Randall Okita’s The Book of Distance
To you, the time traveler:
This is a love letter to the future.
I wrote this for the hearts ahead of us, for the ones growing and wishing, among them my nephew who carries the name of my grandfather Yonezo Okita.
May you listen carefully and walk proudly.
– from The Book of Distance
virtual reality experience meets the world
in Randall Okita’s The Book of Distance
National Film Board of Canada publicist Katja De Bock meets me in the atrium at the SFU Woodward’s building on East Hastings and leads me up to the NFB BC & Yukon studios. Normally a bustling place, the studios sit eerily silent and empty, still in lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis gripping the world.
Vincent McCurley, creative technologist at the NFB’s Digital Studio, meets us. Masked and distanced, we go through the protocols and procedures for today’s specially-arranged preview of The Book of Distance, Randall Okita’s virtual reality experience that is being launched on October 8. I tell him that I have very little experience with virtual reality (VR) aside from a short game on my son-in-law’s system, and really don’t know what to expect. Vincent explains that unlike a VR game, The Book of Distance is a linear story, and that while there are interactive elements, I will be guided through the journey by gentle prompts.
He instructs me how to put on and adjust the headset and earphones, a task he would normally carry out, and before long we’re ready to begin. Standing in the darkness and silence that now envelopes me, I click the two controllers I hold in my hands and a set of menus appear in the air before me, floating ghostlike and slightly eerie. I reach out and touch the start menu and we’re off.
Music begins to play and I find myself standing in a darkened room surrounded by photographs, a podium in front of me holding a large book. When I turn the pages, a horseshoe appears. Over to my left, I see a horseshoe pitch. I pick up the horseshoe and attempt to toss it, falling miserably short. Out of the darkness a figure emerges. It’s Randall Okita, I recognize him from his publicity photos. He gently gives some guidance on how to throw the horseshoe, demonstrating the required motion. I try again, this time throwing it far too hard.
Clearly not impressed by my horseshoe skills, the pitch fades away and Randall begins to speak, gesturing at a photo. Those images are of my grandfather, Yonezo. I’m the kid in that one. Thanks for being here. This is a place we made. It’s a way to think about my grandfather and what makes me who I am. This is my dad. When I spoke to him, he said this:
Dad: Well you knew grandpa, he was he was so present by his lack of presence.
From that point on, I am drawn into the story – literally – immersed in a world that is both real and unreal, a silent witness to lost and maybe imagined memories. Photos, people, buildings, ships appear and disappear. I help to build a fence, serve dishes at a meal, send a message across the ocean. At one point I am on the deck of a ship as it pulls away from port. A woman waves from the dock. I’m unsure whether to wave back. The man beside me waves and we begin the long voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
Randall is my guide, leading me on this voyage of discovery, back through his memories and the memories of his family. Having researched and written fairly extensively on Japanese Canadian history I am familiar with the history of the Japanese in Canada, I know many of the photographs that appear before me, yet it feels like a new way of experiencing the broader history, and certainly the specific history of the Okita family.
As a participant in the story I am sometimes unsure what I am to do, but subtle visual prompts quickly guide me through to the next action. Sometimes it is enough, though, just to stand and look around at the beautifully-crafted world surrounding me.
The strangest moment comes when a group of faceless men appear before me surrounded by barbed wire, dimly lit in the gloom. As it begins to snow, I feel a cold chill on my neck. I give a start as reality and virtual reality become indistinguishable for a brief moment. I quickly realize that it’s the studio’s air conditioning I’m feeling and that it’s likely been on the entire time, still it contributes to the feeling of dislocation. It’s not unpleasant, just . . . different.
And then, just like that, it’s over. 25 minutes have gone by in the blink of an eye. As I take off the headset and my eyes adjust to the light, surprised to find myself standing in an office, I realize how fully I was immersed in the wholly artificial world. It is a wholly different way to experience a story, and for a relatively new technology, impressive.
From its debut at Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier, to the international SIGGRAPH conference, to Tribeca Virtual Arcade at Cannes XR, to the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it just won the Best of Animation Award at VIFF Immersed, The Book of Distance continues to gather accolades, including, “the best interactive VR story told yet.”
The Book of Distance is available free on Steam, Viveport and the Oculus Store, in English, French and Japanese.
I spoke to Randall Okita by email at his home in Toronto.
Bulletin Interview: Randall Okita
Before we get into The Book of Distance, maybe you can share a bit about your family and their history in Canada, as it relates directly to the story.
Sure, well this story is focused on my father’s side. Both of his parents were of Japanese descent, my grandmother was born in Vancouver, and my grandfather, who The Book of Distance follows, was born in Hiroshima and came to Canada as a young man. They were strawberry farmers in BC before the war. Like so many, the family was interned, separated for a time, and then eventually ended up in southern Alberta living and working on the sugar beet farms.
You first visited Japan after finishing school, and it sounds like you found some kind of home there – your bio says you live and work in Toronto and Japan.
Yes, I was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, and I saved up after school and flew to Japan as a teenager, not knowing much and having traveled very little. I ended up staying there for a couple of years, and it was a very formative time.
I returned to Canada to start working and learning how to make films, and it had always been my dream to return. For many years, it wasn’t a realistic possibility, but in the last few years, I’ve been able to work in both Canada and Japan. I have had multiple shoots in Japan, and I had a three-month show of my artwork at a gallery in Tokyo last year. It’s really a dream come true, and I continue to cultivate opportunities to work and spend time in Japan.
Through this work, I’ve been able to reconnect with distant family members and continue to learn from the history and culture. These experiences are incredibly meaningful for me. A lot of my work is about memory and identity and the tools that we use to create meaning out of our experiences. In this way, these experiences are woven through the work that I make, sometimes overtly like in The Book of Distance. The work that I do in Japan is especially meaningful because it feels like I am mending a relationship to a culture that was severed during the war.
Is this your first time directly addressing the Japanese Canadian experience in your work? What was that like for you, as an artist?
Yes, certainly this directly. It’s been an incredible journey, from doubting myself, to battling rage and despair as I learned more about the details of internment, to worrying about honouring my family’s story, to the elation of having people connect with my grandparents, who are my heroes.
It’s an experience that is hard to describe, there are so many layers to interacting with a story that is this personal, intergenerational, and marked in parts with silence. In some ways, retelling is reliving, and having the opportunity to tell the story of my grandfather is part of me reshaping the narrative of fear and shame into the story of my hero. In this way, this is a reclamation, a celebration, and the biggest impact for me is having my family see it, and know that it is being shared around the world in ways that my grandparents couldn’t have imagined.
How has the lockdown been for you, in terms of impacting your family and your work?
I’m grateful that I’ve been mostly okay, and that many in my circles are doing alright. It’s really a time to look out for people.
There has definitely been an opportunity for introspection and learning patience! I’m moved by the work being done to overcome anti-Black racism and violence right now.
It is pretty surreal. It is surreal to be releasing a historical project about state-sanctioned racism at this time. We started this project a few years ago, and now as we get ready to meet the world, these crucial global conversations around racism are happening on the world stage, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise.
While all of this is happening and like many others we are on lockdown, this humble story of my grandfather is travelling the world! We were lucky enough to be able to play Sundance in person right before the pandemic, but since then we’ve continued to be presented as part of many festivals including Tribeca, Cannes XR, Venice, and the Vancouver International Film Festival! This is a total dream come true for me to have my work presented on such a world stage but it all seems surreal since I am not able to attend in person! I’m certainly very grateful overall, and it’s a good opportunity to stay humble and focused on the work, on washing your hands, and taking care of people who are vulnerable.
How did you come to become involved with this project?
A few years ago, NFB Ontario Studio producer David Oppenheim invited a few artists into the studio to do some experiments and ask questions about the medium of Virtual Reality. This started with tests and experiments to see what was possible. I’d previously made a film with David and we really enjoyed working together, and he had seen a show of my artwork at Robert Kananaj Gallery which included some large-scale interactive installations and sculptural work. Over time those initial experiments led to the development of The Book of Distance.
So, The Book of Distance. I got to experience it on Friday. I have very little experience with VR, and I’m not a gamer, so in many ways this was literally stepping into a new world for me. It didn’t necessarily feel totally intuitive to me, but I also didn’t feel lost at sea, and I quickly got used to navigating this strange but not totally unfamiliar terrain. How big a learning curve was it for you in terms of creating for this medium, did you have to relearn or rethink the creative process in order to do this?
I’m so glad you had a chance to experience it. Thanks for taking the time! It means a lot to me. Truly.
The learning curve was enormous, but, and this is huge, there are so many benefits from letting yourself start with the mind of a beginner, you know? I hope to carry this mindset forward in so many ways.
At the start of this, the medium was new to me, so I allowed myself to ask all the questions, and really be honest about what I responded to, or didn’t. The process included a lot of experimenting and testing and honest conversations. I very much like to design the process from the ground up for each new project so in this way, the process was familiar but with new questions to ask and new parameters for feedback.
On the other side of that equation of course, is story. There is no amount of technology that is stronger than our need to connect with each other, and at the end of the day, all technology is in service of that: story and meaning.
I don’t review tech products, or even film – much of my interest is in the Japanese Canadian experience and how that fits into broad spectrum of the human experience, so that was the lens I was looking through when I strapped on the headset. I was looking for a human story, and ultimately to feel something, which isn’t necessarily a given, when new technology is being used. And I did feel something – in fact it was quite moving, the way you invited me into your grandfather’s story, into a world that I would never otherwise experience. And your story, really. How did you manage to not let the technology overwhelm or take precedence over the story?
This is a really crucial idea that you are pointing out here, and this is an essential part of the work in many ways, to calibrate that balance, to find the right way to tell the story that balances the medium by capitalizing on the strengths of it in service of the story, and not the other way around. We know tools and technology can be seductive, so you have to be careful not to do everything just because you can, and focus on interactivity that creates meaning. This is all about story, I think of my main tool as story, or narrative, and the mediums of film, VR, sculpture etc. are other colours in the palette.
I really appreciated the way you inserted yourself in the story. You are you, and at the same time, almost a surrogate for the viewer. Did you know early on that you would place yourself into the story?
Actually, this was really something that I tried to avoid at all cost. It was quite scary and vulnerable to include myself, but ultimately it was necessary to appear as the author of this journey, to really show the audience that this project is about a process of discovery and connection through imagination and participation. I think, for people to see my vulnerability, my questions, allows them to connect with their own sense of identity and history, and the fact that it is clearly so personal to me, makes it a very personal invitation, to participate in this act of imagination with me.
I spend much of my day at a computer creating digital products, whether it’s designing a poster or a website, or manipulating a photograph, essentially pointing, clicking, dragging, etc. So this felt familiar in that sense, yet at the same time yet unfamiliar in that I was suddenly in that digital environment and it almost like I was the one being manipulated instead of the other way around. In fact, there was a gentle nudging all along the journey, if you want to call it that, little prompts to get me to interact with the various elements. Was it tricky to figure out how to guide viewers through the experience?
Yes, it was! This was part of the excitement of establishing this new language of story. In film we have this whole vocabulary of techniques like sound design and editing that indicate emotional cues and time passing, etc. Part of the challenge in working with Virtual Reality is that we have to create this language as we go, because it’s such a new space. Of course, we drew on my experience with film and things like lighting and sound, but also from my experience in theatre, sculpture, and installation for techniques and considerations to help move audiences through spaces while allowing them agency and independence, and drawing people to interactions that they could engage with. It ended up being a great use of diverse skills that I really loved combining.
Was there anything that surprised you about creating The Book of Distance, either in the creation of it or the response to it once it was done?
I performed some of the early motion capture tests, and initially this was just going to be temporary so that we could test quickly and the plan was to hire motion capture performers to do the “real” performance. As we progressed though, it was strikingly emotional for me to perform as a younger version of my grandfather. I realized nobody else could embody his gait, or the cadence of his walk as well as I could. This became such a moving part of the process that emerged out of the need to test things quickly.
In sections of the story you’re talking directly to your father, as your grandfather had passed on already. Have your father or others in your family experienced The Book of Distance, and if so, what has their reaction been?
My father did have a chance to experience the work, and it is pretty hard to put into words. My father had been asking a lot of questions about the technology and at one point he asked me if the headset could withstand moisture from the inside. It took a lot of trust for him to allow me to access the archival documents and parts of our story that had been associated with shame and sadness for so long. These were times and situations which nobody wanted to discuss for a long time, let alone share with the public. When my father was able to experience my version of this story, including the questions, and including what I think makes my grandparents heroes, I think he was happy with his choice to be brave in his sharing too.
Initially, I thought the transformative moment was when I decided to tell this story. Now, as it makes its way out into the world, I realize that each time it is shared, it is a transformation. Parts of our story that were once associated with shame or hurt, are now associated with pride and strength. This changes how we carry this story in our bones, in our bodies.
Do you see The Book of Distance being made available at Japanese Canadian cultural centres across the country so that those without ready access to VR headsets can experience it, once things return to some kind of “normal” I mean.
Yes, that’s exactly the plan, to make it available in cultural centers, museums and in schools, until VR headsets are more readily available. We are really working to lower the barriers of availability and I am really excited to share it with a wider audience!
One thing I have experienced in my work, and think this is maybe true for many people who work with computers, is that I get so wrapped up in the digital, 2D realm, with its ease of navigation and multiple levels of undo, that when I have to engage with the real world, like wielding a hammer or fixing a clogged drain, it feels cumbersome – an effort. Which is kind of messed up when you think about it. It almost feels like VR is trying to break down those walls, between the “real” world and the digital world. Would you say that’s accurate? And do you see yourself exploring this realm in the future?
Yes, I think, in many ways the potential for VR is that we can interface with information in a more physical way, which makes it feel more “real”, and connects us in many ways, to something more familiar, more physical, and more human than 2D experiences. I think this is why people respond to it, and why it carries such strong possibilities for the future. I certainly more have stories to tell and I see VR as continuing to be part of that work.
What other projects do you have in works?
I am working on another film project next, and I am writing more stories for VR and television down the road.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I also just want to say thank you John, for all the great work you do, and for your interest in my work!
I’d like to let people know that The Book of Distance will be available to the public on October 8 for FREE on most major VR platforms. Also as you mentioned, we are excited to share the work through cultural and educational centers, so if anyone is interested, please reach out!
Written and directed by Randall Okita
Produced by David Oppenheim
Executive Producer Anita Lee
The Book of Distance is available for free on Steam, Viveport and the Oculus Store, in English, French and Japanese.