Kiss Me First: Lending a human touch to the world of virtual reality

We chatted to the stars of new Channel 4 virtual reality drama Kiss Me First ahead of next week's premiere...

Virtual reality is everywhere. Well, not yet, but it certainly feels like the technology is seeping into our lives at an alarming rate. How long will it be before social media platforms allow us to transport ourselves (or at least our minds) into a completely different world in which we can see and feel those we are interacting with? Will gaming and real life begin to intersect more and more as technology evolves?

Kiss Me First, the new Channel 4 drama from Skins creator Bryan Elsley, asks those questions and poses some new ones. It follows grieving wallflower Leila (Tallulah Haddon) and extroverted party girl Tess (Simona Brown) as they navigate the online world of Azana – the virtual world in which they have found a private sanctuary – and its impact on their lives outside.

“It’s a relationship drama but it’s also a story about friendship and how two young women overcome some bad stuff,” said Elsley at the press launch. “How their friendship supercedes all of the bad stuff that they’re going to encounter across various circumstances. We hope that at its heart it’s a very human story with this paradoxical virtual universe that grows around them. But at the end of the day it’s the story of a friendship.”

Actor Simona Brown told Den Of Geek: “There’s an element of danger to Tess, but that’s something that draws Leila to her. She’s going through her own personal demons, and through her relationship with Leila she faces them.”

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The pair meet first within the game, but soon Leila comes face to face with Tess before becoming utterly fascinated with her new friend’s apparent confidence and wisdom.

“I give Tess something to care about, and we both need [that] because Leila’s trying to grieve her mother at the same time as trying to live independently,” added Talullah Haddon.

The series takes place in the very near future, when technology has moved on just enough to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief, but not enough to make the show’s setting seem alien to a modern audience. The premise itself has been updated from the source material, written by Lottie Moggach, which put the action in online chat rooms – a new phenomena at the time.

Executive producer Melanie Stokes said: “We’re imagining this is the near future where social media and gaming all happens in Azana. There’s no Facebook or Google, it’s just Azana and you can do whatever you like – combat, chat, whatever your thing is.

“Bryan’s taken them on a different journey because the book is a closed narrative and we’re making a returning series, so you have to make different choices, but the DNA of Leila and Tess are very much the characters that Lottie created and what Bryan’s done is taken them on a journey. We knew that we wanted those characters to have the essence of Lottie’s creations.”

Despite huge changes from the source material to both story and characters, Haddon and Brown were drawn to how deep the world of Kiss Me First felt, as well as Elsley’s eye for interesting characters.

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“I really liked the writing,” said Brown. “I’ve always liked Bryan’s writing. I really liked Dates, and I remember I auditioned for the last season of Skins. I got pretty far but, it was just a taste. I was like, ‘okay, I’ll get ‘em next time!’. I’m really glad that I got this one, because I really like how fleshed out the character’s are, and how dynamic the relationships are.”

Haddon added: “When [Leila] meets Tess, she starts to discover things about herself, and becomes a more open and engaged person, whereas before she was basically socially isolated. That didn’t mean that she was repressed or anything, but just that everything was more functional. She was lonely but didn’t realise it until Tess.”

One big selling point of the show will undoubtedly be the technology used to create the avatars within Azana, with the actresses asked to wear motion capture gear for large portions of filming in order to realise the vision of the animation team.

“We had suits on with dots and we had to run about and climb on boxes that were rocks – all sorts,” Haddon explained.

Brown added: “It was challenging because it felt somewhat restrictive but at the same time we were in a huge studio in West London and we had to solely rely on our imagination to create the world our characters were exploring. At the same time we had these weird suits on, dots on our faces, and a big headpiece that would capture all of our facial expressions.

“We were told many, many times how expensive those pieces were, so we had to try really hard not to damage them.”

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For chief animator Kan Muftic, it was about creating animated versions of the characters that looked believable on screen, rather than completely lifelike to the actors. Features are tweaked here and there, as they conceivably would be if humanity were to create fully-fledged avatars en masse.

With so much emphasis placed on the performances, then, getting Kiss Me First right came down to the choice of lead actresses to portray Leila and Tess.

“Leila is very isolated and you might say that she’s on the spectrum or on the outside of mainstream life, and Tallulah really got that essence down in a very quiet, understated way,” said Stokes. “She just blew us away from her very first audition, and that’s really hard to do without feeling mannered or like she’s ‘acting’.

“She inhabited the part, and the same goes for [Simona]. Tess goes on quite a journey and, again, she appears to be the opposite to Leila in the first episode, but then there are lots of surprises to come. Simona totally encapsulated this vervacious, captivating party girl.”

By its very nature as a mystery show, the world of Azana and the girls’ place within it is not immediately clear, but what is obvious is the care that’s gone into the concept of Kiss Me First from start to finish.

Elsley added: “The show took a long time to make, and everyone worked so hard, so it’s lovely to see that coming together.”

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Kiss Me First episode 1 airs Monday April 2nd at 10pm on Channel 4.