LBB’s Laura Swinton catches up with Grey London’s Dan Cole, Thomas Thomas Films, MPC, 750mph and The Quarry to learn about an amazing labour of love
If there’s one project that will renew your faith in the people who make up the advertising and production community, The Wayback is it. A VR project nearly two years in the offing, it’s a free-to-download experience designed to spark memories in people with Alzheimer’s by whisking them back to the 2nd of June 1953. A street party in celebration of the Queen’s coronation.
The Wayback involved a lot of hard work from volunteers across the industry and support from companies like Thomas Thomas Films, MPC, Grey London, 750mph and The Quarry… not to mention hundreds of donors who helped get the project off the ground, as well as cast of nearly 200 extras.
The project is the brainchild of Grey London creative team Dan Cole and Andy Garnett. Dan had seen the ravaging and disconnecting effects of Alzheimer’s when caring for his own father. The pair decided to use their creativity and industry connections to make lives better for people with the disease and their families. However, the idea of making something using virtual reality only came up when Dan got to experience the visceral effects of VR in the (terrifying) Guy Shelmerdine experience Catatonic. The way it affected his memory made him wonder if there might be something in it.
Later on the team came across the concept of ‘Immersion Therapy’, whereby Alzheimer’s patients are surrounded by objects from their youth to help trigger memories. They got in touch with Dr David Sheard, founder of Dementia Care Matters, to see if their idea really did have potential.
“Once you get into this world, you’re really treading on dangerous ground; you don’t know if what you’re doing is going to be useful. We were determined that the only reason to do it was that it was useful, that it could be a tool that we wish we’d had,” explains Dan. He’s adamant that The Wayback shouldn’t be seen as a cure, but as a way of giving sufferers a positive experience and a way to connect with their families. (Watch the reaction trailer to see just how the experience lights up the faces of patients in a care home!)
From there they developed the idea of creating an experience that was general enough to be shared by a wide range of people… and which could be jam packed with experience-triggering details. A street party for the Queen’s coronation was the ideal event.
To make it happen, Dan and Andy needed to get their industry friends involved – and because Alzheimer’s is a disease which touches so many lives, they had no shortage of people who wanted to help.
“Most of the people who have got involved in it or who pledged to the Kickstarter are the ones who have seen it up close, day-to-day,” says Dan. “It’s quite a hard thing to get your head around, how you feel when someone in front of you, who you’ve known all your life either doesn’t recognise you or they’re in a completely different reality and you’ve got to go into their world to find a connection.”
That’s certainly the case for Trent Simpson, Head of Production at Thomas Thomas Films, whose granddad had the disease when Trent was young. "“My grandfather had dementia but, because I was so young in his decline, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. He was talking about memories that were so removed from my world. But with the VR experience, you can both experience the memories; as a child, I’d be able to talk about it. It’s quite powerful," says Trent.
Having proven the concept by visiting care homes and sharing general VR experiences with dementia patients, the team then had to raise money via Kickstarter. They raised over £35,000 – with a little help from a Mad Men-themed ‘Wayback Day’ at Dan and Andy’s agency home, Grey London.
In terms of the production, this wasn’t a straightforward project. The shoot took place in a terraced Islington street, and the props and costumes had to be painstakingly researched, sourced and made from scratch. The production design team spent two weeks making the fancy dress costumes and party hats from scratch – a real labour of love.
What’s more, reveals Trent, many of the period costumes in London had already been rented out – to the production team of the second season of Netflix’s The Crown. “That was a very stressful moment, when we realised that!” he recalls.
Interwoven into the set and story are seemingly tiny details that make a massive impact. There's period-appropriate fish paste sandwiches, a gaggle of women chatting admiringly of the Queen of Tonga, whose jovial and bright appearance had been a great topic of conversation at the time.
"We were all aware that the things that spark memories aren’t necessarily the things we’d expect," explains Dan. "It’s going to be the carpet in that living room or the fish paste sandwiches. Sure enough, when we tried out with the old guys last week, there were two or three of them who mentioned the fish paste sandwiches as soon as they came out. I hadn’t heard of them until a few months ago! But we wanted the opportunity for everything in there to spark a memory. I think that’s paid off, definitely."
The experience was directed by Kevin Thomas at Thomas Thomas films, who peppered the experience with all sorts of funny and tender moments (look out for the couple smooching during the three-legged race!). Executive Producer Emma Fasson, together with Trent, was instrumental in bringing the team together.
Visual effects and post production giant MPC helped by advising how best to shoot the VR project, erasing anachronistic details and stitching together the footage from the 360 cameras. “Satellite dishes, burglar alarms, loft extensions, motorbikes… I was there on the day and we tried to cover up everything we could but obviously there are things you can’t remove,” says Dafydd Upsdell, an Executive Producer at MPC. “Fair play to the people who live on that road, they were so patient!”
Another key element was the ‘ambisonic’ sound – which basically means that the sound mix responds to where the viewer is pointing their head. It allows the viewer to focus in on specific conversations and feel like they really are there. That was made possible by the team at 750mph. Since it was a 360 shoot, there could be no boom mic hidden behind the camera, so there were 11 lapel mics dished out amongst the cast and the team recorded ambient sound too. After that Sam Ashwell and the sound design team used period references and the onset sounds to create a mix.
When everything was stitched together, it went over to Jim Robinson at edit house The Quarry, who edited the eight scenes together. For 29-year-old Jim, it was a real eye-opening experience. “I don’t have the years on me to have an inkling of what that era would be like. You can see pictures, but with the tech you’re stood with these people on the street, you feel like one of the family,” he says. And Jim’s reaction also demonstrates just how the Wayback can help give younger people a way to understand the world and memories of those family members with Alzheimer’s.
The final experience is crafted with an incredible amount of detail – which is all the more amazing considering the people who donated their time and skills for free. Now that spirit of ‘free’ and ‘sharing’ lives on. The Wayback app is available to download for free, so that carers and family members can download it to their phones and use it with a cheap Google Cardboard. Everyone involved hopes that it means the experience can help and touch as many people as possible, that it’s easy to use and access. And perhaps people in other countries will be moved to recreate special, positive moments from their own recent history in order to touch and inspire people with Alzheimer’s in their own land. The project is already making its way out of the industry bubble, with a write up in The Guardian - and the next step is spread the word.
“We didn’t see this as something that would just live in care homes,” says Dan. “We saw this as something for when you’re sitting at home with your dad and you’re at the point where you’re playing old songs and showing old photos. We wanted it to be easily accessible. We also had a few raised eyebrows when we said that we wanted it to be free. We’re not doing this as a business; we’ve all got our day jobs that we love. This is about making good use of contacts and the world that we’re in. I want it to stay that way, to make more of these and for it to become a platform for our memories. In a dream world it becomes an open platform for people to do things from their own country.”