Last month, The Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones released college a cappella's first virtual reality video. Skip Rosamilia was kind of enough to discuss the project with The A Cappella Blog.
The A Cappella Blog: What can you tell us about how the concept for this music video in virtual reality came about? Where did the idea come from? Why was Banks’ “Gemini Feed” the song choice?
The Veritones: We really value pushing the boundaries of not only our music and sound, but also how we can express our music through different media. CS50 approached us this spring about using their 360 VR cameras to create something together in virtual reality. When we excitedly agreed to take on the project, we knew we ran the risk of it amounting to a bunch of us just singing in a circle around a camera in 360. So our group sat down together and discussed “why VR?” Ultimately, we decided we wanted to take this opportunity to create something completely new and groundbreaking that would really push both traditional a cappella music videos as well as make a unique, new contribution to the relatively new VR space.
The concept of the video emerged from these brainstorming discussions around what it was that we wanted to say and do with this medium, and how we would achieve that. We decided on addressing the idea of agency in media, about who ultimately has power in the realm of performance – both literal performance, and metaphorically in the performance of everyday life that we and those we interact with might put on. What expectations, censors, privileged institutions or individuals, and unequal landscapes force us into particular ways of acting? Multiple sides of each individual are showcased throughout the piece and are given varying amounts of power. The viewer is no exception, being placed in different roles throughout (i.e. viewer, participant, performer). In creating the storyboard of the video, we consolidated our ultimate goals and concrete objectives, and worked backwards to figure out exactly what we would need to achieve them both technically and creatively.
We chose Banks’ “Gemini Feed” both because of its musical properties that lent well to the narrative we wanted to create and also due to the strong emotional connection the group has to Banks’ music. This song in particular perfectly helped shape the three central themes to our storyboard: Defiance, Duality, and Distortion. We believe these three themes best encapsulate the we effect we set out to achieve with this medium - to have the viewer begin under the assumption that they are watching a typical pop music video, but, by altering this reality and transforming the virtual space, have the viewer ultimately question what their role might have been in this story.
The A Cappella Blog: What can you tell us about the creative process behind bringing this project to fruition? In particular, how did you come to collaborations with the CS50 program, and with The Vocal Company on different components of this project, and how did those collaborations go? How was this project different from other Veritones endeavors?
The Veritones: The best part of this project is that it pushed everyone involved to the limits of their experience and abilities. Additionally, it proved to be a beast to manage, as it had a ton of moving parts that we had to make sure we kept constantly aligned and to task. The project was driven forward primarily by Skip Rosamilia from the Veritones and Lauren Scully from CS50. The various groups involved were the Veritones, both recording the track as well as blocking the narrative; CS50, who spearheaded production and filming; a Veritones alumnus William Horton, who arranged Gemini Feed; an incredible undergraduate choreographer Josh Lee, who created and coached us on our dance routine; and The Vocal Company, who edited, mixed, and mastered our track. Skip and Lauren met a ton in order to make sure all the various parties kept to the timeline and that all the separate parts informed one another cohesively. Outside of the logistics, it was just really amazing to see so many different people organically coming together to create art. Everything from costuming to technical production aspects to envisioning the storyboard to spitballing publicity materials – all the people involved were just so excited about giving Gemini Feed wings and it yielded a unique, wonderful experience.
We first established our relationship with CS50 two years ago when we worked with their production team to make two other music videos. Through that, we fostered a very collaborative partnership and were excited to take on this new endeavor together. The members of the CS50 production team (made up of both students and professionals) have extensive production experience, as well as specific technical knowledge of VR equipment and capabilities. David Malan (head of CS50) and the CS50 production team are extremely committed to applying CS and their own production expertise to creative endeavors in unique ways, which is what motivated them to approach us with this opportunity. Since VR best practices and technology are still being developed and perfected, we worked very closely together throughout the creative envisioning process to constantly ensure that our vision was both possible and pushing what we could achieve through the VR medium.
On the musical side of things, we chose the Vocal Company for editing and mixing because we knew they’d give life to the track in a unique way. Their extremely talented sound experts are at the front line of pushing the boundaries of recorded a cappella. We knew this project would not necessarily be an easy endeavor, especially when envisioning how to mix for a 360 soundscape. This project demanded extensive collaboration, as the video and sound were both being edited and formed simultaneously. Partnering with them was incredibly rewarding and allowed for the visual and sound to inform one another throughout the process. We’re extremely excited about the cohesive product that resulted.
This project was certainly unique for the Veritones. We’ve been trying to focus more on creative endeavors outside of just live performance, and hope that we’ll be able to take on more opportunities like this in the future.
The A Cappella Blog: Where can interested parties find this video? What should listeners/viewers expect when they encounter it/ What might surprise them?
The Veritones: The video can be viewed on YouTube at the above link both with or without a VR headset on either a mobile phone or desktop computer. However, the experience is definitely optimized for a VR headset, as that way you can feel completely immersed in the space. Instead of simply watching a performance, viewers can expect to feel like they are playing an active role in the story that we tell in our performance, particularly through interactions with the soloist. There is a lot of viewer engagement, changes of scenery and perspective, and playing with hard cuts that all contribute to various elements of surprise. Viewers shouldn’t expect to catch everything there is to see in just one go, so we definitely encourage rewatching it. For example, there are several moments where two scenes or images are presented simultaneously in front of and behind the viewer, making it impossible to catch both of these at once. To us, this is what makes this project so special: it’s a very different experience each time you watch it since every view is unique. That being said, it still has a very clear directionality to the story that won’t leave viewers completely in the dark if they only watch it once.
One important note is that we filmed the music video with the intention of engaging with VR as it could be, not necessarily as it is utilized by the public now. That means that creatively we leaned toward using the medium in a way that would encourage people to put on a headset, rather than filming a video we assumed most people would still use desktops or headset-less mobile devices to watch.
The A Cappella Blog: How does this marriage of a cappella with other art forms and technology fit The Veritones' group identity, or what the group seeks to accomplish? Do you think the group will pursue similar projects in the future? How has this project influenced the group?
The Veritones: As a group, we are devoted to pushing the boundaries of what our music can do. We try to push ourselves in our arrangements and in the production of our recorded material by employing innovative ways to use our voices to produce art. Virtual Reality pushes the boundaries of visual technology and a multi-sensory experience, so this marriage seemed very natural for our group to adopt and work with. That’s not to say this project was not without its fair share of obstacles. Given that this project was the first of its kind, it posed many unforeseen challenges, and there were many moments where it wasn’t always clear what the product would look like or if it would be a success at all, and it demanded a lot from every individual involved. However, when each member took of the headset after watching the final product, it was so gratifying to see pure amazement in everyone’s eyes and the shock at the incredible product we made together. This project really reinforced our values of taking on creative challenges and having each other’s backs to achieve our goals. The Veritones aren’t just a group of students who sing together, but a group that of people who love each other and work hard together to create art, challenge ourselves to push our limits every step of the way.