The AFI FEST Interview: VR Artist Chris Milk – American Film Institute

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The AFI FEST Interview: VR Artist Chris Milk

This year, AFI FEST presented by Audi invites attendees to sample emerging technology in the exciting arena of immersive storytelling and Virtual Reality (VR). A highlight of this section is Chris Milk’s EVOLUTION OF VERSE from Vrse.works, a photorealistic, CG-rendered 3D Virtual Reality film that takes the viewer on a journey “from one beginning to another.” Milk’s impressive credits include music videos for Kanye West, U2, Green Day and Arcade Fire.

Guests can experience and interact with EVOLUTION OF VERSE and other immersive and VR films on display at the Hollywood Roosevelt this weekend on November 7 and 8. 

Chris MilkAFI: What initially attracted you to Virtual Reality?

Chris Milk: I’ve always been interested in how technology can elicit emotion in people. There’s a strong connection between storytelling and technology that goes back thousands of years. First, it was a campfire and shadows projected onto cave walls. Then, it was clay used as paint. Fast-forward through time and you get the written word, radio, TV, and now this. VR is going to be the next evolution of storytelling.

What is the difference in approaching documentary as a VR form as opposed to a standard doc short or even a VR narrative?

VR is a teleportation device. In standard documentary cinema, the objective is to show people something — to illuminate an issue or a character. In narrative VR, the objective is to take people somewhere. We transport them to the site of the issue, the ground zero of the story. A lot of consideration is paid to the power of the setting. VR docs can communicate everything traditional docs can, but they can also immerse you within a story. When we vet a project, and during production, we look for ways to bring the viewer into the story. Things like creating eye contact between the subject and the camera system, placement of the camera system, height of the camera system — all these feed into what makes a VR doc uniquely resonant.

Evolution of Vrse

Can you talk about some of the obstacles you’ve encountered and your trial-and-error process of developing VR in your work?

Every project we take on is a chance to explore the VR landscape. One initial obstacle was the question of transitions — how do you edit in VR? With CLOUDS OVER SIDRA, we found straight cuts to be a little jarring at times, and we opted instead for fades. Since there’s so much visual information to digest in each shot, the pace had to be tailored to the experience — often much slower than traditional cinema. For U2’s SONG OF SOMEONE, the objective was to seamlessly blend singers who were located all across the globe. After some experimenting, we found that wipes really allowed the viewer to visually understand the purpose of the experience — to bring disparate people together.

Can you walk us through the development process of EVOLUTION OF VERSE? How did you conceive and execute the piece?

With EVOLUTION, I wanted to create something incredibly simple to sort of ease audiences into the possibilities of VR. I see VR as standing on the shoulders of all previous storytelling mediums, and that in no way disparages film or music. I consider EVOLUTION to be a celebration of our capacity to create anew. That’s why I included several references to cinematic breakthroughs — the Lumière Brothers’ ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN being one of them, and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY being the other. EVOLUTION was created as a photorealistic CGI experimental narrative. The process was heavily dependent on flushing out the exact vision — from the landscape, to the directionality of the train, to the texture of the water you’re standing on. Lots of revisions, lots of long hours brainstorming creative solutions.

What do you see as the next steps in virtual reality filmmaking?

I think we’re at the dawn of a new narrative. We can tell stories differently now. What shapes the evolution of VR will be how we portray our real lives. When we show people some of our VR films, afterwards, they remember them not as something they watched, but as something they experienced. VR shapes the brain similar to memories. We’re going to start seeing stories that take us to faraway and impossible locations, and stories that blur the lines between our world and the virtual one.

Visit the AFI FEST Film Guide for more information on the complete State of the Art program.

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