Tate Modern transports viewers to 19th century Paris in first VR experience

Tate Modern’s first VR experience places visitors inside the final studio of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. We talk to Preloaded – the studio behind the project – about how it was made

Still from the Ochre Atelier, which places Tate visitors inside Amedeo Modigliani’s studio in Paris

Tate Modern’s latest exhibition is the largest ever UK retrospective of Amedeo Modigliani – the 20th century painter and sculptor best known for his nudes and figurative portraits. The show brings together 100 artworks from throughout Modigliani’s career – including 40 that have never before been shown in the UK.

The exhibition also includes Tate Modern’s first VR experience. Created in partnership with HTC Vive as part of its Vive Arts programme, the Ochre Atelier transports visitors to Modigliani’s final studio in Paris. Visitors can look around the studio – examining paintings, sketches and even Modigliani’s bed – while listening to audio commentary from experts at Tate and first-hand accounts from people who knew the artist.

The experience was designed by games and VR studio Preloaded and aims to capture the feeling of being in the studio in 1919 (Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis aged 35 the following year). “We wanted it to feel as if he had just left the room,” says Phil Stuart, Creative Director at Preloaded.

The studio was designed using photographs, paintings and sketches of the space

“The thing [VR] does brilliantly is it can take you back to a place or it can make you feel a certain way by putting you into almost the perspective of a person. So what we wanted to do was go back to that moment in time [1919],” adds Stuart. “We wanted to create empathy with the artist and give context to his paintings by showing the physical location he was in.”

Preloaded designed Modigliani’s studio using first-hand accounts and photographs of the space. It was created to scale using measurements of the building (it is now a B&B that runs Modigliani-themed supper clubs). Every object in the space – from a wine bottle to a matchbox and window fittings – was meticulously researched. A chair shown in the room closely matches one from one of Modigliani’s paintings while a furnace was based on a sketch drawn by one of his friends and one found in a neighbouring building.

Tate visitors can look around the studio and trigger audio commentary about Modigliani’s work and life

Preloaded also recreated two Modigliani paintings in VR using technical research compiled by three museums (Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sao Paulo). This research provided a detailed analysis of paint thickness, brush patterns and colours used in the original paintings and allowed Preloaded to recreate both artworks – Jeanne Hebuterne 1919 and Self-Portrait 1919 – in great detail. (Visitors can see the real paintings up close in an adjoining room.)

Preloaded spent almost five months working with Tate’s research and conservation teams to create the experience. “Tate were in conversation with HTC for about a year looking at where they could utilise VR within the gallery experience,” explains Stuart.

“One of the great things about the Modigliani exhibition is that there’s no estate, so it allows us to recreate paintings in a different form. If it was [a Picasso exhibition] we’d never have had that opportunity because the estate would lock it down or it would be too expensive. So in terms of usage Modigliani was the perfect one for this.”

Tate initially put out a brief looking for studios to create an experience that would transport visitors to nineteenth century Paris but did not specify a particular setting.

“There was the idea for a cafe scene … and they were very interested in capturing the spirit of Paris in that time. We explored two different routes – the cafe and the studio – but the studio felt like a better stage for telling a story,” says Stuart.

The experience is filled with evocative details. Smoke rises from a cigarette resting in an ashtray, water drips from a roof into a bucket on the floor and a fire gently burns in a furnace in the corner of the room. You can also hear a neighbour playing music in the flat below.

Stuart says the aim was to create an experience that would appeal to the broadest possible audience – from teenagers who are familiar with apps and games to people in their 70s and 80s who might never have tried VR before. There is no narrative as such – instead, the experience offers “a snapshot” of Modigliani’s life at the time.

Interaction is limited – visitors are sat in a chair and can glance around the room to look at paintings or objects but they cannot touch things or walk around the space. This removed many of the complications that people often encounter when trying VR for the first time such as bumping into things or getting stuck in the corner of a room. Visitors are given clear instructions before the experience begins: a voiceover explains how to trigger audio by looking at objects and sets out what will happen next.

The idea of trying to teach people how to use a controller and make sure they feel comfortable walking around is something we didn’t think was right for this experience,” says Stuart. With thousands of people visiting the Tate each day and only nine headsets, Tate needed to create a brief experience that people could complete quickly – rather than one they might get lost in for 20 or 30 minutes. The experience is six minutes long and there is no way of getting stuck.

“There’s a whole visitor experience management process [that must be considered when designing VR for museums and galleries]. You need to make sure everyone finishes at the same time and won’t get lost in there,” explains Stuart.

Preloaded spent around 16 weeks building the experience and tested it on over 100 people of varying ages and demographics. “We started with the first playable, just pulling together a sketch of what we think the interactions should be and testing out things we think are going to work…. Then we went into an alpha and a beta version.”

The project has gone through several iterations based on user feedback, with Preloaded conducting user testing at each stage of the process. “Building things quickly and [getting feedback] is the only way to do it … asking people ‘did you enjoy that? Did you not? Did you feel comfortable? And if not let’s change that’,” he adds.

One of the key challenges with the project was creating a compelling experience without a narrative: “We’re used to designing narratives that have a proper arc, that have beats and jeopardy and we couldn’t do any of that here, so the biggest challenge was trying to make a kind of still life and make that interesting.”

This was achieved through moments of surprise – for example the sound of an instrument playing or the moment when a cloth falls off an easel to reveal Modigliani’s final self-portrait. “We start you off on a chair and you’re looking at an easel and thinking ‘what’s on that?’ and we don’t reveal that until the very end. It’s about using little visual cues to make things interesting and trying to build an experience that’s enticing,” adds Stuart.

Preloaded has worked on VR experiences for the BBC, the Science Museum and the V&A. When designing projects for mainstream audiences Stuart believes it is vital to think about “reducing friction to engagement” – making sure that experiences are easy to follow – and making sure they are “finite” and “comfortable”.

“When you’re sitting down you shouldn’t have to look behind you too much … [it’s also about] making sure there’s nothing interesting too far above or below you,” he adds.

Visitors viewing Modigliani’s studio might not be aware of the vast amount of visual research that has gone into the project – or just how closely it matches the original studio – but the hope is that it will make visitors feel more of a connection with the artworks on show and the artist who created them. It’s an interesting example of how VR can be used in a gallery space and one of a series of projects funded by HTC Vive through Vive Arts. The initiative is also working with Somerset House and the Royal Academy of Arts to explore how VR can be used to experience art in new ways or bring artworks to a wider audience.

Modigliani in his studio. Image: Paul Guillaume, c.1915 ©RMN-Grand Palais (musée de l’Orangerie) I Archives Alain Bouret, image Dominique Couto

Modigliani opens at Tate Modern on November 23 until April 2 2018. See tate.org.uk for details and to book tickets. The Ochre Atelier will be available to download on HTC Vive headsets from mid-December.

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