History and fantasy collide in the most awesome way with Britannia VR: Out Of Your Mind, based on the hit Sky Atlantic series. We sat down to talk with the talented storytellers at Sky VR Studios to learn a thing or two about what it took to bring this series to life in virtual reality.
Interview by Nathan Allen Ortega, Viveport Staff
For those unfamiliar, tell us a bit about yourself and the team at Sky VR Studios
Hello, I’m Kim-Leigh Pontin and I’m Creative Interaction Director for Sky VR Studios, meaning that I direct interactive content and products that utilize VR, AR and other emerging tech. The content team at Sky VR Studios are a talented team of producers, writers, designers, VFX artists, a sound designer, and developers.
How did the concept of bringing the historical fantasy series Britannia to life in the immersive VR experience Britannia VR: Out Of Your Mind?
Writer and producer Dan Bougourd and I worked closely to envisage an experience that would allow participants to step into the world of Britannia. We were both blown away by the level of craft that went into the set designs, props, wardrobe etc to create the epic cinematic feeling that Vertigo Films are known for in their productions. We wanted to give participants the opportunity to explore that craft up close, in their own time.
The series focuses on the clash between the Roman army and a mysterious Celtic land ruled by warrior women and powerful Druids – how closely did you work with the creative team behind the show to capture the look, feel and themes of Britannia?
We worked very closely with Vertigo Films throughout. The exec team gave us an early steer on story threads for series 2, we went to the cast read throughs and got an early sight of the Neasden studio set builds. Rupert Ryle-Hodges who produced the TV series along with the production team helped us capture dressed environments. The co-ordination required to get us into the right place, at the right time, to capture fully dressed sets, and to scan supporting artists in the correct costumes and makeup, right before they go on set to shoot all night, cannot be understated. They gave us time to scan extras wearing full druid costume moments before they went onto set for the epic rave scene. They helped organize time with Liana Cornell, Mackenzie Crook and Ben Bailey Smith in order to capture performance and gave us additional time at the production offices in Neasden to capture the beautiful props. The design team shared drawings and plans, the post team shared the elephant asset and we were also sent audio stems from the show all in an effort to create something of and from the world of Britannia.
How was your experience developing Britannia VR: Out Of Your Mind in contrast with other VR projects you’ve developed previously? Were there any particular challenges you encountered that were unique to this title?
Dan + I have collaborated on 3 pieces altogether: Nefertiti, Rebel Queen (a photogrammetry based interactive piece that allows participants to discover more about and look for the final burial site of Queen Nefertiti in ancient Egypt), A Discovery of Witches (to support the television series) and now Britannia. Britannia certainly has the most cinematic aesthetic values and this came with unique challenges to solve in VR. The idea of having an epic, cinematic, populated space that participants could wander around in, came with unique demands on processing power, and we had to find a way to blend Volumetric capture, realistic photogrammetry and motion capture to create a believable scene. We also had a fantastic soundtrack from Neil Davidge that was created for linear, but which we wanted to cut up and reuse in such a way as to make it interactive — which we were particularly successful with, I believe, in the Elephant approach scene.
Britannia VR: Out Of Your Mind employs volumetric capture and photogrammetry to bring the world and characters of the series to life with stunning realism. Talk to us a bit about that process and what your thoughts are regarding the future of this technology to bring unparalleled fidelity to VR experiences.
Volumetric capture is an incredible way to capture the subtlety of actorly expressions and movement. Capturing a photorealistic performance is both exhilarating and nerve-racking, as we had very short shooting sessions and the costs are not trivial. I was essentially directing actors from inside a green screen, and making sure you satisfy all the technical requirements, while also freeing actors to give their best performance, requires preparation. Added to this was the fact that I was directing for moments of participant interaction, which meant that I had to fold in loopable segments into each sequence, but we had to shoot it all in one, no cuts etc. Tricky! Figuring out eye lines to allow for making eye contact in VR required a lot of care, design and preparation. Dimension were incredibly supportive with all technical direction considerations and did a great job of making sure all the costumes captured effectively. Separately, we also worked with the choreographer from the druid rave scene, and the lead dancer to capture the mocap for the tranced out dancers, with a view to making it authentically trippy and creepy and appropriate to the show.
What do you think are essential elements necessary to crafting an engaging VR title based on a hit show – both for fans of the series and players new to the series?
For me, the most important part of the craft is to figure out up front how you want your audience to feel. The fun bit of the craft is then to figure out which interactions will enable this feeling in the participants. I come from an interaction design background, so I get frustrated whenever there are moments where the participant has their agency removed! But equally, it’s important to have a sense of the narrative of the show. We wanted an exploratory element to the gameplay, rather than a competitive style. We wanted something that a TV audience would be able to grasp, but also something with enough visual fidelity to intrigue a gamer audience. Participant feedback so far has been very positive, with people saying that VR is finally delivering on the promise of being able to “step into the film”.
Tell us a bit about what it was like working with the cast of the series like Mackenzie Crook, Liana Cornell and Ben Bailey Smith (Doc Brown).
The cast are all incredibly professional and talented. They are all very busy and we had limited time with them so, as a Director, it was important to me to be able to have a conversation with them beforehand to discuss what we were trying to do and ease them into the process in order to free them up from having to think about anything too technical on the day. Liana in particular had some very challenging interactive sequences to shoot and she was incredible — we rehearsed each sequence maybe 2 times and she had everything memorised and was able to do multiple usable takes off the bat. Mackenzie Crook had to spend 4 hours in makeup in order to achieve that creepy Veran look, which meant we had extremely limited time to shoot. He did 3 takes and nailed it. We were worried that a minute and a half long monologue would be a stretch for a participant who had been used to complete agency but the strength of his performance completely captivates people. Ben Bailey Smith was just brilliant. The Hammerhead dev team in particular couldn’t get enough of him! He completely brought the character to life, and again managed to do everything perfectly, immediately, with multiple nuanced versions that we could choose from. Actors of this calibre are so inspiring, it was such a treat for us to work with them. We are very grateful for the time they gave us and the work they put in.
Britannia VR brings many people and places from the series to life – do you have a
character or location in particular?
Personally my favourite location was the glow worm cave, which was something Hammerhead photogrammetry artist, Craig Stiff, had captured — we were on set on the Wales beach looking at tiny rock inlets saying “Could this work as a cave?” and Craig was confidently shaking his head saying “Nah, I’ve got the perfect cave…” and by god he did! Stunning.
I love all the characters but Ben Bailey Smith does make me laugh. They are all so talented!
Were there any ideas/puzzles/concepts that you wanted to work into the experience but found it difficult to work into the final build of the game?
We initially wanted to make a lot more of both the drumming in the druid rave, and the trumpet playing in the Roman Oppida. We essentially wanted participants to be able to compose their own beats on the drums, and hum a tune into the trumpet, vocoder style. The idea was then to be able to hear a song based on this, on the final beach scene. Thinking back that was so ambitious given the timescale, what were we thinking??
Are there any series easter egg clues in Britannia VR: Out Of Your Mind for fans to keep an eye out for?
You can eat all the food in the Oppida! Hammerhead sound designer Chris Dain recorded individual noises for each type of food. He hates mushrooms and so the mushroom eating was a challenge for him! There are some Roman latrines that you can sit on if you are childish like us. Going underwater in the druid cave is super immersive and wonderful. I’ve witnessed people lying down underwater and just chilling there. In the druid rave there is a psychedelic dance triangle where you can paint the air… And in the final Druid rave moment, raising or lowering your arms after Veran’s speech affects both your ability to fly, and the audio atmospherics, super trippy feels to be had!
How big was your team on this project and how long was the development process?
Besides the management on the project, my design + dev team at Sky did a lot of the white boxing of prototypes that were harder to imagine, and this team was tiny. The VolCap was captured with the talented team at Dimension, and the mocap with both Hammerhead and Target 3D in east London. From there we started working in earnest with Hammerhead, who we worked with in a setup of directing remotely. Their team is made up of highly skilled artists and devs, covering photogrammetry and all the retouching that goes into that, 3d modeling, Unreal development, sound design… We are incredibly in awe of their skills and I’ve absolutely loved working with Sally Blake, their Senior Producer who is diplomatic, knowledgeable and passionate… a real credit to the Hammerhead team.
What are your thoughts on the future of VR and AR and what do you hope to work on as the technology develops?
I love VR as a medium. I would particularly like to make a more interactive, collaborative, multi-player piece for all-in-one headsets. My specialist area of design is in speculative design and design fiction, so I would love to touch on those themes – I think we need to collectively exercise our imaginative powers to come up with a brighter future than the one we seem to be heading for, and speculative design is a great tool for that. I’d love to look at AI as a way of enabling parameter based character interaction. Also to carry on looking at interactive audio, possibly in a more generative sense. And I’d be keen to do more work in AR, if only to be able to maintain eye contact! It’s been 3 years in a headset with no eye contact and I feel it’s really missing! Looking forward to trying eye tracking and foveated rendering with this in mind.
What’s next for Sky VR Studios?
Sky VR Studios are doing a lot of work in Sport as such a large part of the Sky customer base is passionate about sports. Meanwhile we are continuing to reach out to the Sky Drama teams, looking for new ways to innovate in new forms of storytelling.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us! We’re excited to see what your team has up their sleeves next.
Britannia VR: Out Of Your Mind is now available for FREE on Viveport for users in the UK, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy.