A time machine sits inside a windowless brick building at the corner of Fifth and Neches streets in downtown Austin. It doesn’t employ a flux capacitor, nor does it require 1.21 gigawatts of power. It doesn’t displace your physical body from the 21st century either. It’s only your mind that’s transported to the Belgian battlefield of Passchendaele sometime in 1917.
With just a virtual reality headset and a battery pack slung over your shoulder, War Remains takes you high in the clouds among blimps and biplanes fighting for control of the skies before getting down into the rat-infested muck of the trenches, as the thunder of shelling roils around you and tanks roll by.
Dan Carlin, the host of the popular podcast Hardcore History, accompanies you as the narrator on much of this head trip of a journey. He explains the significance of where your eyes and ears tell you that you are, on the Western Front during World War I. You’re in the middle of the first armed conflict in history in which the technology of killing had progressed to the point that humanity could wholly destroy itself. Trying to take it all in feels overwhelming.
War Remains premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City earlier this year before opening in Austin on August 12. Originally slated to end its run on September 1, it’s been extended to run Fridays through Mondays until October 19. Austin was chosen as the first place to host the installation after MWM pulled data showing that the city is home to a sizable audience that both listens to Carlin’s podcast regularly and is interested in VR technology.
This unique VR experience, which not only plays out on the screen but also on an interactive physical set, was Carlin’s idea. In 2017, he approached a Los Angeles-based media company, MWM Interactive, about his desire to “bring people back to certain moments in time, to show them what it was really like.” Over the course of a year they developed the concept for the project, but they needed to find the right partner to bring it to life.
That’s when they called Dallas-based Flight School Studio, a company launched two years ago by the animation studio Reel FX (also in Dallas) to develop projects in virtual reality and other emerging interactive platforms. Brandon Oldenburg, who grew up in the Fort Worth suburb of North Richland Hills and had previously worked for Reel FX, returned to Texas to serve as its chief creative officer.
Oldenburg’s work as a visual artist, designer, and film director has won acclaim—including an Emmy and a 2011 Academy Award for the animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, about a man given charge of a magical library. He claimed that Oscar alongside his co-founder of Louisiana-based Moonbot Studios, William Joyce, with whom he also hosted a short-lived program called TCM Movie Camp on Turner Classic Movies aimed at inspiring young audiences to love classic films. In Dallas, perhaps his best-known work (a collaboration with artist Brad Oldham) is “Traveling Man,” a trio of stainless steel sculptures commissioned by Dallas Area Rapid Transit when it built the Deep Ellum light-rail station.
Oldenburg had been impressed by Carne y Arena, an interactive VR project that MWM had produced with Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 before being exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Iñárritu’s work dropped its viewers among a group of immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the United States, and detailed the hazards that came with it. “To me and to a lot of people, it was the one virtual and haptic experience that sort of set the bar for the future,” Oldenburg says. “It seemed like it was the ultimate experience, not just narratively, but what you also could do physically in the space.” So when MWM’s head of content, Ethan Stearns, asked him to direct War Remains, Oldenburg was thrilled. “The challenge was incredibly daunting to be able to tackle World War I,” he says. “That was also why it was super-compelling, because it just sounded really difficult.”
It meant Oldenburg had to strike a tricky balance between honestly depicting the horrors of war and not designing such an unpleasant experience that no one would ever want to walk through the installation. “You want to find that sweet spot between communicating what it was like and at the same time take you right up to the edge so that you can come out of it with a slight, just a tiny taste of what it might’ve been like,” Oldenburg says.
The Flight School team set about translating Carlin’s ideas—about how best to render the experience of a soldier on a World War I battlefield—into both VR imagery and a stage set visitors could physically explore. Skywalker Sound also worked with the team on designing a dynamic soundscape that changes right along with the visuals as people move through the space. Lean close to a fallen soldier’s pocketwatch, for example, and you’ll not only see the photo lodged inside it, but hear the ticking of its mechanical parts.
They also incorporated haptics—interactive elements involving touch. Observe a bag or a jug hanging on the VR wall, and your own arms can extend to touch what very much feels like what see before you in the headset. The sensation is so convincing that when I visited War Remains in September and saw a string of dead rats hanging on a door in the trench, I couldn’t bring myself to reach out, in anticipation of the unpleasantness of touching whatever laid before me in reality. Oldenburg laughed when I told him that.
“What that does it it’s creating an emotional reaction, which is what we were going for,” he says. “I don’t want to get too humorous with this because it’s such a serious topic, but they did put the rib cages in the rats. So if you were to squeeze a rat, you would feel as though it’s a dried dead rat with bones in it.”
To aid in rendering those components of the space—the textures and objects throughout the set—Flight School turned to Built by Bender, a Dallas fabrication shop that made a name for itself last year with its work on the Instagram-friendly art and retail pop-up space Sweet Tooth Hotel, in Victory Park. The Bender team used the VR headsets to check the virtual environment against the physical set as they built. “It’s like arc welding, almost,” Oldenburg says. “At a certain point, we would crosscheck things, and you would put the mask on, take the mask off, you put the mask on, take it off, and then you would align things that way.”
There aren’t yet plans confirmed for taking War Remains elsewhere, but MWM wants to “bring it as many people and places as we can,” Stearns says. Eventually, they’d like to place it in a museum as a long-term exhibit. Flight School and MWM are planning future collaborations as well. Oldenburg sees War Remains and his other VR work—like the game Manifest 99 and a forthcoming project for the Dreamscape Immersive studio at Dallas’s NorthPark Center—as an extension of the sorts of haunted house experiences he made in his home as a kid, and invited his friends to walk through. He says his own goal is simply to continue to tell stories in new ways.
“We have a Mount Everest here at Flight School, which is to create a venue, almost like a brick and mortar here in Texas, where people can come and have that Star Trek holodeck experience, where they get teleported somewhere else, and they, their family, and their friends for a few hours literally go on an adventure together,” he says. “When you look out the window, you would see this amazing environment. And when you walk to that door, you feel as though you’ve walked into a different temperature, and climate, and atmosphere, and the story unfolds around you.”
War Remains doesn’t quite do that, but the experience did stay with me long after my thirteen minutes of wandering in Passchendaele ended—the powerful final image especially. A growing number of bombs fall from the sky above, crowding closer and closer as Carlin explains that to this day, unexploded ordnance left buried on the battlefields is sometimes accidentally detonated, claiming new victims in a war fought more than a hundred years ago. The message is clear: The aftereffects of this conflict, like so much of the past, remain very much present in our world today.