If there is one technology that has defined 2016, it’s Virtual Reality. While the concept has been around, in both fictional and very real terms for years, 2016 was when it became affordable and found a home in your living room. As with all new hardware, the need for content now takes over. Studios like Legion M and their Dark Corner exhibition are leading the charge with immersive horror experiences like Catatonic, Mule and Burlap. The medium feels tailor-made for genre entertainment.
This week Mandt VR and studio Clever Fox have joined the Horror VR push, with one of the first scripted VR series; A creature feature called The Depths. Created and directed by Dekker Dreyer this ten episode series puts you alongside three survivors in a submerged and inverted ocean vessel, dealing with something unnatural in the water.
Dekker is the creative head at Clever Fox, a leading VR studio, and recently produced the VR music video for Disturbed’s The Sound of Silence. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dekker to learn more about the The Depths and specifically how creating for VR shapes a filmmaker’s process.
Interview by: Joe Slepski
Joe: Let’s talk about story content of The Depths. You’re working in the sea creature genre, so you’re touching on themes that have been in James Cameron’s The Abyss, going back to Creature from the Black Lagoon, even the much-loved Slithis, and with a little bit of the isolationism of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Are those the things that influenced you here?
Dekker: You forgot Roger Corman’s Lords of the Deep.
Joe: Of course!
Dekker: DeepStar Six, Leviathan. I love the sea monster genre, I really do. Funny story, I adore Slithis. I have a little figurine that I got at, I forget where, it was some horror convention that I’d gone to, and they had a Slithis statue, and I got it, so that’s in my office. That was years before we started doing The Depths. Even years before that, I think maybe 9 or 10 years ago, I was friendly with one of the actors that portrayed Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Joe: The original?
Dekker: Yes, the original. His name was Ben Chapman, and I have two things that he sent me, because we corresponded on phone and email. He passed away a few years ago. He was just such a cool dude. He’d done some other acting work, not just for the Creature of the Black Lagoon. He was a Polynesian guy, an actor who did these South Seas adventure films in the 1950s. He fell out of acting for a while and he worked for the airlines. He ended up settling in Hawaii. He gave me a Creature from the Black Lagoon photo that he’d signed. It was like, “Aloha from Ben.” Stuff like that. I’ve got a copy of his original contract from doing Creature of the Black Lagoon that he also signed, that’s in my office too.
Dekker: I love the sea creature genre. Going into this, I started thinking what is one of the things that’s going to be the most terrifying in VR. I think psychologically there’s something there about isolation. If you go back to films like The Thing where they’re in this outpost and they don’t have communication with the outside world, that’s a real theme that we wanted to touch on.
Having this darkness, having the water that’s right there, feeling like you can’t move, having these small sets. All of these things, especially setting it in 1994, which to me was just the cusp before all of the mass communication with internet and satellite phones, and all these sort of things where — it was the last gasp, when you could really get stranded somewhere and have no possible way of communicating what’s happening. All these things came together, to me, to create the environment of The Depths. Obviously the natural extension of that is a sea monster.
What’s scarier than being trapped somewhere, isolated, like Alien, where you’re being hunted? You don’t know by what, it could come from anywhere. Yet at the same time, you’re fighting each other, you’re fighting nature. All these things make this perfect storm of a thriller.
Joe: Water is frightening in film for multiple reasons. It’s an environment that can absolutely kill you, and yet 70% of you is made up of that environment. There is also stillness when you’re dealing with water. I think Carpenter achieved the same thing with snow, where it dampens the sound around you. If you’re out in a field playing you hear birds chirping, you hear things in the distance that are making noise. Not so when you’re dealing with water, when you’re dealing with snow, because everything’s just damp.
I think that lends to the feeling of isolation. Going back to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, I find it fascinating that that was one of the first 3D movies, and breaking technological ground, and now here you are with The Depths, doing the same thing with VR.
Dekker: I hadn’t even thought of that. It’s such a go-to for me because the water is full of things that can kill you. I spent part of my childhood in a town called New Smyrna Beach in Florida and it’s known as the shark attack capital of the world. This is a real statistic. The reason for that is that there’s an inlet that goes from the Atlantic Ocean into the river there and it’s a shark nursery.
You’re always seeing people getting bitten by sharks. These are aggressive sharks, they’re bull sharks. They are very territorial and they will come after you.
You see surfers all the time with giant chunks taken out of their legs and stuff. It’s one of these things where you go down to the beach as a kid and it’s like, “Okay, yes, go down to the beach, but don’t go past your, wherever, your waist, your belly, because you will get attacked by a shark.” It got embedded in my brain that everything in the water is better equipped to kill you than you are to defend yourself.
Joe: That’s great and that’s crazy.
Dekker: There’s also barracuda; there’s jellyfish. During one season the entire beach gets completely covered in jellyfish and Portuguese Man-of-War. It really is one of these things where I’m like, “I get it, Lovecraft. I get it, man, the sea, nightmares.”
Joe: The Depths is fantastic; A VR experiment in fear, you’ve done a really wonderful job. What I was most impressed with is when you’re in VR, filmmakers take us from watching a flat movie to giving us a landscape to examine. How do you approach letting the audience choose what to see on screen?
Dekker: You hear a lot about VR giving you the choice in how you experience the story. I believe in that to a certain degree but I’m much more interested in having you feel like you’re participating in the environment more than giving you overt choices. To me it’s about making the audience so wrapped up in the story unfolding that you feel the cold. The whole thing takes place in the water, so it’s about feeling like you’re immersed in that same environment as the characters. That’s everything to me and as a director, if you can pull that off it’s very exciting. One of the comments I saw on the first episode was from someone who said they’d never had anxiety in their life but they actually started to feel the water rising around them.
That said, we don’t have a lot of Easter eggs. It’s very much about directing the viewer with sound cues and staging and all kinds of tricks that you kind of merge between live theater and film. When I want the viewer to look at a certain direction I have to make sure the actors are guiding the viewer to where the action is.
Joe: What made you decide to do a horror film versus any other genre?
Dekker: Well it was either this or a rom-com starring the monster. We had a three picture deal with the monster and he was really pushing for a classic leading man part.
I think that horror and thrillers, these type stories, are where I’ve always played and I really love them. It was never a question for me, what kind of series I’m going to make. I think that being able to play with the claustrophobia, the darkness and all these great tools that are traditionally in your toolkit when you’re making a horror film or a dark sci-fi film or a thriller or are heightened in VR. I just can’t even describe the difference between watching a horror movie and being inside of one. You feel a sense of urgency in a way that you just can’t have in other mediums. I’ve watched people toss their headsets across the room because The Depths scared them so much.
Joe: I’m going to ask a question that your actors probably want to ask. Why include the additional hurdles of being waist-deep in water for the entire film?
Dekker: I’m a masochist. I was in that tank too. Being in it and really feeling what these characters would be feeling was so important for the actors to get to the meat of the story. The water tank was room temperature during the day, freezing at night, and we felt those long, long hours. The first day that I was on set, I spent about 11 ½ to 12 hours in the water. I just never bothered coming back out after, I had to do it. I thought it would be worse for me to get out, get warm and go back in. But another thing is… it wasn’t pool water. It looks like water; it looks like sea water, all brackish and gritty. It’s actually the world’s largest pot of coffee. It’s many thousands upon thousands of gallons of coffee. That’s how we got it to look like sea water. It’s just this gigantic cold brew that we were soaked in, for the whole production.
Joe: That’s one way to keep the cast alert. Did you just destroy all the clothing when you were done?
Dekker: No, we actually still have some of the clothing. You’d be surprised, some people kept some as souvenirs and stuff, it washes out fine.
Joe: You say you were in the tank the whole time. Yet, I’m watching the video and you get a 360o view. Where were you, if we’re not seeing you on the screen? How do you accomplish that?
Dekker: What we did was, we built all the sets in the water tank and the tanks were obviously bigger than the sets. In-between takes, I was kind of going into the room, we’d talk, and do whatever. Then when I was outside the room, I was hanging off to the side with a set of headphones, it was connected into where the audio guy was and I had a little monitor where I can see what was going on in there.
I’d watch the takes from off to the side, but I was still in the water tank. These were such long takes and I have to say the actors did an incredible job taking this material apart. One of the things that’s different about shooting in VR than traditional film, where you’re moving from setup to setup and cut to cut is that you’re going to be going through 3, 4, sometimes 5 pages of dialogue at a clip. Each setup they really have to just be on, they have to nail it. So, in some ways it can move much faster than a traditional film. In other ways it might trip you up if you have a scene that isn’t well rehearsed.
We approached it a little bit like a play. Before we went in and started shooting, I had the guys coming in to a space that was similarly sized to what they’d be working in. We set up a little 3600 camera in the center of it, and I was there with them, and I would walk around watch them rehearse, as they’re just running through the whole thing. I told them “Ignore me” and I would walk from side to side, walk through them. I tried to figure out how I was going to shoot it from what they were doing with their actions and their mannerisms. I had to figure out where I could put my cameras to be the best observer of what they’re bringing.
Joe: Did you have multiple cameras rolling on each take, or did you just have one?
Dekker: We did. We had two different angles. We have so much dialogue to go through on each run, I had to build in something to allow me to get what I need to get from the scene. If there’s a flub and I need to put two different scenes together, the only way to accomplish that is with multiple angles. I had to look into this and acknowledge that we have a limited amount of time to shoot, I have a limited amount of time in post-production. It’s not an open-ended project where we’re going out and experimenting. We’re coming in and creating a series that has a definitive launch day, and we know what we’re doing, we’ve rehearsed for it, we can’t just say, “Oh, ah, let’s go back and let’s play around a little bit more.”
To make sure that I got all the coverage I need, I started approaching it almost like a sitcom. I guess that sounds a funny since it’s a horror show, but you’re on a closed set, you’ve got a light grid on the top of the set, so the set was open on the top. Then we would have multiple angles and we would just run it again and again and again, until we got what we needed. Hopefully we got one really great take and we wouldn’t have to do too much cutting.
In VR anything can ruin a take, so you make a plan. Somebody accidentally drops their… whatever, in this murky awful coffee water. Now we are going to have to cut because they don’t have the props for the scene. Anything can go wrong, and sometimes we got two great takes where there was a very small thing, not performance related, that made a complete take unusable. You have to figure out a way to put those takes together.
Joe: You’re writing it, all VR creators collectively, you guys are writing a new language. It absolutely is a new language with film. It’s funny that it’s such a modern technology, but you are harkening back to the stage. It’s all going back to live performances and you are putting the viewer in that position. I think it’s so fascinating. Any thoughts on that translation?
Dekker: Well, I’ve said that to our actors from the audition phase. I said that you’re going to have to run this almost like a stage production. What I have to do as a director, I just have to be this audience surrogate. I have to be this observer who comes in, looks at the stage, looks at where my lighting is and what I want people to focus on. I’m going to have to be the first person watching this film. The only difference is that I’m just going to watch it happen live and then hopefully we can make the raw materials even better in post.
Joe: How do you approach it as the writer? What are the differences between writing for flat and writing for VR?
Dekker: A lot of it has to do with how you’re conceiving the stage direction. The scene will play out the same way that a traditional scene would play out. You just have to approach it from the standpoint of, ”I’m not going to be able to get an insert shot, I’m not going to be able to get close up here.” All those little quirks and performance things that really come together to make a feature film great. The script has to account for some of this nuance.
Actors can convey so much with a little look or twist of a head, or any of these little cinematic tricks, but you just can’t do that in this medium. It’s very full body. You’re in it– you’re there. So, there’s one scene in the depths where one of the characters sees something that the other ones don’t and he’s going to do something sneaky. I have to find a way to draw your attention to that character in his action, but still have a believable dialog going in the background in case the audience is focusing their attention in that direction. That starts on the page.
Joe: From an acting perspective; the phrase less is more comes to mind. But in a way that’s almost opposite here because like you said, you’re not getting those close-up inserts. You’re not seeing those very subtle, talented reactions. They have to play a little bigger.
Dekker: Right. It’s a middle ground. You don’t have to play as big as you have to play on stage. You just have to communicate with the actors and let them live this experience. I think that that comes back to what we were talking about earlier about being in the freezing cold coffee water for hours and being in these tiny little sets and the whole thing. When you see these guys shivering and when you see them frustrated they can’t find a prop, these things are real moments because they’re playing out as the characters would play them out.
They were really going through some of this stuff and having these so much practical on set with them just brings it to a different level. You’re just there with them as the fourth or fifth person in this story.
Joe: When the first episode started, I actually thought I was one of the characters. I thought that’s where we were going. Any thought to that scenario, where the camera is a character?
Dekker: I haven’t done that. Personally, just artistically, that’s not my thing. I mean other people can probably do that and do that very well, it’s just not my thing. I’ve seen a lot of VR projects but I haven’t really seen one that makes me lose myself and feel like I’m a character. I always go back to the theme park waiting line. It’s like, “We have to go on this great adventure and you’re the only one who can help.”
I’ve seen iterations of that setup my entire life. I grew up in Florida and we used to go to Disney a lot, so I’ve seen it in every single theme park. Then I started seeing it in full motion video games like the Sega CD stuff and all that when I was a teenager — I’m seeing it again with VR. It always feels like a crutch. When you have the ability to make somebody a participant some creators automatically go there but it never feels right.
Joe: As a director of VR, do you use heightened volume to draw their attention, like to a louder door opening on the left, to get them to look that way. Have you done that?
Dekker: Absolutely. We’ve done that in this one. I’m trying to make something that appeals to the most mass audience. That means that it’s everybody from a high end virtual reality headset, all the way down to Google Cardboard. In order to give them a similar experience, we had to mix it in a certain way. We played with volume a lot. We noticed if you have somebody who’s off to the side, or the back, or whatever, and then you mix them a little bit hotter, then you can draw somebody’s attention.
But we had to go a little lo-fi with it. I found that even mixing it stereo, left or right, and this is going to sound like the silliest thing in the world, but just mixing it from left to right can be a total bad move when you’re looking at all these different platforms. Because half of the time, people have their headphones on inverted, they don’t really play close attention to which ear they have their headphones on.
What would end up happening is, we’d mix something that would happen on the left side of the frame. Somebody puts their headphones on backwards and all of a sudden, they hear it on the right, they look over there, and they miss the action.
Joe: How focus tested was this? Would you show it to others to get those kind of thoughts?
Dekker: It’s a very small group, but we would run through episodes. It wasn’t like every single episode was micro-managed. It’s more like we would do a cut and send it to a couple different people. We’d all take a look at it; people would give feedback and say, “Hey, what happened over here? I missed this, or was this part of it?” I would internalize that and we would go back and make these little adjustments.
Joe: What’s next for you? What VR concept has you excited to work on next?
Dekker: Well, we actually previously announced a sci-fi anthology series called Broadcast and that’s going to be releasing soon. We have a couple of projects that we’re working with at the same distributor. Just very excited to keep making and keep exploring new territory. A lot VR and immersive films, they come out and they brand themselves, “It’s a VR experiment. It’s a VR demo.” I don’t like those techie terms, not that I find anything wrong with the people who make this technology possible. It’s very cool, but I think adopting those terms makes the experience a little bit more clinical than I feel it has to be. We’re out to make compelling entertainment and when you start saying that, “Oh, it’s an experiment,” or, “It’s a beta,” or it’s this or that, it just loses some of that magic of cinematic storytelling for me, you know?
Joe: Yes. You’re giving yourself a crutch because anyone who may find themselves not enjoying it for whatever reason can go, “Oh, well, it’s a beta. It’s an experiment. Whatever.” I think a bold creator films their project and pushes forward as a completed experience.
Dekker: Yes, and I think we embraced the limitations of the technology in The Depths. We used the darkness as its own terrifying character, playing with low resolution.
Joe: You had mentioned that earlier. What are the limitations? Why is it low-res? Is it just a bandwidth issue?
Dekker: No. We really leaned into it pretty heavy because I wanted this to feel almost like it was an old CCTV tape, or something brought to life. I wanted you to feel like you were in this dreamlike world. When you’re watching a traditional film, I love 24 frames per second and that whole aesthetic. I’m the guy who turns off the motion flow on my TV and all that. But when you’re shooting something for VR, there are other ways to achieve that dreamlike quality. Often times because of the technical reasons they require certain frame rates or they feel wrong.
Again, you’re leaning into this technology and you say, “Okay, this has to be at 30 frames per second, or 60 frames per second, you lose that motion quality. What’s another way that I can put people into the state of watching a cinematic piece unfold? One of the things that we tried out in this was to have it be a little bit muddy, a little bit dirty, to feel older in a way. To me it’s almost like one of these great old BBC mini-series, like Day of the Triffids, or something like that. It has that crazy, kind of dated quality to it that works with not only the time period that we’re placing it into, but it also firmly entrenches it in that category of the old features that I love, like the late ’70s, early ’80s kind of stuff.
The Depths is available on all major VR Platforms including Playstation VR from Mandt VR via the Littlstar app. Watch the trailer at Mandt VR’s facebook page: