Writer & Director
Born 1975 in Arosa, studied film and media sciences in Berlin, Germany. Since 2004 he has been working as an independent writer and filmmaker. He is the co-founder of Montezuma Film. His multiple award-winning work explores innovative ways of storytelling and always seeks to adopt new perspectives.
Director & Editor
Born 1975 in Arosa, studied film editing and documentary filmmaking at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Mannheim, Germany. Since 2006, he has been working as an independent producer, director and film editor in Zurich. He is the co-founder of Montezuma Film. His multiple award-winning work is committed to examining social issues.
Writer original story
He is one of the most prominent, prolific, and versatile Swiss writers working today, with more than 30 publications under his belt. Since his debut in 1967 his work has been translated into several languages. He received many important literary awards, such as the Hermann Hesse Prize for Literature.
07. January 2020
It’s not easy to pin down your VR project “GO”. Is it a visually enhanced audiobook? Or a literary film adaptation?
Sandro Zollinger: To be honest, we haven’t quite found the right label yet either. From a technical perspective, it’s obviously a 360° film. But its artistic form rather points to something entirely unique that hasn’t yet been done in this way – as far as we know.
Our goal was to find a sort of natural symbiosis between literature and virtual reality. In nature, two independent species will co-exist for their mutual benefit. Here, this close relationship developed into a literary VR experience, or perhaps a virtual reading.
Where did the idea for this project come from?
Sandro Zollinger: Well, in principle, we’re interested in telling a story that is ambiguous as well as challenging – a story that resonates. Ever since the emergence of VR, we’ve been searching for a way to tell stories in this medium.
But there’s a fundamental difference to the way you tell a story in film: In VR, the audience hijacks a part of the director’s work because they can look anywhere they want and choose their own framing. However, when I, as a director, tell a story I want to be in control. I want the audience to see what’s important. With VR, I have to guide the audience’s attention towards the story, so to speak. So in a way I’ve got to wave like a tour guide on one of those city tour buses: “Please look this way, this is where the story is.”
That’s how the idea was born to tell the story primarily with words in the form of a literary reading and to use VR to depict atmosphere and feelings.
Tell us, what happens in “GO”?
Roman Vital: “GO” is the story of a man who sets out on his own to go hiking in the Swiss mountains and has an accident in a snowstorm. His approaching demise makes him reflect life and death. Essentially, it’s about mortality, saying goodbye and finding peace.
And precisely because the story is told from the viewpoint of looming death, life appears in a different light. It becomes precious and at the same time it’s put into perspective in an almost liberating way.
In the German version, you’ve kept the title of the story by Klaus Merz. In German, “LOS” has different meanings – as a noun it can mean fate or destiny, while as an adverb it is a call to go, to leave. How do you interpret it?
Sandro Zollinger: Of course with the translation, we had to make a decision. For me, the meaning of departure was dominant, so we opted for a similar mono-syllabic title with “GO”. Ready, steady, go. Now, your life becomes meaningful, make it count! But there’s also a subliminal sense of letting go.
Roman Vital: For me, the title invokes fate, liberation and acceptance.
The story follows the protagonist into the mountains. What part do the Alps play for the Swiss identity?
Sandro Zollinger: For the Swiss, you have to understand, the mountains are both a national symbol and a place of longing. Their self-image is shaped by the mountains and life in the mountains, even though most inhabitants live in cities in the lowlands.
And of course, “GO” is also shaped by this idealized notion. Peter Thaler’s trail takes him high into the Alps, and with every subsequent step the collectively remembered mountain imagery resurfaces in his memory. He recalls the obligatory school trips – still a compulsory part of the Swiss school experience today – or “Heidi”, the world-famous children’s story by Johanna Spyri, or indeed of the lyrics of the Swiss national anthem, whose first stanza invokes the red morning glow on the eternal alpine snow fields.
In addition to the mountains, the ocean plays an important role in “GO”. How did this come about?
Roman Vital: This element was already implied in the original story and it seemed important to us to set a visual counterweight to the mountains, the location where the plot is set. Just as death is the counterweight to life.
In one passage, Thaler remembers how he only learned to appreciate the mountains while he was diving in the sea. Once he realized that the underwater world was home to a ‘counter-mountainscape’, as he calls it, he had an epiphany: “So even rock is destructible, finite, drifting sand like himself,” to quote Klaus Merz.
Towards the end, after the final words, the story continues beyond its protagonist’s death. How did this impressive sequence come about?
Roman Vital: It was clear to us that the story could not simply end with the narrator’s last words – which meant that we had to find a way to represent death. But we also agreed that there could be no visual solution. So instead we focused on approaching this sequence through sound.
After some lengthy deliberations, we decided to use a monochord, an acoustic instrument with several strings all tuned to the same note. When you pluck the strings with your fingers, you get a carpet of sound, a sequence of identical notes, whose sound waves gradually overlap and create random harmonics. These harmonics are perceived very differently: Some people are reminded of wind instruments, others of singing – but they all share the impression of a superior, transcendental harmony. Thus, we had found a way to represent death that seemed to us justified as well as suitable.
Sandro Zollinger: I’m still surprised and also a little proud that we dared to fade into shapeless black for almost one and a half minutes in such a visually powerful medium as VR, while advancing the narrative on the sound level. We took a risk – one of many during the production of “GO”.
How does a 360° shoot work and how is it different from a conventional film shoot?
Roman Vital: We recorded simultaneously in all directions with six cameras. The position of the cameras is also the position of the audience in virtual space when they put on the VR set.
A significant difference to filming is that with a 360° shot everything is in the picture. So the Director of Photography and the whole team have to disappear. This was easy to do when shooting in a closed location, such as a room. Place the camera and make everyone leave. But during the snowstorm, for example, we had to disappear by digging ourselves into the snow with shovels.
Sandro Zollinger: Another funny anecdote: Some of the underwater shots were done in the Mediterranean in a bay in Greece. I dove down, placed the cameras on the seabed and then quickly swam away in order to exit the picture. When I turned around at safe distance, I realized I couldn’t remember where exactly I had sunk the cameras and from the surface they were no longer visible. So I had no choice but to dive and search. And suddenly that small, cozy bay looked a whole lot bigger. It took about an hour to find the cameras again.
What was the process of shooting like? How long did it take?
Roman Vital: Well, it started with the idea and continued well into the editing room. We did some shots over and over again and reconsidered them in interaction with the literary text. And from those insights, we changed scenes again, chose a different camera location or a different shooting location.
For instance, we had shot this fantastic spring scene that we thought was just perfect. But when we did the rough cut, timing that sequence to the text, the mood suddenly seemed far too spring-like to us. We realized we needed more of a late-wintery feel. A picture of the first crocuses breaking through the melting blanket of snow jumped to my mind and so one year later we went back to the mountains and shot a new scene.
Sandro Zollinger: The shooting process was also influenced by the fact that we weren’t able to view the shots on location, as we’re now used to doing in the digital age. The footage from the six cameras first had to be stitched in the computer. This gave the shooting process something of an analogous feel: The scene had wrapped, but you needed to wait until the footage had been processed to see in your VR headset whether it had worked.
What kind of challenges did you encounter in postproduction? And where there any fundamental differences to the editing process?
Roman Vital: Stitching – combing the shots seamlessly into one sphere – was pretty time-consuming. It’s a complex workflow with a lot of manual work, often frame by frame.
And indeed, VR editing strikes me as fundamentally different from film editing. With VR, the audience doesn’t experience the image as a projection but rather as a physical presence, and so the perception of space and time is radically different. It is much closer to our actual perception.
In film editing, there are hardly any limits when it comes to time and space. I can easily jump from Paris to London with a hard cut or indeed jump 20 years into the past. It’s completely different in VR because instead of cutting from picture to picture, we cut from room to room.
This was challenging, especially when changing scenes. How do I transport the audience, who is underwater, into the middle of a snowstorm without disrupting their experience? In a way that time and space still seem plausible to them? In order to achieve this, we worked throughout with overlong, transforming crossfades and a sophisticated sound design.
We already talked a bit about the music – acoustic instruments only. But they are only one part of the overall sound design.
Sandro Zollinger: Sound design was incredibly important for the immersion in the virtual world to be perceived as real. We worked with Thomas Gassmann, an outstanding sound designer with a wealth of experience in the area of VR sound.
The process for the final sound design worked by exclusion: First we packed in all our ideas and then continuously thinned them out – because less is more, right?
And for the recording of the reading – in German it’s the voice of Klaus Merz himself – it was important to achieve a constant presence, to convey the feeling that somebody is currently reading to you from a book.
What are your next steps?
Roman Vital: In January 2020 the world premiere of “GO” will take place at the legendary Sundance Film Festival. And we’re already planning to go on tour afterwards, which will bring the VR experience “GO” to literature festivals, art museums and schools as well as other film festivals.
We’re also in the process of developing a documentary film about the search for truth, based on a true crime story, and are already toying with the idea of giving another literary work the virtual reality treatment.
Stepping into the unchartered audiovisual terrain of Sandro Zollinger and Roman Vital, the images that transcend the enclosure of my own alphabet and imagination are the ones that I find particularly captivating:
The spiral of clouds at the beginning of Thaler’s trip to the mountains involuntarily pull me down into the depths of time, back to the legendary planetary nebulae. Or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s late painting “Deux chevaliers en armure” that feels as if I could physically step into it; submerging myself in the action, I slowly advance along with the riders.
Finally, there’s the delicate quivering of the crocuses in the springtime breeze that gently melts the icy remains of the snow. It invokes new life. And takes an assured step beyond the confines of my literary template.
“GO” skilfully combines literature and virtual reality while delicately tackling a sensitive topic of universal concern. It is a breathtaking author’s reading that encourages the audience to reflect on transience, on life and death, affecting them in an unexpected way.
From the very beginning, we were convinced that VR would be able to offer a novel approach to literature. And we were convinced that by using VR we would succeed in developing a new narrative form that does not focus on the effect as a means in itself, but rather uses the effect to tell a profound story.
A special characteristic of collective VR screenings lies in the fact that while the audience will follow the same story, they do not see or feel the same thing, leading to animated post-screening conversations. And this is exactly what we want to achieve in all of our productions.
“GO” has the potential to appeal to a contrasting and diverse audience: Digital natives and bookworms, nonreaders and VR novices, of any ages and walks of life.
The timeless topic and the fascinating way in which this new medium is used promise a long-term and versatile distribution through various channels (film festivals, VR festivals and literature festivals, art museums and galleries, cultural events, schools and VR roadshows, etc.)