Night Creatures

FIVARS 2023: Spotlight on Night Creatures

Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine Night Creatures is an augmented reality experience celebrating the energy, connection, and intimacy of the film festival queue via animated cinema-goers who take the form of fruit bats.

Eight well-dressed stop-motion puppets talk to you about their favourite films, connection to subcultures, cinema experiences that shaped them, best film snacks, and many other interesting and moving stories. FIVARS had a chance to speak with directors Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine.

What led to the creation of this piece?

We were commissioned by Melbourne International Film Festival, supported by philanthropist Ling Ang, to create an XR work about film and the city, and were struck by the idea that the physical space that connects the cinema to the city is the queue. It’s also the place where people are often talking about films, sharing recommendations and are in the social and mental in-between space between the city and the cinema.

We wondered: if we were making work about the queue, why not present it IN the queue as well? A large part of our practice explores the possibilities of blending physical and screen worlds, creating immersive animation work. Augmented reality (AR) was the perfect form to bring these reflections and stories into the same space as the viewer, creating an intimate personal experience.

Why bats? The bulk of festival goers come out at night, like our beloved bats who take to the skies over Naarm/Melbourne each evening, chattering above our heads while we stand in queues to see films.

Night Creatures

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

It was quite a tricky puzzle! We recorded interviews with real-life cinema goers which we edited down to 1 minutes, then created bat puppets for each characters by hand using felt, armature wire and miniature clothes. We animated each puppet against a green-screen that we then composited out to create the character animations against a transparent background.

We worked with creative technology company Art Processors to create a custom interface and a WebAR site on 8th Wall using A-Frame, so that the experience could be viewed in any mobile device using a browser with no downloads required.

The process was quite challenging and took some experimentation to make the augmented reality performed in an intuitive way and to maintain our hand-made aesthetic. We learnt a lot about compression and tweaking Javascript! We’re really happy with the results.

Night Creatures

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

We’ve always experimented with new technologies, beginning with creating interactive Quicktime and Director installations in the late 90s. We’re both drawn to technology and its possibilities, and there’s something about combining interactivity and immersive environments with stop-motion animation which is a very old technology that is incredibly appealing and feels rich with possibilities.

Being able to create something new and unexpected for an audience is so transformative. We began working with VR in 2017 as soon as we encountered it and created a 360 stop-motion film Passenger in 2019.

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

There are some incredible creators in the Asia Pacific Region – it’s a small group of creators who are doing incredible things, especially Lynette Wallworth, Jess Johnson and Simon Ward and Ben Andrews and Emma Roberts.

Night Creatures

What do you have planned for the future?

We’re working on a creative XR documentary installation that will use miniatures and VR to explore flooding and the climate emergency.

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

It can be very difficult to keep making this kind of work which is both technically and conceptually challenging – but when it works and all comes together there’s nothing like it.

Do you think VR festivals like FIVARS are important?

Festivals like FIVARS as so important because they are one of the primary ways of ensuring that this kind of work continues to be made and shown.

Night Creatures

FIVARS 2023 runs in person September 15-19th in Toronto and online through October 3rd.

Night Creatures