'Blackout': Meet the VR Project That's Being Created Live
This 3D virtual reality documentary turns you into a subway psychic. Here’s how.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a filmmaker. And if you’re a filmmaker, you like to tell stories. As someone who tells stories, chances are you’ve fantasized about being able to read the thoughts of everyone around you to pull out the juiciest bits of dialogue and inner turmoil. Well, now you can pluck the thoughts from as diverse a group as America has to offer: passengers on the New York City subway.
Thanks to Blackout, an ever-evolving VR documentary premiering at Tribeca 2017, you can step onto a New York City subway car and hear what’s going on inside the heads of each and every real New Yorker in the car with you. Wearing an HTC Vive headset hooked up to a game engine, and physically walking around a life-sized, custom-built train car, you can interact with the other passengers, who represent as wide a swath of city residents as would be on any typical ride.
"In the same day, you can actually watch Blackout 100 times and you may get a different [experience]."
The project and the technology behind it is deceptively complex. When you are inside the train car, the experience is seamless; you’d never guess that the audience member next to you is seeing and hearing an entirely different set of stories and characters based on their own interactions with the piece. As an additional element, the team is live-capturing interviewees during the Tribeca Film Festival just two stories above the installation in the same building, which are then edited and fed into the piece to be part of the rotating cast of characters that festival attendees can meet.
Among the standout out qualities of the company Scatter, the creators behind Blackout, is that they often develop their own technology and that they remain a small, independent studio in a space that is of increasing interest to the biggest names in media and tech, including Google and Microsoft.
We spoke with some of the members of Scatter during their Tribeca installation about how they created this incredible project, and about how they stay true to their DIY roots in a growing market. Our conversation included Alexander Porter (Director / Co-Creator), Hannah Jayanti (Co-Producer / Lead Interviewer and Editor), Yasmin Elayat (Co-Director / Co-Creator) and James George (Technical Director).
No Film School: Let's start with the brass tacks: What is Blackout and how does it work?
Alexander Porter: Blackout is a virtual reality documentary. It's created using a volumetric tool set we created called DepthKit. It allows you to walk around in what people call “room scale,” which gives you the ability to freely walk throughout space [within the project]. When you do that inside of our virtual train car, you find yourself surrounded by a group of people. You have the feeling that they're really there. You can see them from all sides and all angles.
NFS: How does it actually function? What does it mean that different audience members see different stories?
Yasmin Elayat: We are creating what we're calling Episode One, during the lead up to and run of the festival. What that means is we're doing this open production process and inviting our cast—different New Yorkers—to speak to the issues of the day that have to do with otherness and identity and what does it mean to be American. We're interviewing people and we're using DepthKit to scan them. Then they get added to our train.
We have this very expanded cast and every time someone walks on the train, they get a different experience with a different group of people. You get your own train car with different types of stories; depending on who you want to meet and who you spend time with, you'll get your own experience. Each day it's going to be a little different as it evolves and grows.
NFS: Do you manually change the lineup of the cast every time someone new comes in, or does it run on a loop?
Elayat: It's a regenerative system. That means that we built a system that essentially allows us to add people, and different topics and themes get added depending on which of those people have common themes [in their interviews] and can speak to different sides of an issue. So, in the same day, you can actually watch Blackout 100 times and you may get a different group of people on that train and different stories that you're hearing from those people.
NFS: So even you don't know what experience everyone who sees Blackout is having?
Hannah Jayanti: They can also make choices about who they choose to look at and who they choose to spend time with.
“You find yourself surrounded by a group of people. You have the feeling that they're really there. You can see them from all sides and all angles.”
Porter: We get a lot of people, after they come out of the experience, [who] take the goggles off and are like, "Oh man I really like him," and they point to a seat and we have no idea who that is. I'm like, "That could be any number of guys in any number of places," because the layout is different. The intention is to give a different atmosphere by configuring people in different ways.
James [George] is sort of a master of the nonlinear engine. Working with him and our lead developer, Mark Fingerhut, we made this thing that we called the Story Engine, which allows the story to get populated with themes that are relevant and surrounding certain topics. The way it works is that at the beginning of a ride, the system picks a particular person and builds a story around them in some ways, such that it evolves stage by stage and chapter by chapter.
The intention is that that's actually sort of hidden. It's not directly about that person, but it gives us the opportunity to build counterpoints. So a given person might emerge and someone else needs to be part of the conversation who either disagrees, in some cases, or contributes a different angle on that same theme or that same topic.
NFS: How did you cast the people on the train?
Jayanti: Casting this was one of the hardest things about it. I think we wanted to make this like a New York City subway ride that you would actually take. Which of course is incredibly complicated to do because it's so many different types of people. We were trying to figure out how can we make it somewhat representative of the city as much as we could with a small cast.
We also really wanted to focus on people who were complicated. I think everyone is complicated, but we were looking for people that maybe initially seem one way and then turn out to be quite different. That was a core idea of the project: when you're on the train, you make very quick assumptions of people and you're sort of building narratives about them as you're looking around at them. What can we do to take those and try to transcend them?
We also had this idea of trying to have tension between different characters. So for example, someone who has had a run-in with the police and a police officer, sort of in discussion with each other.
“How can we start creating a space that allows for dialogue and lets you craft the dialogue and connect the dots through who you meet?”
Elayat: Yeah, we're talking about what we think of as a divisive global climate, so how can we start creating a space that allows for dialogue and lets you craft the dialogue and connect the dots through who you meet?
Part of this casting process has been to make sure that we have people who represent conservative, Republican voices—Trump supporters—and also people who are fully considered undocumented, and other people who may not agree with the very existence of someone else. By putting them on that same train and hopefully through how you interact with them, there's some dialogue that's created there through hearing their personal stories.
Jayanti: Yasmin [Elayat] has talked about it in a really nice way as a conversation. They're not actually talking to each other; it's very much in their thoughts and in their stories. But because you are looking at one person and then moving and looking at another one, you sort of begin to make a conversation between these people.
So someone will be talking about why they voted for Trump, and how they are quite anti-immigration and then you'll look to another young woman who is undocumented. You'll be learning not about what she thinks about that person, but her own experiences. Then you'll hear someone else talking about how the whole reason that they live in New York is because they get to walk out the street and see people with so many different stories. Those three stories are not exactly [related], but by hearing them all you get these different perspectives.
NFS: That all begs the question of how you conducted the interviews. Did you script with them or was kind of it a typical documentary interview process?
Jayanti: There are two stages: the capturing process, which Yasmin and Alexander can speak to, then this other stage that was totally separate. We had an audio studio where it was just me and the person that we were interviewing. We did very long form discussions, generally about two and a half hours for each person, and they are incredibly discursive. [At first,] I had no questions, I have no topics and I don't even know that much about the person. The intention is to make it very clear to them that they get to choose what they want to speak about. So I do a type of interviewing where I just try to listen, and whatever they seem to be bringing up, you sort of go with it. You find that people bring up what they really want to. The topics really come out. It means that they feel at the end of it that they gave this to me.
NFS: It's more like collecting an oral history.
Jayanti: Yeah much more. They've been sharing really, really intense stuff. It's been really heavy and beautiful and cathartic and complicated and I've asked them, how do you feel about this being shown to people? Stuff like being undocumented that has huge consequences. Stuff like sexual abuse stories. Things that are not easy to hear or to give away to somebody. They've all said yes. They've all said, "I wanted to do this. I want to share this." That for me has been just amazing.
Often, you watch people when they're done with VR projects, and they just seem really excited; they clearly just had such a fun time in there. When people walk out of Blackout, they're a little quiet. You can see that they are contemplating. It is a complicated experience; it's not obvious. I love the idea that we made something that is a little bit slow, a little bit thoughtful, very nuanced. You don't always see that in the VR space.
NFS: How have you managed to keep your projects more affordable but still competitive with larger-budget work?
James George: Scatter is very differentiated from other original VR content studios in that we are committed to expanding the medium towards what we call volumetric filmmaking—specifically telling real stories with real people in true VR environments that allow the viewer to move and interact in the space. The VR creative community is in such early stages that any studio with a unique perspective has the opportunity to contribute in a big way. That opportunity is inspiring to us!
NFS: The tools you’ve developed seem to make VR more accessible for the average filmmaker. Is that really the case? What is the basic team someone would need to get started on a volumetric VR project?
George: Our tool DepthKit is built to make volumetric filmmaking approachable to filmmakers. There is an active community of VR creators already using DepthKit. Several notable VR projects have been made using the tool, including Giant (Sundance ‘16) by Winslow Porter and Milica Zec, Tzina Symphony of Longing directed by Shirin Anlen (IDFA ‘16), Highrise: Universe Within directed by National Film Board of Canada (IDFA ‘15), among countless creative projects and experiments.
DepthKit is approachable enough that a solo director can begin to produce live-action volumetric virtual reality projects. In combination with a game engine like Unity, it doesn’t require any coding skills to build simple room-scale VR experiences containing real people. For more ambitious interactive filmmaking projects, we’re excited to see hybrid teams like ourselves emerge where programmers, interaction designers, and filmmakers work together closely.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.