Queerskins: a love story, our Peabody Futures of Media award-winning Virtual Reality drama for Oculus Rift will be released on The Oculus Store next Thursday May 21st.
In this seated 6DOF experience, you are seated in the back seat of an old Cadillac, behind two grieving parents, Ed and Mary-Helen, as they take a magic realist journey down a country road in rural Missouri. Along the way, you will get to know Sebastian, the son they have lost to AIDS. “Queerskins: A Love Story” http://vr.queerskins.com/a-love-story is inspired by the online, interactive, multimedia narrative we put out in 2013 Queerskins: a novel It tells the story of a young gay physician estranged from his Catholic family who dies in 1990, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. For the online, we created a multimedia scrapbook: 40,000 words of Sebastian’s diary, two hours of audio monologues from five people who knew him, photos curated from Flickr Creative Commons, and crowd-sourced and commissioned videos. Although you can navigate through any way you choose, you still feel more like a passive consumer than an active participant. Because Sebastian’s story deals with AIDS and homosexuality in a very intimate way, we were excited to tell it in VR so that we could make you a co-creator in the storytelling. In “Queerskins: A Love Story,” you are charged with reconstructing the man who has died by interacting with a box of his belongings, photos and a diary. How you relate and respond to the objects in the box, for instance, a statue of the Virgin Mary or homoerotic Tom of Finland drawing or a Hulk Halloween mask depends upon your own personal history. Many people relive their own childhood experience of being in the backseat, watching their parents fight, and being unable to leave or to intervene. Not only do you feel like you are really “there” in the backseat of the car behind his parents, this simple act of sifting through the contents of the box connects you physically and psychologically to Sebastian’s life and story. We were also aware that, because of your intimate proximity to the parents, (actors were shot with 3D volumetric video to capture the nuances of human movement), you will read their body language through your own body, a little like sitting on stage with actors in a play. For this reason, during rehearsals, we worked with a choreographer to orchestrate actor posture and movements. Ed and Mary-Helen essentially do a seated “dance”, a painful missed call and response, which reveals their conflict in a powerfully visceral way.
Although our story is fictional, we chose to incorporate elements of historical reality. All of the objects are 3D scanned archival objects from the time period. The car is an actual 1986 Cadillac. The news on the radio is an actual testimony before Congress in August 1990 at the beginning of the first Iraq War. If you are lucky enough to look out the window at a certain point, you will see a single billboard of an empty bed. This is a photograph of Cyril’s bed, an homage to artist Felix Gonzalez Torres who photographed his own bed after the loss of his lover to AIDS. Although, it would have been possible to 3D model these from scratch, we wanted to avoid the slick, hyperreal aesthetic that pervades much VR and digital film. Our goal was to create a magical realist aesthetic that generates a dynamic tension between embodied, material, historical reality and the very human desire to transcend those limits. To accomplish this, we ended up combining a lot of tech that no one has put into the same experience—360-degree video 3D volumetric live-action video, 3D scanned archival objects, photogrammetry of a real Cadillac, 3D CG modeling and animation, and spatial sound. Although the technical achievement of this project was recognized by SIGGRAPH, the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, which showcased it in 2019, we are not interested in tech wizardry for its own sake, but for the potential it offers to tell emotionally impactful stories.
For us, sound is a critical part of creating immersion in VR. We were fortunate to work with Skywalker Sound for spatial sound design. Importantly, the experience begins with sound. As major credits roll, you are charged with interpreting the radio “play” you hear around you: a screen door slamming, footsteps on gravity, a car engine starting. From the beginning, your imagination is harnessed, and you begin your role as co-creator. Later, sound is used to create “aural memories” which emanate from the photographs in the box. Lastly, you will hear Sebastian’s voice, reading his own diary. Recorded with binaural audio, it sounds as if he is right in front of you, a living presence, which you could almost touch.
In this time of our current pandemic, Queerskins: a love story has acquired a contemporary significance which we did not anticipate. We do hope that it will encourage viewers to remember that prior epidemic, in which, unfortunately, some people were considered to have deserved their fate. For instance, Jerry Falwell, heard in an archival radio clip in the opening scene, preaching God’s love, also notoriously proclaimed that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. However, we did not approach Queerskins: a love story wanting to make an “AIDS story” or a “gay” story. We didn’t want it to be pigeonholed (or dismissed), or, even worse, create a story that suggests “gay people are just like straight people,” ignoring the political, social, and economic realities of being gay. Instead, through story and technology, the experience puts you in the position of living through the intimate, interior worlds of others. It is our hope that this will lead to an emotional engagement with the characters and themes, and, ultimately, an empathy for the characters’ personal experiences and, by extension, for all persons who grapple with love, illness, and loss.