20 October 2020
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Minimum Mass : a powerful and deeply personal VR experience

Tribeca, Annecy, Venice Film Festival… Minimum Mass by Raqi Syed and Areito Echevarria has garnered a lot of attention. This VR experience, both intimate and surreal, deals with love, loss and black holes. It is the story of couple who experience a series of miscarriages and come to believe their children are being born in another dimension. The story is set in contemporary Rotorua, New Zealand and the speculative world of black holes.

We had the opportunity to talk to Raqi Syed and Areito Echevarria ; in this in-depth interview, they tell us how this VR experience was created. They also told us about their past and future projects.

3DVF : Minimum Mass is a very powerful and personal story about miscarriage and black holes. Why did you choose to tell this story in VR and not in animation or live action ?

Areito Echevarria, Writer/Director : That’s a good question. We had originally planned it as a live-action, linear story, and I think we would have finished it in about a week if we had done it that way [laughs]…

Raqi Syed, Producer/ Writer / Director : We decided we really wanted to spend 3 years working on it, so we had to do it in VR in order for it to take that long ! [laughs]

Areito Echevarria : I think it was a confluence of things. The story got some traction with the Sundance Institute, it was incubated in one of their labs, the New Frontier Lab. So there was already this idea that they thought we could do it in VR.
At the same time, we were both thinking about VR as a medium, we had done some small test projects in VR. It all just sort of clicked, this was a great opportunity to use this medium and figure out what could be done.

Raqi Syed : Back in the day, when we were working in the VFX industry on films like Avatar, there were really exciting problems to solve. Things that had never been done before : how to render water, crowds, new ways of using motion capture, and so on. That was exciting to use, we loved solving hard problems in an artistic way. And it felt like less and less of that is happening in VFX now, but VR is still entirely about solving new problems in an artistic way.
It was therefore exciting to be doing that again.

Raqi Syed
Areito Echevarria

Areito Echevarria : And I think the subject matter lends itself well to VR. In particular, just like in cinema there is this idea of “show, don’t tell”, in VR there is this question of how can you “interact and not tell”, how can you experience something without being told what you’re experiencing. And this came together with one of the goals of this project, which was to show a miscarriage from different points of view. Something that is not talked about in society. In particular, at least from my perspective, this is something men really don’t talk about at all.
So we really wanted to use this opportunity, the interactivity, to show different points of view, quite literally, in the way you experience the story.

3DVF : What was the creative process behind the writing of the story ? Did the fact that you use VR had any impact ?

Raqi Syed : We wrote it in a pretty traditional way. We were writing a series of scripts that summer, that we had started working on, and we had a backlog of ideas we wanted to explore.
The story was just about… We’re having this experience, and we’re dealing with this trauma in a way that a creative person might, by writing about it and sharing it together.
Salman Rushdie often gets asked, why do you always write about yourself, why do you always tell stories that are about you. And he explains that “well it’s me and it isn’t me”, and I feel the same way about Minimum Mass : it’s absolutely us, it came from our lived experience, but then we had to depart from that a little bit.

Areito Echevarria : Here’s one of the story elements now ! [their child enters the room – due to the pandemic, the interview was done using Zoom] We actually wrote the story before we knew we were gonna have this guy, so there wasn’t a happy ending baked in the story at the beginning.
The story did evolve over time during the writing process, but the basic story remained similar. We tried to keep it a little bit open ended, and we were certainly not trying to say “don’t worry about it, it will be a happy ending”, because that’s certainly not what happens to everybody.

Raqi Syed : I think that’s were the Sundance Story Lab was very useful for us, we gave them a very raw version of the story, which was about the hardship of the journey, and they kinda said to us : “well, you have this other personal part of story which a joyous ending, and you’re not putting it into the story, why ?”. And we asked ourselves that same question. The story was written in the dark moment of the experience, and the Lab pushed us to “go beyond the page”, to open up the story to a wider audience.

Areito Echevarria : And then there’s also the characterization that the performers brought to the piece, Frankie Adams [who plays Rabia in the VR experience] and Allan Henry [who plays Sky] brought a lot to the characters and changed the story as well. When we were shooting and doing the final mocap with Frankie and Allan, we were still writing at that time, making changes.

Raqi Syed : The Void also became this way to bring in the present. We always knew we wanted to play with time, and the Void became this obvious choice, the way to move through time and allow our present and future selves to interject into the story.

3DVF : Does this open ending, the fact that everything hasn’t been told mean that there could be a sequel ?

Areito Echevarria : Yes, we think it’s an interesting world that would be great to explore some more. The characters as well. We thought about that a lot, actually.

3DVF : The story is told using dioramas with rough edged, as if those were fragmented memories, pieces of a dollhouse. How did you end up using this approach ?

Raqi Syed : There were both practical and thematic reasons.
Very quickly we realized that we couldn’t build a 360° environment at a high fidelity resolution/level and still render in stereo. We therefore had to limit the footprint, and this became the diorama.
From a thematic perspective, something very special happens when you do things at a miniature scale and you allow yourself to hold these characters and these precious lives in your hands. When we started playing with scale, we found that the feeling of it was really interesting and intimate, precious.

Areito Echevarria : The interaction with the diorama might seem kind of simple now, but it took a really long time to figure out how to do it well, to make it seamless. We always liked this idea that you could hold the characters and their world in your hand, that you could change the perspective, but it was difficult to do in a way that is intuitive and comfortable for the viewer. For example the house is too big, and the viewer starts moving it around, it becomes very uncomfortable, you get bits of the house moving in your peripheral vision. We had to figure out what was the right scale. This was a long process.

“The various stages of moving from rough layout to final map. Below left, a very simple layout of three stacked rooms that make up a medical center set. In the middle, blocking in lighting to emphasize separation of space between rooms. On the right, FX Artist Sunny Teich’s destruction and Texture Artist Sean Pickersgill’s material work which add layers of improved geometry and fine detail.”

Raqi Syed : The relationship with the physical body of the participant is another point to consider.

Areito Echevarria : Yes ; that’s one of the things I find compelling in VR : when you have characters in your personal space, your empathy with the character changes and seems much more heightened compared to other media. There’s this proximity effect, something very visceral happens.
We worked a lot on this idea, with the characters moving forward and back, in and out of your space, and the fact that you can move into their space, depending on how you want to experience the story.
It’s actually something we found very interesting, when watching people do the experience : some people really want to get into the characters’ personal space, some people want to get out of their personal space. The comfort level varies quite a lot between people.

3DVF : The fact that the viewer can interact with the dioramas also means that there’s no constraints on the camera. How did this affect the creative process, for example at the layout stage ?

Areito Echevarria : We used a few design rules to make the experience feel coherent. For example, a new scene will always start in front of you, even if you were looking away in the last scene. This way, we have an anchored point of view at the beginning of each scene, the participant always starts in the same position. We tried to make this a neutral place, where you have enough distance to take in the set, but also to feel like you’re invited to move in as well.
We also tried to stage the performance using the perimeter of the stage : when the actors/performers are at peak intensity they are on the perimeter of the stage, and the actors move away during the less intense moments. This allowed us to dial the emotion up and down.
Another thing we did along those lines : the “neutral” setting for the sound is at the starting position of each scene, and the sound will get louder if you lean in, quieter if you stand back.

Raqi Syed : As for the environments themselves, the layout and the composition of the sets, we sort of treated it like a proscenium arch in which the performance then plays out. Our first iterations were very unwieldy : an open parking lot, multiple stories, oblong sets… We found out that if you rotate this kind of set, it doesn’t feel comportable.
The deconstructive part of the sets, the actual sides and the cut-out becomes a framing device, your eye is being led into a certain area. We found that this was helping us create a sense of composition.

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