MECHANICAL SOULS at SXSW 2019’s Virtual Cinema Program

March 11th, 2019

The pilot episode of Mechanical Souls, a multi-segmented narrative VR series which fuses high-cinema production with game-story technology, will be screened at South by Southwest 2019 as part of the festival’s Virtual Cinema Program. Currently a seven-part 360° stereoscopic experience directed by Gaëlle Mourre and written by Mourre and L.P. Lee, Mechanical Souls is presented by Digital Rise and Serendipity Films, in association with DVgroup, Google JUMP, S.G.O. and Kaohsiung VR Film Lab. As part of the Virtual Cinema exhibition, Mechanical Souls in nominated for awards in the categories of Best Film Poster, Best 360 Video, Best Interactive, Best Storytelling and Best Use of the Immersive Arts.

For the first time in VR, Mechanical Souls uses an AI-driven narrative engine to bring each member of the audience a one-of-a-kind viewing experience tailored just for them. Utilizing the engine’s real-time data learning, each participant will see a different storyline through the Acer OJO 500 prototype headset, based on their gaze-interest towards the characters in the story world. Each time an episode is watched, it presents a different edit that gives the viewer an alternate perspective of what happens between the characters.

Gaëlle Mourre took inspiration from L.P. Lee’s short story “Reflections in a Mechanical Eye.” Co-writing the VR script, Mourre and Lee crafted a rich visual world set in an alternative near-future society, where human-like androids have become a part of everyday life. A marker of wealth, they are the ultimate human helper.

In Mechanical Souls, an over-the-top wedding is about to take place in a sumptuous Chinese hotel. Mrs. Song has finally found a good match for her daughter Zhen-Zhen in husband-to-be Li-Wei, the heir of the rich Zhang family. Always keen to be on the cutting edge, Mrs. Song spares no expense (courtesy of Mrs. Zhang’s wallet) and hires the newest generation female android, a beta model called Ah-Hui, to be the bridesmaid. Delighted by their new plaything, Mrs. Song, and later Mrs. Zhang, blithely play around with Ah-Hui’s settings, unaware of the changes happening within Ah-Hui’s nascent mind.

When envisioning the sci-fi universe of Mechanical Souls, Mourre and Lee wanted to support the story’s technological themes in a format that would reflect its content. Mourre explains, “I was convinced that VR was the right platform, one reason being that VR generates empathy from the viewer. At its core, Mechanical Souls is a very human story, so it only makes sense to tap into the medium’s immersive potential.”

The story’s universality was strengthened by the work of a truly international production crew. French VR creative studio Digital Rise executive produced, developing the artistic vision of Mechanical Souls as a VR story with Mourre and Lee. Digital Rise also secured financing and tech support from DVgroup, the major immersive studio from France.

Serendipity Films came on board during development, bringing feature-filmmaking resources and VR experience from Taiwan, making Mechanical Souls the first-ever France-Taiwan VR co-production. The team determined the story’s core themes of arranged marriage and traditional Chinese society could best be expressed in Taiwan, leading them to secure an all-Asian cast, as well as financial support from Taiwan Kaohsiung Film Archive.

To shoot the 360° film and produce 8Kx8K stereoscopic pictures, the project received support from the Google Jump start program, which provided the Yi HALO camera. In post production, the team used a SGO Mistika Ultima pipeline that is a standard in the classic cinema industry. For the development of the interactive story engine, the team had technological support from Unity and Acer.