Interview: Lester Francois on using interactive VR to explore the work of Australia’s best-known street artist, Rone

Melbourne-based Director Lester Francois and a team of highly creative individuals are putting together an interactive VR docuseries that’ll highlight individuals artists in some very interesting ways. The planned series, titled Kinetic, begins with Rone, the first episode which recently premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas and showcased an incredibly immersive, interactive VR experience examining the work and context of the famous Melbourne street artist of the same name.

The work is an incredibly ingenious way of exploring Rone’s story as a prolific street artist, placing the VR user in a gallery, navigated using press-and-release movement controls with clickable stories embedded in various items around the spaces. Though the VR work wasn’t quite finished when I had tested it out, the whole experience was impressive and well thought out, taking me everywhere from one of Rone’s exhibitions in an old movie theatre in Fitzroy to his home studio, watching him create one of his works bearing his trademark female form, which is usually juxtaposed against dilapidated structures that are slowly (or rapidly) degrading.

Rone is already one of the most interesting subjects you could pick, and to illustrate his story through this interactive VR project is a highly engaging and fascinating way to allow people to immerse themselves in someone else’s life. To learn more about this project and series, we sat down with Lester himself at SXSW. The following is a transcript of that chat, providing more insight into what this series is about and what VR technology means for documentaries.

So, first off, I’ll have you introduce yourself and the project.

So, my name is Lester Francois, and our VR project is called “Rone.” And it’s a short documentary about the street artist Rone. Also, it’s an interactive experience. So, not just 360, it’s a mix of CG and 360 video.

And, where are you based?

Melbourne, Australia.

Melbourne? Okay. So did convenience play a part in why you chose Rone as the first subject of this series?

That’s not why we chose Rone. I was a fan of Rone, and he paints a lot around Melbourne. So, I was always exposed to his work, and I loved his work. I reached out to him. But, coincidentally, his studio is like a ten minute walk from my house, so, that helped.

I understand this is going to be a series. And this is the first episode that comes in the series.

Yeah, exactly. So, the ongoing series is called “Kinetic,” and it’s a series of art stocks presented in VR. And “Rone” is the first episode. And we’re speaking to a bunch of other artists, and we already have someone lined up for the second episode. We haven’t locked it in yet, but we’re very, very close.

Are you able to tell me if it’s Australian or international? Like, how broad are you going with Kinetic?

Well, the next one is Australian, but she has a huge international reputation. She has has been at all the Biennales, for example, and she’s quite well known. We’re also looking for artists whose work is expressed well through VR, so it has to be really dynamic.

Could you take me back to the origin of this idea?

I had the idea late 2015, reached out to Rone beginning of 2016, and the original idea was that I was developing a factual TV series about street artists. Specifically it was about street artists who were transitioning from illegal artists to prolific legal artists. I then pitched the series at AIDC beginning of 2016. And, you know, it was underdeveloped at the time and didn’t really go anywhere, but I was really committed to developing something with Rone. So, the project pivoted and became a VR project, and “Rone” was our first major VR project.

We dabbled in VR before, but it was a huge learning curve for us and, so, we wanted to explore the language of VR. So, with “Rone,” it started off as a 360 video, and then the 360 film launched at Melbourne Film Festival in 2017. And since then we developed an interactive version, which is what we’re premiering here.

And the team is pretty tiny. Like, I wear a lot of hats: I’m the producer, director, I shoot, I edit, I do some of the stitching.

How long did it take you to shoot everything for this project?

Filming took place over a period of eighteen months, and towards the end filming and post-production was happening at the same time. So, eighteen months leading up to MFF – Melbourne Film Festival – and then another, I want to say, maybe, eight months to get the interactive version working. And we worked with a Melbourne based game studio called Paper Ticket Studios, they helped develop the interactive version.

You mentioned that during the early stages of this project you were particularly interested in street artists and how they were emerging from illegal to a legal and prolific. What attracts you to that period in an artist’s career?

I was just curious about that point in their careers when they’re transitioning. And it’s always a tricky line to walk when they still have the urge to run out and do illegal pieces late at night, but, during the day, they’re getting offered huge corporate jobs to paint walls or commissions. And, I found that really fascinating where they’re juggling these two lives.

And that was the original plan for the series, but then, like all documentaries, while you’re making it, the story changes. So, the end result with “Rone”: the story is really about Rone transitioning from a street artist into a fine artist. And now, with Rone, with his work today is where he’ll go into a building, paint a mural, and not all of us get into that building, but the end result is he’ll take a photo and the photo is the finished piece. So, in that respect, he has become a fine artist.

When you first had this idea back in 2015/16 VR tech was still very rudimentary from the consumer point-of-view at that stage, you know? Did you think it would be as advanced as it is now to allow you to do something like this?

Oh, yeah. We knew VR would take off and get better and better, and that’s why we decided to take the leap and make investment early on. And it’s grown so much since then, from the tech side to the audience to the platforms. And we knew there was going to be this trajectory, and we had faith in it.

So, how we got into VR, my partner and I, Anna Brady, is she and I made a feature documentary called “Game Loading: Rise of the Indies,” and that launched in 2015. And that film was about exploring the indie game scene around the world. And while we were making that film, we kind of saw this new wave of VR that would play with all the new headsets of the time. And I knew, straight away, this is what I want to explore in the future. So when we launched the film, we were approached by Steam and Valve, who made the HTC Vive, and they said, “Look, we love your work. Can we give you a headset, so you can go off and make some content?”

So they sent us a headset, and that really just started our journey in VR. And when I started filming “Rone,” we were hiring a camera. And, you know, it was a bit painful to use. And then, luckily for us, the GoPro Omni was released, and we bought the first one in the country. It wasn’t cheap, but it was still a great investment for us to finish “Rone.”

What are you hoping the audience take away from this?

I just hope they get an insight into Rone’s work and how he creates. And how prolific he is as an artist. And just how beautiful and stunning his pieces are; not just on canvases or on public walls, but he goes into these buildings that are crumbling and part of urban decay and breaks into them and paints these stunning portraits. And he has this quote where he says he finds the friction point between beauty and decay. You see that clearly in his work. I want them to understand that quote.

The potential for documentaries, especially in virtual reality, is immense when considering something like this. I just get the feeling every time I go into a project like this that I walk away with an understanding that I may not have if this was just a regular film. Where do you see this technology going in the future, and how do you plan on incorporating that into your work?

It’ll definitely keep getting better and better. There’ll be a lot more films and documentaries made in VR, and I see a lot more interactive documentaries. And, you know, there’s going to be technology that we can’t even imagine right now being invented over the next few years. And that’s just going to change the form in ways we can’t imagine. So, I’m really open to seeing these new technologies coming through and giving us an opportunity to tell stories in different ways.

We’re in it for the long haul. Right now, we’re not going to make much money from VR, and that’s fine, but that’s all going to change in the future.

I guess, documentaries can be, in a sense, gamified with the interactive element. That engages more people that aren’t usually engaged with documentaries at this time. So, I was really impressed with how gamification was incorporated here.

Yeah, gamification of documentaries and stories is something that we find very fascinating, and we have another project we’re developing, which is a factual documentary project but all made within a game engine. And, you know, we do use the term gamification when it comes to that project. It’s a documentary that’s been gamed. It uses game mechanics, but I wouldn’t call it a game.

When we go to documentary conferences, and we try to explain this concept to people, they just turn their nose up at it thinking we’re making a game. So, trying to get this terminology across to traditional filmmakers is tricky, but, you know …

It’s funny how they can’t look beyond words.

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

What else is in the cards for you?

We have another project we’re developing called “Primal Screams: The Fun of Fear.” That’s our next documentary made in VR, and it’s all made within a game engine. We’re in super early development, and that’s a project that we’re hoping to launch in 2020.