Digital technologies have created new media for fine art, believes Warren Marais, a Michaelis School of Fine Art graduate who used the eResearch Oculus Rift to create a virtual reality short film for his final project.
You can choose to draw with charcoal, with a pen or with a tablet, the outcome is still art. Digital media are media like any other, says Marais, who broke convention when he created a virtual reality (VR) short film for his final honours project.
“I feel like you are stifling your creativity if you don’t embrace digital media,” he says.
Marais is working towards a career in the film industry; his dream is to work behind the scenes of animated films, conceptualising, designing and illustrating characters and sets. As Michaelis doesn’t offer courses directly in this area, Marais tried to balance his projects between what the school required of him while still creating work he could use in a portfolio to get a job in the film industry.
Film, he says, allows artists to produce work that is multi-layered across two senses – vision and hearing – resulting in a more immersive product, that is potentially more effective at communicating concepts than other visual forms of art. However, VR technology has opened even more opportunity for artists to completely immerse the audience in the experience, in this case, a fictional world created by Marais.
“World creation and human personality have recently become keen interests of mine,” he says. He began his project by drawing out a map of a fictional world. At first unsure of where this path would lead him, he focused on one area of the map, called Gopt’s End, and began writing about the histories, cultures and religions of those regions. But how to represent this visually?
He developed a few characters and sketched out some images, but without history, they were really just images projected on a wall. “No-one goes to an exhibition to read pages and pages of text,” says Marais. He had to find a way of delivering the content to his audience which was both entertaining and engaging.
Inspiration came to him while he was sitting in his room one day. Looking around, he realised that you can tell an awful lot about a person by the items they have in their homes. You can also gain insight into what kind of society that person lives in, what technology there is and what the religions are. A room would make the perfect setting for delivering the intricacies of the narrative.
“One thing I learned from research into writing and film-making is that the audience needs at least one character to empathise with,” says Marais.
And so, the idea was born. He created a short film about a character called Gopt, a war general in a fantasy realm called the Lurrian Empire. Marais’ short VR film focuses on the last hours of Gopt’s life after he was poisoned by spies. The poison “splits and confuses the mind” putting the victim into a state of psychosis. It is in this state that we meet Gopt as he engages with particular objects in his home and suffers the hallucinations caused by the poison. These objects give insight into the fantasy world as well as the character Marais created.
The technical challenge
Once Marais decided on the VR route for his project, he – and friends that he partnered with – began a journey of intensive learning.
He was referred to Dr Dale Peters, eResearch Director, who told him how to go about booking the eResearch Oculus Rift, which is available to UCT researchers. Once he had procured this, he contacted a friend, Schoeman Michael Oosthuizen, who has a computer science background and who agreed to help with the project.
The pair decided to use the game engine Unity, which offers users a free version of the full software on condition they don’t use what they make commercially. Marais began modelling his virtual world using 3ds Max, a 3D-modelling, animation and rendering software. He then sent the 3D objects he created to Schoeman who would work out how to put them into Unity. They had to team up with voice artists (also students) and a sound engineering student to work on the sound mix.
“Getting the ambient sound right was key to the success of the project. It makes the world feel realistic and drives the emotion and feeling associated with a specific scene,” says Marais. The team managed to get hold of free ambient sounds, such as birds chirping, which they could add to the mix to give it authenticity.
The real challenge came when it was time to export all of this to the Oculus Rift. Marais had to get a new graphics card to meet the high computational requirements of the VR technology.
“Fortunately, YouTube has just about all the information you need to get an Oculus Rift going,” says Marais. But it still took weeks of troubleshooting, installing and reinstalling drivers and running back and forth to campus to use the fast network provided by UCT.
But in the end, Marais feels they got there.
“We still had a few small technical hitches on exhibition day,” he says, but the final project was what he had hoped for: a fully immersive VR film.
“As you watch the film, you see the world completely from Gopt’s perspective, explains Marais. You hear his voice as he interacts with the objects in his home. You hear birds chirping and watch the light changing as the day goes from morning to evening. It is a world you can get lost in.”
There is still a lot to refine, says Marais. But he sees this as the beginning of a journey rather than the end. He says it has been a steep learning curve, but one that has been very valuable in the fast-growing world of digital media.
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