Martin Allais isn’t a punk.
At least, he doesn’t appear as such when I find him battling jet lag atop an offensively pink pillow just a stroll along from central London’s Southbank Centre. His long hair is neatly tied back in a bun and he rests his crossed arms on his knees as if ready to dive into impromptu meditation at a moment’s notice. Between stifled yawns from an early morning flight from Barcelona, he seems generally amiss on his first day at the Raindance Film Festival.
At first sight, it’s not what I expected from the co-director of Battlescar (seen below in our VR Culture Show). It’s a searing, explosive VR feature that thrusts you into the disgruntled spirit of the late 1970’s New York punk scene. Blink and you’ll miss it, and you’ll get no apologies from its creators.
“Actually, the first episode [of Battlescar] the producers were like “this is too fast, people need more time to see the scenarios,”” he says. “And Nico and I were like “Actually all the VR is very boring because it’s very slow.””
Well, that’s a bit more like it.
In Allais’ defense, Battlescar, which he created alongside longtime friend Nico Casavecchia, does give a lot of other VR experiences the appearance of having training wheels. Despite its lengthy 30 minute run time, it’s relentlessly paced, barely letting a minute pass before radically switching up storytelling styles. The plot follows Lupe, a young Puerto Rican-American voiced by Rosario Dawson who happens upon the ferocious Debbie while flirting with a New York jail cell. Taken under her wing, Lupe bonds with Debbie over disillusionment and outrage as they plot to bring their plight to the stage with the repetitive thud of punk rock musiv. An assortment of misadventures befalls them along the way.
“We started seeing VR films out there and VR experiences and we’re like trying what we didn’t like of them and how we can do the film we want to see in VR,” Allais explains. “It was a very personal process because there’s nothing written really in VR language, so you can do everything at the same time.”
It’s that kitchen sink delivery that makes Battlescar sing louder than its screechy-voiced soundtrack. No two instances are the same, be it a fleeting ride on the back of a motorcycle in which you long for the wind to bite into your face, or the dizzying clashing of drums and ideas from all angles as Lupe’s frustrated words flow from mind to page. “I just wanted to come with ideas like what we think should be the experience of getting in a headset,” Allais explains. “So that’s Battlescar for us, a big playground of exploration and ideas. Narrative, framing, and I think pretty much everything that we came up with ended in the film.”
Despite Allais’ earlier dismissal, there are traces of VR’s past, like the hints of Dear Angelica in its readiness to tinker with scale. But it’s otherwise blisteringly fresh; a collection of revelatory discoveries just waiting to be made. One minute Debbie has an enormous gun held to her head with terrifying proximity, the next her and Lupe are leap-frogging their way home like a level in Super Mario Bros.. In fact, Allais tells me he and Casavecchia eventually stopped watching other VR experiences to maintain their own ideas. One guiding star was particularly crucial; no interactivity.
“When we started playing with VR, we wanted to create a piece that wasn’t interactive, but at the same time used the space in an interactive and playful way,” he says
Simply put, there isn’t time for interactivity in Battlescar. There are no moments to linger; to lean in and wonder if you can pick up the drum stick resting on the desk or strum the guitar sitting next to you. This isn’t a world, it’s a slideshow, kicked and bashed together to demand the viewer’s attention at all times. Without this urgency, Allais suspects it wouldn’t be half as engaging.
“Because you don’t have a director’s point of view that shows you how to go from one place to the other,” he says. “So what we wanted to do is just the opposite. If people want to see more they need to see it again.”
I won’t go on much longer, suffice to say I truly loved Battlescar. It was an experience that reenergized my love of narrative-driven VR and brought me back to the infantile excitement of seeing this technology with fresh eyes. I can’t wait to see what the pair does next.
“Now we’re more into coming back to some of those techniques and developing them more,” Allais teases. “[Battlescar] is like this mash-up of different techniques and ways of storytelling and they need to be developed. And that’s what we want to do hopefully in the following story.”
Sign me up.
Battlescar is planned for release on home headsets in the near future.