Marshmallow Laser Feast’s output counts some brilliant exploration of Virtual Reality : the music video “Stor Eiglass” for Squarepusher, a 2012 VR experience sans headset, and more recently, a VR work in which you are “In The Eyes of The Animal”.
Fabbula visited the London studio on a sunny afternoon and sat down with Barnaby Steel and Robin McNicholas.
From Projection Mapping to Virtual Reality
Fabbula: How did you guys start MLF?
Barnaby: It was a conscious reaction to the repetition of normal commercial work. It makes sense to repeat the formula of what you do from a commercial perspective, but creatively the ground hog day is a killer. We set out to break the routine and create a space where we have the freedom to follow inspiration, explore, experiment and discover.
Did Bill and Ted say, ‘Make it and they will come!’? Either way, investing our corporate gold coins back into our personal work somehow created a feedback loop where we started to get commissioned to do the passion projects.
Robin: When we started the company, it was also a reaction on what can happen with small companies. As you expand and put bums on seats you start to become tied to the skills of that team which restricts the breadth of your creative output and ultimately becomes boring.
Instead, we are keeping our overheads low and keeping the core team in coding and generalists. From that core team we can direct highly complex projects and build teams of specialists to fill in the gaps.
That’s changing now as we are getting more involved in VR and its technologies. For the first time in our careers we are so inspired the possibilities of realtime tools for mixed reality experiences that we are hiring game engine gurus specifically
Fabbula: Do you remember what first caught your interest in VR? How did you get to do your first project?
Robin: We used Unity to make a projection mapping project for Sony. We were creating a virtual world just like you would for VR, but instead of seeing it with goggles, we projected this virtual world onto a physical room. By tracking the camera and “the mechanical eye”, the virtual world perspective stays true to the way we see the real world, with all lines converging on our eyeballs.
“For us that was a direct encounter with mixed reality, years before VR had its come-back”
Barnaby: It was addressing what’s frustrating about projection mapping, which can only be seen from one point of view, like a photo. With this work we freed the viewing angle, turning walls into windows to a virtual world. For us that was a direct encounter with mixed reality, a few years before VR had its come-back. It’s worth noting that we were inspired by “Caves” which perform this same trick within the walls of well-funded institutions.
Robin: It was super lo-fi, but it articulated a lot of our creative intentions. The real hook to the piece was in the way the homemade lo-fi contrasted with the climax, the illusion of a living room transformed into a virtual world. It was a real passion project and we camped in the room downstairs for days.
In a project so all consuming we got carried away! Sony had asked for three thirty second films but we delivered three one and a half minute single-take films. In retrospect, whenever a passion project aligns with a commercial brief, our habit is to go crazy and invest all the budget and more into trying to realise its potential!
Expanding the concept of Reality
Fabbula: From there to VR seems to be a tiny step. How did you make the jump to the VR medium ?
“Science and new technology shine a light into the abyss, revealing a new understanding of the world and questioning our concept of reality”
Barnaby: When the Oculus Rift came onto the scene we jumped on the early Dev Kit. Our first project was exploring VR as a means of revealing the invisible forces acting on an F1 car for Lotus and Burn energy drinks. We took this project to the first Oculus Connect which is where we got picked up by Chris Milk and VRSE. That project was our first experience of a new and exciting workflow, a bit like the dream architecture in “Inception”. Once the main backbone of the virtual world was built, we adjusted the final looks by tweaking sliders from within the virtual world. This process was a revelation, in contrast to procedural animation where you imagine, build and render, we were able to play the potential looks like a synth, reacting to happy accidents and saving the golden nuggets.
Since then, we have been completely sold on VR. Our interest for the moment has crystallised on VR as a window to a view of the world beyond the limits of human senses. Science and new technology shine a light into the abyss revealing a new understanding of the world and questioning our concept of reality.
Barnaby: “In the Eyes of the Animal” uses virtual reality as a way of expanding our concept of reality. What does the world look like from the sensory perspective of a midge? How can it sense the increase in C02 coming from the breath of a human 20 meters away? How does the lifetime of a mayfly compare to that of a 3000 year-old tree?
Alan Watts gave a wonderful lecture that compares geological time to human time by comparing an apple and a tree. From an apple’s perspective, other apples are seen being born and dying, but the tree barely changes in a apple’s lifetime. We think of our planet earth as a dead rock, but on a geological timeframe our rock peoples like an apple tree apples.
By scanning a real forest and situating the installation in that same space, we were able to align the virtual world with the real world so that following the experience you would see the forest in a new light. In some ways photography does this just through unusual camera positions, with VR you can really be something else.
Fabbula: This has deep ramifications that we are very keen to explore here at Fabbula. Am I right to assume that In the Eyes conveys a certain message on our connection with nature ?
Barnaby: Coming from a photographic background, I’m tuned into the way that new perspectives on the everyday world can reconnect viewers to the wonder we experience as a child with fresh eyes. The repetition of day-to-day sensory bombardment can make us numb to the world around us, and VR can work like an unblocker, it shakes our snow globe.
“In the Eyes of the Animal” puts the viewer’s neck deep into a swamp, shrunk down to the perspective of a dragonfly on a log, gliding above the trees like a bird of prey. What we find more interesting than these pure perspectives on the forest is the question, what does this same forest look like beyond the limits of our senses, through the eyes of the animals? Science gives us a window into this world, but the reality is that a human can never truly understand what the world looks like from, for example, a bat’s perspective. It’s like explaining to a blind person what the world looks like: although you can both reach out and touch the same object, no words can truly convey the richness and complexity of vision.
After a deep dive into the thesaurus we were very inspired by the paper by American philosopher Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?‘