Ex-documentary filmmakers Amy Rose and May Abdalla are the driving force behind Anagram, an award-winning creative company specialising in interactive storytelling and immersive experience design.
One of their latest creations, The Collider, has drawn international attention and acclaim, including a review from Vice’s Jan van Tienen which called the experience: ‘one big mindfuck of vulnerability, dancing lines and chocolate bars.‘
Ahead of The Collider’s showing at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, Amy and May tell us more about this VR experience and the creative process behind it.
Q: Can you give audiences a taste of what they can expect from ‘The Collider’?
A: The story of The Collider is that it is a machine built by some curious scientist – that has been travelling the world to collect data by colliding two random individuals with each other. It is the lesser known Collider – bringing together people rather than particles. And its field of enquiry is the unseen, unexplored material that exists between people. They are trying to reveal, quantify and analyse what bonds are created and why they might become strong or disappear over time.
The Collider is essentially a staged encounter with someone else – and, through that collision, with yourself. Two people enter separately and follow different paths until they encounter one another. One is in VR and the other has the controllers which will guide and affect the other person. The piece explores how we relate to the feeling of having power. It offers a set of provocations and conditions within which to act; each person responds differently. Sometimes it is gentle, sometimes awkward, sometimes wild and fun – we are not trying to offer a perfectly smooth experience. It’s more like real life – with all the clashes, moments of dissonance and flashes of joy that our everyday lives are made of.
A whole mixture of things happens along the journey – there is some creativity (you have to do and make things), there is some listening (a woman speaks into your ears through headphones the whole time, guiding your path), and there is some play. The VR is only one part of what happens in the midst of the green curtains, the sand and the mysterious being that is your partner.
Q: I saw a trailer for ‘The Collider’ that describes it as ‘an intimate experience about power.’ What does this experience offer in an age of Me Too, Brexit and so many power struggles/abuses?
A: In the development of the piece, we were trying to get away from grand pronouncements about power and focus much more on the personal experiences we have all had – the experiences in which the sensation of having or not having power could be seen or felt.
Broad political dynamics are remote. Remembering when the presence of someone froze you solid, or someone else seemed to be willing to do anything at all that you asked of them – these are the granular moments where power is visible. We are always interested in drawing lines between broad themes and individual experience in this way. Without some flavour of the personal, it’s hard to relate in a meaningful or nuanced way to a political debate. How would I understand the #MeToo movement – whoever I am – without some sense of what it might mean for me, personally?
Q: ‘The Collider’ is a two-person experience. I read a review that said it’s best to experience with a stranger. What do you feel is the best way – whether it be with a stranger or a certain mindset – to venture into the ‘The Collider’?
A: As with real life, it very much depends on the chemistry in the room – you’ll have a different time depending on whether you go through with a friend or a stranger, but it isn’t about better or worse.
At the first staging of the piece, we came away thinking it was better to do with a good friend or partner because you are more willing to take the interactions between you further, and there is comedy and joy to be found there. Yet, more recently, we’ve been touched by the experiences that strangers have had together – the curious new meetings that form a relationship in a totally unique way! It more depends on who you are, rather than what we think is best.
In terms of a mindset – being open-minded is the most important place to start from, and perhaps a little bit cheeky.
Q: What is the creative starting point for a project like ‘The Collider’?
A: The Collider has two roots – one of them thematic, one of them simply an observation of something that happens when in VR. We are always interested in being brutally honest about what is going on in the room –rather than trying to fake or force a level of engagement that denies the reality of how it feels to do something. We try to lean into the real – possibly because of our background in documentary film.
At various film festivals, we had observed and taken part in VR screenings where there would be a strange and comedic process of sitting in a chair, talking to an usher, putting on a headset, banging into someone sitting nearby, getting shocked by the light when someone else took the headset off your head… all the parts of the process that were incredibly important but ignored by the pieces of work themselves. So, we wanted to make something that would acknowledge the real world surroundings – and play with the dissonance between what’s going on inside VR and what’s going on outside VR.
We also had a few funny moments when playing with the Vive with the headset on, when someone would hand one of us a pair of controllers. As they floated towards you, you’d get a sense of a person beyond these disembodied graphic forms, through the movement they made and when you reached out and took them. It spoke of something – something about the presence of someone else, and the combination of their proximity and distance. We soon discovered that chasing someone around who has the controllers produces a funny sort of game, and we went from there.
Thematically, we were curious about making something for two people where what happens in the room between the pair is the subject of the piece… and, being a pair of people who make things together, we are always interested in relationships and how to deal with them!
Q: How do those ideas then develop and transition into the more concrete technological side of the project?
A: Our creative process is fast, playful and often doesn’t involve much complicated tech for quite a long time. We spend a lot more time on thinking about what is the right interactive action, what is the right narrative framing, how can you give something meaning by putting it in a particular order.
We come from documentary film and interactive game design – so in some ways, the process of trying things out and observing what happens to people as they do it has grown out of those creative disciplines. We are still quite new to VR. We always try to test often and early – with people who are fresh to the project, so we can get a good measure of how it really works, rather than how we wish it would work.
Q: VR experiences are still quite alien to most people. Is it still a challenge to make a VR project that has artistic merit and isn’t just something gimmicky?
A: Making anything at all is a huge challenge! Artistically, financially, emotionally… each project is very demanding. In a sense, what matters most about art vs gimmick is just to be honest about what you think is fun or meaningful. It’s very easy to lie to yourself in a creative process – to think that something is good because you want it to be, or to avoid the fact that actually it’s derivative or not making the most of the medium.
Multidisciplinary teams really help – where there are people whose priorities are not making a cool piece of VR but making something that moves people.
Q: I’ve read many reviews of ‘The Collider’ that spoke about the incredible impact it had on them as an individual, whether it was a ‘mindfuck’ or left them crying. Have you witnessed any standout reactions to the experience?
A: We have had a lot of different responses. Some really moved, some really awkward, some really funny… and it’s important to say that we are open to all of these – if you feel awkward, feel it! It is good fun being the stage manager operating the backstage machinery when you hear laughter and squeals – there are moments where really anything could happen, and we love it when people respond creatively.
I’m remembering a particular moment when two tall Dutch men were having a great time and squealing a lot. We are particularly touched when people relate what’s happening inside The Collider to something in their own life – and then spend time afterwards talking that over. Several people said to us that they spent many hours following the experience in the company of their partner – some of them strangers, some of them old friends. That’s really satisfying, when you feel that what you’ve made has somehow forged a connection between people.
Q: Could either of you enjoy or appreciate ‘The Collider’ experience after being so immersed in the creative process?
A: Every time we test a new tweaked version of it, we still try to dance around as much as possible! I also really love the little figurines that you make a scene with in the first part, and I wouldn’t get bored of making new scenes. It’s play – so it depends more on your mood than on whether you’ve done it before.
Q: Can you tell us about the background of Anagram and where this started for you both?
A: Anagram started because the two of us were good friends, working in documentary film and very curious about other ways we could build or tell stories. We were living in London and the immersive theatre scene was really kicking off. Of course, the music festival scene had also been a great testing bed for all sorts of strange games and activities for many years. We had never seen anything that used non-fiction though – and the first piece that we made was a big experiment in making a non-fiction interactive experience that played to the body and sensation as much as the mind and the visual.
We had both been looking around for the perfect theme for an interactive piece – a theme where we could build an interactive narrative around the meaning AND physically build something – a theme that would bring form and meaning together. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide To Getting Lost was kicking around, and a few sentences really jumped out: “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” We became really excited by the idea of tricking people into getting lost – in a nice, gentle way – so that when they emerged out the other end of the piece, they would have had a tangible experience of the theme that the piece was exploring.
We were interested in something that would be impossible in a cinematic or listening experience; something physical, happening in time and space. These were the ideas that formed the piece Door Into The Dark – which won the Tribeca Storyscapes award and was selected for the Columbia Digital Dozen in 2015. They became the fundamental building blocks for how we operate.
Six years later, everything we make is trying to do this – to make something happen physically in mind and body, in time and space. We often use more documentary audio than is in The Collider, as we still love the rough realness of that sort of content.
Q: How do you see the VR and interactive storytelling space evolving in the coming years?
A: The big challenge for the VR space at the moment is trying to get the distribution of good, interesting work sorted out. We need to build new institutions and organisations that enable this work to be accessible to bigger audiences – and with that innovation, to develop a better financial model based on demand. Without this, the industry cannot grow or support its practitioners to continue to make good work.
There is some growth in this area currently, but the lack of a broad range of presentation opportunities is adversely affecting the small companies – like us – who are doing the real experimental work. With such a young medium, this sort of work is essential as everyone is still trying to find out what is fun and interesting to do in VR. This work won’t happen if there aren’t real, financially viable opportunities to show it to people!
Creatively, we hope that people will keep experimenting – we need to break away from the language of film and think about how the feedback loop of experience (I do this, X happens…) in VR works. The real space for growth is in new ideas for interactivity – unless it is an extraordinarily brilliant piece, it gets a bit stale when it is just used as a passive 360 solitary screening space.
We also desperately need better tools that are easier to use – as the production pipeline at the moment is irritating and slow, which prevents a broader range of creatives from getting involved. Anagram have been doing some development work in that area – watch this space!
Q: Lastly, what does it mean to you both to bring ‘The Collider’ to the 2019 Venice Film Festival?
A: It is a huge honour to be selected for the “best of 2019”, we are over the moon! We are very curious to see how Italian and European audiences respond – so far, the difference between Dutch, American and Chinese has been fascinating. Hopefully we’ll also eat some nice pasta.