Two Award-Winning Filmmakers Discuss The Future Of Virtual Reality

Here's what Milica Zec and Eliza McNitt have to say.

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Fistful of Stars (2016). Courtesy Eliza McNitt.

Gender diversity in tech has been the subject of critical and public scrutiny in recent years. Then there's virtual reality, which, according to some experts, has been identified as the creative niche that's slated to change this. As Dayna Evans aptly put it in her essay for New York Magazine last September: "[B]ecause the technology is so new, and so different from anything else happening in Silicon Valley, female creators have gotten a rare opportunity to start from a level playing field."

NEW INC is home to some of these trailblazing virtual reality filmmakers, many of whom are responsible for the award-winning films to come out of the industry these past few years. Here, we interviewed two of these directors directors—Eliza McNitt and Milica Zec—on the projects they're working on and what they see on the industry's horizon.

As McNitt told us in our interview: “We get to be the pioneers, together, defining the space regardless of gender.”

 
 

Tree (2017). Courtesy Milica Zec via New Reality Company.

1. How did you get into making VR films?

MILICA ZEC: I come from a traditional filmmaking background of editing and screenwriting; prior to my VR directorial debut, I also worked with the performance artist Marina Abramovic for 9 years. About two years ago, I met a screenwriter named Lizzie Donahue and we struck up a conversation. I told her about my adolescence growing up in war-torn Serbia during bombings. Lizzie had the idea to create a short film about a family during wartime. While I was hesitant at first to share such an intimately private time in my life on screen, but the idea lingered with me and I soon reversed course. Lizzie and I agreed that she would write a short screenplay and we would go from here.

When I read her first draft, about a fictional Western family hiding in a basement from bombs, I realized that I didn’t just want to create a short film. To aptly communicate the emotions of living in a warzone, I wanted to fully immerse viewers inside of the conflict through virtual reality. It felt important to give people a deeper kind of insight into what innocent civilians still experience every day. That piece eventually became my debut VR piece Giant.

Since then, I have been invigorated by the possibilities of VR as a storytelling vehicle, one with potential to bring people close to experiences they may not have been able to have otherwise.

ELIZA MCNITT: Outer space led me to virtual reality. I’m a writer and director who brings narratives about science and technology to life through storytelling. My journey into film began when I discovered science. Researching the disappearance of honeybees around the world, I was inspired to make a documentary. The impact of sharing that story with a global audience made me realize the power of storytelling.

So, back to VR. I was approached by composer Paola Prestini at National Sawdust to develop a visual experience for The Hubble Cantata to make people feel as if they were floating through the stars. The Cantata is based on the poetic ideas of Dr. Mario Livio an astrophysicist who worked on The Hubble Telescope for 24 years. He says that “the atoms in our bodies were forged inside the furnaces of stars, therefore it is true we literally are stardust.” (Small sidenote is that this was to be performed live with over 100 musicians, outdoors, for 6,000 people.)

I wanted to transport people to the deepest pockets of the Universe that only The Hubble Telescope can see thousands of light-years-away. It felt like VR was the only way to tell that story. Fistful Of Stars is the first VR experience that I’ve created. I was really fortunate to work alongside some really talented collaborators who mentored me and took me under their wing like Duncan Ransom at the Endless Collective, Terence Caulkins at ARUP, Todd Bryant, and Jess Engel. This unstoppable team was the backbone of this project. We set out to make the impossible come to life.

 
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Fistful of Stars (2016). Courtesy Eliza McNitt.

2. What are the greatest rewards of working in the VR space?

MZ: Working in VR allows me to communicate realities about the human experience closely with viewers by bringing them deeper inside of the story. Those experiences have potential to change perspectives even on the most complex or seemingly abstract issues.

EM: One of the greatest rewards of being a woman in VR is the supportive and collaborative community that has emerged. I’m grateful for the mentors who have believed in my work and supported me as a filmmaker. As I’ve set forth to tell stories about science and technology, I’ve been empowered to use Virtual Reality as an innovative tool to bring the cosmos down to Earth. I think for all creators in VR, it’s really exciting to take risks in storytelling to tackle uncharted territory.

3. Do you encounter challenges as a woman director in VR? Are they different from other sectors within the tech and filmmaking industries?

MZ: Because VR is an emerging industry, I believe that it may be easier for women to enter into VR than many other industries and a lot of brilliant women are rising to prominence now as a result. I’m in a position to create work without stopping to remind myself that I should feel limited by gender.

EM: In VR, it’s an even playing field. Everyone is just setting out on this journey together. I don’t feel a sense of division because I think everyone is facing the same challenges. Like what  Milica mentioned, VR is an emerging industry. We get to be the pioneers, together, defining the space regardless of gender. The discoveries of each filmmaker in this space will only enrich the way we tell stories moving forward.  

4. How do you think women will shape the field of VR?

MZ: Women have already shaped the field of VR; so many of the seminal VR experiences we now view as instrumental in shaping our field were created by women. I’m excited to continue creating new and cutting-edge content alongside a long line of inspiring women directors, producers, and innovators.

EM: I’m inspired by the many innovative creators in Virtual Reality who continue to push the medium forward in unexpected ways. I look up to the bold voices in Virtual Reality like Milica Zec, Lisa Watts, Yelena Rachitsky, Jess Engel, Resh Sidhu, and Karen Dufilho Rosen who are shaping the future of the medium. This is such a collaborative community with a strong vision for creating experiences that continue to take risks and innovate.

 
 

Giant (2015). Courtesy Milica Zec via New Reality Company.

5. How are you trying to shape the future of VR?

MZ: As an artist, it is important that I shed light on issues that matter to me and things I believe. In my first piece, Giant, viewers were silent observers and unable to have their own say in the action unfolding. However, Tree allows viewers to almost create their own version of the piece. Some people during Tree choose to vigorously shake their branches, while others move their trunk, and some even stand in stillness, taking in the moment. I’m excited to create more projects in a similarly immersive vein--allowing people to create their own reality in virtual reality.

EM: I am fascinated by the possibilities of narrative storytelling through Virtual Reality. When VR took off, documentary and gaming quickly emerged as defined genres that we recognize. But what captivates me is defining narrative and pushing forward a new language of storytelling. With my next Virtual Reality exploration of the cosmos that I am collaborating on with Intel I am exploring the possibilities of interactivity as a storytelling tool to further immerse viewers into the experience. As a filmmaker and artist, I am most excited to push the technology to its limits and fail upwards, uncovering new discoveries along the way.

 

Editor: Rain Embuscado