Detailed World-building

Angus Main, Tutor in Information Experience Design, Royal College of Art

Walking backstage at the Royal Opera House is a beautifully surreal experience. Like a VR character you find yourself travelling as if on rails, following a brightly painted pathway which leads you swiftly past groups of busy technicians, walls of electrical buttons and levers, and vast complex equipment. 

Entering the cavernous space directly behind the stage is like stepping into a strange hybrid of Harry Potter’s Room of Hidden Things and the Unity Asset Store.  Props of bewilderingly different styles and scales surround you: giant stone sculptures, delicate ornate furniture, gilt birdcages with convincing feathered inhabitants. You become aware of the silent narratives all around you. Each object has its own specific role to play in a story told on the stage in front of us. Each object has its own personal story of how it came to be there, carefully crafted and maintained by the artists and technicians in the workshops behind us.

The key to these narratives appears in the detail. The textures and intricate decorations help you place its purpose and status, and kick-starts the imagination into piecing together narratives around the object. 

And the level of detail is amazing. Looking at the subtle decorations on the props and costumes, you begin to wonder how many of the audience members will be able to make out the painstaking detail of each object (even with the help of opera glasses).

The answer perhaps comes down to who you consider the audience to be. There are of course the 2000 or so people in the auditorium, but their experience of the narrative is channeled through the cast on the stage, and perhaps that cast should be considered an audience in their own right. 

Examining the props I’m reminded of the Lord of the Rings film adaptations, and the extraordinary level of detail put into the world-building for that production. The extended DVD extras reveal uncompromising efforts of the artists and designers behind the scenes. For example the costumer department went to the trouble of embroidering complex symbols and language into the inside of costumes, and even creating elaborate, character-appropriate undergarments for each actor to wear beneath their costumes. As with all of the objects created for the film, these hidden elements were carefully designed to be richly meaningful, and consistent with a complex visual mythology for the film, but they were never intended to be seen by cinema-goers. 

So why go to the trouble? “There’s no point to doing it” according to actor Ian Mckellen, “other than to make me believe, as I put the costume on, that they’re real clothes. Which I do.”.

Lord of the Rings Behind the Scenes Video

The performers at the Royal Opera House, or in the Lord of the Rings, are acting in an immersive experience. A reality is being created for them through the creative talents and attention to detail of the production teams. Unexpected and convincing details, like the embroidery on the lining of a jacket help create small moments of persuasion, which in turn help the performers create a convincing reality for the audience.

It seems that there are lessons to be learned here for creating virtual immersive experiences. Often in VR the participant is part performer, part audience. Perhaps it’s useful therefore to think about how performers are immersed in their environments, and try to create as many persuasive moments of detail for them as possible. Small revelations of detail, carefully placed, can do a lot to encourage the suspension of disbelief, and help build convincing realities. What opportunities are there in VR for literally or metaphorically recreating that experience of stepping into a characters clothes, and observing telling details of their lives?

These thoughts were further reinforced with the visit to the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the Design Museum. Here was a director for whom attention to detail took on extra dimensions. The obsessive detail created for each of his films has clearly contributed to the richly textured worlds visible on screen, and enduring power of the films. 

The power of little details is perhaps most evident in the production design for 2001: A Space Odyssey. With science fiction, the skill of world-building is more critical. The film needs to create a convincing reality which has never existed, but is relatable enough for the audience to believe is could exist. High concept ideas are intertwined with everyday mundanities to create persuasive moments. You see it in a hundred different vignettes: zero gravity jogging, space-age airline food, familiar product placement, and zero-gravity toilet instructions. Each of these elements is a small, convincing detail which immerses the audience in the reality.

Image Credit

There seems to be lots we can take from this approach, and I’m left feeling excited imagining the forms these details could take in a virtual experience. 

——- THE END ——-

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