Morbidly Beautiful

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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.


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.