Canadian film and virtual reality director Paisley Smith talks about her VR work Homestay which features in DocLab this year.
Canadian film and virtual reality director Paisley Smith's VR work Homestay is a textbook example of how so often in documentary less means more. The virtual story, which is one of the projects on display at IDFA’s DocLab exhibition this year, revolves around the tale of a Japanese exchange student who took his own life while living in Smith’s family home.
To the outside world, Taro seemed to have adjusted to life away from Japan, so his tragic death was a shock to the filmmaker and her family, who are continuing to come to terms with what happened to this day.
Smith has created a meditative work placing the viewer for much of the time in the calming backdrop of a traditional Japanese garden, captured as a simple 3D linear representation created out of paper cut-out imagery, as well as her family home, reconstructed in a similar linear fashion.
The artist explains she modelled the main backdrop on Japanese gardens near her home in Vancouver where she would sit as she grappled with how to translate what had happened into a piece of art. "I knew I wanted to tell the story and work in VR, although it didn't urgently start in that way. In the beginning, I thought maybe it would make a film or a graphic novel.”
"I would go to the Japanese gardens by my house to try to figure out what the story was going to be and how to use the VR medium to full capacity. It was really challenging.”
She credits her commissioning editors, Robert McLaughlin and Loc Dao at the National Film Board of Canada, for giving her the time and support to pull the project together. “They have been really patient with me as an artist coming to terms with story at the same time as making it. It's personal and not exactly a walk in the park.”
Smith’s knowledge of VR and how it could be used as a storytelling medium stemmed from the time she spent working for VR pioneer and guru Nonny de la Pena at the Los Angeles-based Emblematic Group while a student at USC. "Working with Nonny, I really got an understanding of the medium. We would travel a lot, showing pieces, running people through what to expect and then, when they came out, having these really amazing conversations."
“For me, the most interesting part is not how people interact with the technology but how they are when they come out of it and had just experienced something, physically and emotionally, and just wanted to have a conversation.”
“That's something that has always been a spark for me. As an artist, you're looking for those moments where people connect and want to have conversations. That’s what got me excited about the medium."
Smith also cites the work of Oscar Raby — whose work Assent recapturing a tragic memory of Chile in 1973 was showcased at DocLab — as a source of inspiration for the way in which he pioneered the exploration of emotion and personal story-telling through VR.
The stripped-down representation of the garden and Smith’s family home took time to take shape, as did the actual monologue storyline based on Smith’s own retelling of what happened.
“Originally, I had interviews with all my family, Taro's friends and teachers as well as mental health experts and people involved in exchange programmes,” she explains.
“At one point, I even thought about presenting it as a gaming world in which the viewer would interact with bits of Taro’s life, but I decided I didn’t want so many voices and that it had to be told in a personal way.”
The disorienting, simplistic representation of reality, says Smith, captures the sense of alienation that Taro must have felt as he navigated his way around life in Canada.
“One of the most exciting aspects of VR is exploring new worlds and putting the audience in a place that they don't understand. It is an homage to being an actual exchange student in a new culture.”
She notes it is also a comment on how all virtual reality worlds are essentially fake. “We put so much meaning into being in these virtual reality spaces, but ultimately it’s not real, it's all fake and that's the whole VR industry. It’s lonely. We’re not in the garden with anyone else. We're alone.”