We got a brief summary of the project from Ben Curtis, a Producer at Aardman Digital
Can you sum up We Wait in a sentence?
Based on BBC News interviews with migrants, We Wait is a dramatised story which transports the audience to the heart of the crisis. Using virtual reality, we put you in a boat with a Syrian family about to embark on their second attempt to cross the sea to Greece.
How did you approach the creative process?
We Wait is Aardman's first VR production. The subject matter is far heavier than what we are traditionally known for, and so every aspect of the project involved a lot more research and experimentation than a project we typically do, with expertise from the BBC proving invaluable. The creative team spent a long time immersing themselves in stories about refugees and migrants - their experiences before, during and after they make their way to Europe. The technical team had to experiment with the motion capture equipment and figure out the best way to portray all the characters within the restrictions of the project.
How is this different to what you normally do?
Working in Virtual Reality is different in almost every way to a normal game or interactive production. You can't think about frames or screens any more, you're working with demanding hardware that isn't always well supported, but these same restrictions are also the greatest source of opportunity. You don't need to worry about supporting lower-end devices as the minimum specification is pretty powerful, and by freeing yourself from thinking in frames or screens you really get closer to the vision, putting people inside a time and place, making them feel.
How was it built?
We built the project in Unity, starting off targeting the developer version of the Oculus Rift but eventually supporting the consumer release too. Given that we needed expressive, believable animations we used a motion-capture device called the Perception Neuron. It's great, but often temperamental and we spent a lot of time in dark warehouses recording our characters movements. Binaural audio has allowed us to really provide a sense of place and immersion. It meant even the waves and the crickets on the beach were wonderful thing to watch (or hear) take shape. We also used a specific plugin that allowed us to export the final version as a 360 video, so anyone with a smartphone or a desktop computer can experience it too.
What is the potential for storytelling in VR?
It's very challenging but the potential for telling stories in VR cannot be underestimated. Storytelling is about capturing the imagination and leading people through a journey, but it's hard to keep control when your audience is in the world you've created, to some extent you have to let go and let people experience things in the way they want to. It's still very early days and there aren't really too many tropes or conventions yet, so it's an extremely exciting format to work with.
The level of immersion that can be achieved is probably the most exciting aspect of VR for me. The feeling you get when you close a book you're engrossed in, like you've left a world behind, is far more intense in VR. As technology evolves and we start to see things like foveated rendering, full body tracking and so on this intensity will be amplified even more.
How has the process been working with CS?
I can honestly say that Connected Studios have been my favourite group to partner with to date. They have the perfect mix of talent, technical ability, contacts throughout the BBC and beyond and most importantly they have the drive to not play things safe, to push boundaries and create something outstanding.
What would you change if you were to do it again?
It's hard to say what we'd do differently with the benefit of hindsight. As all projects tend to, the focus shifted a little during the course of development, we started out trying to do too many things at once and ended up honing in on making the story as complete, immersive and believable as we could. I think starting out being just as ambitious but with a narrower scope and working out from there, rather than the opposite, will be a good way to go in future.