Tekst (smal)

Venice Immersive 2023: The Imaginary Friend

Interview by Geoffrey Macnab

Dutch interactive luminary Steye Hallema talks to SEE NL about his new VR, selected for Venice Immersive Competition 2023.

Steye Hallema can remember precisely when he had the idea for The Imaginary Friend, the VR “experience” which has its world premiere in Venice Immersive in early September. The “Eureka” moment came in October 2016, seven years ago.

By then, Hallema was already experienced in virtual reality storytelling but he had been struggling to give his VR work the emotional impact of a conventional film or play whereby audiences can identify very closely with the characters in front of them.

“VR is such an interesting medium, especially for me, because the player, the viewer, has such an important role. I had investigated point of view storytelling in all the VR pieces I made - but I also felt something was lacking,” “You can never feel as much for yourself as for someone you are looking at.”

That’s when the director thought of turning the viewer into the imaginary friend of a grieving and troubled eight-year-old boy called Daniel who has recently lost his mother.
“That’s a really interesting place for the player, but I also have a main character I can love and empathise with.”

Finding funding was a challenge. Conventional financiers simply didn’t understand the VR world. Technically it was a stretch too. Working with Eindhoven-based 4DR Studios, Hallema was investigating how he could use Volumetric (3d video) captures of real actors. He didn’t want animated characters. “I wasn’t sure I would have the budget for animation, and also I felt I could pull this off in a special way with a real actor,” he recalls.

The Imaginary Friend is very interactive. The kid asks the player questions. “When he asks something, you react and then he reacts - and so it becomes super engaging,” says Hallema.

Intriguingly, the director suggests that the troubled boy Daniel is partly based on himself. “I started to write from my own experiences - from what I know. I was never really out to tell my own story but I guess you write what you think is strong.”

The Imaginary Friend is in a different register from the work Hallema does with his Smartphone Orchestra, through which he brings audience members together, telling stories by getting them to use their cellphones. The new work is more personal and introspective. “But for both the Smartphone Orchestra, which is a social thing, and for VR, which is much more an internal thing, there is still the same question of how I involve the person participating in what I make.”

Hallema pays tribute to his long-term producer Corine Meijers, who has stuck with the new project over its full seven-year gestation. She originally supported The Imaginary Friend through Submarine Channel. Then, when Submarine stopped doing interactive work, she took the project with her to her new company, Studio Biarritz. “She was my everything in getting this done. She was why I was able to do it,” the director says of the redoubtable Meijers.

The Imaginary Friend is supported by the  Netherlands Film Fund and Creative Industries Fund (Immerse\Interact), Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), Brabant C and CNC.

Director: Steye Hallema
Festival: Annecy Venice