilled that Black Eyed Peas, including my best friends Taboo and Apl.de.ap, are here at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival with the Masters of the Sun VR experience. Black Eyed Peas’ motto is to dream big, and our wildest and most outrageous dreams have come true. Who would have thought that a hip hop act would start telling stories in print—and now our story and comic world is at Sundance. It’s been an amazing seven months for us!
Thanks for taking the time out of your insanely busy schedule to chat with us, will! It’s definitely been a wild ride, and we can’t wait to see what you and Black Eyed Peas come up with next.
Check out Masters of the Sun on Gear VR today, and stay tuned for more VR Visionaries tomorrow.
— The Oculus Team