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Virtual Reality Film Installation Puts a Disassociative Twist on Awkward Family Dinners

Virtual reality: it's what's for dinner.

by Beckett Mufson
May 3 2015, 6:30pm

Images courtesy the artists

There may be two sides to every story, but in virtual reality film installation The Doghouse, which landed at the UK's 2015 Flatpack Film Festival in March, you get to see both with your own eyes. Five Oculus Rift headsets sit beside the forks, knives, and plates of a set table, each one taking you inside the head of a different character at an uncomfortable family dinner—which, naturally, everyone remembers differently. Writer/director Johan Knattrup Jensen and producer Mads Damsbo encourage visitors to, "Choose someone that you're not," too, for when you're inside the mind of someone very different from yourself, Damsbo tells The Creators Project, you're not in for an immersive experience, but a bona fide emotional transformation.

If you choose the headset from the older brother's point of view, for instance, you're bringing your girlfriend home to meet the family: Mom drinks too much, Dad hates conflict, and the little brother is just trying to hold it all together. "Which, of course, fails completely," Damsbo chuckles to me over Skype. "As you experience the film from each of these characters' perspectives, you get 1/5 of the truth. You see a subjective reality," he explains. "For instance, the girlfriend, she has a slight problem with the food. She thinks that the kind of food that they're having is a bit too much gravy, too old-fashioned, not enough salad and stuff. In her perspective, there's a lot of meat, a lot of potatoes and a lot of gravy. From all the others' perspective, there's not as much gravy, potatoes and meat."

The 18-minute dinner scene was shot over five days, one devoted to each character's perspective and narrative tweaks, totalling at least 40 complete runthroughs, beginning to end. The Danish team's low-budget, DIY virtual reality camera rig—simply two fisheye-lensed GoPros and binauraul mics attached to a bicycle helmet—is key to creating the type of "empathy machine" that Chris Milk talked about in his TED Talk last week—empathy is an inevitably byproduct of an experience with The Doghouse. As Jensen watched the footage in real time in his own Oculus Rift, he could plan the organization and edits that would come in post-production, but the camera's movements were completely defined by the characters. "We made an autonomous camera because we put it on an actor," says Jensen. "We had this human medium walking around that could record what we needed... but we couldn't control it."

Here's where The Doghouse departs from other immersive VR stories, like Chris Milk's Clouds Over Sidra and Nonny de la Peña's Project Syria. Rather than acting as an invisible, anonymous bystander, you're caught up in the struggles and experiences each actor ws feeling. "We just wanted to put the audience into an experience where they couldn't not talk about the emotions and the physical feeling of being in the movie," Damsbo says. 

Damsbo and Jensen worked with production company Dark Matters and interaction technology designers Kanako to navigate the technical challenges of shooting a film in 360 degrees. They had to abandon traditional film crews and lights in favor of practical lighting, since the camera breaks the standard 180-degree rule of filmmaking. "No one had really done it before," Damsbo says. "There were no systems, plans, of videos on Google or YouTube that could explain anything. We really had to do it from scratch."

But they believe the result was worthwhile to earn themselves prime real estate on the cutting edge of virtual storytelling. 'we feel that we have the essence of something that's authentic. Authentic in the way we've learned to tell stories... Basically, we just want to find a way of making the virtual real." Damsbo's previous projects, such as interactive symphony World Online Orchestra and Recho, an app that lets you plants digital recordings in physical places, were close, but The Doghouse takes the idea to a new level. 

"What we took away from The Doghouse is the sensation of been into a virtual world and then coming back out again and then coming back to your own life, like traveling for a long time and then coming back to your home and being like, 'Oh shit. Things look so different back here.'"

Learn more about The Doghouse on the film's official website, and see more cutting-edge experiences on Makropol's website, and visit Jensen's website for more of his work.


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virtual reality
oculus rift
Mads Damsbo
johan jensen
the doghouse