Case Study: Perkons – A VR Rockumentary

A virtual reality film about a rock band.

Director Cory McLeod about the challenges of writing and promoting a virtual reality film and an unexpected event which changed the context of the story’s narrative.

“The biggest thing we didn’t expect was the election of Donald Trump and how that event would alter the context of our film.”

A colorless and oppressive space at firt sight...

“I grew up in the Latvian community in Toronto. I started travelling to Riga Latvia in the mid 80s. Latvia was still a part of the Soviet Union. For a teenager from Canada, Soviet Latvia seemed like a colorless and oppressive space–overbearing social realist architecture, political propaganda etc. But at the same time, 1980s Riga was one of the most creative places I have ever experienced. The city seemed to be filled with art, writers and music that just wanted to do something new.”

“At the forefront of all of this was the band Perkons. I’ve always wanted to tell their story, but never knew how. When I started experimenting with virtual reality a few years ago, I knew that this was the medium through which I could tell their story. Through VR I could create the juxtaposition of social realism spaces and the brave new art of 1980s Latvia.”

Finding the narrative

“The writing of the script was a collaboration between Jeff Kling, Zack Carlstrom and myself. We spent more time storyboarding than writing the script. Perkons’ story is extremely rich in detail and it’s easy to lose the narrative thread in those details. One the biggest challenges for use was honing the story down to the story we wanted to tell about the band. Once we had that down, writing the script came fairly quickly.”

“We were about half way through finishing the film, when something unexpected happened: Trump was elected President. US society was rapidly transforming and starting to resemble the world of our story in eerie ways. A few months after the election we realized that we weren’t making a documentary about the past, we were making one about the present. We then decided to rework the script.”

Planning the project

“Everything in the VR film is a mix of CG and archival photography given to us by the band. Fallon Minneapolis, where I’m a creative technologist, took on this VR film as a pro bono project. About 20 people at Fallon helped out on this project in their free time. Fallon helped us with equipment and gave us time to work on the project. We didn’t have a set end date. Our plan was to keep working on this until we felt ready to start showing this to the public.”

Jumping in at the deep end

“Although everyone who worked on the project has pretty extensive film and video production experience, none of us had created a virtual reality film. So, we really didn’t know what to expect. There was a lot of testing on the actual headset. Things we thought would work, ended up not working once we tested it on the headset. Conversely, things we thought wouldn’t work, ended up being very effective once we tested it out on the headset.”

“The biggest thing we didn’t expect was the election of Donald Trump and how that event would alter the context of our film. The decision to rework the film based on the Trump administration which has changed America added about two months to the completion of the project.”

Music for a film about a Rock Band

“Since the story is about a rock band, music played a huge part in this piece. We storyboarded the project according to six of the band’s songs. We still had three scenes that didn’t sync up with a song by the band. We called in the composer Ray Loewy to help create a soundscape to fill in these holes. Ray instantly understood what the film needed and we only had one round of revisions.”

The challenge of promoting a VR film

“One of the challenges we have had is: How do you promote a VR film, which can only be experienced via a particular set of headsets? One of the things we decided to do was to create our own screenings of the film at VivaTech in Paris, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, NOASS Gallery in Riga and we are currently organizing screenings in other cities in the North America.”

A special experience

“The biggest learning for me happened when we started doing screenings of the film. Putting people in a virtual space for 10 minutes is a very private and personal experience. And, when people come out of that space, they want to share their experience with you. I’ve come to see these personal one-on-one conversations as part of the VR experience.”

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