Collapsing Past, Present, and Future of Racial Justice Through Pioneering VR Filmmaking

As the fight for racial justice continues into the 21st century, the connection between struggles of the present and the past has become increasingly clear. In the Creative Capital Project, The Changing Same: An American Pilgrimage, Michèle Stephenson and collaborators, Joe Brewster and Yasmin Elayat, look to illuminate these connections by collapsing time through a pioneering virtual reality (VR) technique they call “volumetric filmmaking.” Starting in present day Florida, users will follow Lamar, a humorous guide, as the lines between past, present, and future blur, connecting today’s events with those which occurred over the past 400 years. The first episode of this VR experience comes to Sundance Film Festival starting January 28, 2021, highlighting both the struggle for justice, and Black joy and love.

We spoke to Michèle, Joe, and Yasmin about their project, their new filmmaking process, and how they’re hoping to bring users into the past to create a more free future.

Alex—Tell me about the project in a nutshell.

Yasmin Elayat—So, we’re working on the first episode of the Changing Same. It’s a magical realist time-travel experience through 400 years of racial terror and racial justice in America. What we’re showing at Sundance is the first episode in which we take users through this time-travel experience that is nonlinear—they will travel through past, present, and future. We’re inviting you to witness history, and recontextualize and reimagine it.

The project is a co-production between Scatter and Rada Studios, and has been in development for four years. It’s also a landmark approach to virtual reality. We’re doing something called volumetric filmmaking, and we’re pioneering new techniques in the process of our filmmaking to achieve the creative vision of this project.

Michèle Stephenson—In addition to the technology, we’re also pushing the form in terms of storytelling. I don’t think we’ve ever seen these types of performances, or level of working with subjects and actors in a volumetric filmmaking space. It’s a hybrid, theater, documentary and fiction filmmaking in a 360 space. So, we’re drawing the storytelling into the VR space that people have rarely seen before.

Joe Brewster—While we’re talking about form, let’s talk about the psychological form. When we talk about decontextualization, we are asking the audience to reimagine what it is to be Black. There is trauma, and there is terror, but there is always Black love and Black resilience. They exist side by side. What we’re trying to do is to use VR to highlight that for every lynching there were thousands of mothers that hugged their sons, and told them there would be a tomorrow.

For example, I’m from Los Angeles—we have varied perceptions of my hometown. I think of it as the land of milk and honey, but other folks might think of Rodney King, and riots. That contradiction needs to be in everything we do as filmmakers. That’s the movement in art today: how do we, as makers, draw a more complex, nuanced America? We took the challenge to do that in VR.

Alex—From a user’s perspective, how would I experience episode one of the Changing Same at Sundance?

Michèle—Episode one is an introduction into the world we have built for the entire series. The User is presented with a dilemma and by the end of the episode must choose which path to take to experience the entire series. You meet some key characters, one of whom is Lamar. Lamar is a timeless man, who is our guide through the VR journey. As the guide, he gives us the comfort and understanding that we need to experience the journey —it’s not going to be an easy one, but Lamar has our back. With that as an introduction, you enter into the space of the panhandle in Florida. We’ve chosen this swampland area as a foundational base where the user will come back to. There’s a shack that’s further down the road where we are trying to lead the viewer because there is a moment of joy in that space at the end of the journey. Lamar sets out the rules of the game that allow us to access that joy behind that shack door—the user has to first take this journey through history, and it starts today. Immediately after, the user is propelled into a suburban space and finds themself stopped by police.

“We have to reckon with this inversion of time and space in order to think in a creative way of how to change the future world for ourselves.” — Michèle Stephenson

Joe—We start with traditional storytelling devices, we introduce you to our main character—where he’’s from, what he loves, and doesn’t he love? That character, like those in any Netflix 20-part show takes awhile to develop and then you’re hooked. Our experience with VR, and I’m not speaking to Yasmin’s work, is that character development is lacking. We wanted to be connected to someone. The user here is connected to Lamar, his sense of humor, his wit, and his vulnerability. What you witness is Lamar struggling to get through this experience, and you—as the user—hope that he survives.

Michèle—Well, you also hope that you survive as a user because you are at the center of the experience. Whatever Lamar experiences you are experiencing as well. We start in the present day in a suburb, where the user gets arrested for something they didn’t do. Then we time-travel from that jail into an 1820 slave warehouse. We see the same people who were  in the jail, but they’re clothed differently.

Yasmin—Just to visualize it for you—in each of these environments that Joe and Michèle are describing, from present day to the past, we’re building worlds that look similar to our world. We’re doing these reality capture techniques, which is part of volumetric filmmaking, and capturing real sites that are rooted to the origin story. The stories are based on true events, so we went to some of these sites and captured the locations. Then we’re translating and reimagining for the piece. So it looks of this world, but also not of this world as well.

For example, one of the guiding characters are these fireflies that look real, but also lead you through the time-travel experience, and are interactive instruments. They add this magical access to the performances and time-travel. The best way to describe the time-travel experience is that when you’re in these lush 3D worlds, we pull the rug from under you. The world rips apart, and you enter this liminal space that represents our interpretation of 400 years of history. We’re calling them sets, but they’re essentially eras—they are different references and symbolic imagery of places, moments in time, people, and music that represent 400 years of life in Black history. It’s a collapse of time, of past, present, and future, and you enter it between scenes. So we’re really playing around with the narrative approach through this magical realist time-travel approach.

Joe—This is a very difficult piece because funders were slow to embrace this aspect of American history. We didn’t have a lot of money, but our rejections afforded us something just as important as money, time. We’ve been rejected by everybody—except for Creative Capital and a few others.

Yasmin—Except for the visionaries!

Joe—But what that has allowed us to do is pour our creativity into the project. We’ll be talking about how to make this experience magical, and wonder why do we have to look at the car through the window? Why can’t we become engulfed by the car? Why do I, as a user, need to enter a room to see what’s happening in it? So we rethought the visual experiences and feelings of the user. So the lack of funding allowed us to rethink gravity and physics to our great advantage. Our real concern then became whether the user could withstand the visual distortion and changes they were about to experience.

Michèle—With all of this, the point is that history is present today. Just as Faulkner said, “the past is never dead, it’s not even  past.” It’s right now. All of these mechanics have a purpose, and the purpose is to show that the past is sitting right up on our shoulders. What we’re experiencing today, our ancestors experienced too 300 or 400 years ago. But if we’re able to acknowledge that the oppressive structures persist, our future can be different. That’s what our journey takes us on. We have to reckon with this inversion of time and space in order to think in a creative way of how to change the future world for ourselves.

Joe—So we went and consulted with a number of people about the psychological and healing aspects of the experience.  At the Sundance at Frontiers Lab we talked to folks     who are creating monuments, like the Holocaust Museum. We dealt with the folks who created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. And yes, we learned some interesting things about trauma and healing. But what is also interesting now, right now in 2021 when we have the Black Lives Movement—is that the power of knowing history and facts has helped to create this moment in American history. The kids in this current civil rights moment know more about black history and see parallels between the past and past more than any generation before. There are 16 year-olds telling me that Reconstruction Period feels relevant because of Trump. And that we should be prepared for 20 years of struggle. History tells us the the struggle against white supremacy is not over. While during Reconstruction they thought it was over, but that Civil War is still being fought. We’re providing parallels for that experience and we’re also providing hope. Throughout all the pain, all the aggression, there was always an inching forward. History is one of the elements that we’re facing and gives us a guidepost. This piece is a guidepost.

This piece is also beautiful. There are some breathtaking images because when we show you this much pain, we have to show you just as much joy and celebration. The project is not just about our vision, it’s also a collaboration with interesting artists who are all stepping up and adding something special to the project.

The directors of Changing Same from left to right: Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster, and Yasmin Elayat.

Michèle—There was an evolution as to who was paying attention to the stories. Like with many of the works that Joe and I have done at Rada Studio throughout our careers, when the time is right is when the time is right, and the time is right now for this piece. There is a marathon element to our body of work, and also an evolution of us as artists that all goes into the next creation.

Alex—I read recently that we’re more willing today to see the connection between today and the Civil War era than we were in, say, the 1960s. At the same time there is all this new technology that artists are playing with. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this development of VR technology is happening at the same time that we’re looking to collapse time to move forward. Can you speak to how you are using the VR technology to make the connections between the past and present more apparent?

Yasmin—Virtual reality is a very nascent space as a medium. It’s only about four years old, at least in this phase. There is typically either this very game-like approach, or with the 360 video, a cinematic approach. We’re doing something that is quite different, more like a beautiful marriage between filmmaking and game design. That’s what we call volumetric filmmaking. In this collaboration between Rada and myself, it’s really about leveraging the practice and sensibility of filmmaking because we are actually filming. We are shooting holograms of these real human actors and their performances, and we’re leveraging the virtual reality and the game engine. Besides interactivity and playing with different experiential tools, like physics, time-travel, gravity, and visualization of these worlds, it is important because it’s quite a unique technique.

We’re translating the real world. We call it “hybrid speculative fiction,” meaning it’s based on true events, it’s relevant to the time. So it feels like a true convergence of the form and the content, so the push feels rooted to the themes and goals of the project. It’s not just virtual reality. There’s real intention behind the approach. I will say the same thing behind the art—even with the sound design, we’re taking a material and visceral approach. For example we’re working with sound artist Matt McCorkle, who is literally pulling from the real world to make our sound, things like real leaves, actual textures from the real world. There are different layers that are building on each other from different disciplines.

We’re combining new technologies. So when we’re working in this space there’s volumetric capture, and there’s motion capture. So we’re combining this to create a hybrid avatar, basically a character that is half human and half cyborg. She’s a 12-foot force of nature. We’re inventing a new workflow to create this hybrid character.

Michèle—The character is named Harriet that we meet in the first episode. Harriet is a force of nature, of spirit that comes to the user. Lamar is timeless, but he is very much of the earth, while Harriet represents our ancestors but in spirit and energy. She’s an afro-futurist representation: a Black woman who provides nourishment for the user.

Joe—She is Harriet Tubman.

Michèle—Right, she’s inspired by Harriet Tubman, but this idea of the energy that embodies the future, past, and present all in one. We have a very specific design for her, both including sound, music, the volumetric capturing for the human part of her, and the 3D development for the other part of her.

Joe—We spent months trying to figure out how her dress would move and sway as she walked, including making 3D prototypes. I thought that was a bit overkill, but she’s beautiful. This is assuming that everything we wanted to do is going to come together. As Yasmin says, we’re in the compromise phase of this process. We’ve had to leave some things behind, but now Harriet is fully formed, as well as the portals. We are attempting to create something special. 3D capture is not just something hollow in front of you moving, like an Assassin’s Creed character. She will be someone looking  back into your eyes to make you feel something.

Alex—So you said this is episode one, can you talk about how people can watch this one, and what to expect for future episodes?

Joe—Episode one will premiere at Sundance. We’ll deliver it in a week, and it will be available on Sundance’s platform. This new platform will probably allow us, as immersive filmmakers, a greater platform than we’ve ever had at a Sundance event. In the long run, we’ve entered partnerships with a number of organizations, including POV Spark who is developing a nationwide tour for this piece and others. Color of Change and Afropunk have signed on as sponsors. We hope to develop a two year community engagement campaign.

Michèle—We’re still fundraising for episodes two and three, so the mission here is to blow people away with episode one.

Read more about the Changing Same, and the full line up at Sundance on their website.