A Reflection from the Frankenstein VR Team

Coming into this project, our group felt similar to that of an oil prospector, searching a goldmine under the ground that would take time and labor to extract. While this metaphor undoubtedly seems far-fetched, what it symbolized was the feeling within our group that we had by far the most interesting and coolest project as well as one of the most difficult projects to bring to life. Despite all of our background knowledge in computer science and coding, Virtual Reality (VR) was a whole new creature for all of us, as it is for most of the world, giving us all a new interesting challenge.

At first, the project seemed near impossible. After our initial meeting with one of the Wondry’s VR specialists, Vivian Li,  it became clear to us that the initial parameters of what we wanted to accomplish were appeared far out of reach. Creating a single object alone seemed intense, let alone an entire environment where everything worked together. Had the project been a VR environment for let’s say a futuristic environment, it may have been easier since modern aesthetics point to more simplistic, sleek designs. Since, however, all the objects are from Frankenstein, all the objects required great attention to detail in regards to both age and Victorian aesthetic. Luckily, with much support from Vivian Li, the project became much more palatable. Not only was she gracious enough to offer creating the VR environment for us, she also helped us transfer the blender files to actual Unity VR files, which ultimately left each of us with one duty: pick an appropriate object from Frankenstein and create it in Blender.

Unity
The finished scene to display our objects in

Choosing the Objects

With thousands of words and objects contained in the Frankenstein story, it was pertinent for the group to select the most signifying and important symbols of the book and Mary Shelley’s life without making the monster itself. Each of us decided on a different object, which, due to the abundance of symbols throughout all of the versions of Frankenstein, made it easy as all of us were not fighting over the locket or the jar or what have you. At the end of the day, we all realized that each object was probably going to be equally difficult to create. Also, while all the objects did not have a direct relation to the book itself, they still had enough Halloween aesthetic and importance to Shelley to be relevant. For example, even though gravestones are in no way a big part of the book, it is said that Mary Shelley had an almost unnatural obsession with the grave of her mother.

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 9.08.07 AM
This grave helps represent the Gothic theme

Not only is it claimed she would spend inordinate amounts of time at her mother’s gravestone, but it is also rumored that she lost her virginity on top of said gravestone. While this clearly has no relation to the novel, it does very much explain the Gothic nature of Shelley’s writing, which we felt made the gravestone important enough to add.

Abnormal Brain
The abnormal brain

The abnormal brain is a symbol from the 1931 film Frankenstein the Man Who Made a Monster. The brain stolen by Fritz (Frankenstein’s assistant in this movie) is portrayed to the audience as the reason why the monster acts different than Frankenstein expects (due to its abnormalities). Obviously, the movie takes some liberties from the novel, but these liberties display the different paths that Frankenstein could go down, and the multitude of ideas that have been inspired since its creation. Every movie based off the novel is going to be slightly different than its source material, so to see a physical explanation behind the creature’s behaviors goes a great way to further humanize it.

Unity4
This fire was the only object that are group created in Unity instead of Blender

The fire, to us, felt obvious to include as an object. After all, the entire work is the modern Prometheus story, just as its original title signifies (Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus). In the Prometheus story, he brings down fire from heaven to earth, which then allows the people of Earth to progress to new levels of society.  Today, scholars and historians can surmise that the world began to change once fire was discovered. However, Shelley’s relation of fire to the creature was a wonderful metaphor for how all of us learn to grow and adapt, something too important to leave out of our project.

Frankenstein Locket Blender
Katherine Frankenstein’s locket which later identifies William Frankenstein

The locket serves as a forward force in the plot since it informs the creature that William Frankenstein is a part of the Frankenstein family, leading to not only William’s death, but the first of multiple murders in the novel. Without this locket, there would be little connection to how the creature is able to initially reconnect and find Frankenstein’s loved ones.

snip of front page
This journal educates Frankenstein on the human world as well as his creator

The journal is a symbol of learning not only for Victor, by being a log for all of his studies, but also as a tool for the creature, who studies this journal in order to become as much of a functioning human as possible. The creature learns the English language through Victor’s journal and is eventually able to find and communicate with Victor. Without this journal, the creature would have never been able to destroy Victor through the deaths of those close to him either.

Lab Table
This table is where the creature is initially brought to life

In the 1931 film, one of the more memorable scenes is how the creature’s body, initially constrained to the table, is brought to life through a lightning storm. This table is where the story takes motion, as the life of the creature will bring the horror that lasts throughout the rest of the film.

Each of these objects, even though each seem meaningless on their own, have a special meaning and presence in the novel and films of Frankenstein.

 

The Process of Creating the Objects

At first, rendering software such as Blender often seemed near impossible to work with. With the ability to set frame rates, resolutions, vector sizes, origins, rendering, etc. it initially appeared that every object was going to take hours upon hours for the group to complete. For us however, we began to realize that only a small number of these tools were necessary in order to achieve our goals. In the world of Blender, if the entire program was a graduate degree, all we needed was a GED to know enough for what we needed to do. Using basic shapes and transformation manipulators (Vectors used to change the x, y, or z length of the object), it seemed that all of us were going to be able to achieve our desired object. For example, while our gravestone seems to be made of intricate and chiseled shapes, all it took was the resizing of 3 cubes and adjustments to the smooth texture.

Blender Cube
All Blender projects start out with this simple cube, which can then be taken out or modified into the projects that this group created

With that being said though, it did still take much research from the internet as well as help from Vivian Li in order for our projects to be done to the best of our ability.

The tombstone, for example, had multiple nuances, such as creating a stone-like texture.  Upon opening Blender, we were all faced with the default cube. Despite it appearing to be easy enough to resize or move something as simple as the default cube, it actually took a significant amount of time just getting use to the system of Blender itself and pick up these simple tasks. While these tasks were eventually solvable with simple solutions through the help of an experienced 3-D artist (whether from YouTube or Vivian herself), the amount of roadblocks that each of us ran into proved how daunting a task like this could really be. By doing something as easy as switching to transformation mode, it became easy to do something like resizing the cube into a tombstone head, first reducing size in the x to create a thin rectangle, and then expanding the z in the positive direction to give the tombstone some length. Simple tasks like this were what led to all of our projects looking the shape they currently are.

Once the general shape of each object was created, the next thing to do was to add textures to our objects. To do this, the first step was to change from object mode (the mode used to shape the object) to texture modifying methods such as edit or sculpt mode.

Locket Edit Mode
Through the use of texture modifiers given in something like the edit mode, objects were allowed to have more detail, such as the ‘F’ on Katherine Frankenstein’s locket

 

In modes such as the ones mentioned above, there are a myriad of options to change the texture of the object. For example, blob mode (found in the sculpt mode) creates bubbles at the top of the surface that almost resemble the bubbling of CO2 in soda. Within sculpt mode, we could adjust the size of the cursor (the amount of area affected at once), whether the sculpting changes were mirrored on both sides of the tombstones and various other settings. Perhaps the most crucial setting to determine when sculpting objects was relative detail or constant detail. Constant detail, the most simplistic mode, simply creates the same details no matter where you are, so if you run the cursor over an area that has already been sculpted, nothing will occur. Relative detail however does exactly what it sounds like, it creates even further texture on an object relative to the current texture of an object. So, if an already sculpted area is affected, it will become ever more rugged, sculpted and textured. For the gravestone, relative detail was used as every bit of rock will have slightly different edges and cracks as opposed to an almost uniform and unrealistic rugged look. All of these modes were utilized in different ways by members of the group in order to give the objects more of an authentic look.

Once each of us figured out these as well as other techniques, with additional help from Vivian and online resources, the challenge became less figuring out the program and more trial and error to create the perfect look for the project. For example, every time one tries to sculpt an object, the nuances of the surface will be different every time. Whether it be because of cursor size, constant v., relative detail or even the method used to create the texture (blob v. pinch v. draw etc.), it took each of us hours manipulating our objects to create the perfect look. This part of the project was probably the most important learning moment for all of us. Because at its core, VR and video game design is quite easy, but creating the perfect object becomes less about the technicality of it and more about the own artist’s inspirations and time spent on the object. So, while the base objects of every video game may have been easy to construct for the video game designers, what separates any game is the level of love and commitment given to the project. It would have been easy for any of us to shape rings, spheres and cubes to create a basic object, but for each of us to pour our heart into our objects took a lot more commitment. For example, again using the tombstone, while the actual outline of the tombstone was created in 10 minutes, hours of time was dedicated just to make sure that tombstone looks realistic. This gives an incredible further appreciation of the time and detail that all video game designers put into their work, probably working for weeks on a single project.

Luckily for us, the category of Frankenstein/Halloween became one of the most crucial part of the project. Had we taken a random category, the group would have required lots of planning and meeting to decide exactly what aesthetic we wanted to use, how the objects should be tied together etc. However, since all of us ultimately knew the novel we would be referencing in the project, it was much easier to consult the actual book rather than waiting on a group member to answer in Slack regarding direction. It gave us the perfect blend of both independence and dependence from one another. We could bounce ideas off one another, but at the end of the day it was our choice on what we felt was the best way to approach each object. And once all our objects were complete, the rest of the project essentially finished itself. For example, making our poster at the beginning of the assignment would have been near impossible since we had our idea, but had no screenshots, stories to tell etc. However, just like a real video game, once you have created the visuals the story can almost tell itself. Even now with this blog, the struggles we faced were so plentiful that there are even ones forgotten to be mentioned here. Even the most minute little nuanced difficulties on Blender became 45-minute learning experiences trying to figure how to effectively accomplish the small thing you wanted to do. Difficulties that may seem small on paper but were almost the make or break between an effective project.

IMG_8970

Overall, for all of us, this project was an exceptional exercise in taking what is visualized in one’s mind and making that a concrete reality. When any person reads Frankenstein, they are going to have a slightly different picture in their minds eye. Some may see the monster as the prototypical green, blocky monster depicted in the movies, while others may simply see an ugly man, stitched together from the parts of other humans. And just like Mary Shelley had to start her masterpiece with just one sentence, we all had to begin our projects with a simple block on blender. From there, it was up to us to create an entire Gothic world using an advanced computer program from 200 years in the future from when Frankenstein was placed. As corny as it sounds, this project almost felt as a modern Prometheus story just as Frankenstein itself. We small-minded students were shown the power of Blender and Unity, the fire behind many video games, and from that we were able to create our own thriving world of VR objects.

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s