FIVARS 2023: Spotlight on Castle Gillian: An Irish Tale

Castle Gillian: An Irish Tale is a VR musical film that tells the story of Gil Morris, a returned Irish Free Soldier, profoundly damaged by his experiences in the Second World War. He deals with his loss of faith in love and the world to save his ancestral home and its famous riding stables. FIVARS was able to catch up with the team behind this full-length VR musical film.

What led to the creation of this piece?

The creation of Castle Gillian: An Irish Tale was both a need to explore the absolute boundaries of what could be created as a passive 360˚ film as an immersive viewing experience with a live theatrical premise and a personal statement in response to the unprecedented challenges facing regional Theatre in the USA. Changing audience behaviours; in no little part due to COVID, means that professional, non-for-profit and community theatres alike are reckoning with never-before-seen dwindling in their supporter, member and subscriber base.

The film industry, concomitantly, has been facing similar struggles over the same period with the greatest impact being seen in the work of independent filmmakers and the distribution of indie films into an ever-greater restricted distribution pipeline. Nevertheless, the heart of film and theatre resides firmly in the hands of those creators and writers who have the courage to make work, in all its variety, prepared to do things differently and with the courage of their convictions.

Irrespective of its charming demeanour, the story’s themes of enduring courage in the face of unrelenting adversity, the strength of its central women characters; the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in returned veterans and the sympathetic portrayal of marginalised communities; in this case, Irish travellers, is a metaphor for the abuse we decry but rarely have the tenacity to face down to overcome.

What was the production process for you and your team? What did you learn?

The things we learned in the production of Castle Gillian: An Irish Tale are almost too numerous to list! As the film is a musical, we adopted theatrical processes throughout as the primary design aesthetic, to the point of even using a stage revolve (or turntable) to highlight three scenes that were occurring simultaneously in three different places. Equally, as opposed to using cinematic POVs, we adopted stage blocking with actor movement and re-positioning to subtly change intention and meaning within a scene. Making this effectively ‘read’ in 360˚ is quite a learning curve. However, the prevailing wisdom that drama within a 360˚ frame cannot be adequately focused due to open-world spherical environments is not valid.

Similarly, the positioning of audio and sound design is acutely different to 2D cinematic presentation. Castle Gillian was recorded in 7.1.2. audio and mixed at -24LKFS to FCC standards so that it could be presented either in true stereo or as first-order ambisonics in HMDs (where available) or, in the future, in Dolby Atmos. Finally, the one process we found upended our perceptions in positioning cameras in a 360˚ world resulted in recognizing the 180˚ rule (i.e. avoidance in crossing the line) really has no applicability (however disconcerting).

How did you become an immersive media content creator and why?

After a lifetime career of working in theatre and film, it seemed like a natural progression for us to explore the intersection of film and theatre within an immersive medium. We think the potential for the use of VR/AR/MR in creating completely new film experiences is unbounded and tremendously exciting for the future.

What is the VR/AR industry like in your region?

We are really short of XR technology specialists in Australia. Our industry training and support for VR/AR development is not adequate at the present time.

What do you have planned for the future?

Now that we know how to produce and execute feature-length work for immersive viewing, we are intending to develop similar experiences in 6DoF and with role-playing attributes.

What would you like to share with fellow content creators and the industry?

The one thing we would like to share is to let other content creators know that we know what you have gone through! For creators thinking about doing immersive film, you do have a community of people who will support you along the journey. Be brave.

Do you think VR festivals like FIVARS are important?

VR festivals like FIVARS are critically important to film ecology because they foreground nascent production processes to inform future filmmakers to have the courage and freedom to explore new ways of thinking about film making and the potential to touch audiences in ways we can’t yet fully appreciate.

Castle Gillian: An Irish Tale at FIVARS runs in person in Toronto from September15-19th and online through October 3rd.