By Jennifer Walden
Delusion: Lies Within is a cinematic VR series from writer/director Jon Braver. It is available on the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Go and Rift platforms. The story follows a reclusive writer named Elena Fitzgerald who penned a series of popular fantasy novels, but before the final book in the series was released, the author disappeared. Rumors circulated about the author’s insanity and supposed murder, so two avid fans decide to break into her mansion to search for answers. What they find are Elena’s nightmares come to life.
Delusion: Lies Within is based on an interactive play written by Braver and Peter Cameron. Interactive theater isn’t your traditional butts-in-the-seat passive viewing-type theater. Instead, the audience is incorporated into the story. They interact with the actors, search for objects, solve mysteries, choose paths and make decisions that move the story forward.
Like a film, the theater production is meticulously planned out, from the creature effects and stunts to the score and sound design. With all these components already in place, Delusion seemed like the ideal candidate to become a cinematic VR series. “In terms of the visuals and sound, the VR experience is very similar to the theatrical experience. With Delusion, we are doing 360° theater, and that’s what VR is too. It’s a 360° format,” explains Braver.
While the intent was to make the VR series match the theatrical experience as much as possible, there are some important differences. First, immersive theater allows the audience to interact with the actors and objects in the environment, but that’s not the case with the VR series. Second, the live theater show has branching story narratives and an audience member can choose which path he/she would like to follow. But in the VR series there’s one set storyline that follows a group who is exploring the author’s house together. The viewer feels immersed in the environment but can’t manipulate it.
According to supervising sound editor Thomas Ouziel from Hollywood’s MelodyGun Group, “Unlike many VR experiences where you’re kind of on rails in the midst of the action, this was much more cinematic and nuanced. You’re just sitting in the space with the characters, so it was crucial to bring the characters to life and to design full sonic spaces that felt alive.”
In terms of workflow, MelodyGun sound supervisor/studio manager Hamed Hokamzadeh chose to use the Oculus Developers Kit 2 headset with Facebook 360 Spatial Workstation on Avid Pro Tools. “Post supervisor Eric Martin and I decided to keep everything within FB360 because the distribution was to be on a mobile VR platform (although it wasn’t yet clear which platform), and FB360 had worked for us marvelously in the past for mobile and Facebook/YouTube,” says Hokamzadeh. “We initially concentrated on delivering B-format (2nd Order AmbiX) playing back on Gear VR with a Samsung S8. We tried both the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and Shure SRH840 headphones to make sure it translated. Then we created other deliverables: quad-binaurals, .tbe, 8-channel and a stereo static mix. The non-diegetic music and voiceover was head-locked and delivered in stereo.”
From an aesthetic perspective, the MelodyGun team wanted to have a solid understanding of the audience’s live theater experience and the characters themselves “to make the VR series follow suit with the world Jon had already built. It was also exciting to cross our sound over into more of a cinematic ‘film world’ than was possible in the live theatrical experience,” says Hokamzadeh.
Hokamzadeh and Ouziel assigned specific tasks to their sound team — Xiaodan Li was focused on sound editorial for the hard effects and Foley, and Kennedy Phillips was asked to design specific sound elements, including the fire monster and the alchemist freezing.
Ouziel, meanwhile, had his own challenges of both creating the soundscape and integrating the sounds into the mix. He had to figure out how to make the series sound natural yet cinematic, and how to use sound to draw the viewer’s attention while keeping the surrounding world feeling alive. “You have to cover every movement in VR, so when the characters split up, for example, you want to hear all their footsteps, but we also had to get the audience to focus on a specific character to guide them through. That was one of the biggest challenges we had while mixing it,” says Ouziel.
“Chapter Three: Trial By Fire” provides the best example of how Ouziel tackled those challenges. In the episode, Virginia (Britt Adams) finds herself stuck in Marion’s chamber. Marion (Michael J. Sielaff) is a nefarious puppet master who is clandestinely controlling a room full of people on puppet strings; some are seated at a long dining table and others are suspended from the ceiling. They’re all moving their arms as if dancing to the scratchy song that’s coming from the gramophone.
The sound for the puppet people needed to have a wiry, uncomfortable feel and the space itself needed to feel eerily quiet but also alive with movement. “We used a grating metallic-type texture for the strings so they’d be subconsciously unnerving, and mixed that with wooden creaks to make it feel like you’re surrounded by constant danger,” says Ouziel.
The slow wooden creaks in the ambience reinforce the idea that an unseen Marion is controlling everything that’s happening. Braver says, “Those creaks in Marion’s room make it feel like the space is alive. The house itself is a character in the story. The sound team at MelodyGun did an excellent job of capturing that.”
Once the sound elements were created for that scene, Ouziel then had to space each puppet’s sound appropriately around the room. He also had to fill the room with music while making sure it still felt like it was coming from the gramophone. Ouziel says, “One of the main sound tools that really saved us on this one was Audio Ease’s 360pan suite, specifically the 360reverb function. We used it on the gramophone in Marion’s chamber so that it sounded like the music was coming from across the room. We had to make sure that the reflections felt appropriate for the room, so that we felt surrounded by the music but could clearly hear the directionality of its source. The 360pan suite helped us to create all the environmental spaces in the series. We pretty much ran every element through that reverb.”
Hokamzadeh adds, “The session got big quickly! Imagine over 200 AmbiX tracks, each with its own 360 spatializer and reverb sends, plus all the other plug-ins and automation you’d normally have on a regular mix. Because things never go out of frame, you have to group stuff to simplify the session. It’s typical to make groups for different layers like footsteps, cloth, etc., but we also made groups for all the sounds coming from a specific direction.”
The 360pan suite reverb was also helpful on the fire monster’s sounds. The monster, called Ember, was sound designed by Phillips. His organic approach was akin to the bear monster in Annihilation, in that it felt half human/half creature. Phillips edited together various bellowing fire elements that sounded like breathing and then manipulated those to match Ember’s tormented movements. Her screams also came from a variety of natural screams mixed with different fire elements so that it felt like there was a scared young girl hidden deep in this walking heap of fire. Ouziel explains, “We gave Ember some loud sounds but we were able to play those in the space using the 360pan suite reverb. That made her feel even bigger and more real.”
The opening forest scene was another key moment for sound. The series is set in South Carolina in 1947, and the author’s estate needed to feel like it was in a remote area surrounded by lush, dense forest. “With this location comes so many different sonic elements. We had to communicate that right from the beginning and pull the audience in,” says Braver.
Genevieve Jones, former director of operations at Skybound Entertainment and producer on Delusion: Lies Within, says, “I love the bed of sound that MelodyGun created for the intro. It felt rich. Jon really wanted to go to the south and shoot that sequence but we weren’t able to give that to him. Knowing that I could go to MelodyGun and they could bring that richness was awesome.”
Since the viewer can turn his/her head, the sound of the forest needed to change with those movements. A mix of six different winds spaced into different areas created a bed of textures that shifts with the viewer’s changing perspective. It makes the forest feel real and alive. Ouziel says, “The creative and technical aspects of this series went hand in hand. The spacing of the VR environment really affects the way that you approach ambiences and world-building. The house interior, too, was done in a similar approach, with low winds and tones for the corners of the rooms and the different spaces. It gives you a sense of a three-dimensional experience while also feeling natural and in accordance to the world that Jon made.”
Bringing Live Theater to VR
The sound of the VR series isn’t a direct translation of the live theater experience. Instead, it captures the spirit of the live show in a way that feels natural and immersive, but also cinematic. Ouziel points to the sounds that bring puppet master Marion to life. Here, they had the opportunity to go beyond what was possible with the live theater performance. Ouziel says, “I pitched to Jon the idea that Marion should sound like a big, worn wooden ship, so we built various layers from these huge wooden creaks to match all his movements and really give him the size and gravitas that he deserved. His vocalizations were made from a couple elements including a slowed and pitched version of a raccoon chittering that ended up feeling perfectly like a huge creature chuckling from deep within. There was a lot of creative opportunity here and it was a blast to bring to life.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.