The ‘Circa 1948’ project: using today’s technology to visit the past

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time to see how people lived, to walk the streets and listen in on conversations in the vernacular of the time? Well, now you can.

We recently reached out to Loc Dao, executive producer and creative technologist at the Vancouver-based National Film Board of Canada, to find out more about its Circa 1948 project, which takes people back to a photoreal Vancouver in 1948. In addition to Dao, who is co-producer on Circa 1948, art lead Jonny Ostrem also weighs in.

This immersive experience — for iPhone, iPad, installation and interactive desktop — lets viewers travel in time, so to speak. For those of you who are fans of Star Trek: Next Generation, you are going to love this. But it’s more than just traveling back in time to meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, for example (I’m looking at you Trekkies), it’s about exploring and learning from history.

three guys small

Stan Douglas, Jonny Ostrem (sitting) and Loc Dao.

What is Circa 1948, how was the project conceived, and who are the creative parties involved?
Loc Dao: Circa 1948 is an immersive realtime 3D noir game, iPhone and iPad app, as well as a physical Holodeck interactive installation, where users can experience a time and a place that no longer exists. (For those non-Star Trek fans, a Holodeck is a fictional hologram-filled room located on starships, but it has now come to mean any simulated reality facility.)

The project is about the ways in which immersive touch, gyroscope and full-body experience technology can allow us to explore and learn from our history. Circa 1948 audiences are reminded of how history repeats itself by observing how patterns emerge in behavior, culture and balance of power. Participants are transported 66 years back in time where they can eavesdrop on conversations of people talking about current affairs.

The project is co-created by Stan Douglas and The National Film Board (NFB) Digital Studio. Stan came up with the idea five years ago while struck by the mix of hope of the Obama era and social issues that were eerily similar to any city in North America in the late ‘40s and now.

Circa 1948 features amazingly photorealistic environments. How did your team set out to design them? Where were the original historical images sourced?
Dao: The characters are inspired by real people and by life and events of that period. The themes include a recession and banking system in trouble, a housing crisis, racial tension and the social dynamics of poverty and wealth affecting urban planning, all of which are true to Vancouver and most North American cities then and now.

Stan found photographs of the time period from the City of Vancouver archives and the Vancouver Sun newspaper, which we used as reference images for the project.

Jonny Ostrem: It’s photographic. It’s meant to be. We were imitating photos in creating Circa 1948. Our aim was to create “without style.” It’s an attempt to create an objective aesthetic, as difficult as that is. There are elements of darkness and mystery in the shadows that hide some of the detail. There are nooks of detail you can only find through exploration and curiosity.

We strove to be objective, and it came through in a number of ways, such as, “What is the diameter of a nickel? How thick is a window frame? How tall is a door?” So, that led to one of the key decisions around Circa; we didn’t just make a rectangle and throw wood texture on it. We built the tree — the trunk, the bark and the edge grain. Then we researched how people at that time would split up that trunk. We then split up the log and used the wood to construct our fences, porches and balconies for Hogan’s Alley.

walking in vancouver

What tools did your team use to create the experience?
Dao: We started with Autodesk Maya 3D animation and visual effects software, rendered in Turtle, touched up with Adobe Photoshop and created our own workflow for importing the renders into our source file repository, which then moved to our development environment for Mac’s iOS and OS X.

We built the iPad and iPhone app in Objective C and for the interactive installation desktop version we used Apple XCode. The heart of project is our open source, realtime 3D engine Kraken — written in C++ by Kearwood Gilbert. Project director Kelly Richard Fennig was our workflow mastermind who brought the whole team and project together.

Ostrem: “In Kraken, we wrapped a simple polygonal object in a texture. Then we exported these objects into Kraken, which had never been done before.”

How did the team leverage Maya, and how did it help the artists tell their story?
Dao: Maya allowed the artists to recreate each object, room and house and to design the lighting and ultimately, create the visual story. It was our main content creation tool and allowed us to realize our vision. Maya also helped us place the ghosts of people into the app by generating their locations and movements, which were then translated to animations in our app.

Ostrem: In my mind when we were modeling in the first phase, I had this term in my head, which was “method modeling.” I tried to put myself in the mindset of the people who were in that space — and tried to model as though I were them. For example, I’m a guy who has a pile of wood, and it’s time for me to make a shack. Then I would try to construct it from the ground up in that same way — in the kind of haphazard and realistic way. So, if I don’t really know how to make a shack, I’ll just go build one.

What technical challenges did your team face in creating Circa 1948 for three separate platforms (an iOS app, interactive installation and website)? How did you overcome them?
Developing an immersive art app for touch and gyroscope as well as an interactive installation that functions like a Holodeck — tracking your skeleton and head — and projection mapping the world of Circa 1948 in realtime has been one of the most challenging things we’ve ever attempted.

As a public producer, we’ve built a way of telling stories that embraces the future of interactive storytelling and hope to share what we’ve learned through industry case studies and maybe even giving back to the community through open source initiatives.

Ostrem: “There were three big challenges while striving for realism and historical accuracy at an extremely high level. We wanted to make it realistic from all perspectives, not just one. Creating the sheer volume of detail required us to make a neighborhood or hotel realistic. There were more than 60 buildings that had to have all the authentic details of a real building. A small team handled the entire project; there were only two or three artists working on an entire neighborhood.

Lastly, having it all perform on a mobile device. We spent a year doing this. We had to make sure we provided the most we could with as little as possible and build systems with multiple levels of detail.

What about the techniques your team deployed to push the traditional limits of 3D rendering on a tablet? How do they impact the overall user experience?
Ostrem: Kraken is open source with a great navigation mode; its viewport mode reacts to the gyro of your iPhone and adds a level of connection with the world. You get a feeling of persistent time and a parallel world. Because Kraken is meant to be a 3D visual engine, it doesn’t have stuff other 3D engines have that make them slower to perform. We’ve even taken 3D scan data, put it into Kraken and seen multiple millions of points in a 3D engine reacting in realtime, which to me was just astounding.

Where can our readers go to find out more?
Dao: The Circa 1948 app is available on iTunes as a free download, or you can check out the website. The NFB has also released over 30 other projects, which you can find at I recommend looking at Bear 71 and The Last Hunt apps.
Images Courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada. 

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