When it comes to creating fulldome art the rules are still being written, and it is artists like the ones with 4Pi Productions who are doing that writing. Since 2012 Matt Wright and Janire Najera have been developing 360º immersive art experiences through their interactive arts organization, Urban Reaction Research Lab (URRL). Through URRL, they started The Dance Dome, a mobile projection dome platform. Touring to different locations, events, and festivals, they showcase their 360° films which utilize dance and choreography to tell vivid and imaginative stories. The Dance Dome project has led to two short fulldome films, The Sublime and The Beautiful, as well as a long format film, Pal o’ Me Heart. Currently they are expanding their expertise in 360º media production with their company, 4Pi Productions. Most recently they have created yet another defining fulldome dance film called Liminality. This film was a collaborative exploration of contemporary dance between Wales and India, developed as part of 2017's UK / INDIA Year of Culture. Liminality was also the recipient of the JANUS Award for the “Best Fulldome Short Film” at the 12th FullDome Festival in Jena, Germany this year (2018).
In this artist highlight, we’ll hear from Matt Wright about what inspires himself and Janire Najera to create art for the fulldome, how the collaborations that have led to their films came about, what they believe the future of fulldome art is, and more!
Tell us a bit about your background leading up to Dance Dome.
Janire & myself met in the early 2000’s whilst at University in the rural Welsh countryside where we were both studying Photography at the renowned University of Wales, Newport. Janire was a trained journalist and had decided to study documentary photography to further her storytelling capabilities and I was studying photographic art, concentrating even then on 360º imagery and its creative applications. We soon began collaborating, supporting each others creative practice and developing projects and platforms where we could combine our skill sets and creative ambitions.
It wasn’t long before we started a multi-disciplinary artistic project responding to the loss of the European Steel industry and how this affected the communities left behind. The project, entitled Ghosts in Armour developed over a 5 year period, eventually resulted in around 40 international artists creating new work, a book being published, over 14 exhibitions in multiple countries (including at European Parliament) and then towards the end, our investment in a 7m dome so that we could place people digitally within the environments captured as part of the project. In total this project reached over a million people and it made us committed to continued collaboration as It had made us both aware of the fact that whatever we set our combined minds to, we could achieve.
Ghosts in Armour lead us into new territories of digital exploration and soon we were running an organisation called Urban Reaction Research Lab, which allowed us to work internationally with fellow digital designers and artists creating unique audience engagement activity which ranged from Interactive Audio Visual Tricycles, Projection Mapping Projects & further Interactive Dome Installations. Around this time we also began working closely with various Dance Companies here in Wales, Providing creative documentation services, stage design and environmental projections for live performances.
In 2013 we decided it made sense to formalise our collaboration and 4Pi Productions was founded.
4Pi is an independent production studio where we work on projects that range from multi-touch heritage experiences, 3D Scanning & Virtual Tour Creation for the commercial and cultural sector, interactive art installations, projection mapping, various video production services, timelapse & fulldome capture, equipment and studio hire, 360º site specific installations, photography, show creation, and of course all things dome related, from content creation all the way through to event planning and delivery.
What inspired you to create fulldome films in the first place, was it an event or other experience that you had with domes?
Basically, we love being creative and are driven by making experiences that reach out to audiences in innovative ways. Our first few dome installations were all interactive and based around immersive still imagery augmented with standard aspect video over the top. In 2012, to make better use of the domes unique storytelling canvas we wanted to explore more cinematic experiences and our love of capturing dance seemed a perfect subject matter so we began the Dance Dome Platform with the aim of trying to engage more people with contemporary dance.
Back then there were not many films for the dome that used live capture techniques as it was so limited technologically and inhibitively costly. Luckily for us we don’t shy away from challenges so set off quite happily (and maybe a little naively) to explore the possibilities in this emerging medium. Fundamentally we have always been more rooted in reality capture rather then CGI, so with the dome and dance contacts it seemed a sensible route to follow the normal path, and rather to strike off on our own into new territory.
We have always been most interested in where physical and digital realities intersect so even in the early beginnings of the project we had visions of developing a live immersive performance in a dome, and we’ve pretty much grafted towards this goal since we started producing the first short fulldome films. This year we finally realised this dream when we undertook an artistic residency at Society of Arts & Technology to turn our recent fulldome film Liminality into a multimedia piece with 360º live captured cinematography, contemporary dance and live music.
I think we have both always been attracted towards more immersive filmmaking styles. Expansive large format captures or viewing mediums (such as IMAX) or exhibition installations, and we’re both drawn towards and inspired by documentaries and natural world footage (films like Baraka for example) so it really doesn’t surprise me that with my love of 360º and Janire’s natural social inquisity and thirst for documentation that we ended up in the wonderful world of Fulldome. I was fortunate enough to visit both the Epcot centre and France’s Futuroscope at an early age and no doubt subconsciously played into my excitement within this field.
It is my understanding that your original plan was to make a trilogy of short films, however you ended up with two and a longer film. Can you talk about how that happened?
In 2012 we wanted to create a trilogy of short films, The Beautiful, The Sublime, and The Sinister. But as hard as we tried we had simply bitten off more than we could chew! The third project unfortunately didn’t come into reality due to a variety of technical challenges during production combined with the incredibly low budgets we were trying to work with, basically something had to give and unfortunately The Sinister was the most demanding technically from what we were attempting at that time. So we ended up with two short films instead. The second of these, The Sublime, was awarded an innovation award at Domefest in 2012 for our cinematography and technical accomplishments and this helped us greatly in securing support towards a longer film’s production the following year.
This was basically an adaptation of a pre-existing award winning dance show by the Welsh dance company Earthfall, which itself was based on the award winning novel ‘At Swim Two Boys’ by the Irish author Jamie O'Neill. Due to the nature of this new project, entitled Pal O Me Heart, we felt it needed a longer screen time to help narrate this complex story (without spoken word- to try and increase accessibility) and thus we created a 22 minute piece which was quite a step up in production values from our first two shorter works.
It was during the creation of Pal O Me Heart that we discovered how hard it is to create an immersive live captured piece that is inspired in the past. Filming in 360º and moving a camera smoothly enough at the best of times is hard but finding locations that we could shoot at that were free or only had minimal modern urban features and, as such, could fit within the period of the piece, was incredibly complex.
After producing four fulldome films, what are the biggest challenges you see for artists wanting to get into fulldome?
Without experiencing the transformative power of the dome it's difficult to be inspired enough to commit to the hurdles needed to be overcome to produce for the medium, It's even harder, if when you are hooked you have no way of testing out and learning as you create. Domes need to be more accessible and greater in number and luckily the overall excitement towards immersive technologies is helping significantly in lowering the price of entry into this arena. More dome gatekeepers need to be more open minded (like yourself) to champion and support this medium’s growth and accessibility.
The cultural industries are continually squeezed from all sides and at the best of times you may get one application in 20 actually funded. Even then Fulldome is still an expensive medium to play within. It's getting better all the time but due to the complexities in creating a fulldome piece and all the post-production needed projects tend to last for a minimum of a few months, and as such you need a degree of financial backing and be really committed before you start.
With 'Liminality', you guys attempted some technically challenging things that haven’t been done in fulldome before. Can you describe some of those things and your thoughts on how they turned out?
One of the main creative elements we really wanted to explore with Liminality was capturing the world’s first fulldome timeslice sequence. Timeslice was first conceived by Tim McMillan just across the water from us here in Cardiff in Bristol. It is the act of capturing a moment in time from multiple perspectives and then representing these back to the viewer in sequence so that you feel like you are moving through space around the subject.
I had wanted to play with this technique as far back as 2013 but each year, and each new production would come and go and the technology simply wasn't available at an achievable price to even attempt capture. Luckily for us, a lot has changed in the last three years and this time round we decided due to the complexities of shooting in India and in tourist heavy locations that a more discreet and thus small solution was necessary. For the timeslice we ended up using 28 cameras in a 4m diameter ring and captured on all simultaneously whilst the dancers performed a set routine within. By capturing multiple dancers performing the same choreography within the fixed array at a number of locations we were able in post production to cut sequences where we can transport the viewer (or dome audience in this case) around the subject matter frozen in time and then, in addition, jump cut and transport between different dancers and locations whilst having a constant choreography.
We're pretty stoked with what we have achieved exploring this technique already but we are only on the tip of the creative iceberg. There is so much potential in this technique still to explore. Something tells me we still have hours to invest in this unique technique. for example, we have the ability to change the orientation of the view at any time as we reposition within the space. Ideally, I would like to try and source another 30 cameras so that we have slightly more source time to play with as currently one complete 360º revolution around the subject is only 1 second of source and doubling this to two would make the effect much smoother and thus translate better into the dome.
Since you’ve been involved in the fulldome world, what growth have you seen happen in this community? What growth have you not seen that you think should happen?
The industry has definitely grown since we began this journey but still is a bit niche. VR is definitely helping to develop the medium and to make more accessible the capture of live footage. Also there has been an increase in the number of film festivals that are including in their programmes screenings at their local planetariums.
But ultimately we need more spaces around the world that are open for experimentation within the digital arts and the live arena to create a solid network that can share content and resources. In truth, i'm surprised we are not seeing more immersive spaces springing up everywhere, but no doubt it will happen soon!
What do you see for the future of fulldome and more specifically fulldome art?
I think the tools of storytelling are destined to constantly evolve. AR, VR, MR & Immersive Experiences are just the modern day petroglyph, novel or radio signal. Ways for humans to share stories and experiences, together. I can definitely see more resolution, more natural tracking, more blurring of the boundaries between the virtual and the real. VR in my mind still needs the most work but the entire shift and upsurge in the industry is good for all, the technologists, consumers and creatives alike. It seems like everything imaginable could become possible and it is an exciting time to think big and dig small.
What is your advice for artists who want to create dome art?
The standard cliches… Don’t give up, Take on as much advise as you can (and then ignore whatever you want), experiment, experiment, experiment.
Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and ask for support. Its an amazingly tight community driven by passion for the medium so people will often go above and beyond to support others in the same field. Also, as always… don’t think just what the technology enables, but rather what experience the audience deserves, and thus what technology deserves to be used rather than can be used.
Also….. less is more, but nothing is too much!
You also do a lot of work with immersive art that is not in the dome, can you talk a bit about those projects?
We do a lot of very different things here at 4Pi from long form documentary photography projects to short term installation artworks. We work with the creative community and corporate sector to extend audience experiences and we are often juggling very alternative productions across genres and mediums. We have recently launched a new platform entitled CULTVR which uses emerging immersive technologies to extend audiences engagement with Welsh Cultural activity. (You can see more of this at www.cultvr.cymru) We are also hoping to invest in a new large dome soon to facilitate a semi permanent immersive arts space here in Cardiff.
One of the most interesting and innovative things we produce and support here at 4pi is my continued development and deployment of the unique photosphere medium. Photospheres are large scale high-definition high-dynamic range site specific spherical sculptures. I have been producing and installing these across the world since 2005.
Basically they are a physical sculpture that shows a spherical captured viewpoint. These 360º photographic sculptures are then placed back in their original point of capture, presenting back to audiences a reflection of the past within the reality of the present.
The spheres continue to captivate audiences worldwide and we very much look forward to creating a longer fulldome documentary work that explores this creative medium further, especially given that both artforms are so closely related.
You can see examples of the photospheres at www.relics360.com or by checking out this three channel film which shows the Relics spheres in situ.
Any other thoughts about immersive media and art?
Please make more of it! Support it, Visit It, engage in it and question it… also, please send us an invite!
To learn more about Matt Wright, Janire Najera, and their projects visit their website, www.4piproductions.com, give them a like on Facebook, or follow them on Instagram or Twitter.