What kind of experience would it take to elicit deeply felt emotion and compassion from you right at this moment? Would it require a direct experience? Or could an artist, writer or filmmaker find a way into your heart with a story? Is there a medium that can actually translate someone else’s experience into a something that you can actually feel?
A progressively popular experiment in this emotional storytelling is virtual reality. Director Chris Milk went so far as to call it an “empathy machine” and organizations like the New York Times and the United Nations have begun using it to tell social justice stories from conflict ridden areas like Syria and Ukraine. This pliable medium is one that many members at NEW INC are currently experimenting with in different narrative and technological formats — for example, the 5-minute short film Giant, created by Milica Zec and Winslow Turner Porter III.
The film is set in the claustrophobic basement of a young family during the bombing raid of an unknown war — a plot line inspired by director Milica Zec's own experiences growing up in war-torn Serbia and transposed to a fictionalized format in an American setting. The two parents try to distract their young daughter as the danger above ground grows, weaving a tale about a clumsy giant whose footsteps provide an allegory to help mask the sound of the approaching bombs. You, the viewer, watch with an increasing sense of helpless discomfort, holding your breath with suspense as the story unfolds. The fictional account becomes real, if only for a few minutes.
The short was recently released to wide acclaim at Sundance New Frontier. After their experience at the festival, we spoke with Milica and Winslow about what it took to create Giant:
A still from Giant, depicting the three protagonists, portrayed by (left to right) Clem McIntosh, Jordana Rose and Zoë Winters.
The concept of the film is influenced by some very personal experiences from Milica's past. What did it take to balance these real and personal experiences with more universal themes meant to appeal to a broad audience? How did you merge real life with the fictional story?
Milica: The story draws from my personal experience growing up in war-torn Serbia. Coming from such a background is something that, for a long time, I wanted to suppress deep down and never talk about, especially not through artwork. After much self-examination and encouragement from friends, I changed my mind. I decided to speak in my name and the name of the innocent victims who are still in mortal conflicts in the world, at this very moment.
Our scriptwriter Lizzie Donahue and I decided to translate the experience into an American family’s struggle, and to convey a larger point: that this type of conflict can occur anytime, anywhere. It is not just a fleeting newspaper headline about foreign countries and foreign people.
Why did you choose virtual reality as the medium for this story? What unique opportunities did it offer and what did you learn in the process of building this experience?
Milica: Initially, Giant was supposed to be a traditional short film about a family trying to survive in an active war zone, but then I began to question the idea of going through the typical route; it seemed like the particular experience we were trying to convey required something more sensorially immersive and powerful. After a few moments of brainstorming, it was clear to me that I wanted to translate this experience into virtual reality, so that the audience could truly be transported into a situation alongside our story’s protagonists — mother, father, and daughter. Then I reached out to Winslow Turner Porter III, my long time collaborator, who had already been working in VR for a couple of years.
It took customization of current technologies and the development of some new ones to create this experience — can you give us a glimpse into what some of these creations were and how you arrived at them? What kind of help did you have?
Winslow: We are the first VR experience that we know of to combine live action footage with depth data to produce stereoscopic disparity and enable head tracking effects to work with live action. We are mixing live actors with 3D environments in a realistic and truly immersive way, allowing the viewer to live the experience of being in an emotionally gripping situation.
To make the technology of VR transparent to the user, our technical producer Juan Salvo designed a pipeline recording sidecar depth data using a Kinect 2 device. The data was then synced to the image data captured in 6K on a RED Dragon sensor. Our team keyed and color corrected the image and used sophisticated image processing to enhance and align the depth data. That allowed us to recreate the volume and disparity inside of the Unreal Engine using custom built shaders and plugins. The result is a one-of-a-kind user experience, bridging the gap between interactive and experiential VR and immersing the viewer like never before.
Our team consists of over 40 extremely talented professionals, colleagues, and friends who joined this project out of a desire to push the boundaries of storytelling for a critical purpose with Jack Caron, Todd Bryant, and Omer Shapira as our core team of developers.
Considering the changing nature of the distribution of film, and the distribution challenges for VR specifically, what did Sundance represent for you?
Milica: We had an amazing experience at Sundance and came back overwhelmed with the response we’ve received from the press and the public. Many people were crying after watching it, and many said that it changed their viewpoint on wars, on their own safety, on the world.
About 1,500 people ended up visiting Giant, and, because we were essentially standing by the installation for the duration of the festival, we had the amazing and rare opportunity to speak with most of our audience members both before and after they experienced the piece. What’s more, is that those conversations became discussions about the state of the world, and the role we ourselves play in it, which was the very purpose for which we created this project in the first place.
Our experience at Sundance was truly life changing. We are now finally back in New York City, making plans to push this project further into distribution and other festivals, conferences, and exhibition spaces.