I recently had the privilege to talk with the VFX artist turned VR game developer, Michael Conelly, who recently released his VR game, Caliban Below. He has over twenty years of experience working on visual effects for films such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The 6th Day (2000), Scooby Doo (2002), Fast and Furious (2009), and Cirque du Freak: The Vampires Assistant (2009).
Michael is also the president and creative director of Blackthorn Media, whose team of Emmy award-winning content creators bring their skills to create room-scale VR experiences, including The Abbot’s Book and Dragonflight.
PopHorror: You have worked on many amazing films throughout your career as a VFX artist, such as Snow White and the Huntsman, Charlotte’s Web, and The Fast and the Furious. What was it about VR that made you want to get involved in this form of media entertainment?
Michael Conelly: VR is the most engrossing and immediate way I’ve seen to get deep into the audience’s head. Done well, it seems like a really perfect way to transmit imagination from one person to another. It’s so much more powerful and personal than movies; fairly similar skill sets driven to much deeper effect. I think it’s also quite exciting to be participating in a medium just as it’s being born, so to speak. The tropes of movies and TV are well established, but all bets are off for VR. There are things I can do in VR which movie audiences just would never get until they put a headset on. It’s exciting stuff!
PopHorror: Before Caliban Below, you had directed and written for VR with The Abbot’s Book and Dragonflight. Tell me, what were some of the things you learned by working on these two titles that you brought with you to your own game?
Michael Conelly: A powerful sense of space comes to mind and a sensitivity to the demands of the inner ear. That is to say, this task of making a world that feels real and spatially understandable is really job one. Make a world that people first feel safe in, and that they then want to explore. Constantly strive to fire a sense of curiosity. Study reactions closely and slice out the bits that feel slow or off. Respect the audience’s fear of the unknown. VR handled clumsily can be too scary or jarring, so you worry a lot about whether you’re offering up enough to spark wonder and curiosity, and then go back and re-do things if that balance isn’t right. VR as a live, non-linear act of narrative still needs the same kind of thinking that an editor brings to a movie.
PopHorror: What was your experience like working on these titles?
Michael Conelly: Huge learning experiences all along the way. For both Abbot’s Book and Dragonflight, it was a dash to a finish line, and I was very concerned that we didn’t have enough time to really hone things the way I’d have wished… but isn’t that a complaint every creative person makes?
PopHorror: For the people that don’t know, what is Caliban Below, and what were your inspirations for it?
Michael Conelly: Caliban Below is a tiny piece of a much larger story called The Abbot’s Book. I chose the snip of the story I did because it works nicely as a short story on its own, but it also hints deeply at a world that stretches far beyond the main themes that Caliban explores. The Abbot’s Book is really about how families can break, and how those breaks echo across generations, sometimes despite all best intentions. It’s really an extensive love letter to Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft, but also classics of Gothic Fiction like The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Castle of Otranto, and The Monk. If I’ve done my job right, anyone that experiences Caliban Below will feel a span of generations and deeper mysteries buried for centuries, going far beyond the 15-30 minutes they will spend inside the piece.
PopHorror: Why did you choose VR and AR platforms?
Michael Conelly: I chose VR because the medium is too powerful to not pour my heart into, and AR because the whole world has an iPhone or iPad; it turns out that that window can be a pretty effective portal into the world we’ve already built!
PopHorror: What made you want to jump into making a game for VR?
Michael Conolly: I’d been aware of VR becoming an accessible technology since 1991 or so and had been very excited about it. When it finally broke through and good quality VR bubbled into existence, it was really so electrifying that it was an easy choice to make. When room-scale VR appeared, the illusion was so powerful and so complete that it just commanded an effort to make the most of it. I’d been in the movie biz for the better part of a couple of decades at the time, honing my chops in CG, and the emergence of this new medium seemed like the perfect launch pad for something new and great.
PopHorror: Being a VFX Creator, was it easy to transition to VR gaming? What was your experience like?
Michael Conelly: I came to the visual effects business by way of the game industry, and I’d never lost sight of the constraints of real-time-rendered imagery. It’s one thing to have 40 hours to render a single frame of a complex creature (which we used to brag about)… it’s an entirely different thing to utilize GPUs to produce imagery of high quality at 90 frames per second. Still, many of the skill sets are common between the two formats: good image composition, good lighting, sculptures faithful to reality, compelling animated performances, and on and on. So VFX and VR have a lot of overlap, but there are very critical differences, too. But a little bit of passion is sufficient to bridge the gaps.
PopHorror: I noticed you partnered with Game of Thrones Sound Designer Paula Fairfield. Tell me, how did this partnership come about? What was it like working with her?
Michael Conelly: Paula is just the best. My partner, Lyndon Barrois, knew Paula from past work and introduced us. She loved what we were up to and wanted to help us out with Dragonflight, which was a really splendid match given her resume. Our collaboration on Dragonflight was a ton of fun, and Paula is just one of the most versatile, engaged, and daring artists I can think of – she just wanted to pour herself into a new format, and the results were really splendid. So when we picked up The Abbot’s Book project… boy, was it easy to fire that discussion up again. She read the book and loved it. There’s a darkness there that we both love very much. Anyway, one thing led to another, and she’d produced a beautiful soundscape for The Abbot’s Book, which was a natural lead-in for Caliban, since they happen in the same world.
PopHorror: Do you have any plans to bring Caliban Below to PlayStation VR?
Michael Conelly: I’d love to, but it would take a lot of work. If we had some support from Sony, we’d be thrilled to make the effort.
PopHorror: Do you have any other plans for Caliban Below or other VR projects in the future?
Michael Conelly: You won’t be surprised to hear that VR still has its hooks in me pretty deeply. What comes next, though? The wheels are turning too fast to predict the next steps. I’m off to show and talk about the work at Cannes next week… let’s see what that precipitates.
PopHorror: Before I let you go, tell everyone where they can find Caliban Below.
Michael Conelly: Thanks for asking! Caliban Below is a free download on Steam and VivePort for VR. It’s also a free download on Apple’s App Store for iPhone and iPad, although you need at least an iPhone 6s to run it, but an 8 or X are best.
We want to send a great big thank you to Michael Conelly for taking the time to chat with us! Be sure to check out Caliban Below, and let us know what you think in the comments!