While much has been written about the potential of virtual reality – how it can change the way we work, how we enjoy ourselves, and how we interact – far less attention has been focused on virtual reality as a new medium for art. And that’s exactly where UK-based film director Joe Hunting wants to innovate.
His first directing effort, We met in virtual realityThe first feature-length documentary film shot in a video game VRChat, amaze the world of virtual reality from the inside out. Hunting makes a very intentional decision to never show the topics of his doc IRL – Only through their in-game avatars, who find meaning, fulfillment, and often even love, within VRChat social communication.
Flickering Myth spoke to Hunting about the challenges shooting a movie in VR, playing with form in his documentary, and where VR as a cinematic tool can go from here.
A lot of this document is about what brought people to the VRChat community. I started documenting the VRChat community in 2018 and have made several short films in VR since then, so what caught your eye? You are To the world of virtual reality?
What really drew me to VR was VRChat, the documentary, the platform on which the documentary was shot. I first discovered VRChat while browsing through articles about communities and online gaming communities, and found that the platform was really helping people with their mental health, saving people’s lives and giving them community and belonging, which they couldn’t find before. And as I was studying a film in 2018, my documentary mind just lit up and I was curious about how space affects our social and emotional lives, and it was kind of in space from this very anthropological perspective, as well as my post. . From that moment on, he set out on the path of curiosity to talk to people, explore it, and make films.
Obviously, even based on your answer, the VRChat community is a community that means a lot to you, and you not only made movies in it, but you are also a member of it. So what does it mean for you to not only share this document with the world for the first time, but also put the VRChat community on the public stage?
Oh, that means a lot to me. I have a great personal connection to the platform. I found a lot of support and learned many new skills because of the people I met inside VR. The documentary represents society in a very positive way and shows how we can come together and use this platform and use this technology forever. And this is the story I really wanted to tell because it affected me and so many others as well. [The documentary] It doesn’t shy away from the downsides of the internet, but it really highlights the positive ways we can specifically use virtual reality. It’s a movie I can show my parents. It’s a movie that I can show my friends and colleagues and my acquaintances have no idea what I’m doing. I now have something I can show them for them to understand and see the value in what I do.
I know this movie was shot with a VR camera – VRC lens. To what extent from your real-life experience of shooting with a physical camera have you been able to give this experience of shooting with a virtual camera?
I would say that my entire skill set for using a real, practical film camera, I have brought with me to virtual reality. I hold the camera, VRC Lens in my avatar hand while in a VR headset, immersed in the same space as the people. I can see my aperture, I can zoom in and out, I can pan the camera like a drone, I can change the focal length, and it can do anything and everything a real film camera can. And so all aspects of why the focal length is different, why the aperture changes, what cinematic techniques are used in which scenarios, I can use all of that. [I can] Really tap it into this movie and use cinematic techniques to tell the story and play with the format of the documentary. I would like to say every aspect of visual language that I learned from my time in the real world, and also from my studies and film school, I was involved in this film. I am so grateful I was able to do this with this camera, but it did take some training and some real understanding of how this works.
Which begs the question, what are some of the difficulties with using the virtual camera that you have come across?
I think the difficulties with the camera specifically were getting it fixed on a drone. If I wanted to capture some coverage from the other side of the room, I would put the camera in drone mode and fly straight across the room and lose it for a moment. So I had to be very careful about how fast I was pushing my drone piloting skills. The biggest hurdle in terms of production was audio and audio capture and in stereo rather than mono. My head in VR is the microphone, and I always had to maintain eye contact with the subject so that I could pick up the sound in both ears. The moment I started spinning my head I started losing their voice, and I’ll have to fix that later. So it was actually the sounds that got me the most trouble.
The film cycles between very candid interviews, not unlike something you see in a traditional documentary, and then very cinematic sequences. How did you develop this aspect of film composition?
I have always been inspired by documentaries that use a form of filmmaking. Don’t be afraid to try different shapes. Filming surveillance scenes that are highly realistic and combine that with more poetic, highly oriented, choreographic imagery. It’s hard to do really well in the physical world, but for me, I think it was a lot easier [in VR] Because the fans are already getting stuck in disbelief and [letting] They see themselves as something completely new. So, right from the start, I knew I could play and tell the story in unique ways. I did a lot of intimate interviews with people, which was very connected and people can always understand the conversational head interview. Using this traditional cinematic tool to really engage audiences, then start bringing them out again with choreographed dance sequences, telling stories in ways that can guide their stories without any verbal voiceover. The best I can say is that virtual reality really gave me a tool to play with and a landscape to experience in this documentary, which was a vessel for their stories.
In the document, we see a lot of people being drawn into the community because they found confidence through virtual reality. Whether it’s confidence with anxiety, sadness or gender identity. Did you find that people had more confidence to talk to you in front of the camera and open up because they were their selves in virtual reality?
Yes I think so. We were all very open about that when we were in production. I’ve always been really excited to be really transparent with all of my subjects, so they all knew they were being photographed. We collaborated on how to tell their story and what we wanted to say in the documentary. But the level of anonymity remained the same – I was my username. They were always their username. I didn’t know their real names until we finished production. Because of that, we were able to speak in a very honest way and there was a little less commitment in their story. Since you represent you through your avatar, you don’t think about how people will judge your appearance. So we are only able to speak on a purely personality based on personality, which allowed people to be more open. That was an advantage I had as a documentary filmmaker to really get into the deeper questions.
Was there a conscious decision from the start not to show the true self of the themes presented in the documentary?
Yes, of course. I’ve shown true selves of my subjects in previous films, my short films, and in that it was a very dramatic moment. If you learn the true image of a person compared to their avatar, it will always change the way you see them, so I wanted to avoid that with this documentary and embrace the virtual personalities of these people and leave the physical ideas to the imagination. I think this was more interesting from the audience’s perspective.
Where do you see the VR/metaverse movie industry from here? And in your opinion, what possibilities does VR offer the entertainment industry?
I think metaverse filmmaking and just shooting within real time, the social VR world will become its own genre in film. And a lot of people have said that it sounds like a whole new cinematic language in the movie now, and I’m really excited about that. So I hope more filmmakers will come to this space as a way to tell stories in documentaries, but also in novels. And I personally really hope to help pioneer that and ride that wave and understand how that can be beneficial in every aspect of filmmaking. So I can definitely say, I think that’s his kind and the kind that will grow.
It is certainly good to ask how we can use it [VR] for distribution. I think VR filmmakers will need a space to show their films, and we could see VR cinemas open. Worlds or platforms like Bigscreen, for example, a social virtual reality cinema platform, to show those metaverse movies. Where we can all go into headphones together in the theater and watch a movie that’s being shot in live motion animation, but also in the metaverse as well. Virtual reality offers whole new possibilities for viewing movies as well as making movies. It is available because some people do not want to go to the cinema anymore. Movie theaters are changing day by day and we stream a lot more than we are in movie theatres, and I think the ability to create virtual reality worlds prevalent for exhibitions [would be] A more engaging way to watch movies with people, rather than live streaming.
You mentioned your desire to lead the film industry within the VR space. Does this mean you want to stay inside virtual reality for your future movies? Are you now working on anything inside VR?
Yes, for both of them. I will definitely stay in VR for my next project. [Joking] I am no longer afraid of real life. I’m certainly happy shooting in the physical world and doing live action again, but I’m enjoying this journey in the moment of shooting inside virtual reality. So I will definitely stay and currently developing a new project shot inside VRChat again. I will definitely be staying in VR for a little longer.
Finally, what still surprises you about the VRChat community? While making this documentary, was there anything you learned, even being a part of this community for years, that still surprised you?
I think the elements that really amazed me in addition to the education, exercise, skills and learning that I’ve discovered is how creative the VRChat community is. Every day, I see a new world, a new avatar, or a new way to play the piano in virtual reality. All worlds and avatars [are] Made by people. We see new things every day and it never ceases to amaze me how complex and how far people can take that and the spaces that come out of people’s imagination. So the creative side of things is always surprising and inspiring to me.
See also: Read our review about We Met In Virtual Reality here
Thank you very much to Joe Hunting for taking the time on this interview.