Flickering Myth had the opportunity to speak with filmmaker Joe Hunting, whose documentary We Met in Virtual Reality is currently available to stream on HBO Max…
While plenty has been written about the potential of virtual reality — how it can transform the way we work, how we entertain ourselves, how we interact — much less attention has been focused toward VR as a new vehicle for art. And that’s exactly the space in which UK-based filmmaker Joe Hunting wants to innovate.
His debut directorial effort, We Met in Virtual Reality, the first feature-length documentary shot within the video game VRChat, marvels at the world of VR from the inside looking out. Hunting makes the very intentional decision to never show the subjects of his doc IRL — only through their in-game avatars, who have found meaning, fulfillment, and oftentimes even love, within the VRChat community.
Flickering Myth spoke to Hunting about the challenges posed by filming a movie in virtual reality, playing with form in his documentary, and where virtual reality as a cinematic tool can go from here.
So much of this doc is about what brought people to the VRChat community. You began documenting the VRChat community in 2018 and have made multiple short films in VR since then, so what drew you to the world of VR?
What really drew me to VR was VRChat, the documentary, the platform that the documentary was filmed in. I first discovered VRChat just browsing articles about online communities and gaming communities, and I found that the platform was really assisting people with their mental health and saving people’s lives and giving them community and belonging, which they could never find before. And as I was studying film in 2018, my documentary brain just lit up and I was so curious about how the space was affecting our social and emotional lives and kind of came at the space from that very anthropological perspective, as well as a participant myself. And from that moment was really led down a path of curiosity to talk to people and explore that and make films.
Clearly, even based on your answer, the VRChat community is one that means a lot to you, and not only have you made films in it, but you’re also a member of it. So what does it mean to you to get to share not only this doc with the world for the first time, but also put the VRChat community on a public stage?
Oh, it means a great deal to me. I have a great personal attachment to the platform. I have found so much support and I’ve learned so many new skills because of the people I’ve met inside of virtual reality. The documentary really represents the community in a very positive way and shows how we can come together and use this platform and use this technology for good. And that was the story that I really wanted to tell as that’s how it’s affected me and many others as well. [The documentary] doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of the internet, but it really highlights the positive ways we can use VR specifically. It’s a film that I can show my parents. It’s a film that I can show my friends and colleagues and acquaintances have no idea what I do. I’ve now got something I can show them for them to understand and see the value in what I do.
I know this film was shot with a VR camera — Extension VRC Lens. How much of your real-world experience shooting with a physical camera were you able to bring to this experience of shooting with a virtual camera?
I would say my entire skillset of using a functional, real film camera, I have brought it with me into VR. I am holding the camera, VRC Lens in my avatars hands whilst in a VR headset, immersed in the same space the subjects are. I can see my aperture, I can zoom in and out, I can fly the camera as a drone, I can change my focal length, and it can do anything and everything that a real film camera can. And so all the aspects of why a different focal length, why change the aperture, what cinematic techniques are used in what scenarios, I could use all of that. [I can] really exploit it in this film and use cinematic techniques to tell the story and play with the form of documentary. I’d say every aspect of visual language I’ve learned from my time in the real world, and also from my studies and in film school, I’ve taken into this film. I’m very grateful that I was able to do that with this camera, but it did take some training and some real understanding of how that worked.
Which begs the question, what were some of the difficulties with using the virtual camera that you came across?
I think the difficulties with the camera specifically was keeping it steady on a drone. If I wanted to capture some coverage from the other side of the room, I’d put my camera in drone mode and just fly straight across the room and I’d lose it for a moment. So I had to be very careful on how fast I was pushing my drone pilot skills. The biggest hurdle in terms of production was sound and capturing sound and in stereo and not mono. My head in VR is the microphone, and I always had to maintain eye contact with the subject so I could capture the sound in both ears. The moment I started pivoting my head, I would start losing their sound, and I’d have to fix that in post. So it was actually the sounds that caused me the most trouble.
The film moves between very candid interviews, not unlike something you’d see in a traditional documentary, and then very cinematic, stylized sequences. How did you develop that aspect of the film’s composition?
I’ve always been really inspired by documentaries that use a vérité form of filmmaking. Not being afraid of experimenting with different forms. Shooting scenes that are very observational and realist and fusing that with more poetic imagery that is very directed and choreographed. That’s hard to achieve really well in the physical world, but for me, I think it was a lot easier [in VR] because audiences are already suspending their disbelief and [letting] themselves see something completely new. So, from the very beginning, I knew I could play and really tell the story in unique ways. I had a lot of intimate interviews with the subjects, which are very relatable and people can always understand a talking head interview. And using that conventional cinematic tool to really bring audiences in, then start pulling them out again through choreographed dance sequences, to tell stories in ways that could guide their stories without any verbal voiceover. The best thing for me to say is that VR really gave me a tool to play with and landscape to experiment with in this documentary, which was a vessel for their stories.
In the doc, we see a lot of people that are drawn to the community because they’ve found confidence through VR. Whether it’s confidence with anxiety or grief or gender identity. Did you find that people had more confidence speaking on camera with you and opening up because they were their VR selves?
Yes, I think so. We were all very open about that when we were in production. I’ve always been really passionate about being truly transparent with all of my subjects, so they all knew that they were being filmed. We collaborated on how we were going to tell their story and what we wanted to say in the documentary. But the level of anonymity remained the same — I was my username. They were always their username. And I didn’t know their real names until we finished production. Because of that, we were able to talk in a very honest way and there was a bit less commitment into their story. Because you’re represented by an avatar, you are not thinking about how people are going to judge your appearance. So we’re just able to talk on a purely personality to personality basis, which allowed people to be much more open. That was an advantage that I had as a documentary director to really get straight into the deeper questions.
Was there a very conscious decision from the beginning not to show the real selves of the subjects featured in the documentary?
Yes, definitely. I had shown real selves of my subjects in previous films, my short films, and in that it’s a very dramatic moment. If you learn someone’s real image compared to their avatar, it always changes the way you see them, so I wanted to avoid that with this documentary and embrace the virtual personas of these people and leave the physical ideas up to the imagination. I think that was more interesting from an audience perspective.
Where do you see VR/metaverse filmmaking going from here? And, in your opinion, what possibilities does VR tech open the entertainment industry up to?
I think metaverse filmmaking and just filming inside of a real-time, social VR world will become its own genre in film. And I’ve had many people saying that it just feels like a whole new cinematic language in film now, and I’m really excited about that. So I hope that more filmmakers will come into this space as a way to tell stories in documentary, but also in fiction as well. And I personally really hope to help pioneer that and ride that wave and understand how that can be beneficial within every aspect of filmmaking. So I can certainly say, I believe that to be its own genre and one that’ll grow.
It’s definitely good to raise how we can use [VR] for distribution. I think VR filmmakers will need a space to exhibit their films, and we can see VR cinemas being opened up. Worlds or platforms like Bigscreen, for example, a social VR cinema platform, to exhibit those metaverse films. Where we can all go on headset together in a theater and see a film that’s shot in live-action animation, but also in metaverse as well. VR provides a whole new potential for also exhibiting films, as well as making them. Which is accessible because some people don’t want to go to the cinema anymore. Cinemas are changing by the day and we’re on streaming much more than we are in cinemas, and I think being able to create VR worlds mainstream for exhibition [would be] a much more engaging way of watching films with people, instead of streaming.
You mentioned wanting to pioneer filmmaking within the VR space. Does that mean that for your future films, you want to stay within VR? Are you working on anything now within VR?
Yes to both. I am certainly going to stay in VR for my next project. [Joking] I am not scared of real life anymore. I’m certainly happy to shoot in the physical world and do live action again, but I’m enjoying this journey at the moment of filming inside of virtual reality. So I’m certainly going to stay and I’m currently in development for a new project filmed inside of VRChat again. I’m certainly staying in VR for a little bit longer.
Lastly, what still surprises you about the VRChat community? In making this documentary, was there anything that you learned, that even being a part of this community for years, that still caught you off guard?
I think the elements that really surprised me on top of the education and exercise and skills and learning that I’ve discovered is how creative the VRChat community is. Every day, I get to see a new world or a new avatar or a new way of playing the piano in VR in real-time. All of the worlds and avatars [are] created by the people. We get to see new things every single day, and it never ceases to amaze me how complex and how far people can take that and the spaces that come out of people’s imaginations. So the creative side of things is always surprising and inspiring to me.
SEE ALSO: Read our review of We Met In Virtual Reality here
Many thanks to Joe Hunting for taking the time for this interview.