“We would have to build a car, that’s the only way it would work,” says Asif Kapadia, brainstorming how to recreate the unforgettable opening passage of his movie Diego Maradona, in virtual reality. “You know what an LED lightbox is? It’s the new version of green screen, a wall of tiny little lights, thousands of them. So you create whatever you want, you put it on that wall, and it projects. We’d have to take every location of Naples in the 80s, put that on a light box, build a car, then put us in the car driving so that when you look out of the window you see Naples. I mean, it would be great. But you’d have to build every environment and that …” he whispers, “is why it’s so expensive.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Kapadia has been keeping busy. He directed a miniseries on the subject of mental health starring Oprah and Prince Harry, and a history of music in the year 1971 inspired by David Hepworth’s hit book. He produced an Indian drama series for Amazon about a shaman on the run who joins forces with a local cop. He’s building up to his next “big doc thing”, a story he says is to do with space travel, confronts “all the mad shit going on right now” and means he’s “going fully dystopian”. He has also made a film showing at the London film festival (LFF) right now; a VR short about Laika, the first earthling to orbit Earth.
Along the way, making Laika meant learning how to switch on a VR helmet. “I’m a total cynic about all of this,” Kapadia says, speaking in a screening space in the vaults of Waterloo. “I’m old fashioned. I like cinema. I like the big screen. I like a collective experience. I wear glasses. I’ve got really bad astigmatism. So I come from there. But on the other side, I do like trying new forms and new mediums. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’m a director and I like telling stories.”
Laika is a 15-minute animation in which you follow the journey of a Moscow stray as she is dragged into the Soviet space project, becomes the “most famous dog in history” and then – spoiler alert – dies from overbearing heat within five hours of launch. With voiceover from Sophie Okonedo and Tobias Menzies, it’s a dry, understated little tragedy with an added component: it occasionally feels like you, in fact, are the dog.
Kapadia got involved in Laika through his links with the LFF and the National Film School, which has a centre for “immersive storytelling”. He worked with Nick Abadzis, who had turned Laika’s story into an Eisner-winning graphic novel. He soon realised that creating something in virtual reality was more like working in theatre than in film, and that he had the power to induce visceral responses in those that are watching.
The immersive effects of VR are used largely by Kapadia to create a sense of claustrophobia, to get you to identify further with Laika as she goes from a cage in a laboratory to another inside Sputnik 2. ‘We’re not Pixar, we don’t have the money to make the perfect looking dog,” he says. “So sometimes you couldn’t show the dog and I thought it might be more interesting to be the dog. I started playing with that idea of a stray who’s captured, who’s in loads of enclosed spaces that open up gradually, and then you’re in space. I’ve been going through a bit of a space thing in recent years and I just loved that journey.”
Work on the film was done almost entirely remotely due to the pandemic and something of a rush. Kapadia says: “The joke was we had a year and a half of talking about the script and two months to make it.” A lot of other things changed too. This included big shifts in Kapadia’s industry, the outcomes of which he feels are still uncertain. He himself has only just started going back to the cinema and is not sure to what extent the audience that went to see Senna and Amy and Diego Maradona will return too. “When I made Maradona,” he says, “I had this gut feeling it might be one of the last feature films I made for the cinema … and this was in 2019.”
Like everyone else, Kapadia’s experience has adjusted further since the pandemic. “I’ve been spoiled watching things at home,” he says. “[Last month] I was in a screening with loads of people and one of them was on their phone, one of them was chatting and one of them was kicking my chair in the back, and I was going ‘Oh shit, I forgot you have to deal with this stuff!’”
Kapadia insists he remains of the mind there is nothing better in life than watching three movies back-to-back in a cinema, a “dark space with proper sound”. But he says some of his friends are going a different way: to enjoy the full immersive experience that cinema offers, they’ve started watching films on VR headsets.
“I know people who do that,” he says. “You put the headset and headphones on and you can’t be on your phone at the same time. You can’t be checking Twitter or Instagram … in theory you are having a more cinematic experience.”
In turn Kapadia’s experience of making Laika has provoked a thought in his head. That the individual, isolated experience of virtual reality might also be an aid to cinema as an art form, restoring the link between film-maker and audience. “I was totally not interested in VR and it gave me a headache, but now I think I’d like to do it again,” he says. “I do think [it enables] a meeting of cinema and documentary and experiencing things, and there’s the feeling like you’re in a dark space and fully focused on whatever you are watching.
“It’s possible for you to experience something at home in a way that I want you to experience, which you’re never going to get from watching it on TV,” he says. “It’s not the same as going to the cinema, but in theory you could have a headset, be on the other side of the world, click a link and watch exactly the film that I wanted you to see. Which is interesting.”