Interview with VR filmmaker Mairead McVeigh For London Tech Week
To celebrate London Tech Week, Am I Normal spoke to filmmaker Mairead McVeigh about her original 360° short film 'Supertemporal'.
Commissioned as a result of a partnership between the Arts Council England and Channel 4, which works with and develops 16-24 year old filmmakers through a national initiative known as First Acts, 'Supertemporal' was created using VR (Virtual Reality) technology. Find out more about First Acts.
Here, Mairead speaks about the challenges she faced when creating 'Supertemporal', and ponders the many ways that technology will advance filmmaking in the future.
Can you start off by telling us what your film Supertemporal depicts and what inspired you to make it?
Supertemporal is about an older man who frequently walks the rural areas of Herefordshire and absorbs the scenes of natural beauty. One day on a walk, the man falls and hurts his knee. Being no longer able to walk in the rural landscape, he is gifted a Virtual Reality headset for which to observe the landscape in a different way, but the device then acts against him.
There are a couple of different issues with agency in the film, one particularly being the nature of 'digital' for an older demographic of people who are more frequently feeling "left behind" and isolated through an inability to engage with media devices, especially those who are not as computer literate as others. It also looks at the issues of the media device and how almost everything we do is filtered through a camera or screen, even when we engage with nature. It is a consideration of the way that we are beginning to live our lives from a third perspective - not the lived experience but the observation of one.
I was inspired to make it because I live in a beautiful area and there are so many benefits to connecting with nature, but I worry that it is being left behind for the convenience and speed that media devices bring. With this, I am also very aware of the massive rise in depression and anxiety in young people due to screen addiction as well as cyber-bullying. From one age group to the next, we are all effected by the constantly-updating world, in many different ways. Although I have engaged with devices as a tool for production, the film that I have made hopefully reflects some of the conflict and anxieties that I experience on a day-to-day level with the use of media. I find it almost like a trap, that in order to push through in developing on a level of industry, that we must engage with it to feel like we can critique it.
I am also very aware of the positive attributes that are presented through media devices, but having been inspired by some artists and theorists such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Jean Baudrillard, I almost always have a looming suspicion about the nature of the image and the media.
The film is shot in 360, using VR technology. Why did you choose to shoot it this way, as opposed to a more traditional method?
I am a practicing Fine Arts Artist based in the Midlands, but originally from Belfas,t and my initial journey into my education within an art practice originated with painting, but when I began university I was overwhelmed with the alternatives that moving image could produce. I began experimenting with different mediums, whilst still remaining within the same traditions of painting, such as colour, composition, and scale. It was in the final year of my BA (Hons) when I began researching more media type theorists such as Hito Steyerl and Guy Debord, that I really started to become aware of how influenced we all are by images, so I set off on a bit of a quest to face newer media within this practice.
I finished my BA (Hons) with three environments, a virtual reality world, a games type environment of a ghostly city and a bunker/nancy house type space which it all sat inside. I really wanted to question the constructed reality, and so heightened, overbearing buildings became a motif within the evironments which I had hoped would reflect the powerlessness of people in trying not to be affected by them. There was no other content as such, just a lot of space, and people responded to it by either being uncomfortable or really relaxed. I spent a lot of time in that space, observing their reactions, and even though it was challenging for me then, (coding is not my strong game!) I felt like there could possibly be more ways to incorporate the real world with a constructed digital one. That is what lead me to the non-linear methods of production that we incorporated.
Did you face any challenges in filming it this way?
Myself and the team ran into so many piloting errors that it was hard to keep count. Learning Depthkit was a whole new world to all of us; it's an American software that is constantly developing and changing. We documented the pointcloud data and footage, combining them within the software, but then had a right job of importing them into Adobe Premiere Pro! As it is made to partner with Unity, it wouldn't marry up in the way that we desired and it was additional pressure in working to the deadline. We also found that filming with the Insta360 came with its limitations, because of different shutter speeds and how they would stitch together in a sequence for Premiere Pro.
I had an amazing team who had some great experience in VR filmmaking, but at times it felt that we were working against the constraints of technology, as it was a blend of videogame software and moving image which was not our area of expertise. I am delighted with the result. Although at times it felt that we were up against a wall, coming over those hurdles with a finished piece felt like the fresh air at the top of a mountain!
If you could incorporate any sort of tech you wanted into your filmmaking, what would you choose?
This was actually quite a difficult question for me to answer. One of my initial ideas was to use a Lidar style camera within this film. A Lidar is a type of sensor, similar to the one within an XBox Kinect, which documents images by throwing a laser cyclically, to document the spatial distance of places. It gives everything a really haunting and ghost-like appearance; I have seen them used in the development of different games and 360 experiences and they create a point cloud which you can attach images to – they are just super cool. I would love an Insta360 for myself to just go and research with as it documents at 8K, but the best kind of tech would be a games designer that is more knowledgeable about coding and that is willing to experiment with new ideas!
Where do you think the future of tech lies in the world of filmmaking?
I think it's an unstoppable force. In my mind, I can see a future of 360 films where you're all in headsets and you're watching a scene, but you turn and someone has a gun to your head - then suddenly you're an element to the story. It's not going to be long before VR and AR (augmented reality) experiences become entire body experiences, everything is moving at such a fast pace that it’s difficult to keep up. The development of VR and AR movies could possibly replace 3D films, but I think we have a while to wait for that yet.
There is a scene in the newest Ghost in the Shell movie where the investigator opens a 360° hologram of a crime scene; imagine a device where you could just step inside the scene of a film? I might be going into Sci-Fi territory now, but I have a firm belief now that if it can be imagined it can almost always be created. I feel like tech will lead the way through film, but it won't replace the elements that make a great film, just compliment them.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
At this moment I am working on a Heritage Lottery Funded project to build an AR app for delivering information about the Women's Land Army on behalf of Jaime Jackson (artist name: Salt Road) and the New Leaf Self-Sustainable Project in Herefordshire. I am also coming to the end of an MA Degree in Fine Art at Hereford College of Arts which will be completed in September. We have a show coming up in July so I will be working on both of these until the New Year, and who knows what other projects I will get up to! My current body of work is looking at conflict and I would like to spend time in the new year when I have completed my degree conducting my own research and experimentation on using new technologies to produce more work in response the conflict in Northern Ireland. At the moment it is just a concept, but as I said before, if it can be imagined it can be created!