Aardman and BBC R&D launch VR experience 'We Wait'

ardman and BBC Research & Development have released ‘We Wait’, a dramatised depiction of migrants making the journey from Turkey to Greece on smugglers boats. Based on accounts gathered by BBC News and bought to life by Aardman, the animated virtual experience tells the real stories of refugees, and places users at the heart of the story.

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Built for the Oculus Rift VR headset as part of the BBC’s work exploring the potential of VR for future audiences, ‘We Wait’ enables the user to get a visceral understanding of what it is like to be on board a vessel as it crosses the Mediterranean – something that it would not be possible to do through traditional reporting.  It begins on the beaches of Turkey as we hear from migrant families hoping for a boat to arrive and take them across the sea. Highlighting a sense of suspense and anticipation felt by displaced people journeying to Europe.

‘We Wait’ is Aardman’s first interactive VR production and the subject matter is more hard-hitting than what the studio is traditionally known for, meaning every aspect of the project involved far more research and experimentation than a typical production. The creative team spent a long time immersing themselves in stories about refugees and migrants – their experiences before, during and after they make their way to Europe. The technical team had to experiment with the motion capture equipment and figure out the best way to portray all the characters within the restrictions of the project.

Darren Dubicki, Director at Aardman added “Using VR as a medium was immensely challenging during the production, both creatively and technically, but became invaluable as an experience for extending our narrative skills. It was clear that a simple concept was essential – not only in terms of story but in scale of  production and design as this emerging medium still has its processing limitations on what could be created and viewed in real time. So it forced us to think less has to be more. With this in mind, we created a film style and tone that, we feel, benefitted from these limitations.

But the one aspect where we could not compromise was the story. This was our key undertaking – to make sure our depiction of the plight rang as authentic and truthful as possible; to create a film to incite emotional engagement and if any facet of the narrative felt unbelievable, then we’d potentially undermine the real accounts and experiences.

Throughout the project, we juggled with the notion of having to shelve our traditional storytelling techniques. We had to concede that the viewer would decide how the narrative drives forward. In creating ‘We Wait’, and indeed with other VR worlds, there are no constraints of a singular story evolving in front of your eyes – the story elements have to evolve three dimensionally – creating interest and detail for the audience to latch on to at their convenience, and give them presence within this new world – give them control.

In a sense, it’s more in tune with a theatrical play and this is what I found exciting from my experience in true VR – we’re skirting between these worlds of theatre and screen and giving the audience the most immersive seat in the house.”

‘We Wait’ Producer, Ben Curtis elaborates on the opportunities for storytelling in VR; “It’s very challenging but the potential for telling stories in VR cannot be underestimated. Storytelling is about capturing the imagination and leading people through a journey, but it’s hard to keep control when your audience is in the world you’ve created, to some extent you have to let go and let people experience things in the way they want to. It’s still very early days and there aren’t really too many tropes or conventions yet, so it’s an extremely exciting format to work with.”

“The level of immersion that can be achieved is probably the most exciting aspect of VR for me. The feeling you get when you close a book you’re engrossed in, like you’ve left a world behind, is far more intense in VR. As technology evolves and we start to see things like foveated rendering, full body tracking and so on this intensity will be amplified even more.”

‘We Wait’ premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday 10th June and is available to download now on BBC Taster

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