‘Dinner Party’ relives an interracial couple’s alien abduction in VR
On the night of September 19th, 1961, Barney and Betty Hill were the victims of the first widely publicized alien abduction in US history. The Hills, an interracial couple active in the civil-rights movement, were on their way home from a trip to Niagara Falls when they noticed an unusual light in the sky. Shaken by the erratic behavior of the UFO, they headed in the direction of the closest town but never made it.
Dinner Party was made possible through funding from the Engadget Alternate Realities grant program, established in May 2017. It will debut, along with four other prize-winning immersive-media projects, at the Engadget Experience on November 14th, 2017. For more information about the Engadget Experience, the grant program and the grantees visit our events page, and click here to buy your ticket to the event before they run out.
Somewhere along the way, they turned off the road, where they encountered a fiery orb, but they couldn’t quite recall what happened next. For months after, they were stalked by an unnerving feeling, but it wasn’t until they underwent hypnosis that the two recovered the detailed and disparate memories of their abduction.
The Zeta Reticuli incident, as it came to be known, is the subject of books, TV shows, federal investigations, conspiracy theories and cable-TV specials. There are seemingly countless ways to consume the Hills’ abduction. Now Laura Wexler wants you to experience it. Wexler, a writer and producer whose works include a book about the last mass lynching in the United States, came across the Hills’ abduction while researching another project with her writing partner, Charlotte Stoudt, whose writing and producing credits include House of Cards and Homeland. The two were immediately drawn to the story not only for its supernatural appeal but also because of the real-world parallels with racial tensions in the United States today.
“These were two people taken from the same car, as they reported, and had really different experiences,” Wexler said. “One, a white woman; one, a black man — and to me, that was an opportunity to explore a racial dynamic. Not just a UFO story, though UFO stories are great, but to explore to what degree race and race in America, in particular, affected the experiences they reported as these UFO abductees.”
Wexler says the story was the perfect fit for virtual reality, which has been repeatedly referred to as the empathy machine for its ability to put the user in another’s shoes. In its current form, Dinner Party is a two-part VR experience. In the opening scene, the audience is transported to the Hills’ home. The couple entertains guests and prepares the dining room table for dinner until Betty interrupts the festivities with a surprise. She’s decided to play the couple’s hypnosis tapes for the first time. From there, the viewer is transported to the car on the night of the abduction and experiences the alien encounter as the Hills recalled it.
The Hills’ story is the first experience in a series called The Incident, which Wexler and Stoudt hope will become the Twilight Zone of the VR era. It’s an ambitious project with the support of some influential virtual-reality players behind it. The pair developed the concept earlier this summer at the Sundance New Frontier Lab, a weeklong workshop for artists and storytellers who embrace new technologies. There they met Saschka Unseld, the co-founder of Oculus Story Studio and celebrated director of Dear Anjelica, who would become a consultant on the project.
New Frontier then led to a fellowship at Technicolor Experience Center (yes, that Technicolor), which provided the two with access to visual-effects experts and tools that would have otherwise been out of reach. From there, RYOT* Studio’s Angel Soto, director of the critically acclaimed VR short Bashir’s Dream, came on board. Skybound, the company behind The Walking Dead, joined as a production partner and Telexist, co-founded by director of photography Sam Gazari, signed on as the show’s VR producer.
The moment I stepped on set, I was struck by the sheer scale of the project. There were so many people on set, it was hard to tell what half of them did. There were script supervisors and caterers, gaffers and gofers, art directors, set designers and lighting techs. There were craft services and a makeshift dressing room. There was even a row of directors chairs occupied by a small group of people who looked like they just rolled out of a sound bath in Joshua Tree and a guy with a booming voice whose sole occupation seemed to be shouting down their gossip.
The point is, there’s nothing small about this production — that is, except for the camera. For its relative scale, the nine-lens shooter has an outsize role in Dinner Party. On the day we visited set, a 30-foot techno-crane filled the middle of the soundstage. The 360-degree camera, a Z Cam v1 Pro, affixed to the end of the crane floated above a modestly set dining room table. The arrangement was necessary to facilitate a carefully orchestrated four-minute continuous shot, in which the camera (and thus the viewer) seems to take on a life of its own.
“A lot of times in VR you’re giving the camera either sort of a bird’s-eye perspective or a fly on the wall,” Gazari said. “There’s a voyeuristic element to that, and if you introduce something like body presence, you’re going to have explain why that’s there. This was a case where we wanted to free ourselves up from that a little bit — tie the camera movement into overarching narrative and create something that hasn’t been done very often.”
The use of camera movement and a single continuous shot not only broke with established 360-degree cinema techniques but answered a question that Wexler and Stoudt encountered repeatedly during their time at the New Frontier Labs: Who is the camera?
“It was very organic. It wasn’t done on purpose, and I think that was the beauty of it,” Soto said. “You are this omnipresent being that’s there all the time, tormenting them, following them, studying them, like God.”
*RYOT is owned by Verizon, Engadget’s parent company.