Gina Prince-Bythewood on Shooting with NYT + Milk(vr)
Gina Prince-Bythewood is an expert filmmaker in every sense of the word: as the director of Hollywood hits like Beyond the Lights and The Secret Life of Bees, she was the perfect candidate to pioneer an entirely new medium that’s changing the game: virtual reality. And with 2016 coming to a close, it would seem that there’s no better way to incorporate VR than with the annual New York Times Great Performers project featuring 11 of the world’s most talented faces, all in one dimly lit Film Noir bar for our viewing pleasure.
A newly-launched Milk(vr) department stepped in to help co-produce, and what followed were nine exquisite short films featuring the likes of Ruth Negga, Kristen Stewart, Casey Affleck, the Moonlight cast, and more. Watch all nine films here along with behind-the-scenes footage, take VR to go with the NYT VR app, and read our interview with the director herself below.
So since this is your first time working with VR film—how did your expectations compare with the reality of the medium? What did you discover that was unexpected?
Being my first foray into VR, I had no expectations. I did research and watched some VR and was really enamored with the absolute immersiveness of the medium. That was definitely something I wanted to tap into in doing narrative storytelling within VR. I was discovering new things every day. I definitely learned to use the whole environment more as the process went on, as opposed to focusing solely on what was directly in front of the camera.
The New York Times does their Great Performers project every year, but this year’s the first time they’ve done VR films. What does VR bring to the table this year that the project didn’t have before?
The VR experience! The feeling that you, the audience, are not just watching great actors, but you are in the scene with them. That is a very cool concept.
How did you adapt your approach (if at all) to work with the VR medium?
At the end of the day, no matter the creative medium, it is about the story and about the performances. So my normal focus did not change. What was different is that I had to be hyper-vigilant about every single thing in the set because everything is visible. If one thing is off, it ruins the whole take. Also, I am used to being by the camera when I direct, to be closer to the actor, but I couldn’t do that with the VR camera.
Now that you’ve worked with VR, which do you prefer—VR or traditional filming?
I still prefer traditional filmmaking but I absolutely want to continue shooting in VR. There are so many possibilities for narrative storytelling within the medium. I would love to explore in a longer format.
What kind of challenges did VR present? What kind of new opportunities?
The biggest challenge for me was the inability of the VR camera to do closeups. That was frustrating, as what was initially in my head for some of the scenes I was not able to do. I think closeups in VR would be striking and really pull in the audience. The opportunities VR presented was the ability to use the entire environment to tell the story.
Favorite part of the whole experience?
Working with the actors. It’s my favorite part of making movies. It was fun bringing them into this new medium and seeing their enthusiasm at doing something new and different. And I loved learning a new medium. As a director, that is exciting.
Image via Alexandre Jaras for The New York Times
Stay tuned to Milk for more from the forefront of virtual reality.