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Mika Johnson experiments with VR storytelling in ‘Kafkaesque’ project

Filmmaker Mika Johnson on storytelling through virtual reality and giving the term ‘Kafkaesque’ another dimension.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra |
Updated: October 10, 2019 7:37:23 pm
Mika Johnson (above); a participant during Johnson’s VR experiment Abhinav Saha

In the late 19th century, when the film industry was in its nascent stages, the grammar of the medium was not much more than a replica of its precursor — theatre. At the turn of the century, the medium unearthed the close-up shot, the wide shot, and the moving camera — an entirely new language for storytelling. “It’s funny, in retrospect, that it took 15 to 20 years to figure out the grammar of cinema,” said filmmaker Mika Johnson, 44, at New Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan to an audience of art and technology enthusiasts.

At the cusp of another storytelling revolution with virtual reality (VR) technology, Johnson is bored with Hollywood executives who want to shallowly take the language of film and apply it to VR. “We are still using the same grammar as cinema. VR is a non-linear medium with a grammar that is not just close to, but is identical to the dreams. We don’t know what that grammar is yet,” he said.

Johnson’s latest artistic experimentation with virtual reality is his attempt to crack this new language, taking the term ‘Kafkaesque’ to another dimension. Touring in Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi, Karachi among others, Johnson has adapted one of the most famous opening scenes from classic literature — when protagonist Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, wakes up as an insect in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis — for VR.

For ‘VRWandlung’ (a pun on the German word verwandlung meaning metamorphosis), the participant adorns a weighty virtual reality headset with headphones, comfortable slippers, and hefty gloves with sensors in a makeshift darkroom with futuristic blue lighting. The scene begins with a black screen; then you wake up in a bed in 1915.
Peeling flowery wallpaper, grey light and sounds of rain from a small window, all seems normal. Until you peer at your own hands and your own body, and you see the “armour-like back”, the tentacle limbs, and the drooping antenna above you. As you walk through the space, it’s clearly a digital rendering with giveaway computer glitches. But once you stare into a cheval mirror and watch your movements transplanted onto a life-sized vermin, it takes a few seconds to re-calibrate.

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For the next four minutes, you can explore the simulated details of a world that 30 professionals in Prague took seven weeks to painstakingly handmake in physical space and reconstruct in the virtual. They borrowed from the story aesthetically and from Kafka’s biography to present the mundane madness of daily life. There is the photo on the wall of a lady dressed in copious fur, the chest of drawers with sewing objects, the writing table with handwritten letters, and the alarm clock among others.

‘What a quiet life it is the family leads,’ said Gregor to himself, and, gazing into the darkness… ‘But what now, if all this peace and wealth and comfort should come to a horrible and frightening end?’ reads the translation of the story by David Wyllie.

Johnson imagined the piece as a shrine, as an ode to Kafka, and not a game. But, many participants in Europe have interacted with the space looking for something to do. Johnson said he’s had a more gratifying tour in India, where viewers are moved simply by the experience of walking through a digital space. “Visually, all the talent is here to do virtual reality. And to do it cheaper, and faster,” Johnson said from his experience of working with Indian CGI artists, colour gradists, and cinematographers. “You have people here who can create striking visual environments. So they just have to get a hold of the technology. The technology right now is expensive, but it won’t be in the future.”

Currently, the Oculus Quest, released after Facebook bought leading maker Oculus, is the latest standard with no wires and no PC. It costs around $400. Google’s affordable cardboard model, which provides a similar effect with one’s own phone, is slowly coming in, but is still without mass appeal in India.

According to Johnson, China currently leads in terms of creative and cutting-edge artistic uses of virtual reality, while Germany and Switzerland has the most funding for experimentation. But it is only a matter of five to 10 years before India will join the wave, Johnson believes.

The exhibit will be in Mumbai from October 12 to 21 and will be open to the public.

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