A new dawn in documentary VR? Common Ground at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

The festival’s immersive digital Alternate Realities strand was on another level this year, and the highlight was Common Ground, a half-hour virtual-reality exploration of south London’s Aylesbury Estate, a community facing demolition and regeneration. Marisol Grandon talks to its director Darren Emerson.

Marisol Grandon

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Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground (2019)

The rain was heavy at Sheffield Doc/Fest this June, bringing with it a mood more downbeat than we’ve seen for some years. Yet the dampness proved the perfect spur to get indoors and immersed in some genuinely exciting new work in the Alternate Realities strand. This year’s themes were more corporeal and introspective than ever, with multiple pieces examining what it means to be human in the 21st century.

Following the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, the advent of GDPR and growing attention to privacy and the intrusive role played by technology companies in our lives, Alternate Realities reflected the giant global awakening around our digital identities over the past year. The summit theme, Computable Sensibilities, included powerful explorations of the algorithms at work in our daily lives, controlling us and controlled by us.

The summit reached a climax with The Social Sorting Experiment, a deeply provocative live performance involving 100 audience members who, through a series of very probing questions, create an instant algorithm that organises people in order of height, influence, attractiveness and income profile, based on other people’s assumptions. You know you’ve succeeded in provocation at Sheffield when some participants walk out of the talk, which some did. The exercise succeeded in holding a mirror up to our own bias – not something everyone in Sheffield is willing to acknowledge or accept (see also: Stacey Dooley).

The Social Sorting Experiment

The Social Sorting Experiment
Credit: David Chang c/o Sheffield Doc/Fest

Several other pieces allowed us to wallow in our utter self-fascination, delving into the makeup of our DNA, digital or otherwise. The Audience Award unsurprisingly went to Algorithmic Perfumery – a system that uses personal data to create a unique scent for every visitor to take home. Echo, an interactive installation by Georgie Pinn, explored the melding of our conscious selves with humanity’s collective digital identity. And Spectre, the festival commission, provided an interactive close-up of the forces corrupting democracy, the dark ads powering Facebook and how they were used for Brexit. These pieces are all the more potent for their interactivity – there are no passive observers in these works.

The VR cinema brought interesting new 360 films too – a much under-appreciated medium in the erstwhile rush to achieve interactivity. In the Injustice and Courage strand, Accused #2: Walter Sisulu combined the simplicity of black-and-white animation with powerful archive audio – especially vivid in conveying the South African anti-apartheid struggle. For sheer cinematic ambition and real-time relevance, Traveling While Black, from the Felix and Paul studio, stood out for its commentary on the terrifying threat of violence black Americans face on a daily basis, from the 1930s to the present day.

Accused #2: Walter Sisulu trailer

Yet there was one work that set the festival alight – Common Ground, by Darren Emerson of East City Films. This 30-minute experience featuring the Aylesbury Estate in London is an urgent political documentary about social cleansing that deftly blends archive film, original interview, drone photography, interactive elements and 3D blueprints to devastating effect. What was interesting was how the piece had everyone talking – not purely about the medium but the content, the story and its impact, something rarely achieved in the realm of extended reality filmmaking. It’s truly an outstanding documentary in its own right and, despite the rainy weather outside, brought with it a sense of a new dawn in documentary VR.


Darren Emerson on Common Ground: “I wanted to understand my anxiety on the Aylesbury estate”

Marisol Grandon: Tell me about the genesis of Common Ground. Why did you choose the Aylesbury Estate as a topic for a VR documentary? Did you start developing it before or after the Grenfell disaster?

Darren Emerson

Darren Emerson

Darren Emerson: I have always been fascinated with social housing, its design, its portrayal in the media and my reaction to it as I have grown up. I come from south-east London, and went to school in New Cross not so far from where the Aylesbury stands, but I remember clearly feeling intimidated by the place and other similar estates in the area when I would visit a friend who lived there. That feeling of anxiety of being in that environment has stayed with me, and growing up I wanted to understand where that anxiety came from and demystify the image and rhetoric that often profiles places like the Aylesbury in the public consciousness.

Having made several VR documentaries about social justice issues [Witness 360:7/7, Indefinite], I turned to the housing crisis and in particular the regeneration of housing estates. I was aware of the Heygate Estate’s demolition at the Elephant and Castle and the allegations of social cleansing, and quickly found out that the larger Aylesbury Estate nearby was also going through a regeneration plan with similar controversies.

So, I started researching and developing what became Common Ground in the spring of 2017, a few days before the Grenfell disaster occurred.

The VR experience I wanted to make was always about our relationship with social housing and how that relationship has changed politically throughout the years to leave us in a housing crisis, where those most in need are being forced out of their communities by developers and the financial interests of others. To do this I wanted to make a textured, nuanced VR documentary that looked at design, politics, media portrayal and the testimony of residents to understand how we got from 1963 (when construction began) to today and its demise.

Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground has been the topic of intense discussion and debate in Sheffield. What do you make of its reception and the parallel reception of the piece at its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival? How did it differ?

I have been somewhat overwhelmed by the response to Common Ground at Sheffield, and grateful that the subject matter, along with its execution, has really resonated with the public here. It has taken me aback to see people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds getting something meaningful from the experience, both in terms of connecting with the piece as a documentary first and also enjoying how VR as a medium has helped to bring deeper resonance to it.

I had similar responses in Tribeca, which was also a fantastic experience. However, the audiences are looking for very different things at the VR Arcade, where this piece was programmed next to animations, fictional work and large-scale installations. I think for a New York audience, a VR documentary about a UK housing estate is not an obvious draw, and so it took a little bit of time and word of mouth during the festival for people to come and seek us out. Once they did the responses were similarly enthusiastic, and I had many fascinating conversations with people from the US and elsewhere who recognised the problem of gentrification, and social cleansing in their own communities and the universal nature of the themes at play in Common Ground.

I’ve described it as urgent political documentary, and you as the ‘Kate Tempest of VR’. What do you think of that description?

If Common Ground can facilitate a deeper and more urgent discussion about how we regenerate housing estates, look after our working-class communities in London and the UK, and look at the negative media portrayals of those living on low incomes, I will be very pleased indeed. The problem with VR is always: how do you get people to see it? The aim is to make sure we persevere in trying to get communities and politicians to watch it and take its themes on board. Which is no easy feat when the distribution of VR is so underdeveloped.

Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground (2019)

Given that Kate Tempest comes from Brockley in south London, where I currently live, and is an artist that tries to articulate the world around her with honesty, compassion, sensitivity and humour, I would be honoured to be compared to her.

Thirty minutes is quite a long duration for VR, but Common Ground flies by. Can you explain why you chose such a long format?

Although I never set out to make a project with a defined duration, when I took on this subject I consciously wanted to make a piece of work that would feel like a feature documentary in VR. I wanted it to contain context, history and politics, use archive in interesting ways, and contain lots of characters that you feel that you get to know more deeply. For me it was about: how do I take all the storytelling techniques I have learned in VR over five years, combine them with new ideas and add interaction and other narrative devices so that I could tell a textured and nuanced story that would deepen the audience’s understanding of the subject matter, and challenge their notions of what VR could achieve in the documentary genre?

I’ve watched it twice. Only the second time did I notice the very frightening unconscious drug addict in the stairwell. I was too busy graffitiing my name in green spray paint the first time. What do you think the interactive elements bring to this piece that the static 360 or passive flat film can’t?

The interplay between 360 and the interactive scenes was probably the most challenging aspect of the production. I wanted the experience to feel cinematic and ‘directed’, but wanted the audience to feel physically part of the space, and allow them to deepen their experience with interaction. The 360 scenes, with their three degrees of freedom, allow me to present the flow and tone of the experience that I was looking for, and also allow the audience to connect to the real residents who are talking to them. They also allow the audience to navigate the large estate, and hopefully feel by the end that they are familiar with the environment.

Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground (2019)

The interaction, on the other hand, was about allowing the audience to have more agency in the space, and to feel as if they have an effect on the environment. All of the interactions are designed around allowing the inquisitive nature of the audiences to come out (switching on the TV, pressing the button on the lift to call down the next contributor), or to deepen the archival journey within the experience (the plans portal, the newspaper) to allow the act of participation to reveal more about the space, its history and its context. That is why the interactive elements are always forewarned by the reoccurrence of the pre-visualisation drawing style we saw in the original plans for the estate that the architects produced.

The music is fantastic. What does the score bring to the piece in your view?

The opening track is by Public Image Ltd, and is called The Order of Death. It has a thumping relentless beat, and the lyric “This is what you want, this is what you get” repeating throughout. When I first heard it, I thought that it was the perfect sentiment to start this experience off with. The final track is by a band called Turtle called Daytime Television. It’s a dreamy, melancholic track that features samples of kids playing in playgrounds, and again felt like the right track to accompany the closing section of the experience.

Music always plays a big part in my work: I often find a piece of music early on that sets the tone of what I want to achieve. I dream up visual sequences to music all the time, often losing myself on public transport with my headphones on to a fictitious landscape in my mind.

Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground (2019)

How has Common Ground been received by the local community and the council?

Very well. After Tribeca we had a private view at the ASC gallery on the Aylesbury Estate, where residents and contributors, plus the local charity we worked with came to watch the piece for the first time. Everyone was super happy with their portrayal, and the inherent truth in the experience, both those on the side of regeneration and those on the anti-regeneration side.

I have to admit I was particularly nervous for that screening. Showing it at Tribeca and Sheffield is one thing, but the people on the estate would have definitely let me know if they thought it was crap.

It’s a truly authentic and original piece which – in my view – reflects a lifetime of observation from someone who knows the city well and how it is evolving. Do you think this authenticity is key to cinematic virtual reality?

I certainly believe that stories with authenticity and passion at their heart tend to make better work. This is true in all media, and VR is no different. I come from this area of London, I understand the people and its community. Many of the same influences and cultural references are shared, and I can pull those out and communicate those in way that maybe someone from a different country could not.

My work so far in VR has focussed on the people, places and stories around me: The London 7/7 bombings, indefinite detention in the UK asylum system, and now the regeneration and history of a housing estate. I feel I can represent these stories in way that offers more truth. It is vital that VR encourages diverse voices from different backgrounds that can tell their own stories. I hope that my London/UK voice is part of that tapestry.

Common Ground (2019)

Common Ground (2019)

You take a literally multilayered view of a well-known estate – it encompasses politics, social design, personal and architectural perspectives which span decades. One dimension I particularly like is the introduction of a CAD-rendered 3D space, the blueprint for the estate, which we literally approach via an aerial view before we enter the physical space in 360. Why was it important for you to blend these blueprints and sketches with the live action and drone photography?

We found the original designs and technical drawings of the estate, and I knew that I wanted to combine that with 3D modelling, photogrammetry and 360 video to understand visually the birth of what became the largest housing estate in Europe, and how it came to fall into decline. We spent a long time devising how to do that, from the sweeping animation at the beginning of the experience, match cutting designs to real life buildings, to offering the audience regular reminders of the dream and design ideals that had be part of the visualisation of this estate and others like it in the 60s and 70s. I wanted to show how the results of the decisions of those in power, be they architects, designers, politicians, planners or academics, are often only realised 50 years later, when trends and thinking have changed.

The Blair era features heavily. Why is it important to blend archive footage with these physical structures?

I made a rule pretty early in the production which I wrote on a white board in the office. Once you enter the estate you never leave it. I wanted to use archive, traditional 16:9 interviews within the experience, but did not want to cut away from the environment like you would do in a traditional documentary. Therefore the estate buildings themselves had to be the canvas on which you see most of the archive. This projection mapping within the sphere also meant I could interview contributors in different ways: in 360 standing in front of you, and also close up in a studio setting with a black backdrop. The advantage of having those close-up interviews was that we could get more of the contributors’ emotions on screen. By projecting them on the building their voices and their imagery become part of the fabric of the environment.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the experimentation of Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera, futuristic cityscapes influenced by Soviet design, Corbusier and others. To what extent do these pioneers influence your thinking in cinematic VR, if at all?

My interest in modernism and brutalist architecture did have an influence on me making this piece, and wanting to make sure that design itself was discussed within the experience, and that it wasn’t just a look at regeneration and social cleansing. I wanted people to leave the experience feeling that they had learnt something about the bricks and mortar themselves.

I recently re-watched Man with a Movie Camera at a UCL screening after editing had finished on Common Ground and I was re-energised just watching the scale of the cinematic achievement. In that film Vertov uses so many techniques, camera moves and editing flourishes that it has almost become an encyclopaedia of cinematic language. Certainly his influence could be seen in Common Ground, a piece of work where I have tried to incorporate as many cinematic and immersive techniques as possible in order to tell a story that felt both visually and sonically rich, and to push cinematic VR language.

Who are your influences in film storytelling? Adam Curtis’s Hypernormalisation also touches on the issue of luxury flats. Are you a fan?

Definitely, and in particular I like the way his films reveal to us a truth that has been born out of decisions that made far back in history, whose consequences are only being felt now. I also share a love of archive and music, which imbues his work. Maybe I would rather be the Adam Curtis of VR? I also love Errol Morris’s work, in particular Wormwood which I watched like a film-school fan boy.

I’ve always loved the early short films of Jane Campion. Her short Passionless Moments has always been a favourite of mine. It is a touching, dreamlike experience, where the audience is visiting briefly the lives of ordinary people and seeing the futility and beauty of their humanity. I’ve always wanted to make my VR version of that.

Do you have any frustrations about the exhibition of cinematic VR? It would be great for your film to be seen by as many people as possible, yet the installation/gallery experience continues to be the limiting factor in accessing these films.

I think the exhibition of VR work is getting better, and certainly Sheffield Doc/Fest has really put significant effort into looking at how we display this work outside of the film festival realm. For them and for myself the belief is that VR work should be exhibited as art and become an appointment to view. I would love this piece to gain a wider audience because it has been installed in a space where people can come at their leisure to find it, instead of the feeling right now that if you missed Tribeca or Sheffield Doc/Fest that you have blown your chance.

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