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How George Saunders’ Bestselling Novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ Got Adapted for Virtual Reality

How do you convince an award-winning writer that his work would be great for virtual reality? You show up at one of his book readings with a VR headset, of course.

That’s exactly what Graham Sack did back in late 2015, when he convinced George Saunders after an event in a bookstore to try the new medium for the first time. Saunders was impressed, and the two kept talking about ways to collaborate.

Fifteen months later, that partnership has resulted in “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a virtual reality film released on the New York Times VR app this month in conjunction with the publication of Sauders’ book of the same title that has since become a New York Times bestseller.

Sack told Variety during a recent interview that he was initially skeptical about doing VR for a historic novel. But upon reading the manuscript, he was immediately taken, especially by a key scene in which former President Abraham Lincoln visits the cemetery to cradle the lifeless body of his deceased 11-year-old son. “It’s this very powerful moment in the book,” he said.

The “Lincoln in the Bardo” VR piece turned into a 10-minute video that reinterprets the scene, complete with a story arc and new dialog written by Sacks, with input from Saunders. “He was a key collaborator.”

Part of the decision to diverge from the book was to make the VR experience more than just an excerpt, but there was also a rights issue to be dealt with. Sack and his team negotiated to license the VR rights for the novel independently of any film rights, and quickly found out that no one had done anything like it before. This alone added a bit of complexity to the negotiations, said Sack. “There was a precedent that was being set.”

The “Lincoln in the Bardo” VR experience takes viewers into the middle of the cemetery, where they get to meet a number of ghosts before Lincoln eventually arrives. Each of these ghosts was recorded on green screen, and then superimposed on a nighttime recording of the cemetery, an approach that added a lot of complexity to the production. “Shooting in green screen in VR is difficult,” acknowledged Sack, but added that it was key to giving the film the right look and feel. “We didn’t want to use CG.”

As for financing and distribution, the New York Times seemed like a natural partner, and Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor of the New York Times Magazine, said that the publication was happy to come on board. “We are always looking for our pieces to solve a new storytelling challenge,” Pirog said about the Saunders piece. “It was just wild enough and different enough that we wanted to get involved with the project.”

“Lincoln in the Bardo” was one of the first VR experiences commissioned by the New York Times that was not a documentary. Pirog said that the paper is looking to distribute a wide range of content through its VR app, likening it to the way the New York Times Magazine publishes both reported pieces as well as short fiction. “We are still surprising people with this medium,” she said.

Plus, Saunders seemed like the perfect match for the Times audience. “It just seemed like a really interesting alignment,” Pirog said.

Sack added that virtual reality in many ways is more like stage theater than film production, which is perhaps why going back to the source material and directly adapting a novel made a lot of sense. “There is a very powerful vocabulary there,” Sack added.

The “Lincoln in the Bardo” VR experience is available for free through the NYT VR app, which can be accessed via Google Play and the App Store for Google Cardboard, as well directly on Google’s Daydream View headset. The experience was produced by New York Times VR, Plympton, Sensorium Works, and Sack, with VFX work from The Molecule and specialized sound design from Silver Sound.

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