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Uprising: Avril Furness Is Dead Set on Curiosity

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The Presence director, producer, writer and immersive storytelling enthusiast tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about living as a “pseudo boy” and later a pseudo soldier, and interrogating fundamental human questions through VR

Uprising: Avril Furness Is Dead Set on Curiosity
“I had several near-death experiences as a kid,” says Avril Furness. Asthma attacks caused her to stop breathing on several occasions. She has memories of spending lots of time in hospital on ventilators. “I don’t remember the fear of dying, as it was a constant factor.” Avril suspects this might have influenced the first of many virtual reality stories she has told in her current creative incarnation as a 360 interactive film producer, writer and director - ‘The Last Moments’, an interactive VR film that allows the viewer to experience an assisted suicide for themselves, deciding to either end their life or carry on living. “A small part of me wants to think it was driven by an unconscious autobiographical desire,” she says.

Of course, growing up Avril could never know that her career would find her interrogating questions of life and death in VR and 360 immersive storytelling, represented on the roster of a production company like Presence. But she was building worlds and characters for as long as she can remember, from the iconic papier-mâché Tracy Island to cardboard adventure playgrounds for her pet hamsters and frogs. “I had an obsession with doll’s houses and making mini theatre sets and assault courses out of bric-a-brac / furniture and making puppet shows for my mates.”

The art-science divide wasn’t paid any credence in Avril’s upbringing. Her father wrote dictionaries of biology and her mother was a bookkeeper. Her bedtime stories came from encyclopaedias and Nature journals. “I loved looking at the illustrations from ‘On the Origin of Species’ and letting my mind wander,” she says.

One of her most vivid memories is being taken by her dad to London’s Natural History Museum, “behind the scenes” to see the archaeopteryx fossil - the first bird, which was 150 million years old. “I remember my imagination being captured by this ancient creature trapped in stone. That blew my mind as a nine-year-old. Having just a dusty skeleton, the illustrations and 3D reconstructions that scientists were able to do around these discoveries were phenomenal.”

These influences already simmering away to form the foundation of Avril’s creativity, she was further shaped by what she describes as an “immersion into an alien environment” between the ages of 16 and 19, when she went to study at Harrow - an all-boys boarding school. “There were 1000 boys and me,” she says. “I lived as a pseudo boy for two informative years of my adolescence. Wearing a boy's uniform: the hat, scarf and jacket, the experience definitely changed my outlook on life and influenced my identity as a woman.  

“What was revealed to me was how to work with men and boys, to gain trust, respect and ultimately taught me the power of communication in asking and reaching for what I want regardless of my gender. My schooling was the perfect gauntlet and introduction into navigating a heavily male dominated film world.”

Avril continued accumulating eyebrow-raising experiences after getting a History of Arts Hons degree and entering the working world. She entered the art scene right at its heart, working at Sotheby’s Auction House and then The Institute of Contemporary Arts, before managing private individuals’ art collections. Working with Maurice Saatchi, as his PA at 26, marked the beginning of what she calls her “passion to solve business problems with creative ideas”. She saw how he’d built M&C Saatchi. “His tenacity and business mind inspired me. Maurice taught me attention to detail in presenting business pitches, and the value in engaging in my creative intuition and following my heart.”

Her famous boss suggested she try her hand as an account manager. During that time she wrote some creative ideas for the Economic Development Board of Georgia, which she discovered were presented and bought by the president of Georgia. “That gave me the confidence to believe for a moment I had something to give as a creative in advertising” she says.

At 28, Avril pursued this further and took the one-year Post-Graduate Diploma in Art Direction and Copywriting run by the legendary Tony Cullingham in Watford. There she met her creative partner Miles Carter. “We plunged ourselves into advertising placement after placement, earning sometimes less than £70 a week, living on agency toast, bananas and beer. The hours were long and it was hard graft, but quickly were working on incredible briefs at Fallon; notorious for the famous Cadbury Gorilla ad.”

They were soon writing cinema spots for the ‘Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie’ Orange campaign and making “surreal and fun” cinema spots for Cadbury. At some point she and Miles found themselves in Chile, trekking up the Andes with an eight-foot inflatable character designed by cartoonist and artist David Shrigley.

Having learned the craft of strategy and script writing working in advertising as a creative, writing TV and cinema campaigns at Fallon and Wieden+Kennedy, the next phase of Avril’s life led her to filmmaking. “I have enjoyed making films that look at challenging and often taboo subject matter from euthanasia to addiction to war,” she says.

By 2016 she was exploring how VR can help audiences engage with these subjects on a more profound level. She made The Last Moments in 2016. “This VR film changed my career trajectory,” she says. It was inspired by ‘That Dragon, Cancer’, a computer game about a dad’s emotional journey in losing his baby to leukemia. “The writer had gamified cancer,” she said. “That was revolutionary to me. Using media to tell stories to amplify a narrative in unexpected channels was compelling.”

Her boyfriend at the time had an Oculus Dev Kit 2. “It was an intimidating boxy-looking thing with lots of wires. I wondered; how the hell do I make a film for that? What story can I tell?  What are the technical shenanigans and the creative implications for writing for this futuristic looking device?”

Avril had written a short 2D drama ‘Door to Door Euthanasia’ - a dystopian story set in a future where over-population meant that there was a government policy which enforced couples who were having a baby to sign up a relative or friend to have an assisted suicide - “a one in, one out policy”.  She met an Australian MP who told her about the laws there which meant that people were travelling to Darwin to end their lives (as it was only in this state that permitted assisted suicide). Her research also led to an exhibition about death at Bristol Museum. It had an exact replica of a room at Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas. “I was compelled to visit. I sat on a sofa and listened to a directional speaker of a testimonial from an Australian guy who had visited Dignitas to end his life. How can such a profound moment happen in this incredibly (Premier Inn-looking) dull space? And how could I bring this resoundingly visceral juxtaposition to an audience in a meaningful way?”

All of these ponderings converged into the 360 interactive film “to demystify what the last moments of life looked like if you were to have an assisted suicide”.  Her traditional 2D script ‘Door to Door Euthanasia’ had now organically morphed into something more profound, by switching it to a different medium. “But it also now had more power, as it was based on real life stories and human insights, and now had an interactive element to it. Giving ‘agency’ to the viewer in a VR environment (allowing them to decide on how the film ended, whether they carried on living or died) was a huge step forward in my creative career, and my excitement grew around the potential of audience engagement and different levels of immersion. “

The film has been shown at The Met Museum, New York and WebSummit, Lisbon and many film festivals across the world and at Wired Live London. It’s also been a springboard to the production of other VR films for Avril, including her most recent, a film made with The International Committee of The Red Cross and Google that puts the viewer in the shoes of a Syrian refugee family experiencing an attack from armed militia.  

Avril’s career has shifted with “the ever changing and challenging creative process of storytelling,” as she puts it. She loves the flux and discovery of it all, from trying out new equipment to working with new performers. “I love exploring new technologies and the way in which stories are told,” she says.

Recently Avril worked with Constellation AI, a tech start-up specialising in creating an AI app that intuitively learned more about the user the more you told it about yourself. She lived with the app for seven days and documented the week as a social experiment on herself. “I wanted to know if having an AI companion for the week would change my interpersonal relationships, emotional stability and outlook on life. Would relying on the app make me more of an enhanced human being? I was gripped by the potential.” 

Excited by the changes that might terrify many, Avril’s curiosity and enthusiasm is both inspiring and daunting. Even her ‘extracurricular’ activities sound intense, but go towards explaining her character. “I spend a huge amount of time in my head, so I balance this with regular boxing and sparring sessions and have just come back from a week’s retreat at a (pseudo) army training bootcamp, to invigorate my ‘in real life’ senses. I also have a regular meditation practice. This for me is a necessity to keep focused and a level of buoyancy.”

On top of that she mentors and coaches artists, filmmakers and SMEs who are working in the immersive, VR and 360 experiential space, keeps plugged into festivals and networking events (she’s part of a “women’s VR squad of producers/directors and marketeers”). 

In lockdown Avril’s enjoyed her South London roof terrace. “I can sit out and wave at other neighbours on their roof top islands.” She made the most of the summer of Covid, when she “geeked out on the abundance of time. It was a mini experiment for me, a time to try weird and wonderful virtual social workshops – from 5Rhythms dancing to Breathe Workshops to Writers Rooms and Theatre Directing Forums and all sorts of meetups – watching films socially on Netflix Party and listening to panels presented on Wired and to interesting artists like Blast Theory. And, I connected more with family and friends than ever before.  

“On a personal level it was extraordinary, an etch a-sketch moment to shake off ingrained ideas of how life was shaping up to allow for new ways of being. The value of time, friendships and family being the first things to be acknowledged.” 

She hasn’t stopped creating, of course. She spent some time writing an immersive experience bringing “The Grandfather of Modern Science”, Charles Darwin, back to life in an augmented reality experience, which she’s currently looking for funding for.

Avril’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for the shifting nature of storytelling makes her a creative talent you’ll want to keep an eye on. She’ll no doubt continue experimenting with and probing these subjects. What’s she most excited about right now in the industry? “The hybridisation of virtual characters with artificial intelligence.” Well, whatever comes out of that fascination, it won’t be dull.

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Presence, Thu, 29 Oct 2020 16:51:36 GMT