Limitations Are the New Normal
Sometimes it’s best to think inside the box — “A New Normal“, presented at SIGGRAPH 2021, is a short film that was created using augmented reality. The film subverts the limitations of digital intimacy to create a story about warmth, hope, and family. We connected with creator Asavari Kumar to discuss the serendipitous journey that led her to create her film during the pandemic. Learn about the highs and lows that she faced and how having less control of a project can lead to amazing discoveries.
SIGGRAPH: Share some background about “A New Normal”. What inspired the project and how did you come to learn about Adobe’s Festival of the Impossible for which you developed it?
Asavari Kumar (AK): Toward the end of 2019, I was quite curious about taking storytelling into new mediums. I started looking into [whether] there [were] any programs and workshops when I came across a residency that encouraged people who tend to work with more traditional mediums — such as illustration design, animation, and Adobe software — to take on this new AR program called Adobe Aero. This program can help artists push themselves to add in features, depending on the type of work that people want to develop and incorporate into their regular creative practice. I thought the residency was an interesting jumping off point and it gave me the chance to experiment.
Toward the end of my residency, the curator told us that we were going to have festival with the idea to pitch a more formal project using Adobe Arrow with no limitations. I was excited because it allowed me to mix other mediums, use my personal experiences, and thread them into stories that have universal resonance.
During the middle of my residency, the pandemic kicked off and the festival moved to virtual, so I figured, why not make a film since it’s not necessary to have a full in-person AR experience. By using the space available to me, I developed a film using AR with myself as the subject matter, an immigrant from India. I have been stuck in the immigration process for about five to six years, so I wasn’t able to leave the country and visit my family in a very long time and the pandemic helped prolong that. I used my film as a grieving process and I felt like many people had a similar feeling. Now, everyone is dependent on talking to their loved ones through the phone and it became an over reliance on digital communication.
The theme of the Festival of the Impossible had to do with home identity and belonging, I wanted to reframe the idea of universal resonance and how it evolves over time.
SIGGRAPH: Break down why augmented reality was the right medium for creating “A New Normal”. In addition to Adobe Aero, what other tech tools were involved? What was the end goal of the story and how do you hope the project can inspire others moving forward?
AK: As a creator, on one hand, you want freedom, but on the other hand, limitations of different kinds force you to be creative. It was an oddly serendipitous situation where the dynamics limited me to use the spaces, like my apartment or my art studio, because it wasn’t safe to go anywhere else during the pandemic. I felt that the spaces worked perfectly because my story had to do with these personal intimate spaces and the idea of my family coming into my home and the life that I’ve established for myself. I used the idea of using some medium to create an enhanced reality or an augmented reality, one which doesn’t exist is something that you know you do an animation anyway, but since this project was tied to my physical place of being augmented reality, it became the perfect medium to then explore those ideas.
This particular story worked because all the limitations sort of came together to give the narrative structure and augmented reality, which made Adobe Aero the perfect medium. From a conceptual viewpoint, I believe there should always be a reason behind why you use a certain medium to tell a certain story. And because of these reasons and the limitations we had, it had to do with the physical space we can and cannot inhabit, augmented reality became the perfect medium to transform those spaces.
Since this was my first foray into augmented reality, I do think that Adobe Aero is constructed in a way that allows you to jump into it and run with it. It does not have any sort of layer that pushes you away or is an inaccessible medium. That’s why I used Adobe Aero, because it felt really fluid and very intuitive.
The end goal of this story was pretty much the end goal of every story that I tell: to offer my perspective and hope that others find resonance with it, and if someone feels like they’re the only one going through a certain experience, it can make them feel less alone. We see this medium being used for storytelling in games, retail, and marketing, but I haven’t see a whole lot of AR storytelling. So I think one of the reasons I wanted to put this out there was to show creators that if you have a lot of limitations, AR is actually a wonderful medium to break those limitations and transform things that are available to you, and maybe add in new dimensions and context.
Sometimes polished, highly rendered work can take away from the rawness of creation. The handmade quality of the AR medium really is something I enjoyed about this process because it felt very intuitive and spontaneous to create. Anytime you spend a long time in production, you start to lose that initial spark of your idea, so I feel like AR mixes the animation and documentary, while reducing the production time. This immediacy is important when you’re telling personal stories, so you can capture and express it more true to its origin.
SIGGRAPH: What has it been like keeping your social and family connections alive amidst the pandemic? Do you believe we rely too much on digital conversations?
AK: At this point, I don’t see any alternatives. We are relying on it a lot, but it definitely does not replace what an in-person connection can do for you. Being able to create something together is more important than living in the digital space. I work with my sister a lot, she’s my creative partner for Supernova Design, which is our studio, yet she lives in Copenhagen and I live in Los Angeles. For us, if we didn’t have digital media we wouldn’t be connected to each other, but we also wouldn’t be able to create things together. Whether or not you are a professional creator, the act of co-creation really adds value to a digital connection versus being connected for the sake of connection.
I have a weird relationship with digital media. There’s aspects that I find troubling and there’s aspects of it that if it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to talk to my family or have meaningful interactions. It’s important to be aware of the pros and cons of every medium and to use it more consciously, but I don’t think any means of communication is free from its parallels.
SIGGRAPH: How do you envision augmented reality and real-time compositing being used in future AR projects?
AK: When I was in school, I came across a project that this Japanese research lab was doing where they were trying to feed images into a database and then associating certain images with data from someone’s sleep patterns. The goal was to print out your dreams. There was something about that experiment that I found quite compelling, and AR can be really compelling if you’re documenting something in your own, unique voice and a way to empower people to tell their own stories. I feel like I represented these groups that don’t have a lot of access to these things, and I feel like we hear a lot of those stories that I hope will empower individuals who are not used to telling their stories because they feel intimidated by these different mediums. But I hope that real-time compositing and AR can become accessible enough that they allows people to tell stories in their own voices, in a more compelling way.
SIGGRAPH: What challenges did you face while developing the final experience you presented to the SIGGRAPH community?
AK: One of my biggest challenges was the fact that the app was still in development, so there was a lot that I initially wanted to do that I couldn’t do, including an animation that is now available but at the time I could only use images. So, my biggest challenge was working with still imagery and trying to approach it less like a film and more like a storybook. This shift was quite a challenge because I had to make imagery compelling enough and match it to audio to make sure it still fields enough material for the audience to understand the narrative that’s unfolding. I was an interesting challenge, again it was a limitation that ended up working quite well by reframing how I should be looking at the story because there are so many different ways to tell a story through so many different mediums.
The other challenge was to shift from a heavy pre-production, very controlled way of working, which is what animation brings to the table. You have so much control in animation, so you tend to lean into that and want to control every single aspect, but there were so many happy little accidents that don’t go as planned. You go in thinking that this scene is going to be really weird but here’s this other space in which it works really well, so it was this shift in mindset that I initially found challenging but it ended up being quite liberating. Once I gave up control of what this was going to be, it started taking on a life of its own. It became a lot easier to move forward with our process because the app was still in development, yet there were a lot of technical challenges about the resolution and assets you could put into it and how you can’t have too high of expectations.
SIGGRAPH: What advice do you have for someone who wants to submit to a future SIGGRAPH conference?
AK: Make whatever you want to make. No one else can create it and I think that makes for compelling work. SIGGRAPH is a space where I feel exploration and experimentation is encouraged. If you’re trying something in new or using an old technology in an interesting way, put those two pieces together and use your unique voice to approach a story.
Asavari Kumar is a director and visual artist from India, currently based in Los Angeles. Her award-winning films and new media work have been showcased at numerous festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival and SIGGRAPH. Drawn to cross-cultural narratives, Asavari uses character-driven storytelling to parse her evolving cultural and political identity. Asavari is the co-founder of Supernova Design and holds an MFA in experimental animation from the California Institute of the Arts.
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