Podcast By justine

Yelena Rachitsky’s Search for Storytelling Treasure

The path to experimental storytelling was pretty much uncharted terrain, but that didn’t faze Yelena Rachitsky. Her quest to learn about interesting new forms of narrative eventually got her to Oculus, where she is now Executive Producer for Experiences. VRTL met with Yelena at her office in Los Angeles to hear the backstory behind integrating more participation and engagement with storytelling. Most recently, Yelena was part of the team behind Traveling While Black a powerful immersive project that looks at race in America through elements like proximity and multi-dimensional artistry.

listen on your favorite platform

Justine:                All right, well, welcome Yelena. I wanted to find out how you first started this journey that got you into virtual reality.

Yelena:               Yeah. So, let’s see, maybe about almost 10 years ago I was working in documentary film, Participant Media and I was working on projects like fooding, waiting for Superman and came shortly after the time of an inconvenient truth. I personally saw how film and storytelling can really shift people’s perspective. But also at that time it was also seeing artists and storytelling starting to experiment a bit more with technology and create interactive storytelling. Uh, and places like Canada and Europe that have public funding for just the Roxburghe imitation of, of arts, as you probably know well, was putting funding towards just experimentations of interactive storytelling. So the national film board of Canada had a project called Welcome to Pine Point that really inspired me. There’s somebody, one on RTA in France, was doing a lot of experimentations and that kind of just sparked something in me, something interesting of thinking about participation in storytelling and the audience feeling like they’re part of something. Because if you feel like you’re part of something, then you’re more engaged. And so I started just going after that and investigating it a bit more. At Sundance. I also got inspired at the new frontier section. At that time, I think it was just projection mapping and these immersive installations and it was in the basement over at Sundance, but I knew that there was something there. So I just, I left without actually knowing what my next job was. Really just to explore that and to figure out what that was.

Justine:               Well, that’s brave. And was that a little nerve wrecking or did you feel super confident that you would find the right thing?

Yelena:               Yeah, no it was, it was nerve wracking. But when you’re young and have minimal responsibilities, that’s the time to take those chances. Uh, and then I knew that there, there was something unique there. It was definitely much more nerve wracking for my parents. They were not, we were immigrants from Russia and everything was about creating safety. And for them it didn’t make any sense. So like you can’t even define what this thing is that you want to do. But I knew that there was something to explore there. It was also just seeing the landscape shift a little bit, just more interest happening in that. But it was true. I couldn’t define it. There wasn’t really a job for that necessarily. There wasn’t really a career path for that necessarily, but I just kind of followed that gut feeling.

Justine:               So how did that translate in real life?

Yelena:               What did you do after you had this pull, this Aha moment that this is where I want to go. What did you do next? I told a lot of people what I was interested in this kind of marriage between technology and storytelling. And I was doing freelance producing at that time as well. Uh, and I actually serendipitously ended up getting a job at Sundance, New Frontier, Kamal Sinclair who runs a New Frontier story lab there. She was pregnant, she was going on maternity leave and they were looking for someone to replace her while she was gone. And I, the person that I was talking to had no idea that this was something I was interested in, actually brought it up. So it was just this perfect marriage. And so I took over New Frontier story lab at the time that Kamal was on maternity leave and it was just a ripe time of exploring that landscape. So basically my job was to understand what was happening and understand which artists were making stuff and the kind of searching out all the ends of the world to see what unique things were coming out. So I was doing that for a little while and then when Kamal came back, I actually started working with Shari Freelo, who’s the curator of new frontier. And again, I started looking for actual projects that, that we would bring. I remember not, not that first year, maybe that following year we saw the the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus and I’m like, hmm, that’s interesting. You know, there was, it was just the Kickstarter campaign at that time and me and one of the producers went down to the Irvine office. They had I think one demo set up in like an office corner.

Justine:               Oh Wow.

Yelena:                And they had something like a VR cinema, which basically was a CG environment of a movie theater. And in a short film that was playing and a couple other small things. And you know, it’s obviously early prototypes. It wasn’t really storytelling, but it was, I think both of us saw something that had potential to it. And so we brought it to Sundance that following year. And I really think it’s one of the things that kicked off a lot of wider interest in new frontier. They went from being kind of the weird kids in the corner too. Just the hot, the hot kids on the block that everyone wanted to see. But what was unique about that was that traditional storytellers who came to that space when in the past, you know, they would call them and they would appreciate what they saw. They finally saw that this technology has something that they could offer it. And so I think that sparked a lot of interest of that convergence of more of the technology boundary pushers and traditional storytellers, which was very, very exciting, like you just saw kind of a sparkle in their eye. And so after that, it didn’t go straight into VR. I actually moved over to New York and worked at a place called the future of storytelling, continuing to investigate that space. I’m curating and programming the summit and an exhibition called some three stories at the Museum of the moving image, which was, we had one of the first VR projects as it’s a bit hit for about three months at that time, which was very maverick. After a couple of years there, I came over to Oculus story studio. There was the team was working on some really exciting stuff. It was the team, I forgot how big the team was at that time. Yeah, I forgot how big that team was at the time, but it was just such a talented team, people from gaming, people from Pixar. At that time I was questioning why I love all the other things that are happening. But to me, VR really was the convergence of so many of the other creative mediums that people were using. Like for instance, projection mapping, you know, projection mapping, hacked with Kinect sensors, which he can use your body in the space and interactive web projects where you can make it much more compelling. So I felt like this was a technology that actually brought together all of those other technologies that were always like very site specific and making it more accessible, making it more accessible for creators and also for audiences so that we don’t always stay in these small pockets of people who are making stuff but we’re actually able to make that work and bring that talent to a bigger audience. So I just kind of jumped right in and, and, and went with that. And that was really exciting.

Justine:                      What year was this that you can’t, this is you going from the future of storytelling to Oculus.

Yelena:               Exactly.

Justine:               Okay. And what year was that?

Yelena:               That was about, that was about three and a half years ago.

Justine:               Okay, and you’ve been at Oculus ever since?

Yelena:               Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

Justine:               Okay. And in this time that you’ve been here, is there anything particular that you’re especially proud about? Of course everything but the one creme de la creme that you’re most excited about?

Yelena:               Yeah, I know and it definitely feels like I’ve been here longer than three and a half years. I was talking about Vr is dog years where it feels like every year it’s been seven years because so much has happened. I feel like we’ve created so many projects that I’m personally really proud of. I guess the first one, if I, if I go chronologically, what was something that was really memorable was Henry from story studio winning the first Emmy for best original interactive and that would just felt like a very seminal moment where VR was recognized and appreciated and we started really seeing it as an art form and that was very exciting for the team but also very, very exciting for the industry because I think the community generally, we’re always like kind of pushing each other up and every time we break through some sort of sealing it kind of brings everyone up too, so I just remember that being a really special moment. I also am really proud of Dear Angelica, which is a project that we made with a tools that was created specifically for the project. Quill. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s all hand drawn, right? There’s something really unique and special about something that’s hand drawn. You just feel the human touch of it and it wows everyone. It makes people cry. It was just an example of another example of VR as an art form. And as the storytelling vehicle and also something different than people expected because it doesn’t have that CG look. It really has that human creative kind of pushed to it. I feel like that’s somewhat of a timeless piece. You can watch it over and over again. A few years later, it still feels fresh. And now Quill is its own thing and now a lot of storytellers and artists are starting to make some incredible projects using it.

Yelena:               So it was really exciting to be part of that moment. I’ve also, let’s see, last year at Sundance was also incredibly exciting for me. We had five projects there. There was a project called Spheres and that was really special because that was a, a creator that I valued a lot. Eliza McNitt and me. And I’m a former colleague Saschka Unseld who was the director of Dear Angelica and the creative director of story studio. We gave a masterclass at NYU, two and a half years ago. And I remember this girl came up to us and she was telling us about this space opera VR project. And we’re like, oh, that’s very sweet. But we didn’t know is that she actually snuck into the class. She wasn’t a student, but she persists. You know, she had so much gumption and she was, you know, she wasn’t going to take no for an answer creating her project and spheres came out of that actually. And so it’s been really exciting to see her start from coming and finding us in this masterclass at NYU and a cold winter day to getting all of this recognition of winning, of being the first deal out of Sundance, of uh, just so many breakthroughs that she’s been able to have. And as well as the partnerships that she’s also been able to form, including Darren Aronofsky and now it’s at the Rockefeller Center. And so to see something start from so such like a small nugget to get to where it is now and it was also the first project at Telluride, first VR project Telluride and to see where it gets now, especially a strong female director, I think it was really special for me. And seven figures. I mean, I think that she did so much for the industry and being able to form those alliances and develop that kind of funding, gave hope to so many makers. So yes, she’s done a lot of great work there. Yeah, yeah. And the partnerships that she’s been able to form a lot of the out of the box creative thinking of how to get support and how to, you know, push it to so many different places and that’s, that’s what it takes. But I agree it’s just anyone that’s succeeds, just helps the rest of the community. This past year at Sundance was also really special, I think showing traveling while black. That’s also been a passion project of known the director Roger for the past six years or so…

Justine:               Can we talk about it a little?

Yelena:               I’m sure. So traveling while black was initially was initially something that was part of the Sundance Sundance new frontier story lab. So it’s just like in the first story lab a long time ago and I think he was trying to figure out, Rod Roswell, trying to figure out where the projects, what, what, what it is initially. Is it like a transmedia project? We brought him to future of storytelling one year and it was, they experimented with this technology, this like beacon technology where if you come close to a person at activates something and then ultimately it turned into what it is but it’s just had a lot of different lives and ultimately they connected with Felix and Paul Studios and really formed a bond. It’s really important for, uh, traditional crater to find a team, a technical team that really understands what they want and that they have a really great relationship with.

Justine:               Do you mean it’s important for the technical team to understand the story and be behind it or the vision of the story?

Yelena:                      It’s a combination of both, but also just to really get along with the director to feel like your mind melding, to feel like they’re understanding it. And I think Felix and Paul Studios also coming from documentary understood of what Roger was going for and they just share the same brain in that way. I’m getting emotion out of real characters, real people, knowing how to create a strong sense of presence. So they had something to add. Roger and I called it VR dating or you meet different developers and different VR creators to see who you best get along with. So there’s a long dating process for Roger, but it really worked out I think with, with Felix

Justine:               That’s good advice to makers about finding the right fit. And if you, you know, dating is the best example of always looking for the right fit for things to work. So it was probably a good analogy

Yelena:              Yeah, he did look at CGI and immersive interactive, but it just never quite quite hit with him. So this really connected.

Justine:               Do you want to tell a little bit what the film’s about?

Yelena:               Oh, sure. So traveling while black is generally about the green book and the Green Book was a crowd source book during the days of segregation were, was not necessarily safe or open for black people to travel. And so it was a crowd source book that, that showed where you could stay, where you could eat. Generally places that were accepting and welcome to black people. Yeah. And the book is, uh, that the document or the VR documentary traveling while black is about, um, the green book, but mainly about the past, connected to the present. And it all takes place inside of Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has been a safe haven for a lot of people over time. So it does, it does, you know, create this concept of, of safe spaces, but it takes you back from the sixties to now.

Yelena:               I’m hearing stories of people and what they went through as well as to present day, including, Tamir Rice’s mom, which didn’t happen that long ago, just to talk about how far we’ve come, but how far we haven’t come at all. It’s really emotional, and what’s also really incredible about the pieces that I think in the past, especially with a live action VR cameras, there’s been a challenge of proximity where you have to keep a certain distance, but with this latest camera and he would sit right next to the characters, or the subjects. And it makes such a big difference. The feeling like they’re close to you because so much about experiencing VR is an embodied experience. So when you actually feel like you’re closer to someone, it changes the way that you connect with the people that you’re with.

Justine:               Why is this story work well with immersive versus if someone were to try something, a rectal linear, what do you get out of it and immersive that you couldn’t necessarily with a flatty.

Yelena:               Yeah. And this is actually been really interesting also to hear the reactions of people. I generally think within a rectilinear film, you understand it’s a, it’s a story that you’re kind of intellectually understanding of what’s going on. You can have a strong emotional resonance, but you know that that’s not necessarily happening to you within a VR experience that’s done right. You feel like it’s an experience that’s happening to you. we had Joan Salzman, she’s a reporter for CNN. When she watched it. She, she made a really interesting point and she said, normally she’s in an intimate space with people from a different race. They’ll notice that she’s from a different race and the conversation won’t be as open. But within this just felt like the first time she was privy to an experience she wouldn’t have had in real life.

Yelena:               She felt immersed in that space. And through being able to have that proximity, it gave her a very different vision experience of this intimate conversation that opened her eyes to certain topics and certain experiences that in life she wouldn’t necessarily have. And then two people of color who watch the piece to them, it felt just almost every person had an experience that they can personally connect to that and they felt like maybe laughs,

Justine:               They perhaps feel validated in their, you know, their experience being shown in a way that maybe others might understand them or maybe a sense of recognition or someone understands me or…

Yelena:               Possibly I think everyone had a bit of a different takeaway. It brought things up. Yeah, definitely brought things up. Yeah.

Justine:               It’s emotional topic for sure.

Yelena:               Yeah. Yeah. I mean, when I think of like for instance, when I saw Carne y Arena, which was the a hundred and Alejandro Inarritu piece, it was interesting because so much of it is the larger installation that, that you go through. I think you need that installation to go through the VR experience for the VR experience to, to really take hold, take, hold in the sand and feet in the sand. So I go through the experience of Carne y Arena and I go through being caught crossing the border and what really hit home with that as afterwards. And I was actually listening to the real stories of people who went through these experiences and I had so much more of an emotional response and I felt like it was because my body actually had a feeling of what it might have felt like to go through that of the physicality. Yeah. That, you know, it’s just kinda like muscle memory or just the, the physical trauma of it as a real embodiment. Yeah. And I think we hear about immigration issues every day and we ran all these numbers and we hear about all these statistics. But when it really drives home into your body, you connect with it on a much more human level. And so I think it’s similar to that with traveling well block. It’s this memory of you sitting with these people who have had these experiences and connecting it with it on a much more deeper level and a much more embodied way.

Justine:                Wow. And it sounds like a very powerful film. How is it going to be distributed?

Yelena:               Well, we launched it at Sundance and so we actually also partnered with the New York Times OpDocs so you can watch it on the OpDocs page on there, three 60 web player. But I do highly recommend seeing it in a headset. It’s a completely different exterior headset. We haven’t, well we have it on all of our headsets. We have it on Oculus Go, Oculus Rift. I’m on Gear VR, so it’s out on all of them right now, which is great. Um, so it’s available. Yeah, it’s there.

Justine:               Is there any kind of trends that you foresee in either storytelling or Vr that you’re excited about?

Yelena:               Yeah, I think personally what I find very exciting is this blurring lines between what’s a game and what’s not a game. Oh. And this push towards interactive storytelling. I think back to where I started from about a decade ago, and thinking about being a participant really makes you feel engaged, but to create, be part of an experience where the interactivity is incredibly intuitive and you don’t feel like you’re distracted from making the choices within a storytelling. And that we’re pushing forward on understanding that perfect blend of an intuitive interactions where the story just really flows. But you feel so much more engaged. An example of that as another project that we’re supporting called wolves in the walls where they worked with an immersive theater team to figure out what are the most intuitive ways that a character can move and ways of guiding you and motivating you to do something where you don’t necessarily recognize it, but it adds to the storytelling. That’s the kind of stuff that I think is really going to create powerful experiences for people. That convergence of immersive theater, of gaming, of filmmaking in that perfect storytelling form. I think that’s, uh, to me that’s kind of where the, the key is. Well, since you’ve been in this field for a decade, is there anything you can tell us or tell storytellers, things that there should be thinking about? They’re not, you know, especially for our people that are transferring from regular cinema now to VR that they should be thinking about. I think it depends what their goal is. I’m always a believer in just pushing the artistic sentiment. So I can tell really quickly when a piece has the inauthenticity from their artistic vision versus it just trying to be something or it just trying to be something cool. So I do think everything starts with just a very honest, authentic intent. I know that’s a broad statement, but I believe in that because I think you can really see that that creator is vision and ultimately it depends, I think, definitely think there’s a difference with and live action 360 video and CG interactive, immersive. And both of them have their unique qualities and their unique attributes, but both of them have different approaches that they should take.

Justine:               That was great. Well, thank you very much, Yelena. I really appreciate your letting us spend some time here in the oculus. What room is it? A conference room, but it’s perfect. Thank you so much.

Yelena:               Yeah, thanks for having me.

New call-to-action


Yelena is an Executive Producer of Experiences at Oculus, sourcing and producing content around entertainment, news, documentaries, and experiential work on the Oculus platform. Rachitsky is a consultant for the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program.

© Victor Fink

Traveling While Black

Traveling While Black is a cinematic VR experience that immerses the viewer in the long history of restriction of movement for black Americans and the creation of safe spaces in our communities.

Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams and Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios’ film transports you to historic Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC. The viewer shares an intimate series of moments with several of the patrons of Ben’s as they reflect on their experiences of restricted movement and race relations in the U.S.

Confronting the way we understand and talk about race in America, Traveling While Black highlights the urgent need to not only remember the past but to learn from it, and facilitate a dialogue about the challenges minority travelers still face today.


Download the experience in the Oculus Store and watch in Oculus GO, Rift or Samsung Gear VR