Reading is, as a rule, an engrossing and transportive experience. But what if a book could somehow be made even more immersive? Short story veteran George Saunders and actor and screenwriter Graham Sack may have found one answer: virtual reality.
Sack is the director of Lincoln in the Bardo, a VR companion film to Saunders’s debut novel of the same name, the top-selling book for the week ended February 19. The film, which received a soft release on the New York Times’ NYT VR app the week before the book published on February 14, adapts and condenses the novel’s primary setting and event into a 10-minute short. In it, Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his youngest son, Willie, at night, in a cemetery filled with ghosts unable to accept their fates and trapped in a sort of purgatory—the titular bardo, which, in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, means a transitional or liminal state.
The film was the product of a number of hands. Sack first approached Saunders with the idea last summer, and once the excited author was on board, his publisher, Random House, and parent company Penguin Random House got involved. “Traditionally, they don’t put a lot of advertising budget in video projects when launching a new novel,” Sack said. “So we basically made a call to everyone that we worked with in the past to figure out how we could do this at a fraction of the cost.”
“Everyone” included former Times reporter (and Lincoln in the Bardo executive producer) Jennifer 8. Lee’s digital-publishing-oriented “literary studio,” Plympton; the creative studio Sensorium (whose partners, Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald, have collaborated with Graham a couple of times), which helped build the VR motion capture for the project; Silvr, a division of Silver Sound, which spearheaded the film’s audio; and the Molecule, a Brooklyn-based visual effects company that, among other contributions, provided green screens for visual effects shots, and whose CEO, Chris Healer, was on set. And, of course, there was the New York Times, which Sack said provided the bulk of the funding for the project.
“With NYT VR, we’re getting to take all sorts of risks and try new experiments in this brand-new medium,” NYT virtual reality editor Jenna Pirog said. The project is, with the exception of a few shorts in its Great Performers series, the first fictional VR project the Times has produced, and certainly the most challenging. “They filmed it in 360 [degrees], with VR cameras, and showed me, very early on, a first draft,” Pirog continued. “We went through a number of drafts and learned a lot about spatial audio, which is the process where you sculpt the soundscape so that things sound like they’re happening all around you. This is something we’ve been attempting to integrate into our NYT VR app for a while.”
Saunders’s work, which often moves into sci-fi territory, was an appropriate choice for a VR film, although this book proved full of hurdles to jump. For one, the entire novel takes place at night in a cemetery, which posed certain cinematic (and budgetary) challenges. For another, unlike the author’s more speculative work, it’s a period piece, meaning Civil War–era costumes were a must. There was also the matter of including more than 100 actors, visually altered to appear as ghosts, in a film—and a 360-degree interactive film with a spatial audio mix, no less.
Sack’s final product is, as a result, something of a hybrid form from the legal standpoint. It’s not a book trailer, nor is it a film adaptation. In fact, rights were something of a convoluted issue. Sack noted that there was no precedent for adapting a book into a VR film, meaning that the “legal framework and rights need to be invented more or less from scratch.” For PRH, this was uncharted territory.
“It was just so new—it’s kind of surprising in this business to have something so new come to you, where everyone is on shaky ground where rights are concerned,” said Random House deputy publicity director Barbara Fillon. “It isn’t a feature film, and obviously they’re hoping to option those rights down the road. It wasn’t first serial, either. So they just had to hash through what that means.”
All parties involved, however, agree that the end result was worth getting into the rights-related weeds. “I’d already read the book, but to see something you’ve already read and mulled over and thought about depicted in that way was a really powerful thing,” Fillon said, adding that she attended an event at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn “where some of the actors from the VR did a dramatic reading, and it’s different from just being at a [typical] reading or reading [the book].”
Sack, while on the way to a second cast reading last week at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., said the cast would be performing at a number of stores countrywide, including Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and BookPeople in Austin, Tex. He believes that VR has broad potential in the publishing industry.
“I would be very excited to do this again with other books because it’s gone so well,” he said. That said, he thinks VR book trailers don’t make much sense, because scene cutting, in VR, is “highly disorienting.” Instead, he suggests publishers try something similar to Lincoln in the Bardo—the idea, he said, is to “craft an experience that draws from the world” of the book. Fillon expressed interest in the possibility of a future foray into VR, but was noncommittal, saying PRH “may look into it again.” She added: “I think it’s interesting—every book is different, and who knows how specific contexts will relate to the VR experience.”
Although Lee noted that Lincoln in the Bardo’s budget was comparable to that of a small indie film, Sack believes there are plenty of ways to make VR workable on a publishing industry budget. “We specifically made a decision very early in this project to make a standalone piece of art that would accompany the book but not be an advertisement in any sense,” he said. “It would have been totally feasible to do a much smaller version of this on a marketing budget that PRH could have funded. We chose to do something more.”