Welcome to The Between: Behind the Scenes of VR Animated Series ‘Lustration’

Oculus Blog
Posted by Giancarlo Valdes
June 7, 2022

You can find a lot of great VR Animated Stories on Oculus TV, and the fantasy noir tale of Lustration is no exception. The first season, with all four episodes available for free, introduces viewers to The Between, a realm where departed souls must prove themselves worthy before they can enter the true afterlife. It’s a world filled with compelling characters, some of whom are determined to uphold the oppressive power structure that governs The Between, while others try to fight against it.

In Lustration, you’re not locked to a single point of view—you can choose how you see the story unfold by selecting different cameras at any point during an episode. Sometimes they just give you new angles to view the current scene, or they’ll let you peek into what’s happening in the room next door. But other times, the cameras lead to entirely new scenes that take place in different environments, or even on a different plane of existence. And all those scenes play out simultaneously, so you have to rewatch each episode if you want to catch all the dialogue and plot details.

Lustration blends elements from video games, choose-your-own-adventure novels, and traditional episodic storytelling. It feels like a new kind of immersive media, one only made possible by VR.

Now that the first season of Lustration is complete, we spoke with the cast and creators to find out more about this groundbreaking work—and what it might mean for VR storytelling moving forward.

Creating a New Reality

Lustration comes from the mind of Ryan Griffen, a First Nations writer and filmmaker based in Australia. Before diving into the world of VR animation, he was the creator and showrunner of Cleverman, a superhero TV show based on Australian Aboriginal mythology (he’s also the writer of its spin-off comic series for Gestalt Comics). So Griffen is no stranger to creating imaginative worlds filled with deep lore and characters.

“I’m big on world building—it’s a big part of my storytelling,” Griffen says. “I enjoy placing characters in unique worlds that reflect social issues that we face in our everyday life. I also want to create characters that are unique in their own right. I’m a big pop culture nerd, and I always ask myself, ‘Is this a character that someone would like to cosplay?’”

Lustration, which originally started as a graphic novel with art from James Brouwer, follows the story of Bardolph and Gallus, two men who work together as Protectors of The Between. Their job is to purge evil souls from their realm, but they eventually get wrapped up in a much larger mystery that involves both the living world and the afterlife.

Griffen partnered with XR media studio New Canvas, and together they assembled a team of talented artists and animators to bring Lustration’s comic book pages to life in VR. They decided to make it with Quill by Smoothstep.

Lustration and The Between are a patchwork quilt of locations from around the world,” says Griffen, “and having the ability to step into the craziness of that world in VR was a massive draw for me.”

The team knew early on that Lustration wasn’t going to have a traditional viewing experience. They wanted the audience to interact with the story in a meaningful way.

“We looked at a lot of things for inspiration, but one that stands out is immersive theater projects like Sleep No More,” says Nathan Anderson, CEO of New Canvas and executive producer of Lustration. “I personally believe that we have a lot to learn from how theater and specifically immersive theater engages audiences, allowing them to customize and personalize their consumption of an otherwise linear narrative. We try to infuse elements of this within Lustration with the multiple cameras and spawn points in each scene.”

In December 2020, New Canvas released a prototype of Lustration, which served as a proof of concept of its interactive narrative. Taking place at a diner one late night in The Between, this pilot episode features an early version of Bardolph and other characters that would later appear in the first season. It lets viewers switch between a handful of perspectives and listen in on different conversations.

“The prototype showed that there’s some value and merit in exploring simultaneous narratives that work in VR—something that wouldn’t make sense in traditional, non-spatial media like film and TV,” says Anderson.

Emboldened by the prototype’s positive reception, New Canvas began working on the full series in earnest just a few months later. For Griffen, writing a story where viewers could hop between multiple scenes and realities was an exciting challenge. One of the best examples of this narrative technique occurs in the second episode, part of which takes place in a detective’s apartment on Earth. Initially, you just see the detective talking to herself as she combs through evidence in her kitchen.

But if you switch over to one of the other cameras, you’ll suddenly find yourself in a dark and twisted version of her apartment in The Between. The detective isn’t there: Instead, you see a new character who isn’t present in the living world, and it quickly becomes clear that both scenes are directly related, with the events in one world able to affect the other. You need to flip back and forth between the two scenes to fully understand what’s going on.

This was the moment when Lustration really clicked for me. Much like the character I was watching in the living world, I, too, felt like a detective, trying to piece together the story by jumping between realities. I’ve seen this kind of storytelling in games before, but never in an animated format like this—it shows how unique Lustration is when compared to other types of media, even among those made in VR.

“In a scripting sense, this was all new to me and something that was constantly evolving throughout the production,” says Griffen. “It’s something I want to explore a lot more as it changes the way we consume a linear story. We also have a call-back to the same idea in episode four, but both scenes are happening in the same reality.”

Planning for the apartment scene was made a little easier thanks to the fact that, aside from the drastic change in lighting and decor, both the living and Between versions share the same room layouts. Yet even so, Griffen had to think carefully about how viewers would experience the story across the two realms. “The thing you need to take into consideration is that because you want the audience to feel comfortable and natural in these setups, we can’t lean on traditional framing with a camera,” he explains. “Basically, we’re creating rules as we go about what works and what doesn’t.”

Figuring out what those rules were often led to unexpected challenges during Lustration’s development. But Griffen was still able to focus on his role as a writer and director, saying it was important to bring on someone who had the technical know-how to help him out and make sure everything worked. And that person was lead artist Zoe Roellin.

“Zoe’s artwork and her understanding of the technical constraints and capabilities worked hand-in-hand with what I wanted to create,” Griffen says. “Sometimes we needed to push each other to come up with new ways to tell our story.”

Casting the Afterlife

The next piece of the puzzle was finding the right set of actors who could embody these otherworldly characters. New Canvas reached out to people from a variety of backgrounds, resulting in a casting list that consists of both well-known names and local talent from Australia. The former group—which includes Kevin Conroy, Dante Basco, and Tamlyn Tomita—are all actors Griffen was already familiar with, having been an avid fan of their work since he was a kid.

“I grew up on pop culture and they’ve all had an active role in my love of film and TV,” he says. “So when I had the opportunity to bring them into a world that I’d created, and for them to bring to life characters that I’ve had in my head for so long, it was a no-brainer.”

Kevin Conroy is a prolific actor who’s best known for voicing Bruce Wayne and his superhero alter ego Batman in the seminal 1990s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. One reason Conroy joined Lustration was because he found the story fascinating, especially the idea of a realm that exists between the living world and the afterlife. He plays Bardolph in the series, giving the troubled Protector an air of weariness and angst.

“Ryan knew my work from the Batman franchise and thought I’d be a good fit,” says Conroy. “What intrigued me about the project was that it was created by an Indigenous writer from Australia. I think it’s important to hear stories from new and different perspectives.”

Dante Basco plays the young and cocky Gallus, Bardolph’s friend and fellow Protector. Basco is also a veteran actor, originally making his Hollywood debut as Rufio in the 1991 Steven Spielberg film Hook. He’s lent his voice to a number of animated projects over the years, including Avatar: The Last Airbender. Lustration is his first VR series.

“I love the VR world—I’ve been in some experiences before, like being an avatar walking around VR events,” says Basco. “I do think it’s the future of storytelling in some big ways, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.”

Tamlyn Tomita, known for her breakout role as Kumiko in The Karate Kid Part II and as Waverly in The Joy Luck Club, has starred in numerous films and TV productions throughout her career. Her Lustration character, Lily, isn’t introduced until the fourth episode, but Lily’s existence brings up more questions about what’s really happening behind the scenes in The Between.

The three actors were able to meet in Los Angeles and record their scenes together—a luxury in the world of voice acting.

“They’re great to work with, very generous, very talented,” says Conroy of his co-stars. “They made this a great work experience and one I hope to do more of. You always get a better performance when you can act with the other actors in the same studio. It just feeds your performance.”

While VR productions have hired notable actors before, it’s a small pool of names compared to movies and TV. That makes Lustration’s diverse cast even more remarkable given how young the medium is. It’s particularly meaningful in light of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the US, as both Tomita (who’s Japanese-Filipino) and Basco (also of Filipino descent) are some of the few Asian American actors to star in a VR project.

Basco has spent the last few years producing and directing independent films centered around the Asian American experience, and he sees a lot of potential in telling more Asian stories in VR.

“I have an insatiable curiosity about the world and feel very strongly about how I see it and the stories I want to tell, whether it be through film, music, poetry, podcasting, and now virtual reality,” says Basco.

A New Way of Telling Stories

Lustration doesn’t wrap up every thread or plot point by the end of the season, which amounts to a little over 30 minutes in length. A lot of questions are left unaddressed—if this were a normal TV show, the lack of answers would probably feel a little frustrating. But as a VR series, the ongoing mystery works in its favor: I was happy to just be a curious bystander passing through a strange comic book universe.

Lustration brings viewers to a lot of fascinating places, and I wish I could’ve spent more time in them to find out more about their purpose and histories. I’d often pause a scene several times to admire the characters and other little details in the environment or rewind a shocking moment just so I could see it again from a different angle. I was completely hooked by the end of the fourth episode and was a little sad that there wasn’t anything left to see this season.

Fortunately, New Canvas is planning on telling more stories about The Between, both in VR and across other media.

“We want to continue the story, but we’re also looking at the integration of social and co-viewing functionality to expand the experience,” Anderson says. “The roadmap for the series will include more comics, plus we’re in discussions for an animated TV series that uses a dual-art pipeline.”

Anderson believes that animation will play an important role in VR content over the next few years, especially when it comes to spatial storytelling projects like Lustration. These immersive videos represent a new media format, one that can be difficult to categorize: It’s not a video game, but it’s also not as passive as watching a TV show or movie.

“Some people will understand it quicker if we tell them Lustration is a game, others if we say it’s a short episodic film, but it’s really a bit of both,” says Anderson. “I do think it’s important to give these things a name or label as it helps set the audience’s expectations and understanding of their required input. What that is, though, is still being devised.”

In the meantime, Griffen has been busy planning out the future of Lustration, and he hopes that fans of the first season will join him for the ride.

“I hope people get attached to the world and the characters within it because I really feel we’re just scratching the surface of the story,” says Griffen. “There’s a lot more fun, tears, and excitement to be had, and I can’t wait to share all the twists and turns we’ve lined up for the series.”

All four episodes of Lustration (plus extra scenes) are now available to watch for free on Oculus TV and the VR Animation Player on the Quest Platform.