A musical journey through space and time featuring smashing pumpkins' william patrick corgan
Aeronaut is two things: a fully immersive, standalone VR music experience for William Patrick Corgan’s “Aeronaut” from his 2017 solo album Ogilala, and a 2D music video of the same song shot entirely within VR. The projects led to Viacom NEXT winning a Cannes Lions Grand Prix for Digital Craft, a Webby’s Audience Choice Award, Adweek Project Isaac Award, Official Selection at South by Southwest & the Seattle International Film Festival, and Isobar’s recognition as Fast Company’s Top 10 VR/AR company for 2018.
I ran into Ken Waagner of Isobar at a conference called VRTL in 2017, where quick chat about life and music revealed that Isobar had been struggling to create a VR project with the Smashing Pumpkins. Naturally, being a lifelong fan of the Pumpkins’ I quickly jumped at the possibility for us to pitch a small project with them.
Meanwhile, Viacom NEXT, with MTV, had been struggling with labels on getting rights to artists’ music and likenesses for an internal music video prototype. Through <en, we learned that Billy Corgan owned all his solo work, and so working with him on an experience, should he be keen, would be significantly easier.
We met Billy at his tea shop in Chicago (Madame Zuzu’s Teas – a real place!), and were told that his first single, Aeronaut, would be released in 8 weeks. He asked if that’s enough time to make something. Sensing an opportunity that wouldn’t come again, we said yes.
With a limited timeline and budget, we decided to gamble on this opportunity to explore new development tools which promised a workflow faster than traditional means of modeling, animating, and capturing in real-time game engines.
Imagine having a personal concert with William Patrick Corgan. Standing right beside him as he plays to you Aeronaut, a haunting song about regret, longing, and time. The chorus swells, the landscapes shift, the colors change – you look around, and you realize you’re not the only traveller.
Using Google’s Tilt Brush, we built a diorama-based world that was designed not only to be fully and truly interactive, but also easily maneuverable and manipulated. We partnered with Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio team to volumetrically capture a photorealistic asset of the artist playing at a monumental art deco piano. Once the world was designed and in motion, we used Unity’s Cinemachine tools to capture an output of the experience, which was then easily edited into a 2D traditional music video.
In parallel, the team also began fashioning a system in free-roaming room-scale VR where the experience changed subtly each time you played it. We recorded the anonymized movements of players, which left their mark on the world, populating a shifting, changing world while subtly showing the next guest the array of interactions that were possible.
“SXSW 2018 Dispatch: Surveying the VR Landscape” – Screen Anarchy,
“Watch Billy Corgan’s Trippy Cosmic Voyage in ‘Aeronaut’ Video” – Rolling Stone.
“Billy Corgan Teases VR Experience With ‘Aeronaut’ Music Video” – VRScout.
“Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan Creates VR experience for new Single “Aeronaut”” – VRFocus
“Billy Corgan’s Aeronaut VR wins Cannes Digital Craft Grand Prix” – AdAge
My Role: Co-Director (with Rob Ruffler)
Together with Rob Ruffler, I conceived and pitched the original concept of a mutable world quickly prototyped and created in Google’s Tilt Brush serving as a bedrock for a volumetric Billy Corgan. With artist Danny Bittman, we iterated the pitch further to include shifting seasons being a metaphor for mankind and his relationship with the world. Billy himself would play the role as an otherworldly observer, and the viewer, his guests.
When it came to production on the Mixed Reality Capture set, I directed Billy, and with Rob, supervised the creative and development teams through the vision of the shifting worlds. Once we had a static composition, I choreographed, directed, and edited the cinematography for what would become the 2D music video.
Our incredibly talented team at Viacom NEXT, under supervision and management from Rob and I, conceived and implemented a streamlined, object-based interaction system where the guest is taught through mimicry to spawn discrete elements such as lanterns and water lilies into the world.
Altogether, this new creation pipeline, asynchronous persistent worlds, and modularized interaction toolset was to be a framework for future music experiences at Viacom NEXT to come, but alas Viacom NEXT closed in 2018, and all future exploration for this framework ended then.
David Liu, Rob Ruffler
Thoughts and Notes
Virtual Reality and new technologies have changed the landscape of how we consume digital content. Yet, being new mediums with unproven production pipelines, it’s both expensive and time consuming to make a bespoke real-time VR experience.
With Chocolate, we validated that a significant number of people enjoyed the experience of being brought through a polished, linear, music experience – regardless of the genre of music. However, even those who loved the experience enough to buy it rarely returned to it.
Solving these two problems were some of the main goals behind this project. We wanted to see if we could forge a novel production pipeline that we had hypothesized, that could streamline the creation of future music VR experiences; and to also develop a framework VR music experiences such that viewings are repeatable, and that guests would enjoy different experiences with each play-through, with new surprises to discover.
The team did not last long enough to see through the success of Aeronaut, but I’m fairly confident that we were on the right track. More and more experiences are building persistent features, leading to what seems to be burgeoning user retention; and tools such as Tilt Brush, Medium, Quill are leading the charge for new experiential content populating the Oculus and Steam stores.
A recording of the final room-scale experience with asynchronous players and interactable objects.