Feature: "Fiery Sparks of Light"

We talked to Caitlin Fisher, the director of the Immersive Storytelling Lab at York University and one of the project’s creators.

February 9, 2022

Fiery Sparks of Light is an AR experience that reimagines a collection of poems by four renowned Canadian women poets - Margaret Atwood, Nicole Brossard, Canisia Lubrin and Sarah Tolmie. It was launched as part of an exclusive hybrid (onsite/digital) programme in Germany that celebrates Canada as the Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honor 2021.

Using volumetric cinema technology as the foundation, Fiery Sparks of Light includes an accompanying printed book that contains QR codes that bring Atwood, Brossard, Lubrin and Tolmie to life as holograms on a mobile device. This enabled Book Fair guests to experience these four poets reading their own original poems, which explore feminist perspectives of patriarchy, gendered objectification, stereotyping and oppression, while further augmented audiovisual after-effects enhance the viewer’s experience. This sensory exploration is designed to elicit an emotional response as users set the stage for these fiery written words to spark to life.

What is this project about?

Caitlin Fisher

Caitlin Fisher — Fiery Sparks of Light is a project that brought together the Immersive Storytelling Lab, the Canadian Film Center, and the Griffin Poetry Trust.

It showcases the work of prominent Canadian women poets. The objective was novel access to poetry and also intimacy: we take these very public figures and invite them into the personal spaces of people's homes.

The choice of these poets was very deliberate. They are a unique A-list group of Griffin award-winning poets. And also all women. There's an undercurrent to the project around exploring a very particular kind of feminist digital poetics. What does it mean to return the body to digital spaces? What does it mean to be embodied? To cross boundaries between public and private?

Why was this project important to you?

CF — Apart from the fact that these are incredible women to work with, it was this unique opportunity to bring together a lot of players in the Canadian media ecosystem to collaborate and to share ideas. It was an intersection of the kinds of work that I have been doing in the Immersive Storytelling Lab for about 15 years. I see the technology changing. So many things that I imagined 15 years ago -  like being able to have small holographic sculptures in your kitchen -  these were dreams that all of a sudden can happen. So that was very thrilling.

I'm also the vice president of the Electronic Literature Association, an international organization dedicated to how storytelling and computation intersect. For me, this project is a stepping stone to being able to find out what kinds of works might be written for volumetric, what will be compelling. It was incredibly fun to experiment.  We can't imagine what a technology like this can do without being on the inside of it and exploring and breaking things. All first experiences raise more questions than they answer. They're never perfect, but they're all so exciting for that reason. And a volumetric dance party with Margaret Atwood?  I’m in.

Being able to be part of this with people who I really admired both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, hit so many of the ways that I've already been thinking. Directing Fiery Sparks of Light connected with my work in the lab, and it connected with my feeling around sharing stories that matter and how critical it is to mobilize emerging technologies in the service of that kind of work.

Did you always know that you were going to use volumetric video for Fiery Sparks of Light?

CF — It was originally pitched to the Frankfurt Book Fair as a volumetric project. I was totally into volumetric video and also thinking about it as an XR project. I think the poetics of augmented reality are just so special and I think especially when you're dealing with people's bodies, there's something very interesting about having them in your space with you. So I like the intimacy of that. Also, what does it mean to have a medium that can decontextualize you so easily? Where the physical context for viewing provides another layer of meaning? I thought about that a lot watching Canisia Lubrin in the courtyard of the Louvre and hearing those powerful first lines. And holding Nicole Brossardin my hand…

What was production like during the pandemic?

CF — The main constraint was time -  the project was supposed to debut at the Frankfurt Book Fair. So that was a hard deadline and it was exciting for us to be working as part of that because Canada was the honored nation forFrankfort that year.

It provided the reason to request special access to my lab, which had been closed. The project was an occasion for me to set up volumetric. With the pandemic and everything, it had slowed down and hadn't really happened. Ordinarily, we would have had a design sprint weekend or we could have had a team of like six to work together – that hadn't been possible. We finally got permission to have either four or five people maximum in our very large space.

Did you start with any kind of inspiration for the project?

CF — There were a number of people with mad design skills and different sensibilities. We spoke to the poets and many of them had ideas about what they could imagine, particular images from their poems that could make their way into the final project. We also had to work with some technological limitations and against time. It was quite iterative.

I think some of the things that are really interesting about volumetric and especially for creative projects, are getting away from mimetic recreations. Embrace the imperfect and the ghostly. I mean, we've got poets, and we don't have to have something that is one-to-one in the world as if we're doing avatars for a business app. So I was like, we can work with imperfections and work with some of the natural glitches of volumetric.

Some of our team were on the opposite spectrum though. When you're dealing with high profile speakers, you don't want to embrace the glitch to the extent that someone's image is changed. So those were some design conversations.

A production still from the set of Fiery Sparks of Light, with Sarah Tolmie.

Where do you see the future of volumetric video?

CF — I think once volumetric can work with WebXR and you have larger audiences, you're going to get a critical mass of content, we're going to see something really exciting. The ability that people will have to co-create with volumetric in different spaces will be amazing. We're already thinking about working with partners to have massive, monumental sculptures. Playing with scale.  

I think you'll probably have an intersection of volumetric with AI so that you can actually interact with volumetric characters. And of course combining volumetric and live actors, volumetric and cool places.

I can imagine a million projects and everybody I talk to, once they understand what volumetric is, now immediately has, like, 10 ideas. Everyone wants to capture themselves, too, of course – that’s what we tend to do with new technologies. So think time capsules, memoirs, messages from the dead. I do think that there's this brilliant experimental quality to volumetric, too – something inherently startling about the images and access to the way sensors ‘see’ us; combining volumetric with some other post techniques will be super beautiful, but not processing so much will be interesting in different ways. So, I expect to see things that are just poetry.

Fiery Sparks of Light was produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada. It is a CFC Media Lab and York University Immersive Storytelling Lab co-production, in partnership with The Griffin Trust for Excellence In Poetry, and supported by OCAD University.

About York University Immersive Storytelling Lab

Embedded in Cinespace Studios’s flagship Toronto Kipling Avenue complex, next to sound stages being used for major television and feature film productions, York University’s Immersive Storytelling Lab supports collaborative research-creation and technology development by artists and scientists. Part of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD), the Immersive Storytelling Lab advances best practices for content creation for immersive experiences, develops workflows related to shooting, editing and interactivity design in immersive storytelling environments, pioneers augmented reality through experimentation, advances policy discussions around the social implications of living connected lives and trains the next generation of immersive creators.

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