Time travel is captivating because the past illuminates so much about present reality. What if we didn’t have to wait for time travel to exist? Could we use emerging technology to create an immersive memory? One that would place us directly in the soles of soldiers of the past, so that we could better understand the reality we live in?
That was the spark for War Remains. Designed as a collaborative project, the experience brought together Flight School Studio, MWM Immersive and Skywalker Sound with legendary podcaster Dan Carlin. Dan’s captivating work on Hardcore History has resulted in one of the most listened to podcasts of all time. It resonates with audiences because it illustrates the power and continuing relevance of the past.
War Remains combines VR with practical effects (floor rumblers, wind and haptics), and a constructed physical set to take audiences right into a trench positioned at the Western Front of the First World War. It is nearly impossible to recreate the experience of soldiers fighting at the front lines; however, VR presents a new opportunity to provide closer context to an audience 100 years removed from the horrors of this war.
One goal is to help audiences understand that our contemporary landscape is shaped by a generation of traumatized survivors. War Remains aims to build empathy and understanding of the nightmarish realities of war through firsthand, virtual experience.
By utilizing Dan’s unconventional approach, the experience makes the nightmares of war easier to imagine, through VR, sound design and audio storytelling. In merging together a physical set and virtual world, the installation goes beyond just what you see, tapping into what you hear and feel.
How Far Is Too Far?
One of the strongest mandates from Dan was that this experience should truly place the audience directly in the trenches, among the unfettered horror. We needed to tap into what he calls the “lizard brain” and make a participatory impact. Creatively, this meant the team needed to push beyond what felt like a videogame and into an uncomfortable place. That lead us to ask: how far is too far? Can we take audiences right up to the edge of a traumatic experience?
This led us to reject the idea of, say, incorporating the smell of burning, rotting bodies and rather, lean into other elements like floor rumblers and immersive sound design. In order to create a truly visceral impact, our sound team from Skywalker Sound needed to balance historic realism and audience expectations of what a war scene “should” sound and feel like. To create a bodily, visceral experience of artillery shelling, gunfire, and tank impact, we coupled transducers and floor shakers to accentuate the low-frequency sound design.
For maximum impact, we fine tuned intensity, duration, and visuals which took cues from Skywalker Sound’s past experience in film sound design. Too intense: it may overpower users. Too brief a duration: it doesn’t feel quite real. It was a delicate balance between keeping Dan’s narration at the forefront, managing audience expectations of what war sounds/feels like and deep immersion.
That balance also shaped visual development, as our artists tackled environments, assets and characters. We combed hellish photographs of trenches and soldiers for the details that not only insured historical accuracy but also built an immersive, believable world. So, while images from history books and war-time photography became essential reference material, we also looked to artists who found themselves at the Western Front and among the war-torn landscapes of WWI.
War Remains director, Brandon Oldenburg was drawn to the works of Paul Nash, a British surrealist painter whose entire unit was killed on the Western Front. George Leroux who served in the French Army – also at the Western Front – influenced visual development, and our art team referenced the toxic color, haunting light and ominous mood of his iconic works. This was the perfect match for the gritty, uncompromising narration from Dan Carlin; however, we were still missing a tangible, touchable environment to fully transform a virtual reality experience into an immersive memory.
Prototype and Production
The War Remains physical build out had clear parameters. Not only did it need to support the creative vision, but it also needed to be historically accurate, immersive and smartly built for touring to Tribeca and Austin, TX, where it is now until October 19. For initial prototyping, we mocked up structures at Flight School’s studio space with cardboard to plan layout and construction.
As we moved from cardboard to placeholder wood walls and finally into the fully-constructed trench set, our biggest challenge was figuring out how to match our digital and physical sets one-to-one. To that end, in most cases, Flight School would build sections of the set in Unreal, then send the FBX data to Built By Bender, our fabrication partner, who constructed the actual physical set. The process involved a lot of back-and-forth iteration to discover what was possible, what needed to be moved, and what kind of level of detail we could realistically achieve.
Throughout this process, the ability to maintain tracking between the VIVE Pro headset, wireless sensors, and the VIVE Base Stations was paramount, due to the installation being almost completely surrounded by 6-foot, dense trench walls. Built By Bender was able to fabricate a robust mounting system that helped us work around it. The results is a seamless one-to-one installation that provides tactile feedback that makes the experience feel much more immersive, since users can reach out and feel the textures of trench walls, objects and other surprising elements
VR: Time Machine or Immersive Memory?
VR has the power to make people feel present within a specific moment in time but it’s more powerful than a time machine if experiences can reshape our understanding of our current world. If War Remains can help people feel present within the trenches, it can help them better understand what people went through in the First World War and how war affects us today. When we connect with War Remains’s audience, it’s most rewarding to hear how it has impacted others. The most profound and meaningful feedback comes from our guest book, which includes this note:
“I wanted to see this to get some of what my grandfather, who fought on the Western Front in WWI, must have gone through. This glimpse was terrifyingly real and I wish I could tell him how sorry I am for what he endured.”