LA-based XR studio Tender Claws is a relative veteran in the immersive space, with origins stretching all the way back to the “virtually” prehistoric year 2014. The “art and games” studio—whose previous projects have included 2017’s Virtual Virtual Reality and 2018’s Tendar—kicked off the first of four panels at the 2019 edition of Film Independent’s annual immersive entertainment showcase The Portal, which took place September 21-22 at LMU’s School of Film and Television in Playa Vista.
In January, Tender Claws announced their latest offering, The Under Presents—a theatrically driven VR gaming project created with Oculus VR, which will soon be bringing the experience to its Oculus Quest headsets. With The Under Presents, Tender Claws has once again ventured into the next frontier in immersive entertainment, presenting an amalgamation of gaming, live theater and narrative storytelling set aboard a fantastical cruise ship with dwindling supplies and lively onboard entertainment.
At The Portal, Tender Claws co-founder Samantha Gorman and The Under Presents producer Tanya Leal Soto joined Film Independent Artistic Director Jacqueline Lyanga for an intimate conversation on what it took to bring this unique project to life.
So, What is The Under Presents, Exactly?
The project is being touted as the first immersive VR experience with live theater elements—i.e. live actors—injected into the experience. “Think of it as an exploratory narrative game play,” Gorman began to explain after showing a teaser. “It takes place in a special dimension outside of time and space. As supplies dwindle day by day aboard an abandoned research vessel—the Aickman—the crew and passengers turn on each other to survive.” When you enter The Under, you’re guided by a mysterious proprietor into a secret cabaret (“The Under”) below deck and invited to witness—and even participate in—a series of vaudeville acts, executed in real time by live performers.
There’s also a single-player component to the game, which can last for many hours. As Gorman explains: “One of the immersive and interactive elements to The Under is you can take off your ‘face’ and put it into this photo booth—like a ticket—and [be] transported to the stage. Here you can control time and how the story goes back and forth in time with each character.”
Motion Capture for VR Live Theater
The Under Presents was announced via a preview at Sundance earlier this year. In addition to working closely with Oculus, Tender Claws collaborated with New York-based experimental theater group Piehole to hone the live performance aspects of the game. Each stage act aboard the Aickman is motion-captured using live remote performances, which are converted into avatars within the game. In addition to the pre-recorded interactions, there are also live actors joining the gameplay to interact with players. So far, Tender Claws has managed to capture 80 hours of mocap content for the project in-house, without relying on an outside studio.
“It is not location-based like many other similar offerings,” says Gorman. “Actors and players can log in from anywhere, without a motion capture suit, as long as they have the Oculus Quest headset.” She pointed out yet another singular element to this project: that actors can interrupt recorded stage acts and interject their own performances and deviations within the narrative.
To manage this intricate live system, the experience’s “stage manager” has the ability to view the complete story world at once (the only user with the ability to do so) and provide real-time feedback to the live actors via a non-verbal system on where other players are at any given moment.
What’s Improv Like in a VR Environment?
Inspired by vaudeville theater of the early 2oth century, Gorman and her producing partners wanted to make The Under Presents project more about intimacy and gestures and explore what type of user-generated gameplay could emerge within this paradigm.
Asked about the challenges that came with casting actors for this type of project, Leal Soto was quick to point out additional challenges faced by the actors. “Not only do the actors need to be comfortable working within a virtual environment [acting inside a mocap suit inside the headgear], they must also feel at home with improv and crowd control.” The actors’ VR systems have a control panel, enabling them to cue lights and music, and the casting call for the project made it clear that those familiar with gaming would find it much easier to acclimate to this groundbreaking performance opportunity.
Lyanga was curious about the emotional interplay between players and actors within this landscape. In certain segments of the game, players compete for the attention of live performers and to be brought onstage to participate in the cabaret shows within the game. “The dynamics of a one-on-one encounter can feel strange in immersive theater, there’s an amplified element to it,” Gorman said. “When we do the next actor training session, we’ll have to focus on how to respond in-game while relying more on gesticulation and body movements, much more so than most actors are used to.”
During the panel Q&A, an audience member asked how much influence a performer can exert over the way their avatars are viewed or experienced in the game—facial expressions, lower body movement, etc.? Said Gorman: “The actors have a mirror in front of them to see how the bodily movement is coming across on “screen” and a virtual dressing room to test out how certain costumes would fit the movement range their character is required to exhibit as the game progresses.”
Leal Soto also explained how the actors have to physically mimic their characters’ physicality, so that their movements come across in mocap: “For instance, where a very heavy character is involved, the actor needed a different gait to fully convey the bearing of that character.” Different actors may portray different characters within the game, depending on the day. To ensure consistency in terms of what the players experience from each character, they have built a very detailed “bible” for the game world. “We constantly have to balance the improv and scripted aspects of delivering a satisfying in-game experience every single time,” said Leal Soto.
The Under Presents is a couple of months away from its official release on the Oculus Quest platform. So be sure to follow Tender Claws on social for the latest updates on pricing and release date. See you aboard the Aickman!
Stay tuned to Film Independent’s blog and YouTube for more coverage from the 2019 edition of The Portal, featuring round-ups of the showcase’s 360 documentary program, augmented reality experiences and panel recaps. To view the complete program of work exhibited at The Portal this year, check out our event program.
A free event produced by Film Independent, and in partnership with Loyola Marymount University, The Portal took place September 20-22 at LMU’s Playa Vista Campus. To learn how to become a Film Independent Member, click here.
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(Header, L-R: Susan Gorman, Jacqueline Lyanga and Tanya Leal Soto)