Interview | ‘Stranger Things’ Composers Explore Virtual Reality ‘SPHERES’

Photo: Protozoa Pictures

When we think of space we envision stars, asteroids, planets, maybe a spaceship (if we’re high on Ancient Aliens), but we rarely think about what it sounds like. That’s exactly what filmmaker Eliza McNitt wanted to explore in her award-winning virtual reality project, SPHERES

“Space is not silent. In fact, it’s full of sound,” states writer/director McNittWho better to explore the uncharted celestial space than Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the Emmy-winning duo behind Netflix’s Stranger Things, who brought sound to the “Upside Down.” 

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SPHERES, which made history at Sundance as the world’s first acquisition of a VR experience, is billed as a “celestially immersive experience focusing on the human connection with the cosmos.” Dixon and Stein help us tune into the hidden songs of the cosmos with their dark, eerie synth-based ambient sounds that take us on a journey into the unknown. 

We chatted with Dixon and Stein, who are also half of the Austin, Texas-based synth group S U R V I V E, over email about stepping into the VR world, working with the talented McNitt, and if this out of this world experience will influence their work on Stranger Things

Mandatory: You guys get offered a lot of projects. What was it about SPHERES that made you want to do it?

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein: We have always wanted to do some sort of space-related work, and VR seemed like a great way to experience the cosmos. Its kind of like a personal version of the classic planetarium shows that have been going on since the ’70s by people like Emerald Web. We were also drawn to the fact that the team wasn’t trying to just make a pleasant stroll through the universe, after all, it is a pretty bizarre environment.

What’s the difference in composing music for a 2-D viewing experience versus a VR project?

Well, the first and most obvious difference is that almost half of the music is interactive, and is dependent on the viewer’s engagement with the environment. Movements within the space manipulate the sound directly through code, not just by fading in new layers or triggering samples. It was fun to work with the developers to create real-time processing and effects that are directly related to the movements made by the viewer. In a couple of scenes the music’s playback speed is determined by where you are standing, and as you move in the environment the speed adjusts to heighten the disorientation you might feel in some of these more surreal situations.

You worked with VR director Eliza McNitt on this project. What stood out about her vision, process, etc?

One thing that excited us was that she didn’t want this to be a completely pleasant experience. The universe is, after all, a pretty scary place, and she pushed us to make things weirder, and less musical for a lot of scenes. There are definitely some serene moments and some pleasant music, but so much of the story is about very foreign, not particularly comfortable environments. Black holes are pretty weird and there were some very tumultuous periods in the formation of the universe, so having a director who wanted us to score these things in a more abstract, experimental way was great.

Photo: Matthew Simmons (Getty Images)

SPHERES is broken up into three chapters (“Chorus of the Cosmos,” “Songs of Spacetime,” “Pale Blue Dot”). Which one was the most difficult to crack?

Each had its own unique challenges, but the first episode, “Chorus of the Cosmos,” probably went through the most iterations. We were working very closely with the sound design team, Beth and Bob Kellough, as well as Florent Dumas, the developer implementing the interactive audio. In this episode, the final scene has so much sound going on, with so many states that all needed to layer in a way that didn’t end up making everything sound like a mess. We had to try a lot of different approaches to making everything audible and effective.

For all the talk of virtual reality being the “next big thing,” there hasn’t been a VR “experience” that has cracked the mainstream. Why do you think that is?

The main issue is obviously accessibility. To get a decent quality experience in your home, you have to spend $400 on a headset and at least $1,000 for a gaming computer that can handle the processing needs of a quality immersive experience. Obviously, as hardware becomes cheaper and smaller this won’t be as much of an issue.

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How will the tech’s accessibility affect the content?

For most buyers, the main attraction to VR is and probably always will be gaming. Inevitably someone will make a VR version of one of the most popular games and that will bring over a lot of people. Some things are being done to help lower the barrier to entry like gallery installations and pop-ups. This seems like the best way to reach a mainstream audience at the moment but obviously has its limitations due to the fact that VR is a very personal experience which requires hardware for each participant. In order to effectively do a pop-up that could accommodate anything close to theater-sized audiences, you would need a very large space and tons of hardware. It’s definitely not impossible, and now that we’ve got Ready Player One as a major film, perhaps things will accelerate for VR. Hard to say.

What does SPHERES add to the VR genre?

The VR space is dominated by games and always will be. SPHERES is definitely not a game, but it incorporates music and interaction in a very tasteful and meaningful way. Hopefully, it will find its way into natural science museums and blow a bunch of kids’ (and adults’) minds.

Did this experience carry over into composing Season 3 of Stranger Things?

We definitely stumbled upon some techniques that will be used many more times in the future.

SPHERES is a three-part series executive produced by Protozoa Pictures’ Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, and supported by Oculus and Intel, narrated by Millie Bobby Brown, Jessica Chastain, and Patti Smith. SPHERES – Original VR Experience Soundtrack is now available via Lakeshore Records.