You are at a family dinner. Mum and dad have made roast beef. Older brother has brought his new girlfriend home for the first time. And little brother is trying to avoid the inevitable disaster.
As film plots go, it’s a case of so far, so generic. But the future, as that sage Jamiroquai once said, is made of virtual insanity. This is no ordinary family dinner, and this is no ordinary film.
For starters, you – yes you – are inhabiting one of the five characters via an Oculus Rift headset and earphones. Look down towards your knees, and you might find, as I did, that your body is unrecognisable. In fact, you now have the body of a middle-aged man who is swilling red wine and shovelling roast beef into his gob (the latter proving disconcerting when you've been vegetarian for 12 years).
You are quite literally in The Doghouse – a new 18-minute Danish short film/installation that plays out in front of your eyes via Oculus technology. By wearing a headset and earphones, you occupy the viewpoint of one of five characters: mum, dad, little brother, big brother or big brother's girlfriend.
You can experience (or relive: Christmas is still fresh in everyone's memory) the uncomfortable tension of a family dinner, both as a participant and an outsider. Although you have no control over the storyline or dialogue and are essentially an observer, it's a unique concept in storytelling that draws parallels with Charlie Brooker's eerie, technology-driven TV series Black Mirror, particularly its recent White Christmas special.
Back in the real world
Once the headset has been removed and I step away from the fully-set dinner table to readjust to life as a thirtysomething female journalist rather than a middle-aged, clarinet-playing Danish man, I pull The Doghouse's producer Mads Damsbo aside.
The young Copenhagen creative has produced and directed several short films in the past, but The Doghouse is his first using the Oculus technology. It was made with writer and director Johan Knattrup Jensen and Lasse Andersen of conceptual studio Dark Matters.
“We thought it would be fun to do something with someone who could write drama: Johann; someone who could stage drama: me; and someone who could use new technology and media together with a spatial installation: Lasse,” he says. “For us, this is very much an experiment. It’s challenging the ways that storytellers use media to tell their story.”
The film was shot over five days, with 80 per cent of the script remaining the same for all five characters. However, there are some occasions when a character leaves the table – as mine did – so each participant experiences the story fragmentally. To get each character's individual perspective, the actors wore a GoPro Hero3 camera affixed to a helmet, and the scenes were shot multiple times.
"We thought it was going to be really hard to shoot, and in the beginning it was, because any generation who grew up with the internet is used to being able to Google problems and figure out how to do it," Damsbo says, laughing. "That's how I've been producing and directing films; if I needed any technical knowledge, I went online. And that posed a problem, because when we went online to look for how to make a film for Oculus, there was no one who'd done anything like it. But it turned out to be really easy. Once you started, it wasn't actually that difficult because, although the technology that we have is not simple, it's quite easy to use."
Damsbo says he can't claim The Doghouse is the first film of its kind, but it is certainly one of the first with a narrative base. "A lot of people have made films, but it depends on what you class as a film," he says. "I think we're one of the first to make a multi-plot drama with an actual storyline that exceeded five minutes: a proper film, in my mind. We were one of the first, but right now everyone is making films for Oculus."
Setting The Doghouse in a real-life situation, as opposed to something fantastical or fictional, was crucial from the beginning.
“With Oculus technology, people tend to fall into a trap where producing a virtual experience becomes a lot about the exhilaration of being in a virtual world: jumping out of a plane, or looking at yourself in a mirror, things like that. In my mind, stuff like that is too banal, too simple. We thought: how do we place people in a real scenario, something that we can all relate to? So we chose a family dinner because it has this very familiar ritual; it makes for a very calm entrance into the virtual world.
"And also, the family relationships are fun, because you have different characters at different levels of life, with inter-relations between each other. We called it The Doghouse because of our tendency to put shame and guilt on each other, and how our relationships affect each other. It was just obvious to use a family setting to do that."
The audience reactions have surprised Damsbo and his colleagues, but not in a way that they were expecting.
"Perhaps naively, we thought, this is going to be amazing: stepping into this virtual world and experiencing this other person; a Being John Malkovich-type thing. But what we realised was that the audience were most affected when people step out of the world and became aware of what they'd been through with the strangers around the table.
“That was where we realised that there was a natural third act to the story; the first act is anticipating the dinner; the second act is the actual dinner; and the third act is contemplating and grasping the experience afterwards.”
With Oculus Rift headsets expected to become commercially available this year (the company currently sells development kits for about €300), there is unlimited scope to develop the new medium of storytelling that The Doghouse has tapped into. But don't expect to see cinemas full of people wearing the futuristic-looking equipment any time soon.
“The cinema is a collective experience,” says Damsbo. “We made a collective experience around a dinner table, where you’re pointing toward each other. The weird thing about a cinema is that you’re all looking in the same direction, but when the film ends, you hurry out of the cinema; you actually don’t interact with other people at all. If you said to me, ‘Let’s make an Oculus cinema where there’s 50 people sitting in a ring, and the film is happening within the ring’, that would be interesting. But I don’t think cinemas will change any time soon.”
A change of focus
Despite the success of this project and the possibilities that it has thrown up, Damsbo says he won’t necessarily be drawn to Oculus technology for every future project.
“As a storyteller, I’m interested in blurring the lines between fiction and reality, between virtual and real, because it’s fun to mess with people’s emotions and have them come back a week later and be like, ‘Oh my god, you changed my relationship with my son because I saw it from his point of view’.
“At the same time, I also love my sharp definitions of what reality is, what’s real and what’s not. It’s a knife edge that we’re walking on,” he says, a mischievous glint in his eyes, “but I love it.”
The Doghouse runs at Digital Biscuit @ the Science Gallery, Dublin, from January 28th-30th. sciencegallery.com
MORE FROM THE TIN: DIGITAL BISCUIT LINE-UP
The Digital Biscuit conference runs at Dublin's Science Gallery, January 28th-30th. This year's speakers include film-maker Michel Gondry, Sopranos writer and producer David Chase, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, film executive Franklin Leonard and more. There will be film screenings, demonstrations and installations, while representatives from the Irish animation, TV and film industries will also impart their wisdom. Tickets are on sale now. digitalbiscuit.ie