Virtual Reality Artist Gabriela Arp on Using VR for Storytelling

Virtual Reality Artist Gabriela Arp on Using VR for Storytelling

Gabriela Arp is an independent producer and visual artist who is passionate about visual media, new technology and immersive projects that strengthen the human connection. Her most recent virtual reality film, Meeting a Monster, exploring the memories and motivations of former white supremacist Angela King, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It has also been shown at Cannes NEXT and the Sheffield Doc Fest. 


What is your storytelling background and how did you get into VR/AR work?
I’ve been a non-fiction filmmaker for the past seven years. Before getting into VR/AR work, I was making short-form films for news organizations, non-profits and commercial clients. In 2014, I started graduate school for visual communication at UNC. While I was working on my thesis project, a shipment of 360 video cameras came into the school. I figured this would be a great time to experiment with the cameras since I would most likely not have access to them after I graduated. And that is how my first film was made. Since so few people had experimented with the medium at that time, I received a lot of opportunities after I graduated to work on new projects, join labs and learn more about experimental modes of sharing non-fiction stories. And so I guess, there was a lot of serendipity to me starting down this path which continues to shift with each new project that I take on.


I find that VR really works for things like exploring memory, bringing people to a place they could never travel on their own (not just physical places, but emotional spaces). Because of the challenges with distribution, VR should only be used if it truly heightens the story; when being there develops a connection that could not take place with traditional film.


How is the process of creating a VR/AR story different from regular video? How is the cost different?
Since I have more experience in VR films, I’ll speak to that difference. Working in VR is more similar to theatre than it is to traditional, flat documentaries. In virtual reality, the set becomes just as much of a character as the lead in a film. You have to pay attention to every detail and interaction in the environment you are creating or sharing with the viewer. For example, in my first 360-degree film Traces, I re-created the childhood memories of a woman living with Alzheimer’s Disease. My subject grew up in the 1940’s so when I was looking for sets, I had to take into account the environment surrounding it. One of her memories was set at a beautiful old, white Southern church. When I found what I thought was the perfect church, I quickly realized that it wouldn’t work because there were brand new power lines and roads surrounding the church. It made it evident that this church was not from the 1940’s and there was nothing we could do to hide the surrounding infrastructure. Having the environment as a character also has its benefits.

 A photo from Gabriela Arp’s film “Meeting a Monster,” which she collaborated on with the nonprofit Life After Hate.

A photo from Gabriela Arp’s film “Meeting a Monster,” which she collaborated on with the nonprofit Life After Hate.

In my latest film Meeting A Monster, which explores the memories and motivations of former white supremacist Angela King, I was able to use the environment to share more about the character. In the film, we start out in Angela’s childhood bedroom. When the viewer looks around, they can see that the walls are covered with punk rock posters. The room has stuffed animals in it and a cassette player. She is still relatively innocent at that point in her story. But as she develops more hateful ideology, the room changes physically, mirroring the internal changes happening within Angela. The punk rock posters become white supremacy posters. The stuffed animal and walkman become bottles of alcohol and knives.


What do you find is the greatest challenge in producing VR/AR stories?
I think the biggest challenge is not so much in the production of VR/AR stories, but in the distribution. Right now, the distribution model really relies on the festival circuit, then a release in the app store and a public launch with a 360-degree video player online. While the player online opens the content to so many more people, the experience really suffers. I think as the medium continues to develop, there will hopefully be more opportunities to bring this content to a variety of different populations, contexts and places.


Tell us a little about working on "Meeting a Monster" as part of the Oculus VR for Good program. How did you get connected with them? How did you decide what story to tell?
Meeting A Monster is a virtual reality film exploring the memories and motivations of former white supremacist Angela King. Through audio recordings and re-enactments, the viewer is able to get a sense of what moments in her life lured her into the movement and what moments ultimately got her out. The film was made as a collaboration with Oculus’ VR for Good Program and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

The way the VR for Good program works is that Oculus selects 10 filmmakers based on proposals that they send in and then they select 10 nonprofits and pair each selected filmmaker with one of the nonprofits. I applied to do a project on migration and therefore was really surprised when I was paired with Life After Hate, a non-profit organization run by former white supremacists and extremists that are working towards helping people leave hate groups. I felt very uneasy about the situation and actually called Oculus to see if I could switch to another organization. They said they selected me particularly for this story because they felt I could tell it in a sensitive way based on my previous work. I begrudgingly agreed to at least explore the idea and flew up for the two-day lab where I would meet my main point of contact for the organization, a former white supremacist.

As I heard more about his story and the work he was doing, I realized I held my own biases. I wasn’t interested in telling his story for many reasons, but one was that at the core, I think I believed that people engrossed in such a horrible movement were not capable of change.

I interviewed 10 former white supremacists from the organization before landing upon my main character, Angela, whose story I would share in the film. I knew she was the one immediately after the interview. I thought it was fascinating she was a woman, a perspective I had never heard very much about in the movement. And I was really moved by the amount of detail of her memory and the level of reflection she had placed on her time in the movement.


If you are an international non-profit or a group that works in marginalized communities, I highly encourage you to collaborate and hire people from within those groups to shape the story. The cost of VR makes it inaccessible for people of color and lower-income populations to produce it and watch it.


So we decided to work together to tell the story. We did multiple interviews together where she described each memory in detail. I used her memories to construct the sets, cast the characters and design the experience for the viewer.  The process of working together through all this really shifted my own perspective on people from the movement. I realized that Angela, though like all of us still with her flaws, had made a long-lasting commitment to change. Her path out of the movement was not easy. She lost almost everything she knew. But I saw through her experience that she too had suffered and that her pain was what truly led her into the movement. It was important for me to include that part of her experience, in addition to recognizing the horrible ways she hurt others. The two dichotomies of suffering were really the premise for the film and gave more nuance to the origins of hatred than I think we see on a daily basis in the news and social media.


What are some examples of great VR storytelling for nonprofits?
Step to the Line” – Defy Ventures

The Last Goodbye” –  USC Shoah Foundation

Behind the Fence” – The Nexus Fund

Home After War”  – Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining

 Screenshot from the “Home After War” website.

Screenshot from the “Home After War” website.

How do you think nonprofits can best use VR for storytelling? What should it not be used for?
For nonprofits, you really need to ask yourself if the story you are telling will be more powerful in VR. I find that VR really works for things like exploring memory, bringing people to a place they could never travel on their own (not just physical places, but emotional spaces). Because of the challenges with distribution, VR should only be used if it truly heightens the story; when being there develops a connection that could not take place with traditional film. I think that is my biggest issue with a lot of VR films I see non-profits making. They will just plop a camera in front of a refugee in a refugee camp and expect people to be moved. In all honesty, people were at first, but that was more because of the novelty of VR and less because of the depth of the story. Now that VR is becoming more mainstream, nonprofits must think about using it as a way to transport the viewer to a more nuanced place with layers of emotion, physicality and human connection.


Any advice for people or nonprofits that want to get into VR storytelling?
Before you invest in a really expensive camera or pay a VR/AR company a good chunk of money to tell a story you’ve been thinking about, invest in a prototype. You can now get pretty inexpensive small cameras like the Insta360 or the Samsung Gear 360 for less than $300. They are pretty great quality and they can help you get an idea of the story you want to tell.

If you are an international non-profit or a group that works in marginalized communities, I highly encourage you to collaborate and hire people from within those groups to shape the story. The cost of VR makes it inaccessible for people of color and lower-income populations to produce it and watch it. It’s critical that we find, fund and encourage people to share their own stories and give them a platform to do so. I promise it will be so much more poignant than you can imagine.

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