Electric dreams: how Channel 4 drama, Kiss Me First, mixes real and virtual worlds

Electric Dreams

With Ready Player One playing in cinemas, Channel 4 picks the right moment to explore the virtual reality storytelling frontier

In a TV drama first, Channel 4 has combined live action and state-of-the-art computer-generated animation to create a virtual-reality thriller, loosely based on Lottie Moggach's debut novel. Kiss Me First has been adapted by Skins creator, Bryan Elsley, with the philosophy chat rooms from the book interpreted into a lush virtual Eden where gamers interact via their hyper-stylised avatars. The drama takes place in a near-future London where computer system Azana provides an all-encompassing internet and gaming world by way of VR headsets.

Tallulah Haddon stars as lonely young carer, Leila, whose mother has recently passed away and who spends her time escaping into virtual realms for comfort. There she meets the vivacious Mania (Simona Brown) and the two spark up a real-life friendship.

'A single novel makes one story and we're hoping to make a returning series,' explains executive producer Melanie Stokes. 'It takes the ideas in the book and puts them in the near-future. The idea is that there's no Facebook, there's no Google, it's just Azana and you can do whatever you like. One of the things that really appealed to me about the novel from the get-go was that my kids are big gamers and I wanted to understand what that felt like. What it felt like if you could be anyone or talk to anyone and play with anyone across the globe.'

The CGI virtual world was created by Glasgow's Axis Animation. 'The biggest challenge on the animation side is to convey the emotion,' adds animation director Kan Muftic. 'We always talked about how we wanted to take the next step with animation, not do what animation likes to do which is explosions, spaceships and lasers but really try to push the animation in a direction that hasn't been tried often before, which is drama. The hardest thing to do is put two CG characters in that space and let them talk to each other and relate to them. That was always the brief.'

The show covers topics such as mental health and isolation in young people and the two lead actresses both carried out extensive research for their roles. Brown says: 'With mental health, everyone's process is different, and you can't really compare. I didn't want to play a caricature or make assumptions about how Tess would act. I read books, I watched documentaries.'

Haddon explains her process saying: 'I did most of my research into young carers, I watched a couple of documentaries that were made by young carers themselves. It was interesting because it felt like a much more direct view into their lives and their day-to-day routines. A lot of that was about thinking about Leila looking after her mum and how much time she would have to herself, and how much time she'd be caring for her mum. How physical it was. Watching those documentaries was important to me because it was really personal.'

The animation is probably the most eye catching and unusual element of Kiss Me First but writer Elsley didn't want it to overwhelm the story. 'It's basically a relationship drama. It's a story of friendship and how two young women overcome bad stuff, how their friendship supersedes all the bad stuff they're going to encounter in the various episodes. We hope, in part, it's a very human story with this paradoxical virtual universe that grows around them.'

Kiss Me First episodes air 10pm on Mondays on Channel 4. Also available on catch up.

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