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Photo and text: Trude Lindland

Ways of expression: The impact of VFX technology on modern storytelling in film and interactive media production

Earlier this spring, Rafal Hanzl defended his artistic research dissertation. We had a chat with him about the project. Because what does a creative technologist really do?

On the 10th of May this year, Rafal Hanzl in the Norwegian Artistic Research Programm defended his project "Ways of expression: the impact of VFX technology on modern storytelling in film and interactive media production". Hanzl started his research fellowship at the Norwegian Film School in autumn 2014, and has since worked on developing the position of creative technologist – a fairly new artistic profession that specializes in finding ways to utilize different technologies in artistic productions and installations. In addition, he's played a central part in the development of the school's Digital Visual Design course (now VFX Design).

Creative technologist is a new branch in film, TV, games, and new media, and as an artistic method Hanzl has chosen to work in this capacity on two productions of different character:

The first production is a Polish-Icelandic documentary – "In Touch" – which tells the story about people from a small Polish village where around 400 of its population have emigrated to Iceland since the 80s, and nobody has returned. The film depicts, in a poetic way, the relationships between the family members who have moved to Iceland and those who remain in Poland. In a relatively simple, but very effective way, Hanzl has managed to portray these people's emotions by using a mixture of "live postcards" – video recordings of conversations and greetings – and everyday events in projected recordings.

The second production is a VR installation — "The Road to Excellence" — which brings the audience along on a journey inside a pipe organ in the Łódź Philharmonic. Here, you gain insight into the history and the mechanics of the pipe organ, while being lead through a story at the same time. The installation was made in connection with a concert in the philharmonic, where the pipe organ played a central part.

One of the things that artist and VFX supervisor Hanzl wanted to achieve with this project was to explore the creative and artistic potential that lies within digital tools. Through artistic experiments, he develops innovative methods for a new creative profession in film and interactive media industry: a digital visual designer or a "creative technologist", aiming to explore how this new role supports the director's vision and contributes to the visual universe of the artistic creation.

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VR-installasjon — The Road to Excellence

Why did you as a creative technologist choose this method?

The work of a creative technologist may be described as intensified tasks for a VFX supervisor, directed specifically towards new technology and, not least, new ways of utilizing technology in art. This job requires a wide array of skills and qualifications, and the most important is the ability to use digital technology as an artistic tool, in a way that creates an audiovisual story. My task was to find the answer to the most crucial question that is raised in the documentary: “Why are we doing it?” How can we best understand the people in the film, their longing for intimacy with their family members, and how does one live with the distance?

As a creative technologist, I tried to give life to people's feelings, and at the same time provide the audience with a unique insight into their innermost emotional lives. This is hard to visualize through regular Skype or phone conversations, which are the typical ways they communicate. By choosing a kind of on-set projection, the film's subjects were exposed to everyday events, and at the same time the audience could hear and see their immediate reactions. In one of the film's scenes, we see a grandfather who caresses his grandchild's cheek as she's falling asleep in her bed, while he lovingly whispers to her that she should close her eyes. He's in his bed in Poland and the grandchild is in Iceland, but through using "live postcards", video recordings being projected on the wall, a bond and an intimacy is created. The other project I made, the VR installation "The Road to Excellence", has provided me with an opportunity to explore the technology's potential to give the audience a different experience than is otherwise available to them. The interior of the pipe organ is off limits for the public, but the virtual representation provides insight into the instrument as well as an enhanced artistic experience of the following concert.

What does the technology open up for?

Behind the technology is the tool. Visual effects is the quickest evolving domain within the film industry. What tool you choose will be crucial for what kind of visual expression the film will have. In this, the collaboration with director and cinematographer is important, and my work is done in the planning stage as well as in post-production. What is certain, is that with a creative technologist you could create effects and experiences for the audience that would otherwise be impossible. It opens up for creative processes and expands the filmmakers' horizons. In the documentary I used this method to more clearly bring out the subjects' emotions and show how people missed each other, as well as communicating the lack of physical interaction.

How do audiences experience your VR project?

VR provides a completely different experience than film does. As creative technologist, you contribute to improving the experience for the audience. As opposed to with film, the audience has agency in the form of interactivity and the freedom it provides in a VR installation or a VR game. The choices you make have consequences for the game's narrative paths, and all of a sudden you as an audience member are a participant in another way than you are while watching a film. When you've got a VR headset on, and the spaces you navigate work well, it's easy to immerse yourself in the world you're being presented. In my project where I visualized the organ pipes, I wanted to give the audience an opportunity to perceive and understand the connections, and at the same time give a deeper sense of presence during the concert by showing them how the organ works and what it looks like visually. The presentation not only displayed the organ from the inside, but also what processes occur during the performance of a musical piece.

The documentary feature "In Touch" premiered at Europe's biggest documentary film festival, IDFA, in November 2018. The VR installation "In Search of Excellence" premiered in December 2018 in connection with a concert held in the Łódź Philharmonic. It can also be experienced in the VR lab at the Norwegian Film School.

Rafal Hanzl is the fourth candidate from the Norwegian Film school who defends his dissertation in the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, after Ståle Stein Berg, Trygve Allister Diesen, and Siri Senje. The research programme was established in 2003 in order to develop an artistic alternative to the scientific doctorates, and encompasses all the art forms that are represented in institutions of higher education in Norway.

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VR-installasjon — The Road to Excellence

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