Arts & Design

Pioneering women are leading the way in VR filmmaking

Meet eight women who are shaping an innovative, inclusive culture in virtual reality filmmaking.

By Dayna Evans — January 28, 2020

The message from this year’s Oscar and Golden Globe nominations is clear: Even in 2020, the traditional filmmaking world is still run by and made for men. While in some cases, it seems women’s contributions to film are finally being supported, and a supposedly safer, more diverse Hollywood is emerging, not a single female director was nominated for either prestigious award. 

The outcry was swift, but many women creators are choosing to abandon traditional filmmaking altogether to be part of shaping a new industry — the emerging field of virtual reality (VR) films. 

“Because of the formative nature of the industry, it still offers opportunity for women,” says Shari Frilot, chief curator at Sundance’s New Frontier program. “It hasn’t been clamped down by gatekeepers and middle men.” 

Filmmakers, directors, artists, activists, and journalists who are women are getting to exercise their talent and creativity in a field where there are no established players or power structures. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, nearly one-third of the projects featured as part of the New Frontier program for technological innovation in film — which includes VR — were directed or led by women.

“The field is coming of age in a time where we’re thinking about gender equity, racial equity, geographic representation, and LGBTQ rights,” says Joanna Popper, HP’s global head of virtual reality for location based entertainment. “An HP core value is creating technology that’s representative of our society, so it’s important that we work with and support representative voices.” 

Meet eight influential female filmmakers who are laying the groundwork for a new filmmaking culture in VR, where viewers virtually step into the films for a truly immersive experience. Half of the women below created or exhibited their VR films on HP VR technology or with other HP support. Their projects span from the investigative to the abstract; the playful to the serious — but all of them as impactful and distinctive as their creators.

courtesy of hp

From left to right: Eliza McNitt, Gayatri Parameswaran, Melissa Painter, Nonny de la Peña.

Melissa Painter

Writer, director, founder and creative director of MAP Design Lab

“A lot of the people you find in this space right now are in it for the love of it — the pioneering part of it.”

When Melissa Painter was offered an opportunity to head a studio for a creative director who was experimenting with VR, she jumped at the chance. “We’re at a moment where we’re collectively discovering and defining what the potential of this space can be,” says Painter, who worked in traditional filmmaking as a director, producer, and writer for years. “We need to have as many diverse voices at the table as possible.” 

The first VR project Painter led on her own was Heroes, an interactive performance staged around David Bowie’s iconic song, which premiered during Sundance’s New Frontier program in 2017. Her latest endeavor, BREAKTHRU, is a company that innovates AI-driven technologies through body movement. 

For Painter, emphasizing the user’s role in new technology like VR and AI  is essential: “In everything we make, the user is the last creator,” she says. “It’s a new media, it’s the next stage of computing. I believe VR is the future of our human relationship to technology.”


Nonny de la Peña

Journalist, documentarian, founder and CEO of Emblematic Group

“I don’t want people out in the audience. I want people in the story with me.”

Dubbed “the Godmother of VR,” Nonny de la Peña created her first immersive experience, Gone Gitmo, in 2007. The virtual simulation, a collaboration with digital media artist Peggy Weil, allowed viewers to experience what it was like to be incarcerated at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, and led de la Peña to a revelation: “This could be used for all kinds of journalism.”

She went on to direct Hunger in L.A. in 2012, the first ever VR documentary feature film to show at Sundance, as well as VR documentaries on abortion, the war in Sudan, the refugee crisis in Syria, and climate change, often using a combination of eyewitness audio and footage alongside VR graphics to bring complex issues to life.  

“We see so much amazing work by women now,” de la Peña says. “I’d like to see more dollars be equitably available for women, too.”


Gayatri Parameswaran

Journalist and co-founder, NowHere Media

“It might sound idealistic, but we can use stories to create a better, more equitable world.”

Gayatri Parameswaran knew what she was up against when her first VR film premiered in Delhi in 2016. “Intimate partner violence is something that is taboo [in India],” she recounts. “Bringing this film to a public space was a big victory in itself.” 

Kya Yahi Pyar Hai was exhibited in train stations around the city and comprises a series of immersive films that reveal the spectrum of what constitutes abuse. “We take you through different scenarios where your boyfriend interacts with you, starting with subtle acts of control, through to serious acts of sexual coercion or violence,” Parameswaran says. 

Her next project is an interactive VR experience that allows users to speak an endangered indigenous language in the Himalayas with one woman as their guide. 

“It can be hard to make work around taboo subjects or issues that are silenced,” she says. But by using new technology, “you’re giving people another way to enter the conversation.”


Eliza McNitt

Writer and director

“It’s not a new phenomenon that women are talented, but in this new space, there are no rules. Women can break through.”

Composer Paola Prestini put a lot of faith in Eliza McNitt when they began to work together on the first VR project McNitt ever directed. Fistful of Stars, an immersive journey into the cosmos accompanied by a live orchestra, premiered in front of 6,000 people on a summer night in Brooklyn. The gamble paid off, in a dramatic experience that brought one New Yorker writer to tears.

In her most recent work, Spheres, McNitt returns to the cosmos for an exploration of sound. Spheres was the first ever VR film to debut at the Telluride Film Festival and received the Grand Prize in Virtual Reality at the 2018 Venice Biennale.

“VR is even more powerful [than film] because you don’t just think about science, you get to become it,” McNitt says. “You get to step inside the skin of a black hole, embody dark matter, actually feel what it might be like to be one of the most abstract forces of the universe.”

courtesy of hp

From left to right: Lynette Wallworth, Céline Tricart, Kiira Benzing, Courtney Cogburn.

Courtney Cogburn

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.” 


Céline Tricart

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.”


Kiira Benzing

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.”


Lynette Wallworth

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.


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