As the sole virtual reality project set to be screened at MSA festival, Intertainment caught up with creative visionary Keith Myers about his VR expedition into the iconic London Road Fire Station.
Firstly, could you tell us a little about what Firehouse is about?
The film is about the history of London Road fire station, and it focuses on the firemen and workers at London Road, and the community that were there to support the fire station for about 80 years, protecting the Manchester and Greater Manchester areas.
And how did you come to be involved with this film?
I took this project on because I’m specialising in virtual reality, so I was seeking something that would allow me to tell an interactive, immersive story using archive footage. I was invited to apply for this project through Jenny Walker, someone who previously worked at Manchester Metropolitan University. I put forward some ideas about how I could use virtual reality to take the viewer on a journey through the history of the place, which was the starting point. It’s an iconic building in the Manchester area and there’s a lot of work put in by MMU to promote the fire station, but I feel like I’ve done something quite unique here.
Would you refer to your work as a documentary then?
It’s a film that allows the viewer to learn about the history of the building, so you can select different locations, so I’d say it’s an interactive documentary.
Do you feel like you have a personal connection with the London Road fire station?
History has always interested me. I think it’s good to tap into the local community, so it’s been an amazing chance to get involved with something which has massive cultural heritage in Manchester. It’s interesting that not a lot of people know about the fire station, which is near Piccadilly train station, and if you walk past you’ll notice its ginormous, Edwardian piece of architecture. When you walk through the doors, you’re suddenly immersed with these old apartments, control rooms and engine houses, which is fantastic.
Just to clarify, what’s going on with the building now?
Allied London have bought the building and they’ve invested about £20 million for refurbishment plans, so it’s going through a lot of change. It’s a Grade II listed building so they’re going to keep the internal structure, but it’s been disused now for 30 years.
What is it about the fire station that interested you to make the film?
The fire station itself trained people from all around the world, which makes it so unique. People came from Iraq, Iran, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, South Africa, Kuwait, the list just goes on and on. The training service was so good that it was unparalleled, so people went back to their home countries and were seen as important figures. Before Manchester became the metropolis it is today, it was very industrial and no one lived in the city centre, so there were lots of dangerous situations for the firemen.
With the film being made using virtual reality, how difficult was this to accomplish in such a busy year? I can’t imagine it has been easy for you.
Filming in virtual reality presents a lot of different challenges. The technology is very new, and because of that, there’s a lot of different editing tools out there that do different things, but not one that does everything, and that’s just in post-production. In terms of making the film, you have to approach VR in a completely different way, you have to think about user experience, how the camera is their eyes and how viewer transitions work.
Had you worked with virtual reality before Firehouse?
I’ve worked on projects with the BBC last summer, which taught me a lot about their methodologies and editing in VR. I’ve also worked on a VR project for the European City of Science, which was an immersive experience through the scientific history of Manchester.
With the film dealing with cultural identity and diversity, what would you like people to take away from the film?
I think the message is that any community can work together. When people were training together alongside each other, there was no cultural barrier in place to prevent them from working together in protecting this city. So it doesn’t really matter what your background is, Manchester is a place of multicultural identity throughout the services, so when you consider that hundreds of people overseas were coming over here to train for the fire service, they were welcomed in to Manchester.
It is going to be viewed through a headset, but we’re planning on screening this is an open space section, but the difficulty might be to make sure all the equipment works properly and (laughs) nothing goes missing.
And is the film going to be a communal experience or an individual one?
It’s an individual experience because you have to physically put the headset on. Ideally we’d have a few different headsets available to use but I don’t think that’s realistic.
I’d say so yeah. It has provided students with a platform to better themselves, but to have the support of industry professionals helps provide certain advice. They’re both practitioners, which is important. They understand the challenges that people don’t notice, such as things that go wrong, scheduling that doesn’t work, the funding that you can’t raise and the contacts that you can’t make, (they) know how to get around these things and plan it properly. It really gives you the confidence to go out and reach new heights in terms of networking, and it’s a model that the school or art should implement throughout, and maybe this is a precursor that the screen school has planned.
You’ve used archive footage in the film, have you got this from working externally with people outside of the School of Art?
A little bit yeah, Jenny Walker who I mentioned earlier, has been instrumental in allowing me to work on this project. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have had a meeting with the North West Film Archive, who’ve been really supportive as well. The archive material has really enriched this project and has allowed the viewer to understand what life was life and to get a visual sense of the training activities and the incidents around Manchester.
Am I right in understanding that Firehouse is going to appear at the Manchester International Festival later in July?
(Laughs) Actually, I’m going to be at the festival as I’m one of 50 artists that have been selected for the Creative50 project, so I’ll be continuing the practice of using VR. Firehouse could be included in that, which I think would be a good idea as part of the project, so there’s potential there.
Now Firehouse is finished for the festival, are you going to continue with interactive, factual projects?
I think that virtual reality has been an opportunity for me to create something that I can use when I graduate from university. In fact, I’ve recently been approached to work for a film production studio in Manchester, who want me to work for them full-time.
That sounds like a very good opportunity for you to continue with this sort of work.
I’m actually kind of torn, I want to be an independent practitioner who wants to create my own projects. I think a mix of freelance, more commercial work in the VR sector but also working in narrative fiction is something I’ve got to offer in that respect.
And finally, with so much attention directed towards Manchester at the moment because of the recent tragic events at the Arena, do you feel as though Firehouse represents the Manchester spirit of a diverse community which stands together?
I think recent events have proved that we are in an increasingly fast-moving, politically unstable world and as a society we sometimes feel lost in all of that because of events that are totally beyond our control. Everyone is affected by what has happened in some sort of way, so for me, the film shows that a community really can come together and function to bring about a greater goal. It’s obviously quite a bit different to what has happened recently, but I think comparatively, a lot of the firemen in the film talk about the IRA bombing in 1996, and how the fire station and control rooms were on lockdown. It’s more horrific now than ever, but what was going on at London Road with the firemen gives a beacon of hope for the future. People put themselves at risk and some of these firemen were killed, so I think it shows you how important such a service is to our society.
You can find out more about the MSA Film Festival on their Facebook page here and if you can’t make it to the MSA Film Festival, you can catch Firehouse at the Holden Art Gallery from June 9 – June 21.