This October, Portland-based 360 Labs will premiere the latest project in an evolving discipline: films and animations made to be experienced in virtual reality. “Through Darcelle’s Eyes,” takes full advantage of the medium to tell the amazing story of Darcelle XV, the octogenarian drag queen whose reign in Old Town is the stuff of legend. But in this film, you, as the viewer, have some control over the story.
When you don the headset and enter 360 Labs’ experience, Darcelle will receive you in the rococo sequin-spangled parlor of her home.
“So you’d like to see my crowns,” she says, while offering a precarious-looking tiered model. “I can wear that while I’m doing housework!”
And as Darcelle chats, you can turn your head and take in a staggering collection of gowns, crowns, jewelry, trophies, gilt china, chandeliers and more. It’s almost hard to know where to look first.
Walter Cole, 87, Darcelle’s alter ego, has been doing drag for more than 50 years. He grew up in North Portland, served in the military, married a woman and had two kids. Then, in 1967, Cole bought the club that would become an Oregon legend, the oldest running drag show west of the Mississippi. The club’s iconic status as a haven for Portland’s gay community has meant a lot of people have retold Darcelle’s story over the years.
“I haven’t heard a new question,” he says, of his biographers. The 360 Labs project represents the third time he’s been interviewed for film over the years. But he says when the team approached him, he wasn’t entirely sure what they were proposing.
VR narrative experiences are new for a lot of people, including some working in the industry. But the medium’s converts feel strongly about its power and potential. Rachel Bracker, the co-director of “Through Darcelle’s Eyes,” works as an independent filmmaker and teaches 360-degree video at NW Documentary.
“As a viewer,” Bracker says, “I feel like I’m my best self [while] viewing 360 experiences, because I’m engaged. I have this thing on my face that’s almost calling me to pay attention. I’m alert, I’m there. And when I’m scrolling through my news feed or watching something on the couch, it feels more passive.”
360 Labs was founded by three guys with photography backgrounds who were self-employed, making commercial images for use in Google Maps: Thomas Hayden, Matt Rowell, and Brad Gill (he’s also co-directing the Darcelle documentary.)
“We actually were butting heads trying to reach out to the same clients,” Gill says. “One day I actually sent Thomas and Matt a message [which] said, ‘Hey, we need to actually get together and see how we can build something bigger and better.’”
The three joined forces in 2014, just before the consumer-grade VR headsets made by Oculus became a household name. Suddenly a lot more content producers and companies were interested in having things to show consumers who’d shelled out for VR gear. 360 Labs has taken cameras up a 200-foot tall tree on the Oregon Coast with Columbia Sportswear, and rafted the Grand Canyon for Google. But the company is also doing passion projects, like an experience amid the wildfire-scorched areas of the Columbia River Gorge and the Darcelle documentary.
The team can give you an earful about the myriad possibilities of 360-degree video for things as complex as helping veterans heal psychological trauma, or as simple as recording life’s milestones. But Thomas Hayden says, beyond the visceral joys of immersive video, the VR experience has a great deal to offer in terms of storytelling power.
“The experience of being around the network of people that, that hold [Darcelle] up, that support her and help her get on stage every day, but also help her get to lunch — everything else that, that our elders need. I think it’s really super cool that’s being shown to a, hopefully a younger audience that might not appreciate what goes into the making of a legend.”
360 Labs is not the only company in the region making quality VR narratives.
Washington County’s Panogs has become one of the top players in the field, in no small part due to its Emmy-award-winning production, “Capturing Everest.”
Commissioned by Sports Illustrated for LIFE/VR, it’s an eye-popping story of one of the most iconic environments on earth, and the people who journey there. (The trailer, which should be viewed on Vimeo to get the full effect, is a must-see that lets you click and pull to move around in each shot.)
Panogs co-founder Gavin Farrell says the industry is dealing with challenges. Production costs are more than with traditional film — sometimes three times as much. Post-production takes longer, too. But Farrell believes VR experiences will soon be funded in the same way as any other direct-to-web project.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Farrell says. “I’m going to give it maybe a year, we’re going to start seeing Netflix premium channels, Amazon VR channels. They’re going to probably end up taking over what we now refer to as the leaders, like Oculus.”
Stories made for VR share some DNA with the glossy games that have dominated the VR experience market. But quality can vary a lot from studio to studio. Narrative projects often don’t look as good on a consumer-grade headset as they do on a good 4K monitor. Even game designers have a challenging time making VR narratives work. It’s less a question of technical know-how, and more a problem of securing funding for the lengthy, expensive process of creating and stitching together 360-degree visuals.
Supergenius Studio, based in Oregon City, is a top destination for developers in 2D and 3D animation. It’s a problem-solver for some of the industry’s biggest VR game makers — VR gear-maker Oculus is one of its major clients. But the company’s CEO, Paul Culp, started Supergenius working on a side project called “Contact.exe.”
“It’s a story that I wanted to tell and didn’t know how to do it in any other medium,” Culp says. “The thing with VR is it incorporates all of that and more into this universe. You can live in it, you can tell a complex story, especially with replay ability. You’d be experienced it multiple times and you pick up new elements of the story.”
“Contact.exe” is a work of episodic fiction, asking the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” It’s rendered in a glimmering landscape, whose purple skies are lit up with moments of otherworldly spectacle collaged with homey touches like a beat-up couch with a plaid blanket that you’d swear you’ve slouched on one summer vacation. The story works very hard not to shove any particular answer down the user’s throat. Culp says it’s key that developers of VR narrative projects help people understand what VR is capable of.
“The emphasis that it’s all video games is a tough one to overcome. I think people automatically assume it’s guns and explosions and driving safer vehicles in fantasy. That’s such a small, narrow view of what it can be.”
Supergenius’ chief operating officer, Peter Lund, says “Contact.exe” will get made. But it’s going to have to happen slowly, as the market for VR experiences is still forming.
“Right now” Lund says, “if we launched this thing, there probably aren’t enough humans out there in the world to make this project profitable. The content platforms are all hungry for this content, and so they’re buying it.”
But they’re not buying it at a price point that pencils out.
There are studios like Supergenius, Panogs and 360 Labs that will make these narratives for their sheer power.
Darcelle’s alter ego, Walter Cole, got pretty emotional when he saw his story on VR.
“It’s so different than anything you’ve ever seen of yourself,” he muses. “It felt more real. It also felt, almost — almost not real.”
Sure, the visuals was dizzying. But the real showstopper wasn’t panoramic views — it was peoples’ faces, like in the sequence capturing her at Portland’s gay pride parade.
“The feeling of thousands of people watching along the way. It was overwhelming emotionally for me — everybody up screaming and yelling ‘Darcelle’. I got a couple tears and goosebumps.”