Pushing the boundaries of filmmaking takes nerve, creativity, and an open mind. That’s exactly how Christine T. Berg, an artist, writer, and filmmaker, approached “Wonder Buffalo,” a film project that is both a movie and an immersive, virtual reality experience.
Berg is the director of the film, which she co-wrote with Simon Shterenberg. The film is garnering plenty of attention. The Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California awarded Berg and Shterenberg with its 2016 Innovative Technology award for “Wonder Buffalo,” and was featured at SXSW in March of this year.
The film’s lead character, Ann, is a Thai-American teen struggling with body dysmorphia and an overbearing mother. The “Wonder Buffalo” VR experience begins in Ann’s bedroom, captured in photogrammetry, and lets the audience step into her world, where they have the ability to make choices and interact with objects and concepts as the story unfolds and Ann confronts her problems, school bullies, and ultimately her mother.
Berg: Originally Wonder Buffalo wasn’t even written to be a VR experience, it was written to be a short movie. My writing partner Simon Shterenberg and I spent a couple of years trying to raise the money to make the short movie, and with no luck.
We happened to run into ETC@USC’s Erik Weaver, an executive producer who worked in the same building I did. He was watching me try to get this project on its feet and asked to look at the script. Afterwards, he came back to me and he said that the script leaned towards something that he was trying to do. He was trying to find projects that were short films and that also led to being a VR project.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: Berg ended up leading a team of seasoned professionals to support the project, including: Drew Diamond, executive producer with ETC@USC, Brian Frager, Lead Experience Producer at the Technicolor Experience Center; Scott Gershin, Creative Director/Director of The Sound Lab at Technicolor; and Rainer Gombos, CEO, REALTRA VR , who provided the photogrammetry technology and expertise. The hologram technology was provided by 8i. ETC@USC is the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California.]
Berg: The story is centered on a young Thai-American girl who has cultural differences with her mother regarding her body. But outside of that, she also is very excited about being an artist.
She’s into comic books, she’s into video games, and we also hint at the beginning of the movie that she is into designing costumes. Even though you don’t know what that’s all about, eventually it reveals itself to be cosplaying.
So, there is a lot of room for going inside of her head and imagination. It provided fodder for building a creative, fantastical world inside of the VR experience.
Berg: This movie is actually based off of my experience as a child coming from a Thai-American family and having the struggles with my body size and what my mother expected.
It’s not that she expected me to look like her, but her goals were for me to marry well, and she was very concerned that if I didn’t lose weight that I wasn’t going to have the opportunities that I would have otherwise had if I was skinnier.
That was always a struggle because for me, I was focused on different things. I was studying and hopefully going to college, so I had bigger things in my dreams than just getting married.
I was hoping to become an artist. I wanted to go to art school.
We were a U.S. military family that was stationed in Germany. And for someone who was interested in art, I just had it all around me. In my mind, I had this big eclectic library of what I could reach to create my own artwork, and that was something that I wanted to bring through in the art piece-- that there are very different pieces of her that inspire her outside of her sad situations, or her struggles with her mother.
For the VR piece, I wasn’t even sure how to use the technology.
I know exactly the steps and the equipment that you need to take to get a film done, but for VR I didn’t.
So, Erik brought on a producer who oversaw the movie and the VR, and in addition brought on a VR producer. The two producers and I went to VRLA, and they just threw me into everything. They showed me all the different kinds of VR, all the different kind of headsets, all the different ways that you can participate in this world, and each of them was bringing a different creative challenge or opportunity.
Since I was always very interested in playing video games, I started seeing that there was a way that we can make the user of the VR piece become more interactive in a cinematic story, and become part of the story. I started seeing that there was an opportunity in the VR to have the user participate...and that started just feeding me all of the different choices that we could make.
I saw that we could bring in different kinds of 2D animations, 3D animations, the different ways that we can transform textures, the different things that you can do with whatever the device is that you’re using within the game, I was just going crazy with the vision of what this could be. Especially for a girl that has an eclectic mind regarding art.
So, basically, we built this room where you go through activities, and six segments of the room turn into a different piece of either art or comic book art that has influenced her.
It allows audiences to go through what an artist goes through...to see how they use art to—I wouldn’t say escape reality, but to make their own reality.
Berg: The initial challenge was money. We had to make sure that the things that we were choosing were within the budget. We also ensured that we were able to accomplish everything in the time we had to get this done.
Also, we kept in mind that if we made certain choices, that we probably could bring on people that wanted to help us, especially if they had new technology that they wanted to apply if they were interested in the story.
One of the biggest things that I challenged ourselves with was that I didn’t want to do a 360 video. As a filmmaker, when I was going through all the different VR projects, every time I put a headset on and the only option I had was to turn in 360 degrees, I felt claustrophobic. I felt like the story was being forced on me in all different directions.
As a user—not as a filmmaker or a newcomer to making something in VR—but as a user, I wasn’t interested. And all I wanted to do was take the headset off. So I was trying to think of what was something we could do that would make you want to keep that headset on and keep going. And that was when we were trying to think of what would give the user more “agency.”
When we brought that challenge up, one of our executive producers who came on to the VR piece knew a guy named Rainer Gombos who was doing photogrammetry where they capture a whole room.
With this technology, you put the headset on and you can walk around the room and the room changes as if you’re actually in a real room. It’s not just a 360 screen, or it’s not just four walls. There were I think 1,600 pictures taken in this room so that wherever you walk, everything turns as if you’re in real life.
And so the first application of user agency that we were excited about was that the user could decide to take that step, and then decide which direction to take that step, and then which direction to look at.
It gives audiences more freedom. That’s when we thought, if we’re in this room we could probably play out a scene in here.
And that was the next challenge.
When you use photogrammetry, you cannot shoot your actors in the same space. That’s when we found 8i, a company that could actually make holograms.
We decided to write a script that had two actors in it, because you have to shoot each actor individually to be captured as a hologram. This means each actor performs on their own without the other actor.
There’s a lot of positioning and timing that you put into that, and you place them in the room, but it makes this world where the user’s actually standing in the same room, in the same world as the actors. And my feeling and hope was that it drew the user more into the story than just watching it on a flat screen TV or in a 360 video.
I wanted to give the user the opportunity to be their own director, and look at what they wanted to look at, and stand next to the actor that they wanted to stand next to.
Our challenge was to write a script that would make that user lean towards coming closer to the performance and the story that was unfolding in front of them.
Berg: I think that my biggest lesson was that we did something different. We came from a place where we had a script already for a movie. The VR script was not the originating story, so we had to develop a lot of backstory to pull from that gave us ideas for what this VR piece would be.
And like I said, there’s a lot of choices that you can make, and sometimes I think that too many choices make you lose what you’re trying to say, or what kind of experience you’re trying to give people.
You forget what the story is about. It really helped that we had a script, that if we were going off-track or if we were doing something that lost the message of the original story, we had something to go back to.
So, I think one of the important things that I learned was to ask yourself, “what are we trying to say with this piece?”
We had a social message that we wanted to discuss regarding body positivity, cross-cultural relationships within a family, also how to deal with bullying whether that bullying comes from your mother or outside of that.
I think part of the success of this piece is that – in the end – you come away feeling that you went through a human experience...not by witnessing it...but by experiencing it yourself.
Berg: I’m a storyteller. I am so interested in how we can approach things that we go through in life and how we can share them. I’m always interested in what is the best way to tell this story. And I feel like I have a new trick in my basket that I never had before. So, I’m not going to say “never again” with VR. It really is fun. It really is a way to approach entertainment, and the human stories that connect with us in a different way than watching a documentary or the news. I’m really grateful that we had the challenge of getting the project financed, or I would otherwise never have even thought of doing VR and I’m glad that we did it.