As part of an initiative led by the cultural services of the French Embassy in Canada, with the support of the Consulate General of France in Québec, coordinated by Alliance Française de Vancouver in partnership with Xn Québec, we are proposing a series of portraits of the XR industry in Canada. Through this series of portraits which discuss the history and vision of these companies, we invite you to discover the talents behind the immersive and techno-creative studios listed in our database of XR in Canada.
Midway through this portrait series, we present you Infinite Frame Media (formerly Tribe of Pan), an innovative Toronto-based studio developing stereoscopic volumetric technologies along with thought-provoking documentaries.
With a background in 3D filmmaking, Infinite Frame Media takes an innovative approach to VR documentary filmmaking. Co-founder Joanne Popińska, originally from Poland, came to Canada at the height of the popularity of stereoscopic filmmaking. “When 3D died,” she recalls, “I did like many others and pivoted pretty naturally into VR.” For partner and collaborator Tom C. Hall, the transition from 3D to VR was not only natural, but also an important lesson: “I used to work in stereoscopic movies back when those were made, at the heels of Avatar. But seeing how 3D 360 video translated into VR headsets, I realized that wasn’t the strength of the medium. That’s when we decided to focus on fully immersive, six degree of freedom (6DoF) environments.”
A formative experience for Infinite Frame came from the working on SESQUI: Horizon, a 360° video project that was produced to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. “At the time,” Tom admits, “some people thought this was probably as good as it gets for 360° video, but that’s not what really interested us.” That’s when the company decided they were going to have to develop their own technology and approach. Why? “We wanted to capture real life—particularly people—in a way that feels authentic to them, all that without the limitations of 3D or 360° video,” Tom recounts.
A different approach
For Joanne, the thought process around the potential of VR started with experiments using a first-person perspective: putting the camera on someone’s head and showing it to viewers. When they realized people felt a deep connection—assuming the body they could see was their own, even if they couldn’t use it due to a lack of interactivity—Infinite Frame decided to analyze this trend deeper and research how this first-person approach can be used further in VR to connect them with what they are seeing. “That’s where the idea for The Choice came from,” Joanne specifies: “We put viewers in front of another person, eye-to-eye with them so they could feel as though they were having a conversation together.” Joanne and Tom insist that “this was a pivotal moment for the company.”
Thanks to their background in stereoscopic 3D and thanks to their knowledge of the limitations of this technology, the duo knew they would have to focus on volumetric capture. According to Tom, “the interesting thing is that you can have the advantages of what VR provides (namely 6Dof) while also avoiding the synthetic appearance of a lot of VR.” But volumetric capture in and of itself was not actually sufficient. “When we started working on The Choice,” Joanne recalls, “we tested both cheap and very expensive solutions, but we discovered that most of them weren’t actually enough. Depth Kit, for example, can look very ghostly, while larger volumetric stages have much better visual quality, but they are still missing something.”
Two eyes are better than one
An ineffable quality was missing from traditional volumetric tools, which turned out to be stereoscopy. As Joanne explains: “stereoscopy is something that allows you to see a certain light and life in people’s eyes.” This is due to an effect called “retinal rivalries,” where each eye sees something slightly different than the other, revealing certain qualities in one eye that the other doesn’t perceive. “If you remove those slight disparities from a face,” Tom clarifies, “what you end up getting in a lot of volumetric capture technologies—especially those based on photogrammetry—is the impression that they’re made out of clay; they’re completely diffused!” Infinite Frame’s stereoscopic capture strategy reintroduces those artifacts. “It really helps us jump over the uncanny valley. The person’s face feels more like a living person and less like some sort of Star Wars hologram,” Tom adds.
To achieve this effect, the company had to develop their own capture technology, combining the two aspects: volumetric and stereoscopy. As Joanne explains, “we also wanted to be able to travel to people, rather than having them sit in a huge volumetric stage. These are not professional actors, and we wanted to capture them as if you were talking to a person in your life.” The resulting process is at once more complete and realistic than other solutions, while also being more mobile and easy to set up. “That was big for us!”
To emphasize the simplicity of this approach in comparison to other solutions in the field, consider the experiments that have been done with lightfield technologies. Tom comments that such an approach does create a very convincing effect, but at a significant cost: “You have a giant array of cameras and it’s just cost prohibitive. In order to create the illusion, we only need two distinct left and right images, so we only have two colour cameras.” While most people probably won’t understand the value of this hybrid volumetric/stereoscopic approach, seeing truly is believing. That’s where The Choice comes in.
Case studies: The Choice
The Choice is a non-fiction experience that deals with two issues that are seldom discussed in VR. Abortion is at the forefront of the experience, and certainly the most recognizable of the two. That being said, the experience is arguably even more about stereotypes and about what is needed to break them. This interest for undoing stereotypes comes from Joanne’s training as a sociologist and documentary filmmaker. Drawing from her expertise, she focused on presence and proximity as two key factors in achieving the goals of The Choice. While presence relates to the sense of being there which has long been recognized in VR, Joanne defines proximity as “the physical distance that correlates with mental distance (or how you treat and think about people).” Since, as Joanne points out, “the best way to work with stereotypes is often to meet in person,” presence and proximity combine to encourage the kind of compassion that might help dispel hurtful stereotypes.
“We wanted to translate this feeling into The Choice because our goal is to affect what and how people think of others,” the director explains. The Choice does so by recreating the situation of meeting someone and having a conversation with them. On a mechanical level, this works by having users select from a few questions that allow them to steer the discussion in a number of directions. On a visual level, this functions by having you (the interviewer) and her (the interviewee) face to face, as you would when speaking to anyone in real life.
You are yourself
The approach adopted for The Choice is notable in that it does not give users a fake backstory to contextualize their experience. “I want my viewers to enter and to have this conversation as themselves—with their identity, with their consciousness and their own thoughts. I want them to be aware that we’re inviting them directly.” A good point of comparison that deals with this differently is Asad Malik’s Terminal 3, where you are asked to become an interrogator at the border, making decisions on whether you allow somebody into the US or not.
“In our case,” Joanne adds, “I didn’t want you to think that you were someone else and have to imagine who this person is. I want you to know that you are part of this conversation, whether you have a personal connection with the story or not.” Speaking on those experiences where users are asked to play a role, Tom argues that “it’s not you making decisions, it’s the role you’re playing who’s making the decisions. This means there’s an emotional separation from the process.” Of course, this can be for good reasons (e.g., it creates a comfort zone to experiment with or to project yourself onto). For The Choice, “we figured that if you put on the headset to watch this project, you’ve already made the decision to be a part of this conversation and so you don’t need to take on a fake role. You’re interacting, as yourself, with a real person and a real story.”
“I don’t really like the expression ‘empathy machine’,” Joanne admits, “I prefer to talk about compassion and understanding. I would rather people realize their own point of view is not the only one. My goal with The Choice was only to get people thinking.” This approach is a breath of fresh air when we consider so many VR creations have tried to put users “in the shoes” of a given character. Indeed, The Choice is closer to Carne y Arena (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2017) or The Book of Distance (Randall Okita, 2020) in that users are simply expected to be with the character and not to “become a character in the film” as has often been the case.
In The Choice, however, the approach is less sensationalist than in Iñárritu’s spectacular installation. Rather, the emphasis is on listening to what the women featured in the project have to say about their experience with abortion. “Our goal with the technology was to simulate the situation of meeting somebody, allowing them in your personal space and then, having this psychological effect as a result of having a conversation with them,” Joanne summarizes.
As Joanne and Tom explain, the results of The Choice so far have been much bigger than initially expected: “We’ve shown it to people who are anti-choice and who often end up in tears at the end, saying they had never thought about the issue that way. We also have people coming back to us months later saying that they’re still thinking about it or that they’ve changed how they think about these issues.” Comparing the results they have witnessed from showing the same testimonies both in VR and as a flat video, Tom notes that “in VR you have somebody’s undivided attention. It won’t necessarily make people more empathetic, but it does mean that we can use their attention in a more effective way. Even if the interactions we offer in The Choice aren’t that complex (only dialogue options), it makes people feel more engaged in the conversation.”
These positive results belie the rocky road that led to the project’s completion. “The biggest challenge was financing the project,” Joanne tells us. This is both because of the type of project and because of its topic. “When we were starting, institutions such as Telefilm or the Canada Arts Council did not want to finance the standalone VR projects. They had to be attached to a more traditional film or documentary project.” Tom adds that, much in the same way, it was hard to get funding from agencies that usually support games and interactive media: “Our project isn’t just 360° video! It’s made in a game engine. But then, if we try to apply for funding from the Interactive Digital Media Fund, we’re competing with traditional video games. The fit isn’t right there either.”
As you might expect, the subject matter was also a roadblock toward funding the project. As Joanne recalls, “people were telling us off the record that they loved our project, but they could not officially attach their name to it.” Despite those setbacks, the project eventually had success through crowdfunding campaigns: first Kickstarter and more recently Kaleidoscope (now Artizen). “Other than that, we have a lot of support from pro-choice organizations like Abortion Rights Coalition, Canada and Abortion Conversation Projects.”
Another challenge that will be familiar to anyone working in the field of XR is the tension between a creative mindset and the larger context of the tech industry. As Tom explains, “since we’re developing the technology, we get a lot of pressure from people telling us ‘you should turn this into a product!’ or ‘you should expand the feature set.’ Well, no!” As with other companies developing new technologies for creative purposes, the process developed by Infinite Frame Media for The Choice wasn’t born out of a start-up mentality. “As VR creators,” Tom summarizes, “we find ourselves out of step with other parts of the industry where the product comes first. The start-up mentality of building a product, scaling up, and then exiting is not the filmmaker model at all!”
Conclusion: Lessons for the Future
Despite these challenges, the experience has been enlightening. “Working as filmmakers in VR, we learned you have to synthesize the mentality of being a filmmaker and the mentality of being a software company. Those are incompatible in many ways.” Notably, the traditional documentary filmmaker’s ability to adapt to what’s happening in front of them is replaced by the need to stop and think about the underlying structure of a project. “It can be hard to understand that every single bit of interaction is actually a very complicated mechanism that’s not as flexible as it might appear. That’s a big learning curve that we have witnessed, both in our own experience and from seeing other people move from traditional media into VR.” For Joanne, the lessons learned from The Choice have been “constantly thinking about the story and about how the technology affects, changes and carries it. What is possible? What is impossible? What is worth doing? What is my team able to do? There are some things you can translate into VR, and some you should not.”
So far, Joanne and Tom have filmed six interviews for The Choice. The goal is to finalize the first full-scope chapter, premiere it at a festival before moving on to working on the other chapters and to filming more interviews. When thinking about the future of their technical approach, beyond The Choice, Joanne and Tom seem hopeful about how their process could be used by others in the future. Notably, one of the motivating factors for Infinite Frame when seeking out potential partnerships is the ability to discover new applications for the approach the company has developed. “There are people from all diverse backgrounds and cultures that might have ideas for this approach that we can’t even fathom and who might just need something like this to realize them,” Tom explains. “We’re always interested in soliciting them or hearing them.”
Mapping XR in Canada
Do you want to develop a collaboration with Canada? Discover Canada’s immersive and techno-creative studios by checking out Québec/Canada XR’s living database of XR in Canada.
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