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War of Words Dev Talks Visualising War, VR Poetry, BBC Support

It’s possible to talk about what virtual reality (VR) can do for certain media for days on end. Obviously videogames are the focus at this point in time, though movies are starting to become more prominent. Then there’s music, where certain artists are dabbling with the technology. But what about arguably the most creative medium of them all? What about poetry?


This month VR fans were treated to their first glimpse of a poem visualised in VR. That poem was The Kiss from celebrated World War 1 solider and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Teaming up with the BBC, digital design and direction agency BDH has created War of Words VR, a free Android app for use with the likes of Google Cardboard. This is easily one of the most inventive uses of the technology yet. Thus, VRFocus spoke to BDH’s John Durrant about the project, how it came about, and what could be in store for the future.

VRFocus: How did this collaboration with the BBC come about?

John Durrant: BDH have enjoyed a really exciting relationship with BBC Arts for about 15 years or so now. We’ve worked closely on a number history projects, Seven Ages of Rock, a history of Rock ‘n Roll, British Style Genius about the UK’s fashion industry and more recently Tomorrow’s World’s, a history of science fiction.

This latest project War of Words Soldier-Poets of The Somme is a feature-length documentary for BBC2. In an unusual step we invited the director Seb Barfield into our edit suite, to work closely alongside our animation and graphics studios.

The film was ambitious and had many graphic elements; animated poetry, names positioned into the landscape, many maps and original photographs. Seb had filmed the Somme area using aerial drones and it was essential to position the soldier poets into the actual positions they held in the battlefield.

As the editing began the poems were chosen to help weave the 90 minute story together. The animated poetry was part funded by BBC Learning and were chosen with one eye on the National Curriculum in schools.

VRFocus: How did the collaboration work? Did the BBC already know the scene and visuals it wanted BDH to create?

John Durrant: Once a poem had been chosen our senior animator, Paul Greer drew scribbled very rough visuals, discussing treatments openly with the team. Eventually he worked them into guide 3D models in Maya for the edit. The editor, Stuart Davis, then read the poems (as best he could before the professional actor!) and we started building the scenes and sequences and adding the artwork. Other elements, texture and fluid particles and effects etc. were added to the animations in After Effects.

VRFocus: How difficult is it to visualise a poem such as The Kiss in this way?

John Durrant: It was fluid and creative process. Allowing the draft animations to be cut and edited and then reanimating them to a new reading meant that each time the work became tighter. Once we had the final reading by actor Philip Perry, the pace and emphasis of movement was then tightened further. In the VR version we had replicate the FX in unity and the 3D lighting gave the scenes a whole new, rich element.

VRFocus: How did it differ from your work on The Somme in Seven Poems?

John Durrant: The Kiss is the first of the Seven Poems and we went through the same process with all of them. However The Kiss is an especially interesting piece because it’s written before Sassoon had seen any fighting and so it bristles with a patriotic aggression. I don’t think we associate that sort of aggressive spirit with the First World War, the act of Remembrance or the mind of a poet. The horror of battle changed everything for Sassoon, who eventually turned his brilliant writing against the pro-war establishment.

VRFocus: How does VR help this experience stand out from what’s being shown in the BBC programme?

John Durrant: War of Words VR is a compliment to the programme and built as a promotion for this extraordinary film, in this year of Remembrance, 100 years from the start of WW1. Everyone we’ve shown it to loves it. Partly because VR is an unexpected medium for poetry but also the feeling of immersive violence animated from the viewer’s POV. You are holding a gun of a killer but also a poet.

The War of Words VR is a world of an ink and paper and so works brilliantly with the texture of Google Cardboard. They compliment each other.

VRFocus: How long did it take BDH to develop The Kiss scene?

John Durrant: Once we realised the 3D models built form Maya could be imported into Unity we realised the full potential of merging animations for television and the virtual world. It’s taken about 2 months for just the VR product.

VRFocus: Is there a chance we could see other poems that have been featured in the BBC programme get VR adaptions?

John Durrant: It’s the first VR app for a BBC project. They are obviously very interested in making more. It’s been a wonderful and an unexpected surprise what VR brings to poetry. Poems are a compression of written emotion if you like? In a way they are an old-form of new, short-form media – a literary Youtube clip if you like? The team at BDH are very excited by the unexpected use of the VR technology for immersive events and we’re working on more surprises.

VRFocus: When can we expect War of Words VR to arrive on iOS?

John Durrant: Fingers crossed War of Words VR will be available in a week or so. iPhone first and then iPad.

VRFocus: Is there any chance of the experience coming to PC with Oculus Rift support?

John Durrant: Thanks for your enthusiasm. We’d really like to talk to our audience about the experience on the phones first and see where it takes us.

VRFocus: Will BDH keep working with VR in the future?

John Durrant: Definitely and we’re working on more and more ‘immersive’ projects these days. We’ve recently finished work on a set of 40 metre wide films for Sega and their Orbi ‘virtual zoo’ in Tokyo. It has a 3D audio system, underfloor transducers, smoke and scent-effects, the lot!

We’ve only started to realise the potential with VR and we’ve had a lot of interest. We’re looking forward to more options that don’t require wearing a mask!

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