This film about virtual pets shows the scary thing about augmented reality

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In her short film Strange Beasts, director and VFX artist Magali Barbe depicts a chilling scenario if we let digital isolation take hold of our lives.

The five-minute short features a Black Mirror-esque future wherein a developer promotes his app about virtual pets. These digital creatures can be customised and be treated like real animals. You can feed them, play with them, and take them on walks.

Sounds fun! That is, until the boundaries between what’s real and what’s digital become blurred.

Well-written, visually stunning, and truly twisted in the end, the short film illustrates our greatest fears when it comes to technology.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Barbe to know more about her work.

Strange Beasts

What was the inspiration for Strange Beasts? Did Black Mirror have any influence here?

“To begin with, I just wanted to make a ‘hoax’ video. I thought, ‘Let’s make a fake commercial, about a pretend VR or AR game, post it online, and drive people crazy because the game will look so cool!…’ But after watching all those ‘demo’ videos online, I realised what I wanted to do already exists all over YouTube. That’s when I decided to make a narrative instead, but to start it off like a hoax.

“I wasn’t particularly influenced by Black Mirror: When the Netflix season was released (with episodes using AR), my film was already in post-production. That said, I love Charlie Broker’s work!”

This was your first time making a live action short film. How was it? What were the biggest challenges you encountered? And which parts of the filmmaking process did you enjoy the most?

“Because in my daily job, I spend a lot of time in front of a screen, I guess I’ve had more fun doing anything that was contrasting with that: directing the actor, being on set. But overall, I have enjoyed every part of it, really.

“Building my crew meant meeting new people, doing art direction for the creatures was great and very constructive, de-rushing was quite emotional (but then I’ve learned it was a very normal thing), shooting was awesome. Then post-production, again, because it’s my job, was more like… ‘routine.’”

Strange Beasts

We loved the VFX in the film, from the character design to the world-building to how they perfectly fit with real life. Could you tell us more about your creative process when it comes to VFX?

“Thanks! My big concern for a while was that the creatures have to look appealing enough for people to believe they’re watching a video game advert. The creatures also needed to look well integrated into the real world, otherwise the twist wouldn’t work.

“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think, for a self-funded project, it looks great. I’m happy with it. I would like to acknowledge the amazing contribution from all my team. It was a self-funded project, and it wouldn’t have been possible without them. Thanks guys.

“In term of ‘process’, I guess I’m lucky to have references/culture in animation (Japanime, french anime, Disney, Pixar…) I just worked the usual way: I first asked my friend Jonathan Djob Nkondo to join the crew (he’s an awesome designer, 2D animator) and we worked together until I was happy with both designs.

“Then a CGI concept artist, Dean Frater, joined the crew (modelling, textures) then a rigger, then animators. I have animated on my film too.”

We did not expect that twisted ending. How did you come up with it?

“Hahaha! So many people told me they didn’t see it coming, I’m so glad! That means it worked, right? Well, when I was writing the short, the topic I had in mind was the dematerialisation of everything, with the rise of new technologies. Before A.R, that’s really what I wanted to talk about. This idea came quite naturally, from a long-term reflection on the subject.”

Strange Beasts

Do you foresee a scenario like the one in the film happening in reality in the near future? Is the film trying to send its audience a warning or a message?

“I didn’t mean to make a ‘preventive’ or ‘warning’ film. I am fascinated and scared at the same time about new technologies, and that’s what I’ve tried to express in my movie.

“About foreseeing a scenario in real life… Don’t you think we’re already there? Or ok, very close.”

What are you working on next?

“Since the release of the short film online, I have been reached by a lot of producers and studios, in Los Angeles and London. I am now working alongside United Talent Agency on a feature version of ‘Strange Beasts’.

“I also have a manager, so I am very well surrounded. I am also meeting people about my other projects: I have two other feature treatments. I feel very lucky, but I’m keeping a cool head: There still is a lot of work to do!”

To know more about Magali Barbe and her work, you can head on over to her website.

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