Inanimate Alice VR: How Digital Producers Can Thrive Working Across Oceans

A new Inanimate Alice VR episode is coming to life with the help of the Canada-Australia Digital Media Incentive. We talked with Ian Harper, the project’s lead producer.

For the past 12 years, Ian Harper has had a story stuck in his head that has been impossible for him to shake away. He’s spent much of the time since then working to tell it properly, through digital media.

“The story just hooked me and I was entranced by the idea of this young woman in her early twenties who had this relationship with a game character. She had this relationship all her life and I didn’t know what to do with it really,” he said.

It wasn’t until technology caught up with his vision that the story, Inanimate Alice, began to take shape, eventually becoming the online storytelling and virtual reality experience it is today.

It started when Harper met Canadian novelist Kate Pullinger. Together, they developed Alice’s backstory, telling the tale of a girl growing up dreaming of one day becoming a game designer. Together, they planned a 10-episode piece of electronic literature; a literary piece of work and video game combined together seamlessly.

The story follows Alice’s life from ages 8 to 20. As Alice grows older and her story progresses, the language and the technology used to tell the story become more advanced. The first episodes were developed in 2D with Flash, whereas the most recent (sixth) episode 6 was developed in 3D.

Virtual reality as the natural next step

While preparing the episodes of Inanimate Alice, the Canadian creators forged ties with Education Services Australia, a government agency. The series was embedded in the country’s curriculum, and two spin-off series were also developed. Building on its success in the country, Harper—now the lead producer of Inanimate Alice—worked alongside Australian producer Mez Breeze to develop a third spin-off, called Perpetual Nomads, with Breeze also taking on the roles of creative director and lead interactive writer.

Perpetual Nomads, which takes place between Inanimate Alice’s episodes 6 and 7, involves the same characters. To get the project done, the group applied for the Canada-Australia Digital Media Incentive, which combined funding from the Canada Media Fund and Screen Australia. Originally, Harper and Breeze applied to create an interactive novella and virtual reality experience. However, after obtaining feedback on the beta version, they instead opted for a focused virtual reality adventure. Harper said it was a wise suggestion.

“Since we went to 3D with episode 6 and then VR, it really shows that we’ve progressed beyond the era of the e-book. We’re now actually demonstrating the progressive complexity of the series much better. Even though there was that complexity built into those first five episodes, they're still linear storytelling,” said Harper.

The group received $269,754 from the Canada-Australia Digital Media Incentive to create the virtual reality experience.

Working across borders and oceans

The Canadian and Australian crews will finish work on Perpetual Nomads as of late 2017 and plan to release it in February 2018. Getting to this point took a lot of work, namely because of the distance separating team members.

“It’s a huge challenge in this particular instance. It’s more time at every level,” said Harper, adding that he believed it would have been easier to work together on a large-scale project, such as a movie, because work could have been divided up between the Australian and Canadian teams.

In the case of Perpetual Nomads, Harper said both teams in both locations must work closely together on each task, “where we’re working on screenshots and scripts and all of the bips and bops and everybody’s moving as if they were atoms.”

Harper said the key to making this Trans-Pacific arrangement work was to build a strong relationship with Breeze, even before starting. In fact, he thought it was impossible to work any other way.

“The idea is that you get to know someone pretty well before you start looking at what you might do together. Because it’s all about being able to work virtually.”

While the work itself may be harder to complete, Harper feels there are significant benefits to collaborating with creatives in other countries in that it allows you to reach a larger audience.

“It is to be hoped that, through this project, we can both further extend our reach in Australia and begin replicating it in Canada for the benefit of Canadian teachers and students,” he said. Inanimate Alice recently gained a silver award in the digital content category at the Reimagine Education Conference held in Philadelphia.

Alice travels across the globe

Alice has travelled across the world in the Inanimate Alice series and so did the project itself. The series has been picked up by groups in countries like Portugal and Germany, not to mention the strong roots and success it has had in Australia.

“As with all co-productions, working internationally brings perspectives that are not or not so readily apparent. In a world of increasingly transient and multicultural societies, it is important for us all to be able to collaborate with others and respect other points of view,” said Harper.

“In terms of Canadian production, it is to be hoped that it will spur further collaboration with Australian producers and indeed more co-production activity overall.”

Harper believes that digital works, such as Inanimate Alice and Perpetual Nomads, are powerful because they are able to connect with so many people. Harper believes that digital works, such as Inanimate Alice and Perpetual Nomads, are powerful because they are able to connect with so many people. “It’s the idea of this journey reaching out to the edges of the world that just fascinates me. It endlessly fascinates me," he said.

Perpetual Nomads and Beyond 

The new addition to Inanimate Alice paves the way for the series to become more technologically advanced in the future. Already, the series has been taken from Flash to virtual reality.

The original idea behind the project was to combine storytelling and gaming experiences, and so the next step for the production’s remaining episodes is to create cities that can be visited, said Harper. The audience will be able to help build the cities in Alice’s world as they explore them.

“One of the unusual things I have to do is use some architectural VR as the canvas, so we’ll build our story, our game-like artwork on the top of some architectural virtual reality.”

Episodes 8 through 10 will be even more interactive, as Harper plans to set them up as strategy games, completing the series’ evolution through many different forms of digital media.

“Although it’s Alice’s journey, it’s also our journey.”

Inanimate Alice: Perpetual Nomads was one of three projects that received funding in 2016 through the Canada-Australia Digital Media Incentive, with funding coming from the Canada Media Fund and Screen Australia. A combined total of $713,474 was awarded to this project, Teenage Jesus - Metal Messiah and The Westbury Faery.

While the Canada-Australia Digital Media Incentive is no longer in place, other similar international incentives are currently available.

Patrick Faller
Patrick is a writer and creative producer with a passion for Canada’s media, technology and cultural industries. He brings with him many years of experience as a broadcast journalist, professional content writer and consultant in the arts sector. He really loves digital design, filmmaking, video games, and interviewing the multimedia creators who make the world a more magical place. He lives in Charlottetown, PEI with his boyfriend and a menagerie of animals, but you can catch him on social media.
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