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SENS VR, entering a drawn world

By Fabien

For 30 years, comic artist Marc-Antoine Mathieu has been brilliantly exploring the possibilities of the drawn medium. Now an ambitious VR team is set to immerse us in his world…
We met with the SENS VR creators for a chat over their intentions, working in 3D with hand drawings and the challenge of composing narrative spaces with the young medium

It’s with great pleasure that I welcome today the team behind SENS VR, who came in number to talk to us about their upcoming, exciting project. It’s an adaptation of the graphic novel by Marc-Antoine Mathieu. We saw some clips that show spaces and perspectives. Can we talk a bit about your intentions: what are you trying to do with SENS?

Armand Lemarchand: I'd like to talk about our first intentions, and how Mathieu changed them. When we first saw what amounted to an almost complete storyboard with Charles, it seemed obvious to play with first and third person perspectives. To insist on the avatar's disembodiment, to realize that we're a character in a specific space. It seemed obvious because that's how the graphic novel is built, shifting between first person - when we're showed large spaces - and moments where we see the character in that space. But when we pitched that to Mathieu, he told us no. He said that wasn't the point, that we should really play through the eyes of the character. We could use third person point of view, but only as a narrative device, to build a connexion between the player and the avatar. So that meeting was really interesting, because everything we saw in the graphic novel, Mathieu didn't. To him it didn't have much coherence, his novel could be taken apart and rebuilt entirely. So it was great for us to hear: "do whatever you want with my work". So that's the true start of our intentions, that is building something about a character that wanders in an environment, and to work on the relation between the character and space. There are still objects and some guidance, since we kept Mathieu's idea to follow imposed choices. Beyond that, we try to have a different relationship with space, as much as VR allows it. So we play with the horizons, we play with objects coming straight at us, or with really large objects that will be very different in VR. When you face a 20-story tall building, you don't have the same reaction as seeing a character on paper facing the same building. So our intentions changed after meeting with Mathieu, and led us to something a bit more narrative, and a bit further away from gaming.

There’s this idea in the graphic novel, that I’d like to discuss: the constant play with the codes of reality. A line on the horizon becomes a line delineating a wall and there’s generally a constant challenge in that things are not being what they appear to be.

Armand Lemarchand: There's a problem with VR, that has to do with the name itself, virtual reality. Actually, the less real it is, the better it works! The graphic novel is fantastic for that, and that's why thanks to our creative technologist UMTBH, we managed to recreate this relationship with the drawn lines in 3D. The ever so simple aspect of the lines gives us an odd feeling: it feels like we're never really moving. It's hard to feel the movement in a white universe: we walk on white sand across a white background, with an horizon that moves ever so little. So it's the audio aspect that's going to come in play here. We're going to play with footsteps a lot: we'll change the surfaces, the materials, the rhythms... We'll build a narration through sound. The other important point in navigation is that we're going to cheat a lot when it comes to the relationship to space. The player will be wondering whether he is moving or whether the objects around him are.

UMTBH, translating the intent of the 2D drawings into 3D is something on which you worked a lot, how to make it come to life, and to stay true to Mathieu’s intentions. Can you talk about that process?

UMTBH: We spent a lot of time making it invisible to the user. The player had to feel like this was organic, but it actually took quite some work. Had we built the universe on our own, it might have been simpler to reach a satisfying result. But we have to respect the author. For example, I worked in architecture artwork a lot: even if I was drawing, you have to respect the architect's touch. We put a lot more pressure on ourselves than the author did. Thankfully he was actually quite happy with our work.

Of course, these were true artistic drawings, with an intention behind them.

UMTBH: Yes, that's why we had to de-structure the 3D objects, to avoid a rendition that would be purely technical akin to CAD file. The objects, even simpler ones, were sub-divided so we could obtain variations. I'm sorry it's getting a little technical here. We didn't really know how all this was going to work in VR: trying to artificially erase depth where we wanted to create it, these sorts of things. So it was a bit complicated. We also had an interesting line of questioning: the character is the basis for what we can project of the experience's reality. It is the character that, by contrast, shows the chaos in an otherwise very simplistic representation. All you have to do is see the character to understand that something's off, to see the disorder. As if it's all a dream. We also worked a lot on the character. As there are times when you don't see him it was a challenge to see how it was going to hold without him. Mathieu sets the realism level, then disturbs it by putting the character in the center of the frame. The moment you see the character you understand that something's not right in the environment you're exploring.

We talked about frame, and in Mathieu’s work there’s a real attention to the composition, sometime to the extreme. He always puts his character in a particular place in the frame, and that’s what drives the narrative. How does that translate in VR?

Armand Lemarchand: That's the one rule we threw away!

You didn’t compose at all?

Armand Lemarchand: There's composition, but composition in how we attract the user attention. We're trying to lure him with what we dubbed "calls". It can be visual calls or graphic calls, in order to tell him to look in a certain direction, so that the experience makes sense for him. The problem is that the experience is a 360° one, and if the user-player doesn't want to look at what we're showing, well he simply won't. We can't impose that on him: in VR, you can't do mandatory camera movements as it creates motion sickness. We have to leave that freedom, so the player partly becomes, in effect, the director.

Marie Blondiaux: Regarding the composition i would like to add that SENS is originally a spatial project. He was approached by a gallery owner that wanted to sell some of his work. Mathieu agreed, but asked not to sell one page at a time, but by series of five. So within SENS VR there are series within a particular space and sequence that match five of the pages, that were thought of as one sequential item. That creates a form of narrative continuity, but one that's not constant, as there are a lot of ellipsis within the graphic novel. So a lot of our work is how to manage these ellipsis.

Charles Ayats: There's a very zen aspect to it, being in this world that you discover little by little, that matches Mathieu's graphic novel. He managed to give this world some sort of coherence. Despite the fact that it's abstract and absurd, built only out of arrows, it feels right. You feel at home, you want to go further, to explore. You don't want the game to stop. That's what's exciting about working on a VR project: that complete immersion, that pushes you to go further, to take it hands on. We actually want to see our hands, to touch things, which is why we'll try to work on a HTC Vive version. Hence our Kickstarter project, by the way... So we can bring this artistic proposal, both a bit crazy and simplistic, to the highest number of people possible, with more immersive tools.