Some notes on the Winter Garden 360 film

 

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”  Noam Chomsky

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Sound bites

I’m listening to a 360 film I've been working on for three years. Ok, I've made that sound more epic than it actually is. Yes, the first shoot did happen in December 2016 but then I did nothing for 18 months. Just waiting for something to happen. Then everything happened very quickly. I did a second shoot in September 2018 and the last shoot in the week before Christmas. 

Now, three months later I'm listening to the Sound mix in my headset. It's spatial. When I turn my head to look at a sound or look away from a sound the sound doesn't move. Like an obedient dog it stays put, inseparable from the thing it belongs to. But something’s bothering me and it's the same thing that's been bothering me for weeks. It's the voices in my head. Sound bites from interviews that I've been ordering and re ordering, whittling away at, shuffling around for weeks on end. Most of them sound all right. But one of them  - to my ears - is driving me round the bend. 

I'd interviewed Hazel during the first shoot in 2016. We'd taken over a small space in the back of a house on Cairns Street. Hazel held forth for over an hour. It was gripping, poetic, eloquent, candid, and brilliant. Unfortunately, although she was wearing a lapel mic we hadn't turned it on. Or something. The crappy mic that comes with the camera was doing all the work. And so the voice I'm hearing in my headset is a constant reminder of that mistake. It does sound a bit echoey. 

To be honest all the interviews reveal the limits of my sound recording know how. You can hear the traffic. Or the air conditioning. Or hair dryers. Or the bloody echo. Part of the problem, I think, was that I was just choosing the wrong spaces to do the interviews in.  Spaces that were as far from a sound booth in audio terms as one could hope to find. Hazel is just the worst offender. 

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Introduction

In December 2015 Assemble – a collective of artists and designers– won the Turner Prize for their work with theembattled residents of Granby, in Toxteth, Liverpool. Since the riots in ‘81, the residents had been trapped in a downward spiral of ‘managed decline’, and were constantly facing the demolition of their homes and the relocation of their community.

But they fought back. And their weapon of choice was creativity. Taking control of their streets with gardens, murals and markets, they reclaimed their neighbourhood. In 2011 theyformed a Community Land Trust and then, four years later, they joined forces with Assemble to work out ways to rebuild their community and get Granby back on its feet.

Together they reimagined what the neighborhood could look like. One idea that emerged from this collaboration, and which really took hold, was to transform two derelict Victorian houses on Cairns Street into a Winter Garden and artists’ residence. A well-known illustration of this concept depicts the interior of a terraced house with trees inside it. For many, the image of lush vegetation flourishing within the envelope of a Victorian house captured the essence of this extraordinary partnership and the hope of revitalising a neighbourhood.  

Work on the Winter Garden began in 2016 and was completed three years later. In a world where everything is transactional, where so much is being sold off and where very few social spaces are being built, the people of Granby and Assemble have created a public space where people can meet and talk and build a community. 

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What is this film?

“The Winter Garden”isa 360 film that captures this transformation. At its heart are the residents of Granby who pulled themselves out of some pretty dire circumstances, revitalised their neighborhood and turned a derelict house in the middle of a street into a community centre and artists residence. 

Shot and edited over three years, and made possible by a grant from The Space, the film focuses on the Winter Garden itself, as well as the surrounding neighborhood. 

At the core of the film are scenes that place the user inside the Winter Garden during key stages of its build. We see it in its derelict state – four brick walls and no roof. We’re there when the trees are brought in, and we’re there a few months later when the space is being used by the residents for a gardening workshop. Punctuating these scenes are moments that place us within the neighbourhood – a resident’s home, a hair and beauty salon, the local streets. 

One of our aims when making this film was to convey the aspirations of the residents themselves and make them the focus of the experience. These are peoplewho faced the demolition of their homes and fought back with creativity instead of negativity and hate. The narrative for the film is therefore delivered, owned and driven by the residents who touch on their feelings about the past and, more importantly, voice their hopes for the future. This flow of sound bites is drawn from interviews conducted over the three years of the build. 

We hope that, when experiencing this film, the user will feel as if they are actually in Granby, in the midst of something extraordinary while hearing the innermost thoughts of the people who live there. 

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It is what it is

I've just purchased an Oculus Go headset. This is a couple of weeks after the picture edit is locked and a few days after the Sound mix. Up till now I've been experiencing the film inside a six quid cardboard box made by Google while listening to the soundtrack on my headphones. An experience that's better than you’d think. But now, having shelled out on this shiny new headset, I was expecting a quantum leap forward. David Betteridge, The director, had emailed me the other day to say how great the sequences were looking in 6K. And at the Sound mix I’d done with Breen Turner at the National Film and Television school we'd tackled the variability of the dialogue and made Hazel sound pretty good. 

So with the headset on, and a thumbnail of Granby floating in front of me, I’m apprehensive, but also excited. I watch the film. And indeed it does look fantastic. It also sounds great. But... Hazel… had I fooled myself into thinking we’d got rid of that echo? 

I email David. He's had to put up with my Hazel obsession for some time now. He says it sounds better. I’ll never completely undo the quality of that initial recording. It is what it is. I'm simultaneously relieved and ... I decide to look at some other films for comparison. 

There’s a bunch of great 360 documentaries you can access through the Oculus. And so I’m listening to these other films, with their narrators talking in the middle of my head. Refugees, prisoners, teenagers, tour guides, educational voice-overs, presidents, all of them sound the same. Perfect. Crisp. Bright. Nuanced. These are voices that resonate in your head. Recorded by people who know exactly what they're doing. 

But hang on...there is something that’s not quite right. Something that’s creating a disconnect between what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing. And at the moment, I can’t quite put my finger on what that thing is? 

The social / political context 

It’s worth noting that the build of the Winter Garden and indeed the production of the film covers a particularly tumultuous period in the life of this country. Pre-production began not long before the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 and the project began to wrap up around the time we were originally scheduled to leave the EU, March 29th2019. 

Throughout this period, the impact of austerity and the toxic waters stirred up by Brexit were creating a nation more divided than ever. Hate crimes at an all time high. Social care marginalised and the welfare state under attack. So much negative energy.

It’s against this backdrop that the collaboration between Assemble and the residents of Granby takes place. Together they constructed a different narrative. Yes, the residents pushed back – but not in a destructive, hateful way. Instead they applied creativity, a DIY spirit and a willingness to welcome and embrace others. In its way, the Winter Garden is part of an on-going project that stands as an antidote to the fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric of our times. 

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The War On Story

 “The storytelling that shapes our world view now is so male dominated it’s creating a singular world view that everyone sees but is not reflective of what the world actually is’. Jenn Duong. Immersive VR Director

Deciding to shoot this project in 360 was an easy decision to make. It’s a great way to reveal space and to capture an environment. But there were other reasons it felt right. Alongside VR, AR and Mixed Reality, 360 has an important role to play in what I call the war on story. 

The stories a society tells itself so often reflect the worldview of those with the power and the money to influence those stories. Through movies, soap operas and advertising we passively soak up these narratives. They move us, entertain us and shape the way we think and feel. At the same time they work to reinforce the legitimacy of certain groups while marginalising and disempowering others. 

Latterly, of course, fuelled by the internet, by social media and by a ‘connected global user base’, these reactionary narratives are under attack. There is a war on story – a desire to replace the tired ‘old truths’ we have been spoon fed for generations and replace them with new stories and different voices. 

Of course if you want to stop hearing a particular story, it’s a good idea to disrupt the way it’s delivered as well. With the development of immersive technologies, such as 360, content creators are more able to escape the straight jacket of linear storytelling and explore new ways of putting the user at the heart of the experience. 

With 360 filmmaking the ‘masterful gaze’ of the Director, is removed, the field of vision is opened out and the audience, in theory, can look wherever they want! This makes it much harder to force them down a narrative corridor. So there is a war on story here too – in the actual way a story is communicated.

I for one welcome the disruption. Story has become a kind of mantra that’s repeated again and again, as if without it we’re lost. And so often the pursuit of it pushes away other qualities that make an experience memorable. So for me the making of the Winter Garden, became an opportunity to explore qualities such as presence, emotional involvement and transparency and see how they play out in this new medium.

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Presence

In her article Technologies of Seeing and Technologies of Corporeality, Mandy Rose observes how people experience a ‘documentary’ once they put on a headset. She refers to the quality of presence: “This feeling of being inside the events depicted in VR”.

She also notes that: “Along with presence there often follows an intense emotional involvement  - the participant feels they are witnessing unmediated reality”

This heightened emotional state that comes with presence is not without dangers. Rose quotes the academic Kate Nash who looked at the ethics of mediated presence in her article “Virtual Reality Witness”. Nash observes that: “The simulated nature of the medium and the sense that presence produces of being involved in events rather than just observing them across space and time carries with it a risk of ‘improper distance”

For the filmmaker who wants the audience to ‘get it’ and connect with the meaning of a film, presence, and the heightened sense of proximity it creates, can become a fog that envelops the audience and dulls their ability to perceive what’s going on. In this instance the well trumpeted phrase ‘immersive media’ could have a double meaning: the threat of being submerged or drowning as well as the promise of unlimited horizons and unmediated reality.

For me, as the project developed, an intriguing question was how to avoid ‘improper distance’ so that the audience is able to maintain their objectivity and not get caught up in the ‘illusion’ of being there. With ‘The Winter Garden’ I would argue that there are a number of ‘creative interventions’ that enable us to retain our critical distance:

The most obvious of these ‘interventions’ are the voices of the residents. The flow of observations, anecdotes and insights demand our attention, encouraging us to connect intellectually with the core themes and not get lost in the streets and houses of Granby.

The second is the use of music. An important part of the soundscape, the music  - composed by Jack Wyllie and Will Ward at 19 Sound - underpins the emotional core of the film but also works as a reminder that we are watching an authored film, not unmediated reality. 

The third aspect is the films reluctance to dwell too long in a particular location. Certainly, as befits this type of film making, we linger in spaces more than we would if it was a flat 2D film. But we cut to different scenes quicker than other 360 films might do. Do these ‘cuts’ pull us out of the immersive ‘fog’ and help us maintain a critical distance? I think they do. 

I also hope that this project gently and effectively explores ways we can untether ourselves from traditional storytelling and still create something that’s powerful, emotive and memorable. It’s an attempt to tell a new story. And, at the same time, do this in a way that is fresh and engaging. 

360 and immersive media help us to tell stories differently. It’s vital that we use them to embrace new voices and new perspectives. 

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Not drowning but waving

Some friends have come over. We’ve just eaten and we’re now sitting in the front room, while most of the kids are in the back on the PlayStation. We talk about this and that and then I’m asked how are things and what have I been up to. I talk about the Granby film and I’m somewhat amazed that I haven’t in the last three years mentioned it to them. They’re interested. I take the opportunity to show them the film through the headset. It’s fascinating to watch them experience the world all around them – stepping back, turning around, talking us through what they’re seeing. Their reactions make me smile. It’s like they’re walking through a strange big house, at each turn they encounter something or somebody that’s slightly unexpected. They’re youngest has a go too. It’s lovely. He wants to touch everything and everyone. But he can’t see his hands. So he says hello and waves at them instead. From where I’m sitting I can hear the soundtrack.

And then I realise what might be working with the sound and the voices. My rubbish recordings may actually have helped to produce a better connection between the sound and the visuals. Because the voices are clearly not recorded in a studio there is an ambient quality to them that reflects the rooms and environments they were recoded in. There is a synergy going on between the pictures and the sound. Everything a professional sound recordist would aim to obliterate I failed to remove. The clinical perfection of the voice-overs I was hearing in those other films is gone. In its place are the voices of real people, recoded in the same rooms, the same shops and the same streets that I’m looking at in my headset. I don’t think this makes the experience more immersive because hearing voices in my head is thankfully still not a part of my everyday experience. But is does make the experience feel more real.  More immediate.And this realisation helps me appreciate Hazel’s contribution too. Hearing her bold, confident assertions makes me feellike we’re tapping into some found recordings of this great thinker and orator. And it wouldn't have happened this way if I’d know what I was doing. It wasn't by design. It was just chance.