HBO approached The Mill to develop a virtual activation that celebrated the launch of their hotly anticipated new tentpole series Lovecraft Country and had the ability to transport fans into the Lovecraft Country world, whilst in global isolation.
A Social VR Experience like no other. Lovecraft Country: Sanctum is a three-part immersive journey to another dimension.
“Travelers” visiting the Sanctum Dimension experienced three different events that are a complement to Lovecraft Country’s themes of socially relevant storytelling and cosmic horror, featuring original content performed by the cast from the series. In the first event, guests explored a mesmeric sculpture garden, with original artworks crafted by Black Afrofuturist artists. In the second, visitors entered an otherworldly interactive theatre that defies the laws of physics. The third event featured an unforgettable musical performance by one of today's biggest music stars, Janelle Monáe.
Throughout this social VR experience, guests are able to interact with other Travelers, as well as unlock hidden rooms and challenges that took them further into the dark unknown.
The digital experience made a huge online splash, garnering over 100 press features and 13 million social impressions in the first week alone.
To celebrate the highly anticipated new series Lovecraft Country HBO teamed up with The Mill to develop Lovecraft Country: Sanctum, a series of exclusive virtual reality events transporting invited guests into a world inspired by the show.
In a first-of-its-kind, groundbreaking social VR event series, 100 select influential voices experienced three events consisting of immersive theater, escape rooms, art installations, puzzles and a live concert, via the Oculus Quest headset, all inspired by Lovecraft Country.
The events were simultaneously run on the social VR platform VRChat, which allowed guests to talk and interact with each other in real-time within the environment. The events also streamed to the general public globally via YouTube Live. Viewers on the YouTube Live stream were able to interact in real-time with the experience and attendees, solving riddles to trigger spells that directly impacted the virtual world.
The experience was inspired by the deeply layered and dynamic world Misha Green brought to life in Lovecraft Country, with the aim to create a digital experience for fans that is just as innovative as the series itself.
Lovecraft Country is rooted in the idea of travel as a catalyst for self-discovery. Sanctum provides a way for fans to come together virtually and safely in a unique new place and experience performances that further explore themes and ideas from the show. The virtual events also give the opportunity of spotlighting the work of Black artists in celebration of the series.
Guests experienced voiceover performances by series stars Jonathan Majors, Courtney B. Vance and Michael Kenneth Williams; afrofuturist art installations by David Alabo, Devan Shimoyama and Adeyemi Adegbesan; a theatrical performance inspired by the words of James Baldwin, adapted by Lovecraft Country writer Shannon Houston, and performed by star Jurnee Smollett; and an exclusive VR concert given by Janelle Monáe.
We created Sanctum as a space to expand the possibilities of what the future of theatre, games, art installations, concerts, and live events can be.Rama Allen, Executive Creative Director at The Mill and lead creative on the Sanctum experience.
EVENT 1 | GARDEN OF EDEN
The first event, ‘Garden of Eden’ transported guests into a virtual world that was a manifestation and celebration of cultural and artistic themes within the show. The guests navigated their way through a virtual art show, displaying the artworks of afrofuturist artists; Divine Opulence by David Alabo and SBH Rae and Falling Roses by Devan Shimoyama are existing installations which were rendered into the Sanctum, and Yung Yemi created a bespoke piece titled Ancestors’ Dream, a 3-story tall sculpture that viewers can inhabit.
“Of the 5 different experience concepts pitched, this was definitely the wildest one!” says Associate Creative Director Sally Reynolds when asked about her journey from inception to execution. “There are three timely environmental factors that are structural bones of this project – affordable mobile hardware (Oculus Quest), an established and collaborative platform (VRChat), and thirdly a global pandemic that has forced audiences indoors and elevated interest in virtual experiences. Those bones dictate the sandbox we have to play in visually – we are designing with maximum optimization in mind, whilst providing the most stimulating experience possible for our guests. As such, we set out intentionally avoiding replication of the very rich visuals from the show – not wanting to draw comparisons between the big screen and mobile VR. Rather, we set it in a futuristic place, utilizing brutalist forms to help us keep the spaces vast and polycount low, fused with a fantastically spooky tone to deliver a distinctly Lovecraftian world.”
EVENT 2 | AN AMERICAN DREAM
Travelers to “An American Dream” experienced an immersive theatrical performance inspired by the words of James Baldwin, created by Lovecraft Country writer Shannon Houston, and performed by star Jurnee Smollett.
“The monologue that Shannon Houston crafted exceeded any expectations, we were all truly speechless when we first saw the script.” said Aline Ridolfi, Experience Director at The Mill, “We created the experience around the iconic James Baldwin debate speech, centered on the American Dream, that features in episode one. Given Baldwin’s voice and presence is so powerful it was crucial to retain that, whilst adding in a poetic, contemporary commentary from the perspective of a Black woman living in the present. In this monologue, both voices explore what the American dream means now and meant then. The pain and the beauty. The heartbreak and the hope.”
“We were privileged to have Jurnee Smollett perform the piece. Within the environment, Jurnee will be represented by a full-body avatar, with James Baldwin represented through a choreography of set design elements, dynamic lights and particles; forming a powerful and provocative experience.”
EVENT 3 | MUSIC OF THE COSMOS
The final event was a virtual reality concert given by Janelle Monáe, eight-time Grammy nominated singer-songwriter, leading film and TV actress and record producer, who will be giving fans an out-of-this-world performance as her first ever performance in virtual reality.
“I’m so excited to partner with HBO and The Mill to pioneer the future of concert experiences in Sanctum,” said Janelle Monáe before the event. “I always strive for innovation and this project gives me the special opportunity to celebrate Lovecraft Country (a show I’m a huge fan of) and connect with fans in a completely new way using virtual reality. This is the perfect platform to explore the impact of music and movement in a new dimension designed to celebrate Black art, stories and voices.”
The musical experience re-imagined the future of performances and live events, featuring a virtual environment that is interactive and directly impacted by the artist’s physical performance. Ahead of Monáe’s set, guests were invited into The Reliquary, a mystery room hosted by Lovecraft Country Michael Kenneth Williams, that was littered with artifacts from throughout the show and virtual experience – each with an accompanying audio snippet narrated by Williams.
Creative Director: Rama Allen
Executive Producer: Desi Gonzalez
Experience Director: Aline Ridolfi
Design Director: Sally Reynolds
Technical Director: Kevin Young
Senior Producer: Hayley Underwood Norton
Strategist: Min Wei Lee
Developer: Kim Koehler