GLIMPSE. Challenges of VR Production

GLIMPSE is a highly emotive, visual feast set in the imaginative mind of a heartbroken Panda named Herbie (voiced by Taron Egerton), who has recently broken up with his deer girlfriend Rice (Lucy Boynton). Herbie is an illustrator and through his art we delve back through the memories of his relationship from the heart-breaking end to the beautiful beginning. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, the journey brings on an incredible, emotive trip, right into the heart of a relationship. The user embodies Herbie for this experience, seeing it through his eyes. And along the way, expect incredible visuals such as: musical raindrops, crumpled paper balls opening out like flowers, hot air balloons.

The animated VR short has an incredible team behind as well; It was directed by the Irish filmmaking duo of Academy Award winner Benjamin Cleary (Stutterer, the upcoming Swan Song) and VR creator Michael O’Connor, stars Taron Egerton (Rocketman, Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street, Bohemian Rhapsody) with an original score by Julianna Barwick (Healing is a Miracle, Will).

We talked with Lee Harris, co-producer on behalf of Electric Skies, about the development of the project, the challenges of production, but also about the team and how they worked together . Lee Harris has been working in VR for about 3-4 years, with a background from video games, film and TV where he worked as music supervisor. Together with Michael O’Connor, they discovered a passion for interactive media and decided to….’give it a go’!

TVA: How was your meeting with GLIMPSE? If you can tell me about the “first date”, how did you met the team?
Lee Harris: When MICHAEL O’CONNOR and I started out on our kind of VR careers, he’d already been working with BENJAMIN CLEARY (his old-school friends) on writing, it was already in progress; they had done some initial work on the characters in terms of visualizing and modelling them. They’d actually done the recording with actors.
At that point, they needed to bring a producer on board. And I seemed like an ideal candidate, I jumped at the opportunity and started on that journey. It’s been reasonably long. I initially started around three years ago, it’s taken a lot of time.

TVA: But, what made you to say “yes, I want to and I believe in this project”?
Lee Harris: The first thing is one of the most important things in any project is the story itself. The way that the directors had a vision of bringing that to life within VR. With any VR project, the story has to come first.
In addition, I also think that there has to be a reason for it to be in VR. It was not just a regular animation, a traditional format short film or animation.
The vision of this project was to bring it to life within VR. And to use VR as an extra element to the story by heightening the audience’s emotion by placing it directly within the story itself as one of the characters. That was my major reason.
Obviously, BENJAMIN CLEARY had a great track record, he won an Oscar for writing and directing a short film at that point. I knew that the quality was there from that standpoint. And also, there were a few others on board, they were rising stars at that point, so that was a quality fan of the whole project.

Techvangart: The actors that joint the project

TARON EGERTON

Taron played Elton John in the Paramount Pictures biopic Rocketman, covering the musician’s rise from prodigious pianist studying in London to global superstar. Rocketman was 2019s summer’s smash hit film and has propelled Taron himself into the realms of superstardom and a Best Actor award at the Golden Globes. Taron has also starred in the lead role of Gary ‘Eggsy· Unwin in 2015 box office smash hit Kingsman: The Secret Service and the 2017 sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Among others he has had lead roles in Eddie The Eagle alongside Hugh Jackman, Legend alongside Tom Hardy, and Sing alongside Matthew McConaughey.

LUCY BOYNTON

Lucy Boynton is a rising talent who is best known for her role in the multi Academy Award winning and record breaking Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. Lucy plays Mary Austin, a lifelong companion of Freddie, epitomised by Rami Malik. In 2019, she stars alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange in the highly antinpacted Netflix TV series The Politician. Lucy marked her breakthrough as the female lead in John Carney’s Golden Globe nominated, Dublin set, musical-dramedy Sing Street. Lucy has also been seen in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, starring Jonny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dame Judi Dench.

TVA: Glimpse is definitely a very sensitive story with fantastic visuals – the way objects take size and shapes and gain meaning, which helps the storyline. It’s a playful environment, it has meaningful interaction – my favorite part was the raining drops that you touch and hear the text. So, it is really proper for VR. But I wanted to ask you from a development process, were all these elements figured out from the beginning or they were developed along the way? (I know that in VR, changing a lot, can really cost…)
Lee Harris: It was very much evolution. So, the pieces of the story and the relationships were there from the very beginning. Individual scenes were pretty much there from the beginning, and the voices have been recorded very early on. But really a lot of the things that you just mentioned, started to come together during both the pre-production and production phase and some even quite late into the production phase.
Initially, we did a preview version, which we took to Venice in 2019, which was kind of a short version around five minutes long. Before the pandemic, myself, MICHAEL O’CONNOR and BENJAMIN CLEARY attended and were able to see all the other great experiences. And we really learned a lot from other people and other creators that were there.
And, after that point, we came back and there was a big rewrite that happened, a restructure. And we took that forward into the pre-production phase. There were a number of key points that flipped what we originally thought. So, for example, once we were in pre-production, we were always gonna start in the studio environment that we have. And then from that point to go through the other memory sequences.
The idea was that we will be in a void, a black void.
Actually, our executive producer Raphael Penasa, suggested at that point that we have this amazing, detailed environment that was frankly, made in so much detail and high fidelity, with the tiny pins that put the pictures on the wall.
The suggestion was to utilize this amazing environment to tell the story; and not only I think this works great aesthetically, but it also really tied in the idea of being trapped in this space, trapped inside your own head as well.
It works really nicely think both from a concept point of view and aesthetically.
And then from that point, I think the last things that you described started to come into play. At the same time, other things happen because of constraints that we had budgetary.

The raindrops scene that you talk about, for example, it was a much longer scene where you kind of in this big cave with lots of paper balls all around. But when we got into VR, and we’ve got to that point in the story, for many reasons – project schedule, but also in terms of pacing – the story that wasn’t working. So that scene with the raindrops is actually born out of restrictions. We have this rule ‘nothing’s ever approved until it’s seen’ – you can plan out, you can storyboard until you’re actually in VR, you never really know if it works or not

TVA: I guess from what you’re telling you, you did a lot of testing and iterations….
Lee Harris: Yes, definitely we did that, with the time and resources we had, we did as much as we possibly could. And I think lots of things kind of came together towards the end. There was a long, interesting process, but one that was very worthwhile!

TVA: And from the difficulties point of view, what would you say was the most difficult point in the entire process?
Lee Harris: As with the nature of these projects, raising support and finances is always difficult. We obviously had quite a large budget for this production, considering both the talents involved and the vision that we wanted to achieve.
After the preview version in Venice in 2019, we spent probably 18 months raising the rest of the finance and going through different iterations of scripts and approvals and drawing from lots of different avenues. It was important to get the production off the ground.
Having productions in different companies, different countries helps to bring that financial plan together, as well as to utilise different support systems in different countries.

TVA: Actually, I’m glad that you touched on that point because anyhow…. If somebody would like to start a VR/XR production company, what advice would you give to that person?
Lee Harris: We entered the VR world with very little experience; myself and MICHAEL O’CONNOR and obviously BENJAMIN CLEARY, we’d all worked in film at some stage, and I also in the game industry, and we were fortunate in that respect.
VR has elements from all these traditional media entertainment industries, film, TV, games, etc. And we’re quite fortunate to have access to a pool of people from that area, we knew people who were Unreal developers, artists, sound engineers, people from film in terms of directing, the production side, etc. You have to go out there, find whatever money you can. There is money out there, some quite small, but to start making things is the best way to learn. Maybe not in the most cost effective way, but mistakes are as valuable as successes, particularly at this point.
I think the VR industry and the VR community is very open and welcoming, happy to help or to point you in the right direction, give advice, or to connect you with someone. And really tapping into that and building a network is hugely important. So, if you can, “get out there and do it!”, would be the advice.

TVA: I wanted to ask you about the relation between the production and creative team. For example: what would you see an ideal relation or were you involved also in some parts of the production or not? Or how is it going?
Lee Harris: Michael O’Connor and I have a strong relationship, and we also share a very similar ethos.
We strongly believe in collaboration. We have a team with a very clear direction of what they want, but also what they want is for other people who are experts within their own areas to come in and add to their vision.
I am very much part of that, I have a lot of creative input, throughout the process, from the script stage to pre-production and production. All my ideas don’t always make-in, but everyone’s always very happy to listen.
Our mantra was that “whoever has the best idea -whether that’s the directors, the producers, an intern, developer whoever that might be – if they have an idea and it works, then it goes in.
No one was precious about “this is what we wrote and this is what we thought ”
because the nature of what we’re doing is very experimental and we’re happy to welcome ideas and expertise from everywhere.

TVA: It’s obvious that you made some of the work during the COVID period, how was this going on, because I think it was more difficult…?
Lee Harris: It wasn’t easy for anybody obviously. We pretty much always worked with remote teams anyway, even pre-pandemic.
The preview version for example, we were the people working across about 14 different time zones. A small development team in Shanghai, we have people working in Lisbon, in Ireland in London. And then we went to the other end in San Francisco.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing that. I think it’s standard for production during the pandemic. The majority of production was based in Lyon; Our UX/UI designer Alison Crank who speaks French, is extremely talented, and was on the ground -both as the UX/UI designer and project managing from the studio point of view.
This really helped a lot because I think it would have been a lot more difficult without having that kind of point of contact transmit our thoughts, ideas, etc. to the wider team. It is not the easiest.
I think there were things that probably could have happened more quickly, if it hadn’t been such a remote situation – you can pop over to someone’s desk and take a look at something, instead of having to email or download, send the feedback and they change. Obviously, it makes it a longer process, but that’s what everyone’s been having to deal with, so we’re not making any complaints.

TVA: And the next steps for GLIMPSE?
Lee Harris: We’ll take it to a number of different festivals over the next six to eight months, and share it with as many people as possible. We will be releasing it on VIVE, at some point, there’s a few kinds of optimizations that we need to do before releasing on that platform to make sure everything works properly for everybody.
We have projects in development at the moment where we’re kind of working on and formulating ideas that will hopefully start to fruition fairly short.

TVA: Let’s suppose that the world is kind of ending and you can save only one book. Which book will be that one?
Lee Harris: The Picture of Dorian Gray

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TVA: The favorite scene from GLIMPSE ?
Lee Harris: My favourite scene? The dance scene, when the two characters come together and move around. We work with a really great choreographer from New York and it was always a scene that we were kind of having difficulty with, we sort of knew what we wanted, but how to make it happen. And Brandon really helped with saying I just think it’s really elegant and graceful really conveys the emotion that we were trying to get across at that point.

TVA: What is a deal breaker for you as a producer? What is the thing that an artist, director should never do or say if they want to work with you?
Lee Harris: There has to be a reason for something to be made in VR, if it can be made in another medium, it should be made in that medium, because it will probably be much better.
I don’t believe in doing something in VR, just for the sake of it, because then it just becomes a showing-off of the technology, rather than emphasizing the story or the emotions.
I think that’s important in order to move the medium forward, to make things that have a relevance to the medium. Otherwise, people just get fed up with another thing they don’t really have any interest in and it is not adding value to the medium.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82opYbWNRWE

GLIMPSE is a co-production of Mr. Kite and Albyon, the studio branch of the Atlas V group. It is Albyon’s first co-production. Lee Harris produced GLIMPSE for Electric Skies.

GLIMPSE was made with in association with Fis Éireann/Screen Ireland and with the support of the British Film Institute (BFI) (awarding National Lottery funding), Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée, Viveport, Epic Megagrants and Unreal Dev Grant, BCP, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpe, StoryFutures Academy, The National Film and Television School, Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and DN Pictures.