Rise Above: A New Process for a New Medium
Before Rise Above, a VR documentary made with Oculus and New York Asian Women’s Center, Co.Reality existed as a hazy dream. Our purpose and our work were intertwined, but our mission to leverage our privilege to magnify marginalized narratives didn’t seem to fit with the everyday practices of traditional media. In order to honor the complexity of a story about surviving sexual assault and fully utilize the medium of virtual reality, we needed a new form of process. We believe that the technical and philosophical challenges of VR have given us the opportunity to revisit how we make content and how our process can reflect the ‘consciousness sharing’ mentality of the medium itself. Hopefully the lessons we’ve learned thus far can help other VR filmmakers adapt to these challenges and create more deeply empathetic films.
The first major challenge any traditional director will encounter in VR is control. If you’re used to framing an image from behind a camera, having to physically hide after pressing record can feel debilitating to our ability to craft a story. The practical impossibility of monitoring your shots while recording on most camera systems (although Nokia added a wireless monitoring feature to the Ozo JUST after we wrapped our shoot!) leaves you hoping and praying, hidden behind a tree while the scene unfolds.
While this lack of control over the content of your frame might feel stressful or limiting to some, it challenges us to work at a level deeper than simply where we point our camera. If 360 films can see everything, then everything must speak to the themes we want to address. The world itself becomes our canvas for telling a story and we need to think through how and why we are constructing the virtual world as we do. Because of the immense weight and scope of this challenge, we can’t take it on alone. It becomes imperative to involve our subjects, members of our subject’s community, producers, sound recordists, and DPs all in the process of discovering and evaluating the most rich and dynamic story environments. If the places we choose to shoot are rich with meaning for the subject and the story of the film, our 360 perspective will be equally rich with details for the audiences to explore and interpret.
Instead of shooting interviews with professional lighting in a studio, we can shoot them in homes and on couches, the same locations being discussed in the conversation, or in symbolically important places for the subject. Instead of shooting from the sidelines of an important event or story moment, we can collaborate with community members to slightly adjust real-world events to fit our immersed perspective. The more collaborators involved in planning shots, the more immersive the final images will be. Even if we aren’t physically present on set to direct the action or make sure we captured our exact intention, if we put all of the right pieces into motion, they are at least likely to fall into place.
I should mention as a cautionary tale, however, that these current challenges of control are not impossible to solve given a large enough sum of money. For those who intend to warp reality back under their control, there are VFX wizards who can recreate entire objects and facial movements, among other things. Still, I’d encourage even those with that kind of money to think more deeply about building their world from the ground up rather than from the top down.
The question of control flows into the even deeper question of what it means to construct an image, a representation of a person or an idea. Inevitably our subjective perspective gets wound up in any creative process, but there are even greater dangers in VR if we allow our own voice to dominate our story. Without a certain level of self-awareness and caution, we’re wielding this powerful empathy machine inward on ourselves instead of outward onto the world which so desperately needs to see and hear itself. Of course, artists can and should acknowledge our own perspective in our films, but VR documentary filmmaking is at its best when all of these cards are visibly on the table.
With this mindset, a director becomes more of a facilitator for the story to unfold in an effective and powerful way, rather than functioning as the author of the story itself. We integrated this idea into our film by involving our primary subject, Brittany, into every aspect of the creative process. In getting to know Brittany on a deeper level, beyond the narrative of what had happened to her, we discovered important details, places, and relationships that would give life to our film. Because we lack the top-down control of cinema, we rely on this level of openness to create a world worthy of our audience’s empathy.
This is a delicate relationship, however, and can spontaneously switch from overly hands-on to overly hands-off. The struggle of perfecting this light touch, organizing but leaving open to possibility, interpreting the story while always listening and keeping your bias in check, can feel impossible, because it is. We will always be seeking the deepest possible truth of a scene or a character, but it is this struggle that makes us better artists and better human beings.
INVITATION TO SYNCHRONICITY
When we truly embody awareness in our own creative process, miraculous things become possible. By remaining non-attached, yet actively engaged observers, we are inviting the best of what is possible instead of expecting or demanding what our ego thinks might work best. Again and again, this process led to spontaneous connections and inexplicable synchronicities.
A man practicing Tai Chi in the park became the perfect symbol for Brittany’s inner processing and balancing. The Noguchi Museum, where Brittany had volunteered, opened their doors for us because of Brittany’s magnetic and generous personality, giving us the perfect backdrop for her inner anguish and isolation. A youth activist meeting spontaneously became a moment of healing that resolved the entire arc of the film.
These are only a few of the small and large moments that I can only attribute to the infinite possibility of the present moment. Because this new medium forces us to collaborate so deeply and pay such close attention to our process, we are opening ourselves up to this endless flow of connectivity. When we make work in this spirit, we are actively embodying the consciousness we seek to create.