‘Kindred’ in VR Elevates Family Stories to a New Dimension

by | 24 October 2023 | Conferences

Image Credit: ©2022 Electric Skies Ltd

Prepare to be drawn into a tale of inspiration and resilience that is rooted in reality. The SIGGRAPH 2023 VR Theater selection “Kindred” speaks volumes about a LGBTQ+ parent who embarked on a trailblazing journey through the labyrinthine adoption process in the United Kingdom. This narrative sheds light on the unique obstacles nonbinary parents face within the confines of the U.K.’s outdated adoption system. This compelling narrative revolves around Syd and Ollie, a remarkable pair whose audacious journey has helped reshape the conventional understanding of family. Their story is a testament to the power of love and determination in the face of adversity. Learn more from the creators behind “Kindred.”

SIGGRAPH: What inspired you to create “Kindred” and focus on one family’s groundbreaking adoption process in the United Kingdom?

Bambou Kenneth (BK): When I first learnt about Syd’s story, I was captivated by their unwavering perseverance to achieve their dream of becoming a parent, even when presented with systemic hurdles and totally against the odds. That kind of courage speaks to me, and I hope to our audience, regardless of their social or political views. “Kindred” is a personal story that is highly emotive. It was essential for me to surround myself with a diverse team, so we had lots of people from the LGBTQ+ community with a particularly strong nonbinary representation for this project. There was always an open space for people on the team to share their personal take and experiences throughout the creative process.

SIGGRAPH: Explain why you chose the virtual reality medium to tell this story. How did you approach the challenge of creating an immersive and engaging narrative experience for “Kindred”?

BK: I wanted to use virtual reality to tell this story because there’s a particular intimacy in VR — a unique connection between audience and character — that is quite unlike other mediums. It also allowed us to play with perspectives. You can be embodied as a character, or not embodied as a character, as a third person from above. I realized that there is a lot of power in shifting those identities and playing with identity. Many nonbinary people experience that change of identity, and I think the same thing can be experienced on a certain level by a “Kindred” viewer, relating to the story, but also having the possibility of stepping back and seeing it from the outside.

SIGGRAPH: Can you share any unique design choices or technical innovations that were implemented in “Kindred” to enhance the VR experience?

BK: One thing that was very important for the team and me was avoiding the “archetypical” look of how a transgender or nonbinary person is supposed to look. A lot of people maybe imagine this tomboyish, skinny, feminine image, which I wanted to avoid from an ideological place. I also knew, from my acquaintance with Syd and with Ollie, that they don’t fall into these stereotypes. We designed the characters to not fall into these stereotypes while at the same time being quite ambiguous. I think it’s interesting to see people come out of the experience and talk about Ollie as a “she,” like it’s obvious they are “she.” And then some people talk about Syd as a “he.” Sometimes we unconsciously place a gender on them, which is interesting to see. It was also important with the character design to make them feel welcoming and warm — to make them feel comfortable to be around, not intimidating in any way, not alien in any way. We showed Syd and Ollie the designs, and they were very happy them. Ollie actually gave us notes on the clothes they thought the character should be wearing. They sent a PowerPoint presentation with ideas for shirts, pants, and hats. We made some changes to the character to fit with how they wanted to be presented. I think that was a really fun part of it, which felt like we were giving them the place to express themselves as individuals and not only as ideas.

SIGGRAPH: What kind of emotional impact or responses do you hope “Kindred” evoked in those who experienced it at SIGGRAPH 2023?

BK: I’d like people to be touched and be able to relate to the story and the characters, even if those characters are not necessarily like them on certain levels. I hope that there is a human connection. One thing that surprised me in people’s reactions was the raw emotion of many people who are just becoming parents or want to become parents. It’s not an easy thing to go through for so many people. It’s great that they can relate to this story. On the other hand, we also want to show that everyone deserves love and family support by placing a spotlight on gender diversity within family units. Hopefully the story works on a number of levels and holds something for everyone.

SIGGRAPH: How do you see the future of virtual reality storytelling evolving, and how does “Kindred” contribute to that vision?

BK: VR is a great example of what we can reach in art, theatre, dance, and film. It’s like an umbrella platform, for all these mediums to be available at any place, at any time, in your home, or out in the world. It creates this intimacy that, for me, allows stories to flourish and become something else. I’d never be able to tell “Kindred’s” story in a film — it’s too intimate, it’s too personal, for it to be so big. I think VR allows the user or the viewer to be part of the artwork in a way that is very different. And I appreciate that. I think we can see that kind of trend that is happening in all different mediums, the viewer as the creator, people are more involved in what they consume. And VR is the perfect place for this involvement to grow and become beautiful.

More stories await at SIGGRAPH 2024, taking place 28 July–1 August in Denver. Save the date, and look forward to more exciting announcements, coming soon.

Bambou Kenneth (female, she/her), director, is an artist, director, and illustrator. Previously lead art director on Electric Skies; production “Glimpse,” “Kindred” is her directorial debut. She is a graduate of integrated design at world renowned Parsons School of Art and Design, New York.

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