We're thrilled to announce the release of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, a virtual reality adaptation of George Saunders' highly anticipated forthcoming novel. This innovative, joint collaboration between The New York Times, creative studio Sensorium, director Graham Sack, and literary studio Plympton, Inc. has been nearly a year in the making. For the author, the novel is a new departure from the short story form—for us, the virtual reality adaptation is a departure from expected storytelling avenues.
Saunders, a National Book Award finalist and recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, expressed enthusiasm for the project from the very start, and collaborated throughout the creative process with writer and director Graham Sack to develop a script that both stayed true to the spirit of the novel and took advantage of the unique potential for audience immersion afforded by virtual reality technology.
"Ironically, the piece is not about our technological future, but about our historical past," Sack said. "On February 22, 1862, Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's youngest son, is laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery shattered by grief and, under cover of darkness, visits the crypt to spend time with his son's body."
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO viewers inhabit a dead soul newly arrived in the afterlife, granting them a front-row seat to Lincoln's night of mourning and the neurotic monologues of the piteous, comedic spirits who narrate the afterlife action. It's a viewing experience more akin to theater than film, a fact highlighted by the theater backgrounds of many of the castmembers: the result is a gripping, poignant exploration of death, grief, and the powers of good and evil.
Because the entire narrative arc of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO takes place in a single location over the course of a single night, Saunders' newest work was an ideal opportunity to venture into the previously unexplored territory of novel-to-VR translation. Film production involved a combination of live action shooting, extensive use of green-screen technology, and careful VFX overlay.
Shooting in this manner was an ambitious, complex endeavor. Lincoln himself, played by the talented Pete Simpson, was the only character filmed live on set at Greenbrook Cemetery; the many ghosts who haunt Lincoln over the course of his cathartic night were all filmed in front of a green screen. Hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of film were then manipulated and stitched together, and eventually combined with full spatial audio, to create a seamless, atmospheric viewing experience.
"It's a new medium through which books can be shared," Graham says. "There isn't anything else like it."
We hope our interpretation of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO will prove to be the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between literature and virtual reality. Our novel-to-VR film is the first of its kind, but—if the overwhelmingly positive responses from viewers are any indication—it certainly won't be the last.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO is scheduled to arrive on bookshelves February 14, 2017. The film is currently available for viewing via the New York Times' Virtual Reality app, free of charge.