Home / Lounge / Features /  A bit of Kafka in virtual reality

Srimoyee Bhattacharya was terrified to see her reflection in the mirror. She screamed, broke open the sensors and left. Minutes earlier, when she had entered the dark cubicle at the Goethe-Institut in Kolkata, she had no idea that she would be getting inside the body of a giant insect or be teleported to 1915 Prague through virtual reality (VR).

Her 13-year-old son giggles as she speaks about her experience as Gregor Samsa, one of Franz Kafka’s most celebrated characters from his short story, The Metamorphosis. The story starts with Samsa waking up in his room, transformed into an insect grappling with his new reality, much like Bhattacharya herself. “I had read the story as a teenager and was excited to experience virtual reality, but transforming into a giant bug was something I could not have fathomed," she says, having found her bearings again.

This September, Kolkata had its first official brush with VR at the Goethe-Institut, where American film-maker Mika Johnson installed his project VRWandlung /Metamorphosis VR, based on Kafka’s short story from 1915. The installation, which opened in January 2018 in Prague, is the brainchild of Johnson and producer Shahid Gulamali. It has toured 34 cities and is now passing through four cities in India.

The idea is to regenerate interest in Kafka’s text. Unlike other mediums, the immersion through VR becomes more relatable as one transforms into Samsa, who himself has transformed into an insect.

Johnson has used the medium for the first time and it comes with its challenges. “In cinema, storytelling is done in the editing room—lighting, acting, costumes and camera angles come together to tell the story. But in VR your engagement creates the story arc. When you stand in front of the mirror in Samsa’s bedroom, you are at the centre of the drama. The way you navigate that is entirely up to you," he says.

Three teams worked separately for six months during the production, and techniques from classic Czech puppetry were used to design the project. Czech animators Ondrej Slavic and Vojtěch Kiss created a small-scale model of Samsa’s bedroom with over 400 objects made by hand; this was then photographed in 360 degrees at a studio. The room was reconstructed in 3D and each object was coloured based on the photographs. A second team concentrated on the body movements of the insect using robotic techniques based on tracking sensors. Finally, a team of actors worked on the narrative in Czech, German and English.

The Metamorphosis VR also has a fascinating embedded narrative. Johnson stumbled upon Kafka’s bedroom from 1912, and it was identical to the layout of Samsa’s room in the story. Johnson saw this as an opportunity to layer the experience with key biographical details from Kafka’s own life. For instance, one of the drawers features a photo of the author’s best friend, Max Brod, with a fictional letter from Kafka’s The Trial. The framed photograph on Samsa’s wall is based on Kafka’s own lovers. “It’s kind of a shrine to him. The more you would know about him, the deeper you could go into the layers which we have hidden," says Johnson.

VRWandlung is funded by the Goethe-Institut, Prague. It will be shown in Mumbai between 10-13 October and 18-21 October, and in Bengaluru in November.

Jennifer Kishan is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer.

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