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Anatomy of an Ad: Making the surreal a reality with 'Dreams of Dali' VR experience

Virtual reality is enabling the world to reimagine what art can be, with an innovative dreamscape at the Dali Museum exploring the depths of the surrealist painter’s imagination. From conception to reality, we speak to the team behind it to discover how the idea evolved.

The promise of virtual reality (VR) may not yet be fully realised, but every now and then a project comes along that reminds us of just what the technology can deliver. ‘Dreams of Dali’ is one such project, highlighting the potent effect VR could have on the art world.

Bringing to life the vivid imagination behind Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes was the aim of San Francisco creative agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P).

The story began over a year-and-a-half ago, when the agency had its first experience of Oculus Rift and creative directors Sam Luchini and Roger Baran began to imagine what might be possible for client the Dali Museum. The natural best fit, to them, would be to use VR technology to take viewers ‘inside’ a Dali painting, says Luchini.

“Roger [Baran] and I are always looking to do things that have never been done before. Instinctively we thought it would be really cool if you could take people inside a Dali painting. There was this idea that nobody has done it yet, and that was really exciting.”

A good relationship with the Dali Museum paved the way for GS&P to pitch the idea of an immersive experience that would bring one of Dali’s paintings to life, but was it difficult to get buy-in for such an ambitious, expensive idea?

Presenting the client with a simple prototype using Google Cardboard, Luchini admits the first visual representation was far from sophisticated. “We didn’t have all the lighting, shadows, that beautiful sky that we were able to [eventually] accomplish... that wasn’t in there. It was simply the painting in a spherical environment.”

Although rudimentary compared to the final product, it was enough to convince the museum’s executive director Hank Hine, who bought into the vision but wanted visitors to be “inside” the experience in a bigger way. As the team explored how the painting would work in a 3D environment, it became clear that rendering brushstrokes didn’t convey the sense of discovery they wanted to achieve – “you felt you were restricted to that canvas,” says Luchini – and so the idea evolved to a dreamscape representing Dali’s imagination, that could be explored by traversing the virtual environment.

“We didn’t want to recreate what Dali painted. We’ll never be able to recreate his brushstrokes, but we can at least take a peek of his imagination when he painted it,” adds Luchini.

The entire process, from selling the idea to production, lasted over a year and was created entirely in-house at GS&P, unusually, with very little input from external partners. Crafting the right technical approach was a balance between wanting as many users as possible to experience it without diminishing the quality of the product. In the end, craft won – the full immersive VR experience is only available to visitors at the ‘Dreams of Dali’ exhibit as part of a Dali and Disney exhibition, while a 360° video on YouTube allows others to view an enclosed version of the experience.

With the initial aim of matching the digital rendering to the original right down to individual brushstrokes, the agency started out by capturing a high-res image of the painting for reference. This intensive process involved shooting it in 15 tiles and stitching them together, creating the highest quality digital reproduction of the artwork in the world (pictured below) – an image that was actually too large for PhotoShop to handle, explains Nathan Shipley, technical director, visual effects supervisor and lead animator at GS&P.

However, when the direction pivoted to explore what was in Dali’s mind as he was painting, the team created a surface that would interpret Dali’s imagination instead of the actual painting. “When the painting is zoomed in 20 times, the rocks on the towers look like blocky brushstrokes, but when you’re that close to them in our VR experience they look like actual stones,” says Shipley. “It ultimately created a more visually beautiful result.”

The 3D models used were sculpted and textured using software called Zbrush and Maya, an iterative process Shipley compares to sculpting with clay and which allowed the team to envisage what would best fit their vision for the experience (see image gallery below).

The development was very similar to that used in gaming, using the same techniques and software. The catch, says Shipley, is that this was unchartered territory; neither he nor the agency had worked on a project of this kind, and they even brought in game developer Andrew Nelson to help.

Image Gallery

Development notes
These images were created by lead developer Nathan Shipley and include his notes to modellers during the process.
Left tower 1
Left tower 2
Right tower
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However, VR has its own unique considerations, not least the threat of making people nauseous – something the team soon learned the hard way. “We made mistakes in the early days of production and made Rich Silverstein [one of the agency’s co-founders] sick by putting him on a fast-moving roller coaster track through the scene. It turns out you’re not supposed to do that for some people.”

Creating a VR installation for a largely non-gaming audience meant keeping the experience as simple as possible, giving Shipley the further challenge of programming the navigation system from scratch. Working with such a nascent technology meant there were no bolt-on solutions to achieving the agency’s vision.

“VR development is very much the Wild West right now; everyone is trying new and exciting things in a medium that still has so much exploration to be done in it,” says Shipley.

Each individual encounters ‘Dreams of Dali’ differently, lending an element of discovery to the hypnagogic dreamscape – whether it’s ‘climbing’ the towers or walking underneath Dali’s giraffe-like elephants on spindly legs. Though designed for a non-gaming audience, it is an experience more akin to gaming than something we’d associate with art. That each person’s perspective is unique also produces a sense of ownership, according to Luchini – the language of this medium is doing and being, rather than simply seeing.

“When people see a movie or a film, they say ‘I saw that’, and when people experience this, they say ‘I was there’,” he says. “People can say ‘I was inside the tower. I was underneath the elephants.’ Simply hearing ‘I am, I was there’ is really special. People feel they are part of the environment; not just being given the content.”

Could this use of VR for discovery, as opposed to mere replication, mark a new reality for our relationship with art? Luchini is optimistic. “In a way, it reinvents how we see art. It’s a reimagination of what art can be. When technology isn’t just trying to push you a product you’re not interested in; when it connects with something people relate to, that becomes magical.”

This feature was published in The Drum’s 9 March issue.