A town square in Tel Aviv, a place now lost to demolition and redevelopment, is the setting for interactive VR documentary Tzina: Symphony of Longing. The doc reveals the stories of the often lonely and marginalized (and now displaced) people who would congregate in Tzina Dizengoff square to watch the world go by.
After visiting the site numerous times, director Shirin Anlen began to notice how the same people would come to the square each day. They were society's forgotten: they would come, find their place, and sit separately, alone. Yet somehow in sitting together like this there was a sense of belonging.
"It was just like the square became a shelter for the broken ones," Anlen tells Creators. "This is a setting, a feeling, a place, that I wanted to capture and preserve."
Anlen was also drawn to the square because of her own feelings of broken-heartedness after a recent divorce. So she set about capturing and documenting the people's often sad, but nonetheless fascinating stories. To give the anecdotes and musings more power Anlen wanted the documentary to be immersive.
So the director shot the interviews using a 3D Kinect. That way they could become a documentary where, by people interacting with the characters and speaking with them, it would drive the non-linear narrative onwards.
"Tzina contains about over 45 minutes of footage with 10 interviewed characters that were shot using DepthKit depth shooting technology, edited, rotoscoped and then embedded into the virtual world," explains Anlen.
The end result is both a web experience and a VR walkthrough, experienced using a HTC Vive. Both were designed identically with the aim to "treat these two separate platforms as one hybrid platform," says Anlen.
Alongside the interviews, when the characters are recounting their tales, more fantastical elements are incorporated using animation—highlighting and accentuating a person's story, and bringing the tone away from pure documentary.
"The idea of remaking a vivid portrait of memories and feelings influenced our creation and was a source of inspiration," notes Anlen. "We looked at our 3D interview materials as bodies that needed to be filled and as an opportunity to give life to our protagonists' emotions."
Anlen cites the NFB's (National Film Board of Canada) Oscar-winning documentary Ryan by Chris Landeth as an inspiration for mixing more abstract animation with documentary shot footage. The 14-minute film by the NFB uses CGI to add a surreal edge to the story of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin and his spiral into drug addiction and homelessness.
"The 3D animation allowed us to create sub-worlds within the bodies of the virtual characters themselves, should the viewer choose to literally stick their head inside of them," explains Anlen. "I wanted to create the feeling that as you let your curiosity about a specific story grow, the character will give you more."
Anlen balanced this subjectivity by keeping the environment, the replication of the Tzina Dizengoff square itself, as faithful as possible. They learned of its demolition only after they begun the project, and it added not only a sense of urgency but a desire to allow the place to live on, albeit in a virtual, imitative space.
"Since the square is a place that was about to disappear I wanted to document whatever is possible, in order to create a sort of visual archive," Anlen says. "We capture every graffiti, scanned the texture of the benches and the fountain and photogrammetrically scanned the trees. Tzina offers you to visit in a place that no longer exists."
Much like an online game, Tzina: Symphony of Longing, can be experienced by multiple users all at once. When you're viewing the doc, each pigeon in the square is actually a viewer who is watching when you are. You don't interact with each other, but you can follow others around to see who they're talking to and see where in the world they're watching from. For Anlen, it added another layer to the concepts being explored, those of loneliness and a sense of place.
"Tzina is a story about lost love and loneliness," says Anlen. "Those emotions are like non-feelings that can be challenged only by an honest encounter. [...] I wanted to affect the viewers' physical body as well and to encourage them to go down on their knees when they interacted with the characters. To be equal, as humans. I wasn't sure what effect this would have, but I witnessed connections that became more tangible and sensitive. I also witnessed how difficult it was for people to release their body. This is the engine which drives the drama in Tzina—how much can you let go? The more you let go, the more the project will give back."
You can experience Tzina: Symphony of Longing online here. It's currently limited to a 15-minute version. The full version will be available online after it's completed its festival run. See more of Shirin Anlen's work at her website here.
Lead developer: Avner Peled
Design director: Ziv Schneider
Technical director: Or Fleisher
Creative coder: Laura Juo-Hsin Chen
Script editor: Udi Ben-Arie