The feature film¬†Notes on Blindness¬†- refreshingly innovative itself – sees actors lip-synch the original audio recordings made by professor John Hull as he progressively loses his sight. Coupled with beautiful cinematography and complex, textured sound design, the result is a moving, poetic piece of cinema. In this way, we experience John’s world as a third person, as his close friend or member of his family watching as he methodically places cassettes into his tape recorder, uses¬†his hearing to sense spatial dimensions and¬†his hands to see his children.
With the added VR component, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, we are transported directly into John’s world – where we experience it firsthand; what it may be like losing one’s sight. As your eyes struggle to make out the world around you, you can feel your remaining senses sharpen as you try to orient yourself while listening to his words.
While the film and VR are both independent and unique artworks in their own right, the incredible cross-platform delivery makes the lived experience of his story so much richer, deeper – it achieves the core goal we all share as filmmakers -¬†the desire to make our audiences feel.¬†In witnessing his blindness – both as he would have¬†and as¬†an outsider – we experience the story world in a far more intimate way and, as was the case with¬†John, are¬†called to¬†surrender¬†to truly see.
What follows is a conversation with Producer and VR Creative Director Arnaud Colinart on the making of Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, and what he predicts for the future of VR in relation to the world of cinema.
“This gimmick about VR as ‘the empathy machine’ is like saying that a paintbrush and paper is the creative tool.”
You‚Äôve described the difficulty of finding the art direction for the VR component. As filmmakers we obviously work with a visual medium. What was the creative process like trying to represent blindness?
We started to look at studies on how blind people perceive their environment and for people who became blind but who had sight at a certain part of their lives, how their brain reconstructs visual memories. We decided that this project is not here to give you the impression of being blind but to give you the understanding of what it‚Äôs like to be blind, which is very different. It‚Äôs not a simulation at all, it‚Äôs more a visual metaphor, an artistic proposal about blind perception especially driven by John Hull‚Äôs story. So we took John‚Äôs books and we selected several pages about perception, and world perception. What he said is that he‚Äôs talking about the world beyond sight. This is the description he gives for the acoustic realm and also the act of perceiving the world through touch.
We just focussed on the audio perception and this is how we arrived at this point where we imagined that all the elements that you will see will be linked to a sound activity. When we found this base line it gave us the key to unlock the art direction for the VR project. It‚Äôs a very counter-intuitive idea to have something in VR about blindness but for us it became very relevant when we found this base line about the acoustic world. If you remove the voice of John to guide you through the experience I think the experience is not relevant to blindness. So we are using VR and art direction as a catalyst for the storytelling.
Potentially, VR has the capacity to elicit greater empathy and emotion from an audience than movies because you really get transported. Do you think this brings a different responsibility to the storyteller?
I think in terms of responsibility, probably, for now, because a lot of VR experiences are putting the user in the first person and when you decide to put someone coming from a background you don‚Äôt know in a place they don‚Äôt know, in the story of a character, I think as creator you have a responsibility when doing that. And it‚Äôs a responsibility on both sides, from the user perspective but also from the subject of the documentary‚Äôs perspective. To give you an idea, let’s say I‚Äôm doing something about genocide in Rwanda, I have to decide why it’s relevant for the viewer to be the first person in this story. I also have to think about the context where people will see the story to respect the testimony of the person I‚Äôm talking about. For example if this VR project is presented at a tech festival in a university in France it will not be seen with the same respect as in a tech festival in Paris with people hanging around with cocktails in their hands, you know what I mean?¬†Especially because in VR for now we don‚Äôt have this kind of sacralised space that we have in cinema with the screening room. This gimmick about VR as ‘the empathy machine’ is like saying that a paintbrush and paper is the creative tool. No, it‚Äôs the end that is driving the creation.
As filmmakers, one of the big things that we do – whether deliberately or unconsciously – is to allow an audience to feel something. Does VR allow us to go further than films in terms of feeling and being moved by a story?
Because Notes on Blindness is not a video, it‚Äôs a CGI real time experience, it‚Äôs closer to a video game. In film you can be moved by the story and the images but you can‚Äôt be moved by the interaction with this world. In video games you can be moved by interaction and by stories. I think in VR it’s the same as in video games but you add the power of immersion because these goggles kind of protect you from reality. In Notes on Blindness you can interact with the environment and it’s this possibility of interaction that can give you a special connection with this virtual world and this is what we call the presence. It’s this presence that can bring you deeper into the immersion and into the story.
What I‚Äôm also interested in is what the experience has been like when people are able to watch the film and have the VR experience soon after. What kind of feedback have you had after people engage in this cross-platform distribution?
We had a glimpse of that at Sundance and we saw it was very interesting because it worked both ways: some people saw the VR and then went to the film and some watched the film and then had the VR experience. It seemed that everybody understood the concept and the difference between the film and the VR. We didn‚Äôt get the feeling that people saw the VR as a gimmick or as a promotional object. I think people consider it as deep as the film.
What do you think the advantages are that VR has over film in storytelling? Or don‚Äôt you make that comparison?
I think that for us the VR and the film serve the same goal but not in the same way and not exactly for the same audience, and not to say exactly the same thing. It‚Äôs a trans-media project where you have a story world and you will have different pieces like a puzzle and each one will tell you something a little different. It’s a way for the audience to dig deeper into the story in a different way. Or you can choose to look at one or the other.
“This technology without the human brain or human creativity is not relevant.”
Are you thinking about your next project yet?
We are working with The Cin√©math√®que Fran√ßaise¬†on an animated short about the history of cinema. I like the idea of doing something in VR about the history of cinema.
Do you think the future of VR is the future of film?
No. I think for now the future of VR is more the future of video games, in the short term. Maybe it‚Äôs the future of cinema as a space. For example when we were at Cannes Film Festival we heard that people screening movies in cinemas also decided to buy VR experiences to present before or after the feature in the public space around the theatre. I think it can also be the future of animation. Animation and video games have a lot in common in the way they are produced. But I don‚Äôt think that VR is the future of live action features.
To wrap up, what excites you most about VR going forward?
Two things. What is very exciting is to see what creatives from very different backgrounds will do with this technology because this technology without the human brain or human creativity is not relevant. What is also interesting is seeing how people who never had interest in interactive content – video games or online experiences – are finally entering this space through VR. On the video side, I think the best production will come from companies and artists with a very strong post production background because there are a lot of visual effects in VR. I think VR will bring different people into the industry and will change the minds of people coming from a classical cinema background.
It also possibly heralds a new age for storytelling, away from the auteur and more towards the collective experience both in making and in sharing stories:
Doing this kind of work is a very collaborative process and I think it will make a big difference for the French auteur who make movies that are directed by one director and that don‚Äôt have a big crew. With this project we are four creative directors. We have different skills which we decided to bring together and be open to each other‚Äôs views. I think that‚Äôs the recipe for the success of this project.
Arnaud Colinart is a Co-Producer and Creative Director of Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness and a Producer at AGAT Films & Cie / EX NIHILO.
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness¬†is available now for download on Oculus and Samsung Gear and on iOS and Android from October.