Behind the Scenes with 3 Projects at SXSW’s Virtual Cinema
To give a sample of this year’s programming, VRTL spoke with three teams behind projects exhibited at Virtual Cinema during SXSW 2019. Wiebe van den Ende (the Netherlands) directed Incitement which uses virtual reality to explore both “outer” and inner dialogue between a two young lovers. Next, Zillah Watson (UK), from BBC VR Hub, commissioned Nothing to be Written, an artistic look at soldiers during WWI and the limited communication they were allowed. The piece features beautiful music to intensify the emotive aspect. Finally, we speak with Maria Bellen Poncio and Ezequiel Lenardón (Argentina), respectively the director and producer behind Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega (Four Feet: Blind Date) who give a provocative look behind a eighteen year-old in a wheelchair and her growing sexuality in a well-acted narrative piece.
listen on your favorite platform
Justine: Hi, welcome back. It’s Justine Harcourt-de-Tourville. I’m the editor-in-chief of Virtual. But we’re broadcasting live at South by Southwest here in Austin, Texas, where they’ve put together a pretty phenomenal virtual cinema program.
We will be speaking in this segment with three different teams with VR projects. The first one is Incitement from Wiebe van den Ende, who is a Dutch director. He has put together a small project about a little bit of a love story. It’s about when Sara comes home from a business trip and she’s in the arms of her lover Luis, and the little things that happen between couples.
The second piece, we’re going to be speaking with Zillah Watson from the BBC VR Hub. She commissioned this piece. It’s called Nothing to be Written. Its director is Lysander Ashton. It’s a very moving kind of art piece that tells a story of how WWI soldiers had very limited communication with their loved ones back home. They were limited jets, postcards, where they could tick off answers and nothing more.
And then, finally, we’re going to be speaking with the Argentinian director and executive producer behind Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega. That’s Four Feet: Blind Date. And it’s the story of Juana, who is an 18-year-old girl who is in a wheelchair. And she has the same normal desires as any teenager and she’s dealing with sexuality. But you get to delve into her world from a wheelchair perspective, from a perspective of a wheelchair’s height rather. Very interesting, the director is Maria Bellen Poncio and Executive Producer we’ll be speaking with is Ezequiel Lenardón.
So, stay tuned and we’ll hear some interesting stories about some great projects here at South Bay.
Justine: Welcome, Wiebe! I’m very grateful that you’re coming here in our Cabana side podcast at South Bay.
Wiebe: Oh, pleasure to be here.
Justine: I just saw the debut of Incitement.
Wiebe: Yes, the world premier right here in South by Southwest.
Justine: That’s very good. You want to tell us a little bit about the film? It’s basically, I want to say it’s a love story, but it’s an incite into a love story.
Wiebe: It’s an incite into a love story. It’s about Sara who comes back from a business trip and explains that she has to leave again. And then, Luis, her boyfriend, decides to come clean for a very peculiar reason. I won’t give away that much. So, yeah, that’s basically the premise.
Justine: Well, one of the interesting parts of it is it’s kind of a snapshot of a relationship. I mean a very small, like almost Polaroid link of getting into the heart of how a couple communicates on certain issues or their vibe, let’s say, and it kind of combines inner dialogue and outer dialogue. Do you want to tell us about why you chose to go that road?
Wiebe: Well, first of all, one of the things that I really like about couples, if everybody’s honest, is usually the quirky things that you have that connects you. Every couple does crazy things. Me and my girlfriend, sometimes I walk her back when she’s really tired like we’re [a train]. I mean everybody does something. So, that was something that I wanted to take as inspiration. And then, as a writer, I just want to take everything to an extreme.
And the outer dialogue is always what everybody wants you to think, so there’s always an entire story going on inside someone’s head. And if you want to also put an extreme in there, that’s where things become funny. So, if you didn’t have the inner dialogue, this would be such a hard drama.
Justine: That’s true, yeah. Mine is that it would be a completely different take and a lesson.
Justine: Probably, you know how you watch arguments with people and you feel really bad, and you’re embarrassed and awkward. I think it could have had that effect.
Justine: So, the inner dialogue truly served the purpose.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the shots that you chose? Because in some cases, it’s really rather intimate when you have a camera directly above half-naked couple, or it was shot in Amsterdam so they’re probably truly naked.
Wiebe: Yeah. They were truly naked. I have a story I can tell that’s related but…
Justine: Okay. Well, you can tell it now.
Wiebe: Well, the funny thing is because I wanted them to be naked and I wanted them to be intimate couple, I really believe that bodies react to each other. So, if we would shoot the scene with them, never having seen each other naked, then there’s a tendency in the body.
That I think, especially in VR, even though the image is still not that crisp or not that clear, you’ll notice it’s just posture, it’s everything.
Wiebe: So, I politely ask them if they wanted to spend half a day in a sauna together so they could just talk and let their bodies connect in a natural way.
Justine: Well, that’s a good approach to that. What about the filming? I’m sure the camera was pretty close to them.
Wiebe: The camera was pretty close. One thing that I’m most proud of this film is I work a lot with the psychology of placement of the camera and the movement of the camera. Because we can only realize, I think, when you see the film, is that every camera is a moving shot.
So, for instance, the shot above the bed, I wanted to choose that because it’s weird. Suddenly, your axes are upside down and you’re way too close. You’re way too intimate but…
Justine: You really do feel it like you’re kissing distant from the couple.
Wiebe: Yeah. And it’s just after this instance. So, you’re building towards this moment where everybody first starts to peak around the corner and then you’re there.
And then, the camera is moving up. And the next thing that takes two minutes, it’s moving up more than a meter. And what that does, you don’t see it but your brain knows it. So, putting the camera that close and then pulling away tells your brain that this is a couple that knows each other for a long time, that they’re comfortable, that they’re intimate, and that they really like each other. And that all tells you in two seconds. So, this is the thing that I like about VR and what you cannot do in normal film.
Justine: Right. There’s another decision you made as a director, which was along with the inner and the outer dialogue. I don’t know if outer dialogue is a word, but for these purposes, we’ll use that. But for most of the film and when they’re talking and you’re observing, it’s like a third-person observer. And then, at one point, when the characters shift, you become kind of the first person. Was there any reason for that?
Wiebe: Yeah, also because to give away the inner monologue, to push that in and to amplify that. And to really envision what is going on in his mind, I wanted you to be in his mind.
Justine: Okay. Well, I think it’s a noble way to explore storytelling and being, at one point, the audience and then at some points, you kind of assume the characters. It was an interesting take.
Wiebe: Yeah. Thank you. And what I like in that was well is I wanted to do in slow motion because as a director I use this trick a lot, but emotions in slow motion just amplifies that feeling. And in virtual reality, as a first person shot, seeing something in slow motion gives you the feeling that… of course, thoughts, they go so fast, but if you want to give that or if you want to tell that as a director, then you have to slow the rest of the world down to really hear the inner voice and deal with that.
Justine: That’s a true point. Well, anything or any help here how the film will do during the festival? Or it sounds like you have a lot of people signed up to see it.
Wiebe: Yeah. The line, I mean we didn’t want to take a line. The time slots are going really fast, so even people are trying to film time slots for tomorrow. The day after, we pulled in a second tier now. But what I think is most important is the response is really good. People get it. People like it. And also because I think it’s a pretty weird story. It’s girl power coming in.
Justine: That’s so sweet.
Wiebe: It’s sweet. And it’s something that’s different than other things out there because I like a lot of the VR pieces. But just a romantic company which is [snappy] is a nice difference.
Justine: It’s what it is. I think it has a lot to offer. And I’m sure anyone who has been in a relationship can recognize the good and the bad, and all that’s in between. It’s a great little piece. Congratulations!
Wiebe: Thank you very much. And of course, we hope that a lot of film festivals here… I mean they’re programmers. So, I think people will see more of this.
Justine: Congratulations. Thanks so much for stopping by and talking. You’re welcome.
Justine: Hi! Welcome, Zillah.
Zillah: Hi! Thank you.
Justine: Here we are in Gloria, South by Southwest. And I wanted to take the time to ask you, why is BBC VR Hub here, and also what does BBC VR Hub do?
Zillah: Well, the BBC VR Hub is the BBC’s studio. We had a challenge to create five or six really brilliant VR pieces across the genre. Across different genres that would really help people to understand, help audiences to understand, and the organization to understand the possibilities of a VR to really show people what VR could offer content that’s different from a television.
Justine: And are the people asked to participate in a call or do they randomly hit you up for a funding? Or how does that go about?
Zillah: Well, we’ve been funding some pieces. We kind of have to match with what the organization might want to do. So, for example, with news, we’ve made two exceptionally good news series with VR using 360 filming. One is called Damming the Nile, which is the story of a huge dam being built in Ethiopia and its impact on Sudan and Egypt. And more recently, a big, three-part series in the Congress.
We tried to deal with what BBC is good at. We’ve got a global news organization with contacts around the world. So, that’s what we’ve done for news. But we also have several orchestras and a piece that we’ve brought to South Bay is a piece that teaches the BBC’s symphony orchestra and was commissioned for the BBC Proms which are concepts every summer in the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Justine: Okay. So, the piece we’re talking about Nothing to be Written. Do you want to explain a little about the title?
Zillah: Yeah. Well, the title is taken from the texts of special postcards that were created for soldiers to send back from the First World War. And because letters had to be scented, they needed to find a way for people to send back a quick message like a text or a message to say, “I’m well.”
So, these postcards have text lines like, “I am well” or “I am in hospital.” I need to just cross out things and you could sign your name at the bottom. Nothing else was to be written. And that’s what’s the text was taken from. Nothing is to be written below the line.
Justine: What’s interesting about this piece is you could say it’s an art piece or you could say it’s a documentary, but there’s no real dialogue.
Zillah: No. It’s a music piece as well. And it’s hard. It’s really exceptionally beautiful piece of music composed by a British composer called Anna Meredith, played with a full orchestra. And it’s a choral piece as well. It’s played by the National Youth Choir. So, it premiered in the Albert Hall last summer.
Justine: Well, that makes sense because it’s quite reflective and you’re shown images that are several kinds of scenes that are looking at the interiors of British Homes during this time period. You see, obviously, a little bit of the trenches and the hospital. These are kind of the main sets. But also, I think it starts out at a post depot where all the letters are coming in.
Zillah: Yeah. It’s the idea. I mean it’s just a little bit abstract. You can use your imagination to use it to tell the story that works for you. But yeah, the space you’re in changes from a hallway where the letters would come through to a trench, through to a hospital train, through to the post room where all those letters were being sent around Europe, from the trenches to the wives, mothers, fathers and grandparents waiting at home.
Justine: Well, it’s interesting as a sort of reflective piece with the combination of music and this artistic 360 filming.
Zillah: Well, it’s all animated. It’s not yet filmed before. Excuse me.
Justine: Yeah. Sorry.
Zillah: No, I was just saying on that one. Sometimes you forget that with these pieces.
Justine: Actually, you really do. It is absolutely not filmed but it has that sense that you’re in a movie, and they merge several people’s lives or several characters together, I think, in the end where you see someone coming home and it could be anybody.
Zillah: Yeah, it could be a son and I think different people see it in different ways, who that soldier is coming home and giving you the postcard. But it is doing what VR can do. It’s putting you in a place, in a story where you’re feeling it all around you. And that’s what virtual reality of is. It is so different than television and cinema.
Justine: Right. And the combination with the surround sound just gives it especially such beautiful music. It gives you a really good moment to reflect about what [trend offer] is not a pretty side. And so, it does it in a way that isn’t shocked and gore, but you’re able to contemplate in a serene way.
Zillah: Yeah, and art is such a good way to make us feel the emotion of that story. And 59 Productions who created the artwork and Lysander Ashton have done an amazing job at creating a piece that is a story but is a deeply emotional one. And a lot of people have a little tear in their eye when they take the headset off.
Justine: Yes. I can attest that is true. I certainly cannot imagine that. But one thing I wanted to know is why the First World War was a hundred years ago and more at this point, why was it appropriate to bring now?
Zillah: Because the music piece was commissioned by an organization in the UK called 14-18 NOW with the BBC. And their specific remit was to create a series of incredibly brilliant art pieces to help remember and commemorate the whole of the First World War and other historical episodes that happened, but that’s how it all came about. And we were able to use that to create a really memorable virtual reality experience.
Justine: Great. How many people have seen it about now and how can they have access to this?
Zillah: Well, this is the problem with VR. You can make great content now but not many people have the headsets. But we deliberately created it for the Oculus Gold headset and other mobile headsets soon. And the reason we did that was we wanted this to be a piece that lots of people could see.
If you go really high-end in terms of tech and really push the tech boundaries, you’re usually limiting your audience. So, when we launched this at the BBC Proms in London last summer, we had 30, 40 people in our concert seeing it. And that’s why we did it like that.
So, we will run more events. We’ve had really amazing reception in local libraries. We took it for the [armies] this weekend to several local libraries in November. And again, people who have never ever seen VR before, never had a chance to put on virtual reality headset were able to watch it and enjoy it.
So, that’s our mission. And just like the early days of television, that’s what we’re doing.
Justine: Well, and another element about this piece is really for all ages because you can just as easily have a teenager watch it as you can, you know, and most elderly grandparents. It can reach a broad audience.
Zillah: Yeah. And in November last year, we showed it to Chelsea Pensioners, two elderly veterans who wear these wonderful red coats and live in a special accommodation in London, and they were very, very moved by it and it really made them reflect on their years as soldiers as well. So, we know it works for the young and old. Everyone can take something from it, which is exactly what we wanted to do with BBC VR content. We wanted to create content that would really reach and move a broad audience.
Justine: Well, thank you very much, Zillah, for talking with us, and I wish Nothing to be Written lots of luck.
Zillah: Thank you.
Justine: Welcome, Maria Belen our director, and welcome, Ezequiel the producer. But just before we begin, please pronounce this correctly for us.
Maria Belen: Yeah, the name of the film is Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega in Spanish and Four Feet: Blind Dates in English.
Justine: So, Four Feet: Blind Date, can you tell us what is the meaning of the four feet?
Maria Belen: Yeah, four feet or metro veinte is the length, the height of the eyes of the perspective of someone in a wheelchair. This is because the experience is about a girl in a wheelchair, and you experience all the time the world at that height.
Justine: That was what was remarkable about the film. It’s actually to have that perspective for the first time to see everything at that level.
Maria Belen: Exactly. We chose this point of view because we really wanted to share the people the experience of living in the world from a different perspective. And going through the world at this height is something that we are not used to. So, we thought it was interesting to show it that way.
Justine: Well, and just for the audience, the project is a little bit, well, not a little bit, is really about a woman, a young woman, a vibrant woman in a wheelchair who goes on a blind date.
Maria Belen: Exactly, yeah. We wanted to talk about disability and sexuality because it’s two topics that are taboo by themselves, and together, even more. We think it’s important to talk about this to make it visible and to later ourselves make questions. The idea came up as [a kid] can tell us more how the project was born. But we want to dedramatize the topic. We want to naturalize it, talk about it. And also, if we can laugh about it, that’s okay.
Justine: Ezequiel, can you tell us a little bit how the project came about?
Ezequiel: Yes. The project began when I met Rosario Perazolo. She was, at that time, 18 years old, and she was chosen to be a speaker at a TED talk. And wow, the experience was very, very eye opening. And I heard her perspective, her personal experience. She was 18, and she had been for five years in a wheelchair. And she was sharing how she viewed the rest of society and how society views her.
So, after meeting Rosario, I proposed to her to work on a project and in an immersive project that could share her point of view. And that’s how VR came in the picture. And Rosario definitely said, “Let’s take it to another level. And let’s talk about what really happens to us. Let’s talk about what’s happening to me. Let’s bring sexuality on the table.”
So, that’s how the project began. Then, we needed a director, but we knew we needed a very special one. And I had met Belen before in another project and I really liked her sensitivity and the way that she constructs her work with personal engagement with other people. And therefore, they started working together with Rosario. And the three of us made like a very strong team to bring life to this project.
Justine: Well, I will say what I liked a lot was the naturalness of the story because there is a lot of it that you can really recognize as an audience. Because you’re in one scene seated at the table with a mother and a sister, and it’s the kind of conversations that would definitely happen with a mother and sister as everyone’s drinking coffee or starting their morning. So, there’s a lot of realness about that. Do you want to talk about some of the other scenes that injected this kind of realness?
Maria Belen: Yes. What we wanted to share when we were making the script was the intimacy of the character, these little details of everyday life that we cannot see if we are not there, if we don’t live in a wheelchair. Because we are very used to seeing people in a wheelchair in the street, without the ramp or with a ramp. So, this is something that we’re used to, but we’re not in the table, in the bathroom or in the bedroom with the guys.
So, these little moments that are really intimate, personal, we’re possible to build because we had Rosario in the team. And she was able to share these intimate situations. We wanted people to really felt together with her with the character, to be a witness.
It’s like, in a way, when you see the experience, you are like the chair because you are all the time with her. No matter if she goes to the bed, or to the bath or whatever, you are with her all the time and accompany her and witnessing her life. So yeah, we wanted this intimacy to get empathy also with the character.
Justine: So, the acting is very powerful. Can you tell us a little bit about the actress?
Maria Belen: Yes, we really wanted a disabled actress and not just in a wheelchair. We aimed for that. We started looking and making castings, and talking with organizations of disability, of organizations of actors. And it was really, really a difficult journey.
We didn’t find an 18 years old girl in a wheelchair with some experience in acting. So, we decided to leave this aside, although we really wanted it. But we found that Delfina Diaz Gavier. She’s an incredible actress from Cordova. And we find her a lot of talent, but also an estranged beauty that we wanted to share.
This piece is a lot about how our bodies and the diversity of bodies, the diversity of beauties. We like also these about her. And we made a long process with Rosario and with the other art director, Martin, [inaudible] and me to find how this body moves and how was the body of Juana because Delfina doesn’t live in a wheelchair. So, it was like going to the street in a wheelchair and putting things in her hands to feel the weight of the hands and a lot of techniques to coach and to find how a disabled body moves. This was a really interesting process, and she did an amazing work.
Justine: Ezequiel, you want to add to that?
Ezequiel: Yeah. Something that is very important about this process as well is that the participation of Rosario. Rosario was the lead writer of this. But as well, she was on the back of the camera all the time. They teamed up with Belen, and not only in the acting part, but also onset. And every level of the project, Rosario was there and was part of it.
So, I think that this is very important because I mean you can see it in the piece that there’s a lot of details that only experience can give you and those are the major contributions Rosario did. But as well, it was an experience for the rest of the team to also experience disability on a set, having to think of a location to be accessible, of thinking how to move a whole crew, when you have to go from one step to the other. It was like a great experience to really integrate and have diversity on the set. That, for us, is really important.
Justine: What were the challenges in shooting this in VR for you guys.
Maria Belen: Yes. VR is really challenging because it’s a new language that nobody really knows how to use it. So, it’s a lot of trying and error, and trying and discovering how to tell a story in VR.
You need a lot of rehearsal before the shooting, because then you cannot direct the actors in the scene. So, that’s also a challenge for the actors. You have technical aspects that you have to take into account. And then, postproduction is kind of tricky.
So, it was a lot of learning. But fortunately, we had a strong partner in the technical part. That is [Brellar Trese Sentar Cantina] and Damián Turkieh. He’s the VP director and special audio director. He is really incredible, and he knows a lot about this. So, together, he told me like this, you cannot do it. These, we can do it this way.
Justine: So, you had guidance?
Maria Belen: Yeah, a lot.
Ezequiel: Yeah, and I’ll tell you, it was our first VR piece as well. We come from the flat traditional filmmaking and the project like really took another dimension. From paper, it went to actually preproduction. Thanks to support of the La Biennale di Venezia, the cinema college for VR, because they not only funded the project, but we had 15 excellent mentors who were really mapping the challenges that VR has and who were asking us always to give more and to make the project better. So, having such an amazing team of experts, coaching us and following us through the whole process definitely helped us resolve a lot of issues that being first time VR makers we would have never been able to resolve.
Justine: That sounds very luxurious as a matter of fact.
Justine: Can you tell us, you’re both from Argentina, how’s the Argentinian VR scene at the moment?
Ezequiel: The VR/DXR scene in Argentina is growing a lot. We were very surprised to see that there’s many projects that are coming from Argentina, and that are having recognition in international. Friends of ours are here at the festival as well sharing their pieces. And there’s a big, big movement. Unfortunately, public funding is still restricted to new technologies, but that is starting to change a little by little.
Cordova, the one in the province where we’re from has recently assigned a specific fund for XR. This is a very, very new innovation in funding. We’re waiting for the national fund to also create a fund for XR, hoping that it can support a very, very fast-growing community, a very diverse talent. You have AR makers. You have VR makers. You have people designing hardware for XR experiences.
So, what we’re very happy about Argentina is that there’s a very big creative pool. Of course, funding in Argentina is still complicated, and the economic crisis in the country doesn’t help either.
Justine: What do you see next? Are you going to do more VR pieces, Belen?
Maria Belen: Now, we’re actually working in the series. This is the first episode of a series that is Metro Veinte. Blind Date is only the first episode. So, we are in development. And this story continues, witnessing the life of Juana and her sexuality, but also a lot of experiences that she goes through at her age, like studying in University, friends, loneliness, fears, drives. So, all things that we are into when we are young, but from the perspective of a wheelchair. And a lot of experiences that are based in Rosario’s life, of course, that is the most important part of this project.
Justine: So where can people see this piece?
Ezequiel: All right. The piece at this moment is on a festival route, so we’ve been traveling from festival since the Venice premiere. That’s the first place so if we stopped by at the festival and the closest to you, that’s the place to find us.
Next stop is the CPH:DOX. We’re very happy to be in the documentary film festival. Being at this picture has a lot of war elements of fiction. After that, we are already working on location-based installations. We’ve got different proposals from museums. We are aware that not everyone has accessibility to a headset. So, instead of waiting for people to buy headsets, we’re going to take the headsets to the people. So, we thought that museums are great places that they receive a lot of people and you can actually maintain an installation for quite some time.
We’ve also received a lot of interest from universities and high schools. So, the idea is to have VR installations in these places to get the picture across to as much people as possible. And eventually, after all these processes go through, it will be available online as well.
Justine: Terrific. Well, thank you both for speaking with us, and we wish the film a lot of success.
Maria Belen: Okay. Thank you so much.
Ezequiel: Thank you so much.
NOTHING TO BE WRITTEN
During the first world war millions of multiple choice postcards were sent home by soldiers from the trenches. Nothing except a signature was allowed to be written on the card – communication could only take place through prescribed phrases. Nothing to be Written is a VR artwork inspired by the messages on these postcards and the circumstances under which they were written and received.
Metro Viente: Cita Ciega
Juana, an 18 year-old girl bound to a wheelchair, is anxious to explore her sexuality. She is going on a blind date with Felipe, a guy she found on social media. She didn’t tell him about the wheelchair. After overcoming her fears, doubts, and an inaccessible city, she meets him. Together they will discover what their bodies feel.
Sara’s been abroad for work, and the welcome home dinner her boyfriend Luis just surprised her with has ended with some passionate dessert between the sheets. When she admits that she’s going to have a go back to Paris for more meetings, Luis sees a window of opportunity. He gets a big confession off his chest…with a very peculiar motive.