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StoryFutures Kickstart Funding: Supporting the next generation of immersive storytelling

  • StoryFutures Academy
  • January 25th 2021

Bernadette Fallon

Launched to support early-stage project research and development to create immersive projects across AR, VR, and MR platforms, applications are invited for StoryFutures Kickstart funding by midnight on Thursday 4th February 2021.

The fund, for applications of up to £10,000, is open to Creative Leads who have participated in StoryFutures Academy training programmes and our most recently funded projects include a diverse range of innovations, from a comedy horror experience set in a former asylum to a virtual walk through Crystal Palace Park in 1856.

We caught up with the creators of the first cohort in 2020 to find out more about their projects, including challenges and learnings, and their advice for the next round of applicants.

The Burning Room

The Burning Room: Jon Aird

Moorside Apartments, 9pm. You’ve just picked up the keys for your new home, a chic contemporary loft conversion – but all is not as it seems. Following clues, exploring locations and meeting a variety of sinister characters, you ultimately come face to face with the evil lurking inside the building and have eight hours to save yourself.

A VR comedy horror experience, The Burning Room is built in Unity for Oculus Quest. Developed by Jon Aird, the script was written by award-winning author and League of Gentlemen creator Jeremy Dyson.

For the prototype, Jon wanted to explore how to structure and deliver a story in a 3D immersive space, using locations, characters, dialogue and interaction, while allowing players to look around, move and interact with objects. Jon worked with creative director Kim-Leigh Pontin who used off-the-shelf 3D assets for locations and characters – with a little bit of creative manual manipulation.

According to Jon, some of the simplest elements turned out to be the biggest challenge – such as allowing players to pick up and read a postcard. ‘Those hand interactions for grabbing and interacting with objects were difficult, and more time than I expected.’

Next, he’s keen to develop the action, ramp up the ‘jump scares’ and secure funding to make another prototype.

His advice to others who want to enter this space is simple. Realise that you're not going to be able to explore everything at once unless you've got significant time and budget, so make early decisions on what’s most important.

Echoes of Crystal Palace

Echoes of Crystal Palace: Andrew Lancaster and Jessie Mangum

It's 1856 and you’re strolling through London’s Crystal Palace Park with its designer Joseph Paxton for the launch of the Crystal Palace Fountains... You see the Queen in the distance, overhear fragments of excited conversation and meet some of the people behind the scenes - before getting splashed by one of the biggest fountains in the world.

Echoes of Crystal Palace is an immersive AR experience that brings the Victorian Crystal Palace to life through immersive binaural sound. With Joseph Paxton as your guide, audiences are able to explore the area (either on-site or remotely) using an app that triggers different vignettes featuring characters from the period. With nothing remaining of the building today, the team started their research with the help of the Crystal Palace Museum and trawled through newspaper archives, working with writer Adam Butcher, developer Nigel Brown, sound designer Simon Little, and immersive consultant Michelle Feuerlicht.

While the full ambition includes rendering a large-scale AR image of the site, the team focussed on the immersive audio technology for the Kickstart prototype. ‘As storytellers we believe in the strength of audio to create an immersive environment and a purely audio experience can be more transportive too.’

Moving from traditional linear to parallel storytelling was definitely a challenge they experienced. The initial structure was similar to how you put a film or TV project together, the difference comes from the audience interaction and the way they use the experience,’ says Jessie.

The next steps will be to add AR visuals and going forward, they’re keen to roll out similar experiences to other heritage sites and are currently in conversation with potential partners. Their advice to others is ‘get advice from people who have done this before – but don’t always believe them when they say something can’t be done. We often found that it could’.

Fireworks

Fireworks: Paul Franklin and Annalise Davis

You are in an MI6 ops room, being briefed by an operational manager, just minutes away from a drone strike on a Libyan terrorist target. Amid the office banter, the atmosphere tenses – the mission goes wrong and serious decisions need to be made.

Fireworks started out in the form of a short film script, explains creator Academy-award winning VFX specialist Paul Franklin and BAFTA ward-winning producer Annalise Davis. But when Paul attended a StoryFutures Academy Introductory Lab in immersive storytelling, he was inspired to use the technology to create a virtual experience. Having worked with computer animation and gaming technology throughout his career, he was amazed to see how far VR had come. ‘To be able to look into the face of a digital character and feel their emotional state being driven by the dramatic performance, that was quite an eye opener.’

The prototype funded a VR teaser to show the look and feel of the bigger project. Turning the script into an immersive experience brought its own challenges, such as capturing the actors in a volumetric studio where crew members are outside.

Inspired by the new production tools VR offers, the pair are now in the process of making a linear film based on the same story but created with virtual production tools, all shot in a warehouse (using the same techniques as 'The Mandalorian'). They believe that Covid, with all its restrictions and drawbacks, coupled with increased awareness around the need to make production ever more sustainable, may have paved the way for a renewed surge of interest in VR experiences and virtual production, and ways of shooting without having to fly to locations. And the added advantage of virtual production is that actors can see what they're acting against.

Their advice to others is to start your project with a story and work out from there how the technology will serve it rather than the other way round.

Nudge

Nudge - Grace Baird

The world outside is filled with danger as rising floods threaten our very existence. The Universal Resources Corporation monitors ‘protects’ its citizens but they are trapped in tower blocks behind closed doors. How can two characters work together to escape?

Conceived by Grace Baird, this two-player VR game tells the story of two women who live at opposite ends of a corporate hierarchy in a disquieting new world. They must join forces if they are to escape their restrictive environment. With this project, Grace was mainly interested in exploring how two people could have a different perspective on the same story in a VR setting and how they could work together to progress it.

Unlike other games, Nudge doesn’t have a fail state if users don’t complete the tasks, instead the purpose of the narrative is to connect the players and reward them by waiting for them to work out the clues. The prototype funding allowed her to make the first scene of the experience and explore the tech and aesthetic possibilities.

Coming from a project management and production background, Grace enjoyed the collaborative involvement in making Nudge with illustrators, developers and writers. While the challenges of Covid meant that everyone worked remotely, working with Unity opened up new possibilities she hadn’t originally considered.

Going forward, she is very keen to create more immersive projects – ‘my experience has shown that while immersive can sometimes be complicated, it can also be accessible and easy’. She plans to apply her new skills and learnings to other spaces, including games and interactive experiences.

To anyone interested in moving into this space she would say, try as many VR experiences as possible. ‘It's just so hard to describe what you feel when you're in VR and how VR experiences can make you feel things that you just can’t get from non-immersive technology.’


Death by Misadventure

Death by Misadventure - Steven Lake and Catherine Allen

It’s the early 1990s and an elderly man sets out on what will be his final journey by train to West Wittering to see the sea - a place he has loved as a child and visited on family holidays. The story reflects on love and on loss, the memory of a life through the eyes of his son.

Death by Misadventure is the story of the last journey taken by creator Steven Lake’s grandad, who was suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s and heart disease. That journey is described by Steven as a ‘kind of light in a very darkened mind’, set in locations his grandad visited, from the train carriage to the beach where he sadly died of a heart attack. The coroner ruled that it was “death by misadventure”.

Coming from a traditional documentary background, Steven was interested in new ways of storytelling and also in immersive VR. This non-linear story - an actual journey combined with a lifetime of memories – lent itself perfectly to the medium where audiences can build up their picture of his grandad from fragments of audio testimony.

Steven had already taken a StoryFutures Academy bootcamp course and an introduction to Unity before he applied for Kickstart. He used Twine to build a text-based adventure to prototype the journey. ‘The more I got to know about the immersive space, the more I loosened my grip on my preconceived ideas of what the story was going to be, which was definitely a strength.’

His biggest challenge was not being able to control every aspect of the production, in the same way he would do with a film, instead learning how to work with developers and move into an immersive space.

Getting funding to make the prototype gave him a safe space to try something new and a chance to build from there. Since completing his prototype he’s worked on a couple of other immersive projects including Web VR experience Graffiti Art and Protest in Iran.

Steven and Catherine are now entering 2021 primed and ready to pursue further funding to complete the project.

He advises anybody interested in working in the immersive space to take their time in the planning stages, ‘or you can end up losing time and money building something that you wouldn’t have done if you’d taken more time to look at it on paper’.


Applications for the latest round of Kickstart funding are open until Thursday 4th February 2021; a chance to be part of the next generation of immersive storytelling innovation.

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