In 2010, Japanese garden designer Itaru Sasaki built a glass-paneled phone booth with a disconnected rotary telephone in an attempt to process his grief over the loss of a family member. After a series of natural disasters struck the seaside town of Otsuchi, he decided to open up access to anyone, resulting in tens of thousands of visitors coming to leave messages for their loved ones.
We sat down with YesPleaseThankYou Co-Founder Tom Lofthouse—the producer and creator behind Phone of the Wind—to learn more about this emotionally resonant experience that combines film, testimonials, and original Quillustrations to powerful effect.
What motivated you to tell this particular story in VR?
Tom Lofthouse: Having recently lost a very dear friend and mentor to cancer, the opportunity to make Phone of the Wind could not have come at a more fitting time. The biggest impact this friend had on my life was teaching me to live by “creative compassion” in my day-to-day life—both at work and home—and to be kind and “always trust magic.” The fact that the news of her death had come too late for me to say goodbye in person meant that I had to visit the Phone of the Wind. The experience of using the phone, surrounded by nature and beautiful scenery, really did incite a sense of healing in me. VR and mixed reality are made for recreating these kinds of settings, to jumpstart your emotions in ways you didn’t know were possible; in this case, it was processing grief.
How did you incorporate Quill into your artistic process? What did this add to the experience that wouldn’t have been possible with more traditional methods of media production?
TL: There simply isn’t another tool out there like Quill. Many animation tools optimize the gaming world, but none is as good for the professional drawing space. I felt as though bringing objects to life in 3D animation, so that you can move them and walk around them, gives you the ideal window into people’s minds. There is movement in the images we create using Quill. They’re alive, and we’re able to make surreal worlds become real, believable, and livable for short periods of time. No tool enables digital storytellers to better illustrate—with brushstrokes and moving pictures—the inner workings of the mind.
Dear Angelica also uses Quill to tell the story of personal grief and loss. Did you put Phone of the Wind into conversation with it or other previous works?
TL: I’m fortunate enough to work with Saschka Unseld, creator of Dear Angelica, on a daily basis—and Dear Angelica was a significant inspiration for this work, especially as an example of how VR can tell the story of what’s happening inside of someone’s mind. The themes of these two experiences are also obviously the same: grief and loss. Viewing Dear Angelica over and over has also been critical in helping me, and other storytellers, realize the magical potential of Quill.
What will people with some knowledge of Japanese culture appreciate most about Phone of the Wind?
TL: We drew inspiration from present-day Japanese artists and historical Japanese art for the illustrations that help make up Phone of the Wind, from the colors to the style of brushstrokes. People both with and without an understanding of Japanese art history should appreciate this subtle tribute to the cultural landscape.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
TL: We’ve been working with Nobel Media on a piece that we published for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Day the World Changed is an interactive VR experience memorial, for the Nobel Peace Prize honoring the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The film commemorates the work of ICAN and the countless victims of atomic bombs and nuclear arms tests since 1945. We were lucky enough to attend the ceremony in Norway and share an early version of the experience with Nobel Laureates. When VR’s put in the right hands (or on the right heads), we truly can change things.
How do you think VR and AR will affect the art world moving forward? What impact do you see immersive media having on the nature of storytelling?
TL: I’m still as excited about VR as the first time I put on a headset years ago! It never gets old, and the possibilities really are infinite. You’re physically able to enter a different space, just standing in your living room, or a museum, or wherever. As a child, I used to put two mirrors together to see mirrors in mirrors in mirrors, and I’d dream of going into those worlds. VR makes that possible. We’re only just seeing what this new medium can bring—and how impactful these special pieces of media can be.
If people take one thing away from Phone of the Wind, what do you hope it would be and why?
TL: I want more people to experience this special tool for grief. I want people to understand how there are people who are able to use it on a regular basis—and that this group now includes them. The ability to verbalize and transmit your feelings for someone provides tangible relief from grief. At best, I hope this film helps people process loss. Everyone should be able to visit the phone, whether they’re in Japan or elsewhere in the world.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Tom, and for sharing this artistic exploration of grief and catharsis with the world.
— The Oculus Team