Writer, director, and associate professor of social work, Columbia University
“I’m always thinking about the implications of emerging technologies and the effects on vulnerable populations. How can these technologies be leveraged?”
When Courtney Cogburn was writing the proposal for what would later become 1000 Cut Journey, a look at racism through an immersive virtual reality experience, she had never even used VR before. “I was thinking about the significance of walking in someone else’s shoes,” she says.
The shoes that users would be walking in belonged to a character named Michael Sterling, a black man experiencing racism in his daily life. Working with a collaborative grant from Columbia and Stanford universities, Cogburn assembled a team of social workers to build the story while a team at Stanford worked on the tech.
Cogburn is working on an update to 1000 Cut Journey in collaboration with Stanford and the studio iNK Stories, and continues to consider questions around how different skill sets and experiences can create new avenues for storytelling in VR. “I like transdisciplinary approaches,” she says. “It’s not my idea, it’s the idea that we bring together as a team.”
Director, founder of Lucid Dreams Productions
“We have to prioritize diversity in VR ourselves, and then that sets an example for everyone else.”
The first time Céline Tricart took part in a room-sized demo of VR technology, her mind was so blown, she cried in the VR headset. “It felt like I was in The Matrix, like I was lucid dreaming,” she recalls.
Tricart’s first VR project, Marriage Equality, released in 2016 and co-directed by Steve Schklair, placed users in the center of the debate around same-sex marriage. Tricart’s latest project, The Key, is a VR journey evoking the refugee experience and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Venice Biennale. She’s currently working on a linear and VR documentary series called Fight Back, about women using physical strength and combat techniques to regain their rights.
In all of her projects, Tricart says diversity behind the scenes is a priority. “Every time I have to hire a team, we look carefully at a lot of resumes,” she says. “We make sure we have a high number of women and minorities in our crew.”
Director and founder, Double Eye Studios
“We have to make a concentrated effort to keep the doors open and keep investing in each other.”
When Kiira Benzing built the world of Cardboard City, an experience that combines VR, AR, and user-generated content to illuminate the world of Brooklyn artists and activists, she was thrilled by all the ways you could enter the story. “It was exciting to play with ideas that I never could have used as a traditional documentary filmmaker,” she says.
Benzing has a background in theater and says VR appealed to her because it wasn’t just one person’s voice — it was many. “VR is perhaps the most collaborative storytelling medium there is,” she says.
Benzing’s most recent production, Loveseat, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in September 2019, combined VR and live theater to create a one-of-a-kind experience for actors, the live audience, and VR viewers around the world.
“This is a new format we are experimenting with to increase accessibility and scalability,” says Benzing. “It excites me deeply to create non-traditional paths to reach new audiences.”
Interactive artist, director, and Sundance Institute board member
“It’s really true that you feel you can flourish as a woman when the pathway is not already so carved out.”
As the recipient of the Sundance Institute’s first ever VR residency in 2015, Lynette Wallworth was excited to explore the narrative possibilities of VR and also its potential to bring more diverse creators to the world of filmmaking. When filming Collisions, a VR experience about indigenous communities in Western Australia, she chose to work with a traditional documentary editor who hadn’t worked in VR before.
“I want to be able to direct without being obstructed by those who think they might know better than me because they’ve done it before,” she says. Collisions went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding New Approach to Documentary. Wallworth’s latest project Awavena, depicts the stories and mythology of the Yawanawá, a remote Brazilian community of about 1,250 people.
As the VR filmmaking field matures, Wallworth says her hope is that beyond opportunities to be directors, women will be the ones creating new technology. “The more that you can bring diverse artists into the technology development stage, the better,” she says.
See how a VR film helped audiences connect deeply with a ballerina’s fight against breast cancer.