Visionary storyteller and creator Michael Conelly takes us behind the scenes of his immersive new VR game “Caliban Below” and the creative process.
Michael Conelly is an author, Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor, and creator of “Caliban Below”, a VR experience that has recently been released for iPhone and iPad. The new version of the immersive story includes a re-release of his original 1989 novella, The Abbot’s Book: A Gothic Tale, as well as story extensions and enhanced sound design from Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield.
As a prolific VFX director. Michael has worked on films across many genres, including Snow White and the Huntsman, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, The Kingdom, and The Fast and the Furious. He also serves as the president and creative director of Blackthorn Media, a conclave of Academy and Emmy award-winning content creators.
I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Michael about his latest project, his inspirations and love of horror and dark imagery, his creative process, and his unique vision for creating VR content that fully utilizes the potential this burgeoning medium presents.
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL CONELLY
1. I get a vibe reminiscent of “Myst” upon first glance at “Caliban Below”. Did this or similar titles serve as an influence for this project — and you as a gamer?
Yeah, “Myst” especially was a huge influence. It was a lightning strike in my past that sent me on the path. “Caliban Below” is a tiny piece of a much bigger project. I think you notice the similarity in feel for very strong reasons. The thing that really jumps to mind is that the medium of CD ROM and the medium of VR are very different.
There are these tropes in VR that aren’t well established yet — particularly for people who are new to the art. We can’t do too much without really leaping quickly into overwhelm. As a result, we are erring more on the side of story than “Myst” did. Nonetheless, “Myst” is certainly a real spiritual kind of air of the project, (or rather) a spiritual ancestor of (“Caliban Below”).
2. What led to the decision to make the protagonist teleport, or rather blink, as opposed to a traditional full walking mechanic?
Well, the main issue that we’re trying to solve with the blinking is making sure that there’s no chance of motion sickness for anyone. VR is such a powerful medium and is able to jump into people’s heads. Consequently, motion sickness was a huge concern when VR first appeared. The main cause of motion sickness is the break in continuity between what your eyes see and what you’re experiencing.
There are some great examples of people who have compiled research and development on the subject, and there are really some fair solutions for allowing that kind of motion. However, I don’t think any of them are bulletproof in terms of preventing motion sickness. Our main audience for this work is people who love stories and who love movies.
We’re trying to make work that is an entree for the whole world — not just people who call themselves gamers.
3. That sweet spot, the middle ground.
Yeah. The market for movies and TV is vastly larger than the market for gaming. Our whole thesis at the start of all of this was that VR really becomes interesting when the whole world is trying it out. As they say, you don’t want to skate to where the puck is, you want to skate to where it’s going. We’re trying to skate to where the puck is going, which is a world where everybody is trying VR.
4. I personally enjoy how the game begins without any extravagant fanfare or traditional tutorials. Was this a decision you wanted to stick with from the outset, or was it something you established later on, in the middle of development?
There a couple of things that work there. One is wanting to really jump into an immersive and clean UI as soon as possible. The other is in the recipe we’ve made for this project. One of the things we’ve noticed along the way is that, as people try VR for the first time, they are very blown way by it. If you’re trying to get too much story right out of the gate, people kind of lose it because they’re too busy going, “Oh my god!” As a result, there’s a very gentle on ramp to the project. But it’s an on ramp that’s also very, “This is the world. You’re in it now. This is what the world is going to be.”
5. Okay. So you’re trying to avoid the laundry list of objectives right out of the gate?
Exactly. We’re really trying to treat our audience as visitors. We’re saying, “Welcome to this world. And now that you’re here, let’s address you on the terms of the world.” So here’s this world — let’s jump right in. It’s the 1600s in Italy. You’re going to play the part of one of our characters. And just run with me here… we’re going to teach you how to move around a little bit. But there’s no big Star Wars title crawl. There’s…you know…you’re just in!
6. I thought that was a great, it was just like, “Boom! Here we you go! We’re doing this!” You said it was 1600 Italy. Did you gather any inspiration from any particular myth in order to flesh out this story? Are you a huge fan of myths? Basically, how did you come up with this story?
Oh yeah, I’m a huge fan of gothic fiction. There’s a virtual story I wrote as a term paper in a gothic fiction class a long time ago. It’s very much informed by classics in the genre, like “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and “The Castle of Otrando”. It’s also very much a love letter to Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft. I’m just trying to stand on the shoulders of these giants and tell a story that feels like it could be part of that same kind of Pantheon of Gothic mystery.
Here’s something that’s dark but beautiful — that might be a little bit scary but makes you more curious. That curiosity overwhelms you. And the fear you might see, it’s definitely the germ. The seed of this project is that love of pure gothic fiction.
7. That’s awesome, man! You’re speaking my language. The interaction mechanics involving the arm hook devices add a great level of interactivity within the world and puzzles. Can you explain a little about what they are and how it relates to our character, or would that be too spoilery?
What you’re seeing are the controllers that come with the VR headset. There’s a couple of reasons that those exists the way they do. One is that I feel like they become a visual bridge between the world that you left when you put the VR headset on and the world that you’re in once you’re in the VR world with us. They look the same in either world and can serve as a sort of conceptual staple between the real world and this fictional world.
They’re one of the ingredients of presence. You’re seeing this thing right in front of you that you’re holding, but you can’t see your hand. There’s something magical about it being perfectly aligned in space. But you can’t see your hand. That’s sort of one of the key ingredients to the balance that HTC Vive and the Oculus provide. The secret recipe all dialed in right. For the first time, we present six degrees of freedom — and the ability to see a proxy for your hands.
But the other reason, as you’ve probably surmised, is because I don’t want to show you the hands of the real character. Because there’s a big twist of sorts where you get a glimpse of yourself. I don’t want to say too much about it. There’s a very good reason that what you’re seeing is the controller rather than something else.
8. While on the subject of puzzles and interactivity, and this might be a little long winded but, where did the idea for this dreary and haunting atmosphere come from? How did your experience as a VFX director on films like the Kingdom and Snow White and the Huntsman prepare you for the VR design for this project?
Oh, my God, I could talk for a week. This is a topic that I’ve been working on in one way or another for a really long time. It really predates my development as an artist moving polygons and pixels away.
Picture me with a sketchbook. I’m one of these kids who grew up playing D&D and just sort of scribbling out underground spaces. Just sort of in love with what these simple line drawings might do to your imagination and imagining myself in some better future where I could really make my imagination more visible to people.
So there’s me as a kid. And then there’s me as the author of the actual short story. I’m continuing to cultivate this sense of space, this love of light and dark and spooky environments, and this love of world building that any author writing about a space might have experienced. Combine this with any number of movies, artists, and images and TV shows that I grew up loving along the way.
And, then later add in classical influences. There’s a number of etchings that Giovanni Battista Piranesi created. They’re fantastic, amazing renderings of prisons that never got built because they were sort of too big, too crazy and too spectacular to create. But absolutely amazing on the page. These influences are heavily referenced in the last area of “Caliban Below”. I discovered them when I got into the visual effects business. I became friends with directors who sort of were throwing books at me and basically saying, “Look at Arthur Rackham, look at Piranesi, look all these other guys!”
This is a project that I have been developing for so long. It’s just a magic bag that I’ve been throwing great observations and ideas and mental snapshots into for so long. When it came time to finally crack my knuckles and say, “Look, you know what? Let’s make this,” I decided to make it as good as I could with the assets and resources I had, which were limited. The team for “Caliban” is teeny-tiny! But we’re fueled by love, and that fire burns hot!
There’s also a lot of research and development and design work that’s gone into this thing over many many years — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of work. Imagine all of the mole skin notebooks and three ring binders full of crap. Inspiration also came from the collections of coffee table books that I’m looking at right now, like Italian parks and gardens. And there’s an astounding book of photography of the Gardens of Versailles that were all shot on incredibly foggy days — just the spookiest stuff you can imagine.
9. Man, that sounds so awesome.
Yeah, just so much spectacular imagery. Over the years. I have enjoyed all kinds of media. I’m not just a horror geek. But that dark imagery is what I’m most likely to grab and say, “I’m keeping that one. I’m taking the screenshot. I’m throwing this one in the file!” And that’s a deep awesome file. It’d be fun to go through all that with anybody! But anyway, that’s a long winded answer!
10. It was a long winded question, and I thank you for answering it! Your love of all these things really does show and bleed through. The atmosphere is just beautiful. There’s one standout moment for me — the moment when you’re on a bridge and a ghost appears. You’re just looking at the ghost as it passes you by. You look past him and then there’s just like, I mean… it’s not a mural, more like a face on the wall — or a wall that’s a face.
You put a big smile on my face!
11. That’s what makes it so amazing, how confounding it is. You guys did a great job. You mentioned before that you worked with a tiny team. How big is the team?
Well, I did most of the work on the project myself. And my close collaborators are Keith Goldfarb, who was charged with the monster programming, and Paula Fairfield, who worked on the sound design. Essentially, I’m a toy programmer, the designer of the project and the voice of Caliban. I directed the recordings of the other sounds found throughout. I oversee the generation of all the assets. I tell other artists what I need.
Essentially, it’s a microcosm of a feature film production, but one where I’m doing a large amount of the work. So it’s really just kind of cracking your knuckles and rolling up your sleeves and proving that you’ve still got it! After you’ve been supervising other people for so many years, it’s such a great, satisfying experience to make stuff.
But also, oh my God, the talent level of the artists and these friends who have helped out with this thing. The modelers that I’ve worked with are all incredibly talented. The people I have worked with have all been phenomenal.
12. Now that you mentioned it, I can definitely hear a little bit of Caliban in your voice! While still on the subject of atmosphere, how important is sound design in crafting this, lush VR world? And how was collaborating with sound designer, Paula Fairfield, who is known for her work on “Game of Thrones”?
Paula is just a superhero. She’s just great, and I am so lucky to have met her. We became fast friends. She just digs the projects and she wants to help. She is such a brilliant artist who really cares about art, and it’s so refreshing working with her. It’s just such a pleasure, and may everybody in the world today understand what it’s like to work with somebody that is so talented! She would say, “I’ve got an idea!” And then she’d come back to me with bullet points, and it was something like an uncanny mirror of my own mind.
13. That’s awesome!
Exactly! Sound design for this thing has been absolutely critical. It’s worth pointing out that I’m very happy with how it looks. But it’s not up to the level visually that would be approved as final stops for a feature film. Sound goes a very, very long way to smoothing out the things that might otherwise catch your eye and creates a full Gestalt of, “Man, I’m in a world! And this world is full of things, I can see some of them, I can hear some of them!” It’s all adding up to this, for lack of a better term, Virtual Reality.
14. I agree, It really absolutely does add to the immersion. “Caliban Below” is now available on augmented reality, which I think lends itself to it so well to the horror genre. What was your experience like working on a virtual reality horror title? Any sleepless nights or any occasional nightmares from working on this on a constant basis?
No! (Laughs). I’m the conductor of bad dreams these days. I just love it. I saw Alien, for instance, when I was nine years old. That thing just got in and stayed and kind of worked its magic.
15. It was Alien for me too!
Somewhere along the way the thing that scared the daylights out of me when I was a kid turned into something that I love. I think there’s also something very cathartic about making a world that feels that way. You own it, and you know where all the dark corners are. You know when you really nailed something. It’s rewarding to know you made it, made something special, something that feels very true to your own imagination or to a particular theme.
That is the great reward of this work, being able to look at somebody in the eye when they take the headset off. When you can instantly tell they were there. They were in — they lived inside my imagination.
So, I don’t experience fear at all. I don’t experience any sort of anxiety or anything like that. It’s really just a love of being able to say, “Look at this. Look at this fucking cool thing that I made and I love so much.” And I want to make more of it. It’s just exhilarating! Oops… I started working at seven in the morning, and now it’s two in the morning, and where did the day go? But look at all this cool stuff that I made! I wonder what I can do tomorrow.
16. Yeah, it’s your baby. Do you have a sequel or any new projects in the works that you’re able to discuss?
Well, that’s a great question. My hope is that we can continue to tell more of the story. “Caliban Below” is one small tale from a much larger story. The VR industry is this quirky, funny thing. I love it dearly. It’s also a tricky, tricky medium to build for. So I think we’re trying to answer some questions right now about what the next steps might be. I personally am looking at some interesting opportunities along the way.
I wish I could say the next chapter is coming out in two months. But, right now, I just don’t know. But it’s something that I care enormously about, and we’re trying to take some steps right now to ensure that further chapters will be seen in time.
17. Well, I hope to see more of them. Because that world you made, man, it’s a doozy!
Thanks, I appreciate that!
18. No worries, man. And well, last but certainly not least, do you have any advice for aspiring VFX artists, or anyone trying to make it in the film or game industry?
I think the best advice I could give anybody is do it because you love it. Because the fuel supply that burns the hottest is your love of the work. This is the thing that’s gonna get you any recognition or what’s going to bring the product to life in some way: That love of an original idea, or a cool vision or a story or a feeling. Whatever medium you’re exploring, whether it’s sound design or VR or putting words on a page or writing a poem or whatever.
The most important commodity people buy is what you believe. You can’t fake that stuff and have it be any good at all. We all know when it’s just some garbage that somebody is just churning out just because. The stuff that we love is the stuff that somebody else loves. By the same token, I don’t look at the sum of all the parts of all the work that we’ve done on average and think, “Ah-ha! I have all the answers!”
What I can tell you is, I made some stuff that I think is pretty cool. I would encourage anybody else to do the same. And let the thing that drives you be the love of the work. And hopefully, some of the other parts figure themselves out along the way.
19. Spoken like a true artist. Well, that’s it for me. I really do appreciate you taking the time to speak to me. It was an honor! Any parting words?
Thank you. I really appreciate it.
If you happen to have a newer iPhone or iPad, you can absolutely check out “Caliban Below” on iOS. It’s the same game that runs in VR, with VR just being much more immersive. But it’s a great way to check it out, especially if you have headphones on. The quality of the sound that you get through AR on the iPhone is exactly the same as you get in VR. It’s definitely secondary to VR, and VR is really the best way to experience it. VR is definitely like the bomb, and AR is more like the firecracker.
20. Now, I’m an Android boy. Is it out on Android? Are there any plans for it?
No, we’re a small mom and pop shop. Well actually just a pop shop. If we get really good traction with the iOS version, we will do an Android version. But on the whole, we have to wait and see how it goes. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed.
More info on “Caliban Below” and the story origins:
A tale of mystery and horror in the classic gothic tradition, “The Abbot’s Book” follows four generations of a noble Italian family and their response to temptation and corruption brought about by a mysterious book dug up from the labyrinth of catacombs beneath their estate. The story takes place in 17th century Italy, in a fantastical realm both above ground and below, where a forgotten demigod called Ovando is awakened by an inquisitive abbot, who spirits Ovando’s strange book out of the catacombs.
The book’s promise of unearthly power tests the Abbot, who soon perishes under mysterious circumstances. The Abbey is closed in scandal, and the book falls into the hands of the family. Young Tithonus, the anti-hero of the story, witnesses first his grandfather, and then his parents grapple with the moral stain the book creates.
Intent on building a life for himself free of this dark inheritance, Tithonus briefly succeeds in this most heartfelt wish. He marries Isabella, and they have a son, Caliban. Together they share a brief time where darkness has receded.
But Ovando, patient as death, whispers in dreams that haunt the world above. When Caliban wakes one night and follows Ovando’s call, he dares to explore the forbidden realm below.
Tithonus’ world is plunged into unfathomable darkness when Caliban is gravely wounded and lies dying in the bottom of the catacombs. Tithonus has no choice but to attempt to use the power of the Abbot’s Book to save his broken son – – but the price to be paid is abhorrent. A night of terror and loss marks the triumph of Ovando, as Isabella is killed, and what remains of Caliban is imprisoned alive within the realm below – hopefully forever.
At its heart, The Abbot’s Book is a story of how families break when love is overpowered by avarice and desperation — and how even those thought lost to all hope may yet have a spark of light within.
“Caliban Below” tells this critical chapter of the tale: Forty years imprisoned within the catacombs, Caliban remains under Ovando’s spell. But he faintly remembers a different life, and he is determined to follow the clues he can find to learn more of his true nature.
In the game, you are invited to become Caliban, to see the world through his eyes, hear his thoughts, and learn the truth of the several incredible mysteries that wait in a realm below.
“Caliban Below” has just become available for iPhone and iPad. And I strongly encourage you to check it out. However, for the most immersive game playing experience, VR is recommended. You can play for free over on Steam (or expand your playing options with downloadable content). When you strap on the headset, you have a role to play. There’s a mystery to uncover — and no two experiences will be alike. The story is part of an eight-part series. Chapter One, The Abbot’s Book Demo, is available as a free download. Note: VR gameplay requires one of the following virtual reality headsets: HTC Vive or Windows Mixed Reality.