Celine Tricart has been working in virtual reality longer than most. She tested an early prototype of the Nokia Ozo, she was an active part of the days of “Frankenstein” GoPro rigs to shoot 360, and before that, she was a Video shot with two parallel cameras (or in the case of 360° video, multiple pairs of parallel cameras) Commonly referr... More 3D expert on the Transformer movies (among many others). She’s even written a book on the best practices of VR filmmaking.
Her latest piece, Maria Bello’s “The Sun Ladies”, co-directed by Christian Stephen and Celine Tricart, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and has been featured in 45 festivals since. “That’s quite a successful festival run when you consider that there are many festivals that don’t include VR,” Celine said.
Immersive Shooter chatted with Celine about the making of The Sun Ladies, and how she’s taking empathy and VR to another level.
Since The Sun Ladies has been exclusive to the festival circuit, so many people haven’t seen it yet, can you summarize the story?
The Sun Ladies is a 7-minute VR documentary that mixes live action footage and virtual reality animation. It’s about the Yazidi women who were targeted when ISIS invaded Iraq in 2014. The men were killed and the women were kidnapped as sex slaves. The Sun Ladies is a group of survivor Yazidi women who escaped from sex slavery and, instead of waiting in refugee camps for the war to end, they formed an all-female unit in the Kurdistan Army to fight ISIS.
We focus on the leader of the Sun Ladies, who was a famous singer in Kurdistan, and we ask the viewer, “What would you do in the same situation as them?” I am very much anti-war and anti-guns, but meeting the Sun Ladies gave me a different perspective. If we let men decide when we are at war and at peace, women will always be victims. This piece breaks the image of women as victims.
What did you find particularly unique about this project?
One thing that was interesting is that I’m not a A description for the word journalist that goes on and on a bit that goes on and on a bit that goes on and on a bit., I’m a filmmaker. But when I was in Iraq filming The Sun Ladies, I was in this weird position of interviewing women who have been through horrible things. I felt like I was taking their story and not giving anything in return. People always say they are raising awareness, but I wanted to do more.
Back in LA during post production on the film, we had the idea to ask people to write a letter after watching the film if they felt touched by the story. So, they would enter this tent that looked like a refugee tent to watch the film and as they exit, they can write a letter if they want. Most people who watch the film are either in tears by the end or feel very empowered by the story. The artist behind the film’s animation, Wesley Allsbrook, had the idea that we Individual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. those letters back to Iraq to the Sun Ladies.
After almost a year of festivals, we now have more than 1000 touching, powerful letters in dozens of languages. So, we are now raising money to translate the letters to Kurdish and deliver them to the Sun Ladies, almost two years after we shot the film.
We have a Kickstarter going that will run until December 1 for people who want to fund our return so we can fulfill our promise to the Sun Ladies. And, if we raise enough money, we would like to do a follow up piece. Even though the war is over, many Yazidi people are still living in refugee camps because there is nowhere to go. Northwest Iraq has been destroyed. The city of Sinjar was completely destroyed, and there has been no effort or plan to rebuild the city. We would like to do a follow up and let them know we haven’t forgotten, but right now the priority is delivering those letters and fulfilling that promise.
How did the idea for this piece come to pass? What made it a good fit for VR?
The idea came from actress and activist Maria Bello. She’d heard about the Sun Ladies and became very engaged in the story. For her, it was a no-brainer that it needed to be a VR film.
We are all so used to images of war on TV and photos of refugees that we’ve become very good at building emotional walls between ourselves and what we see on TV. If VR is done well, it builds presence, a direct connection and it breaks down that wall. Maria started raising money for the film and got in touch with me and my co-director Christian Stephan to shoot it.
She was having a hard time raising money and she went to Creative Visions, which is a non-profit in LA helping filmmakers working on social impact projects. She started talking about the project to two women in the waiting room and one of them–Laurel Werner–pulled out her checkbook and asked how much she needed and just gave her what we needed for basic travel and security. That was a Wednesday, and Maria asked me to get to Iraq by the following Tuesday.
What camera did you use on The Sun Ladies?
We had no budget for equipment, so Maria suggested we use the Samsung 360 cameras. I thought this was too amazing of a story to use that camera, so I called my friends at Google and explained how the story deserves the best camera. After some back and forth, Google agreed to ship us an Odyssey to use for the project.
So, you left for Iraq 6 days after securing funding. How did production play out from there?
The day after I got back, I uploaded the footage to the cloud for stitching with Google’s Jump platform and we quickly put together a trailer for Maria to show at a big event she was speaking at in New York.
The rest of the production took awhile. We worked on the 7-minute film from March of 2017 until November/December of that year. It took so long because we had no money and because it took me awhile to find the voice of the story.
When we were in Iraq, we shot a bunch of stuff because we had no time to prepare for the film. We didn’t even know where the Sun Ladies were when we arrived and had to ride 7 hours through the desert to meet them at the border of Syria. So, it was very difficult to make sense of the footage and find the story.
What I ended up doing is cutting the voiceover from our most interesting interview–the captain and former singer–and used her words to develop the emotional arc of the story, and then used the video to elevate that story. Normally you do both at the same time, but that didn’t work in this case.
We also weren’t able to capture footage of the women in action because they were on more of a surveillance mission while we were there, so we decided to use animation for those parts. I reached out to Wesley Allsbrook, the artist behind the animated VR film Dear Angelica, and told her about the story. I said we don’t have any budget, but she had heard about these women and said she always wanted to do something about them, so she came onboard.
Then, we had to find a way to make the transitions between animation and live action feel natural, like you weren’t hopping between two worlds. That’s why we draw an outline on the live action video first and then the animation builds in so it wouldn’t be so jarring.
The team decided to draw animations on top of the live footage to fade into animated sequences less abruptly.
What is your favorite/go-to 360 camera?
I’ve worked in the film industry for 10 years and had never bought any equipment in my life…until the Yi Halo came out. It is, in my opinion, the ultimate VR camera and being part of the Jump workflow, it was worth being the first and only investment in equipment I’ve made in my life.
Outside of that, I’ve worked with pretty much all of the 360 cameras. I was one of the first people hired by Nokia to test the prototype of the camera that eventually became the Ozo. I’ve used those Frankenstein GoPro rigs. I’ve worked with Jaunt on a couple of projects.
What is important to me is 3D. I believe VR should always be three dimensions because it doesn’t make sense to be in a headset in the middle of a flat sphere. I’m really adamant that when the budget allows to always shoot in 3D.
What makes you so keen on 3D?
Before I started in VR, I was a stereographer. I worked on a lot of different movies as a 3D expert, the most well-known being the two Transformer movies. A lot of us working in 3D knew about VR a long time ago and it was perfect for us because it was so similar to what we were already doing, just with more cameras.
When the Kickstarter for the Oculus happened in 2013, I said “It’s happening,” and started doing early tests, rotating one camera around the nodal point to make a sphere, putting GoPros together. At that time, there was no stitching software, no VR player, and no VR headsets to even view what you shot. When the Oculus DK 1 and 2 were released, and then when Oculus was acquired by Facebook, VR kicked into 12th gear.
For me, as a stereographer, I was used to using 3D to enhance storytelling. Using it as a way to grab more money at the box office was never the appeal for me. I liked that you could use it just like you could change a lens to bring a certain emotion to the audience. If there is no artistry or storytelling to a new technology, I’m not interested. But, I knew how 3D could be used in service of storytelling, so I was 100 percent in.
Having had so much experience in 360/VR, can you share some of your best tips?
I’ve actually written a whole book on VR, Virtual Reality Filmmaking: Techniques & Best Practices for VR Filmmakers. The first half is very technical, talking about cameras, editing software, workflows, game engines, headsets, and distribution platforms. The second half–what I’m passionate about–is the storytelling aspect.
One of the best things I’ve learned is that you have to let go of a lot of the control we are used to in traditional filmmaking. We are giving some of our creative direction to the audience. We can’t create a rectangle and use a lens to distort it. In VR, there is no filtering or distorting or framing.
It’s also important to think of the camera as a human being. You have to tell actors that the viewer will be sitting right where the camera is, that the camera is their head, and the lenses are their eyes. You have to be gentle with the camera, you have to position it correctly, you shouldn’t cut between different places in the same room. They shouldn’t feel thrown from one side of the room to the other. I give them the best seat in the room and let reality unravel around that person.
Also, the most common mistake for beginners is not to have the workflow tested and in place before you go out and shoot. There are a lot of issues you might not foresee that will cost you a lot of time and money. I suggest making a shot in your living room with whatever camera you’re using and go through the whole post production process to final delivery so you know every step of the way.
I’d also suggest that if you don’t come from a camera department background to bring someone with that experience on your shoot. This industry brings together people with a lot of backgrounds, but someone without that experience may not think about simple things like leveling the camera and cleaning the lenses.
What are you working on now/next?
Right now I’m working on my first room scale The ability to move left-right, up-down, and forward-backward (in addition to being able to rotate around the x, y, and ... More project. I can’t say much about the project itself, other than that it’s part of Oculus’ Creators Lab, which connects 6-10 filmmakers with non-profits and provides the budget and resources to build a VR experience for the non-profits. I was paired with a Georgia non-profit called Friends of Refugees. They are based in Clarkston, Georgia, which is the most diverse city in America with more than 65 nationalities represented within the town’s 12,000 residents.
What have you learned in your transition to 6 DoF production that surprised you?
I’m finding that it’s difficult to create a game-engine based experience that can run seamlessly on different kinds of headsets such as the Oculus Rift and the upcoming Oculus Quest. The Quest runs on a Snapdragon 835 chipset, but it’s still a mobile processor. If you develop for Rift or Vive, you can do a lot more but that won’t work for headsets like the Quest.
But, Rift and Vive is more likely to be used in location-based VR and at venues or by early adopters, many of whom are gamers more interested in games than documentaries. If you want to reach a larger audience, you will probably want to optimize your experience for the Quest or other standalone headsets with inside-out tracking. You have to think about your audience first. Start with the targeted headset and build your workflow with that in mind.
What do you think about the recent “cooling off” of the VR industry?
I don’t think VR is going away. It offers too much to so many industries–not just entertainment.
There has been this huge bubble of excitement, and now we’ve hit the trough of disillusionment of the hype cycle. Soon, we’ll hit sustainable, healthy growth. We can adjust our budgets and expectations and focus on this market and this audience that we’ve come to know. Now we can focus on building a real market.
The industry is so fragile right now. VR is coming out of early adopter mode into the general public, so it’s very important we are careful about quality. If we aren’t, VR won’t work and we’ll have to find a new technology to mess up.
— Celine Tricart
Empathy in VR is obviously a big topic and something you were interested in talking about today. Could you share a bit about your thoughts on VR’s ability to elicit empathy?
Many of us in VR are tired of talking about empathy in VR. We know it’s both true and untrue. There is a lot of VR that isn’t impactful. Awareness is great, but what is the action?
That’s part of the plan for the letters we collected for the Sun Ladies. I didn’t know it was going to work because people are so busy at festivals. We thought we’d get maybe 10 letters, but we realized people found it to be a healing moment for them to write this letter. Not only does it show the Sun Ladies that people around the world support them, but it also heals the viewers by writing those letters.
We didn’t just make an emotional connection, but one that translates into concrete action in the real world, not just in your head and your heart. It is our responsibility to anchor virtual reality in the real world.
To contribute to the costs of translating and returning the letters to the Sun Ladies, consider donating to the Kickstarter campaign.