#622: The Making of “Sun Ladies VR:” Former ISIS Sex Slaves Create an All-Female Fighting Unit

celine-tricartThe Sun Ladies VR is an amazing story about a group of Yazidi women from the Northern Iraq community of Sinjar, who escaped as sex slaves and started an all-female unit to fight ISIS. ISIS raided the Sinjar District in August 2014 and massacred over 2000 Yazidis, selling many women into slavery. There is a group of women who escaped and decided to fight back in part because ISIS believes that they’ll go to hell if they’re killed by a woman. These women call themselves “The Sun Ladies,” and their story inspired activist and actor Maria Bello to form a team of war journalists and VR creators to travel to Iraq to capture their story of women’s empowerment.

christian-stephenThe Sun Ladies premiered at Sundance, and I caught up with co-directors & producers Céline Tricart and Christian Stephen. Tricart is a VR cinematographer & director who recently published Virtual Reality Filmmaking: Techniques & Best Practices for VR Filmmakers, and Stephen is a British war journalist who directed the first VR piece from a war zone in 2015 with Welcome to Aleppo. I talked with Tricart & Stephen about the process of traveling to northern Iraq, building trust with the Sun Ladies in order to share their stories of empowerment, their creative use of illustrations, and what they see are the strengths and limitations of using VR to tell stories within these areas of conflict.


Their production process was a fusion of lessons from their backgrounds in war journalism and VR cinematography, and they used VR’s ability to transport you to another place. VR cameras are easily mistaken as a bombs, and so it was difficult to capture footage from the frontlines. This limitation inspired Tricart to reach out to lead VR artist on Dear Angelica, Wesley Allbrook, in order to create illustrated representations of the Sun Ladies fighting using Quill. In order to make that transition more seamless, they added a unique blend of illustrations on top of the cinematic 360-degree footage in order to emphasize the characters within the sparse landscape of Northern Iraq.

Both Tricart & Stephen wanted to avoid the trope of focusing on the tragedy and trauma of the previous experiences of these women, but rather tell the story of how they’re empowering themselves to fight back and protect their community. Stephen has a lot of deep insights about the dynamics of the region, and he points out that it was vital to have Tricart there to be able to listen and capture the stories of these women. The project was the brain child of Bello, and she put together an amazing team that’s pushing the boundaries of immersive storytelling by going into the trenches to capture these types of stories. They blending in 2D footage gathered from Stephen’s awareness from reporting in the region to the backstory, and then leveraged VR’s ability to transport you into other worlds to open a window into their journey into recovery and empowerment. The Sun Ladies is a really inspiring story that captures a lot of intimate moments, and it fuses in an artistic style with Allbrook’s Quill illustrations that really captures their fierce warrior spirits.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So Sundance is one of my favorite VR events to cover throughout the year, both because there's a lot of really fascinating innovations when it comes to immersive storytelling. But as a press person, I also have access to be able to see a number of different films there. And because I'm such a huge documentary buff, I get to see tons of different documentaries. And in those documentaries, I get to see sort of what's happening in the wide world and the stories that are both more difficult to tell in the mainstream media, but it's like these stories that you may not hear of in your social media bubble. And I think that usually those types of stories take longer to kind of filter into either a VR or 360 degree cinematic piece. But This year, there was a really amazing story that was called Sun Ladies VR, and Celine Tricarte and Christian Stephen, they went into northern Iraq to be able to tell the story of these Yazidi women fighters who were formerly sex slaves with ISIS, and they escaped and then created this female-only fighting unit called the Sun Ladies. So the piece is absolutely amazing. I hope that it's going to be made available for people to see at some point just because it's an amazing story. But we're going to be going behind the scenes to talk a bit about how this project came about and just what it's like to go into an area of conflict and cover such an intense story with virtual reality technologies. So Celine is both a director and a director of photography, and she also just has a book that just came out called Virtual Reality Filmmaking Techniques and Best Practices for VR Filmmakers. And Christian is a war journalist who has been covering a number of different conflicts around the world, but also did one of the first VR pieces from a war zone called Welcome to Aleppo. So this interview with Céline and Christian happened on Wednesday, January 24th, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:05.863] Celine Tricart: Hi, my name is Céline Trichardt. I am the producer and co-director of The Sundance Ladies, who is part of the New Frontier program here at Sundance.

[00:02:14.948] Christian Stephen: I'm Christian Stephen. I'm also the producer and co-director of The Sundance Ladies that is premiering here at Sundance.

[00:02:20.410] Kent Bye: Great, so maybe tell me a bit about how did this project come about?

[00:02:24.818] Christian Stephen: This project came about our incredible fearless leader Maria Bella, the actress. She heard a story about the Sun Ladies who are escaped ISIS sex slaves who created their own military unit to go and basically hunt down their rapists and save their sisters. And so she'd been working for a while to get the project off the ground in varying forms and decided that VR might be the way to do it. And she'd seen that I did Welcome to Aleppo, which was the first VR from a war zone for Riot. And she'd been in contact with Celine because Celine's just an incredible DP and director for, you know, VR and 2D. And so Maria got a hold of me and asked, you know, could this project be done because it had been stalled for a few months? And I said, you know, I think we could probably get on the ground within two weeks. And so then Maria contacted Celine and Celine wants to speak to that.

[00:03:09.493] Celine Tricart: Yeah, it was a Wednesday, I was teaching VR at San Francisco and I got a call from Muriel saying, we got greenlighted, can you be in Iraq next Tuesday? And so we had amazing five days of pre-production and trying to get the camera, get the equipment ready, and then fly to Iraq and meet with my co-director and Dylan Roberts, who is one of our producers, who I've never met before, but I first met at the airport in Iraq, it was quite funny.

[00:03:37.395] Kent Bye: So it sounds like that the backstory for these people that are featured in this film, were they all former sex slaves for ISIS? And did they somehow escape? Or maybe you could talk a bit about their background and the deeper geopolitical context of what was happening here.

[00:03:51.283] Christian Stephen: That would be mine. Yeah, so quite a few of the Sun Ladies are escaped sex slaves. A lot of them are mainly Yazidi women from the places like Sinjar Mountain. I think you'll remember in 2014, that's when ISIS came in and massacred thousands. And so the women from that area and a few other surrounding places decided to band together and create their own unit to go get their sisters back.

[00:04:13.148] Kent Bye: Yeah. And so how did you first get contact with this unit of these groups of people to then kind of go in and start to film this?

[00:04:21.129] Christian Stephen: Absolutely. Maria had done some digging and found a good contact who was in touch with the leader of the Sun Ladies, who is the main character of our piece. And, you know, through Dylan, you know, co-producer and myself. We've been on the ground in Iraq for the last at least six years. You know, I think this trip to do Sun Ladies was my 27th trip to northern Iraq. But, you know, we sort of combined forces and found the best way to, you know, secure access and a way to get to them safely as well.

[00:04:48.922] Kent Bye: Now, Celine, is this your first time going into a war zone to be able to start to film, especially with either 2D or VR?

[00:04:57.018] Celine Tricart: Yeah, I mean, if you consider working on Transformers, not a war zone. Yes, it was my very first time and I was very scared, of course, but I trusted Christian and Dylan to keep me safe. It was very clear to me from the beginning that I was not going to go through a front line. Just literally not what I do. There is people who do that for whatever reason and are talented and know how to stay safe and stay alive. This is not my case. So my priority when I was in Iraq was to find the best shot, find the story, and connect with the woman. And I let Christian and Dylan deal with the logistics of where to go, where not to go, et cetera. Yeah, we met for the first time in Iraq, but we very quickly bonded that we were a pretty good team on the ground.

[00:05:45.234] Kent Bye: Yeah, how do you deal with the language in a translation? Do you want to speak the native language of the Yazidi women, or did you have a translator to be able to interact with them?

[00:05:53.850] Christian Stephen: Dylan and I, we pick up bits and bobs here and there, but we almost always have a fixer and a translator. When we're feeling like spoiling ourselves, we'll get some security every now and then. But this trip especially had to be airtight and bulletproof because we had people other than ourselves on the trip. Our main focus was to basically give Celine the space she needed to execute the shots she wanted. It was familiar terrain to us and that was the priority.

[00:06:19.506] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe, Celine, you could talk about the evolution of the story, kind of finding the story and then also then visually telling the story.

[00:06:26.962] Celine Tricart: That was an interesting film in the sense that usually when I go shoot documentaries, even though it's about the real, so you have to be open to whatever's going to happen in front of you, we always kind of have an idea of a script, an idea of a story. And with The Sound Ladies it was slightly different. First of all, because I was completely caught off guard by everything over there, by the environment, by the woman. So there's absolutely no way we could have planned anything. I mean Christian had the story in mind, he knows the story very well and he knew where to go, what kind of questions to ask. But really the story came together in post-production, where we did the translation of all the interviews, we did a lot of interviews, and I actually started by cutting the interview together, so creating what was going to become the voice-over from the interview as a train of thought, and then illustrate this train of thought with the VR shots. So it was really a long process in post-production to try to make that film that is unlike anything else I've done before. It has this very unique feel to it. And that's also how we had the idea of integrating animation in it, because I felt that we were missing some shots. More importantly, the shot of the woman fighting. They are actually fighting. And so that's when we decided to add this one animated scene in the movie. And then, again, we'd continue working on the story, the interview, etc. And we realized we needed even more animation to make it like a gradual mix of animation and live action without being too jarring.

[00:08:02.460] Kent Bye: Yeah, I was really struck by the kind of seamless blending of starting with animation and then having kind of an outline of the architecture of a landscape and then have the 360 video come in and then see that blending of both the symbolic illustration but also the 360 video. And I think starting off with that allowed more of a seamless transition later to kind of have that freedom to be able to cover some of the more intense fighting scenes that you weren't there for. I really thought that that was an interesting combination that I haven't seen much of anywhere else of that kind of blending.

[00:08:36.541] Christian Stephen: I think also, again going back to sort of my history in covering, as Celine says, the front lines and seeing the shots of battle that we didn't get with the Sun Ladies, I was hesitant in the back of my mind of if we did get those before the shoot. We've got such a feedback loop of war footage and such a just unending tidal wave of constant retinal absorption of blood, violence, trauma, screaming, all of that. And I think when it came down to post-production, Celine had a stroke of genius in being able to represent something that is horror and that is trauma in a way that, you know, represents what the Sun Ladies are, which is like the animation is beautiful and incredibly strong while in the middle of something very, very horrific.

[00:09:18.283] Celine Tricart: We work with one of the best artists in the field for the animation, a woman named Wellesley Alsbrook, who has done Dear Angelica previously, and so she's probably, out of all the people I know who are artists in the VR field, she's definitely my favorite, and she was extremely passionate about the Sun Ladies and the story and she was part of a core team when it came to building that story together and she came up with a bunch of amazing ideas. And that's one of the things I want to say is that we have a very small team because we have a very small budget but everybody was 100% committed and passionate about the story and I think that's the reason why the film is so different.

[00:09:57.666] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's been a lot of, I guess, a paradigm shift over the last year in terms of the Me Too campaign and, you know, Time's Up and just these themes of empowerment for women. And I'm really struck by a lot of the films that are showing here, premiering of documentaries both on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Allred and Jane Fonda and you know on and on there's all these different powerful women and I think that the Sun Ladies is for sure in that same camp of these women who are really just radical warriors. I'm just curious to hear some of your thoughts of like kind of the deeper context of what you see but also what they represent in terms of you know how they're trying to find their own sense of empowerment within the context of what is happening over in Iraq.

[00:10:39.364] Celine Tricart: So when we shot the Sun Ladies was in March 2017, so it was before Weinstein, the Me Too, etc. But it is definitely, you can feel that something's in the air, something's happening, and we can call it a revolution, we can call it an evolution, but we are done with telling stories of women as victims or women as helpers of men or women are behind the men. So I think that a lot of people are realizing that this should be over by now and it's time to move on. And our perspective on the Sun Ladies, I mean, it would have been actually quite easy to make a film about how horrible those women have been treated and how destroyed they are in their soul and how, I mean, that's easy. We've seen that every day on TV. That was not what we wanted to do. We wanted to focus on the fighting back, the empowerment, the strength. Yes, they've been through the worst, but they are the most beautiful, strong, determined women I've ever met. And if they can do it after everything that happened to them, that means every single woman in the world can do it too. So I really hope it's an inspiring story for both women and men, and realize that it's time to change the narrative a little bit.

[00:11:56.986] Christian Stephen: And I think even in the way of, you know, I was talking to Dylan about this the other day, but it's sort of, even we've covered, like Celine says, those stories of, you know, these women were victims of X, Y, and Z. We've done that for news pieces and all that. And I found myself, you know, just a little before Maria got a hold of me last year, just getting fatigued by that. Because I grew up with, you know, a mom and a sister who could kick my ass at any given second. And it comes down to the thing of, you know, why are we constantly reinforcing that narrative? And Dylan and I were talking about how, you know, even on the production of The Sun Ladies, that represented, which was us supporting Celine and Maria to tell the story, that represented the way that, again, I say this as well as I can, we saw it in a way of, you know, our role at this point in time, and even now that this movement is happening, is to support and to make sure that the space is given for stories to be told by female directors, female DPs, female writers, all of that. You know, it doesn't negate men in the world. It just means that something is being righted that has been wrong for so long.

[00:12:49.433] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm wondering if you could give me a little bit more of a context of how women are treated within those cultures over there in those different societies.

[00:12:57.447] Christian Stephen: I mean, that's a broad question brother. I mean it when it comes down to I mean you look at like Afghanistan You know women are relegated to the house. They don't leave unless they're completely, you know covered depending on the tribe You go to northern Iraq, you know Iraq is separate from northern Iraq So we were in Kurdistan, which is the Kurdish people who are the main fighting force against Isis And they're much more open-minded with women because I mean they allow Which sounds absurd the word allow but women within that culture are seen as an asset not as something to be kept or held or, you know, bought or sold or, you know, as a necessary evil to make children. They're seen as a backbone of the community. And so for young boys, like you see Kurdish young boys, they have some of the highest respect for women within the region. And that also shows in the way that Kurdish women fight alongside Kurdish men. Because it comes down to, they know they can fight just as hard, if not harder. They know they can go just as long, if not longer. And they know that they're just as passionate. There's no dividing line whatsoever, which is why that region is very, very close to my heart, especially. But it also comes down to, I mean, I've been in the trenches with the female fighters of Kurdistan a few times, and I feel safer with them than I feel with the men. And that's true.

[00:14:08.940] Kent Bye: I'm curious, what was this whole ISIS and sex slave dynamic as well? Maybe you could just give a little bit more context as to what was going on there.

[00:14:17.464] Christian Stephen: Absolutely. So the context is that in 2014 and a little earlier, when ISIS was really hitting its momentum, they would come into a new place, a new town, a new population, and they would either kill the men Or, no, actually they just killed the men. And they would take the women, and then they would sell them for maybe five dollars, or, you know, you could buy a woman, like it says in our film, for a pistol. Or, you know, it was just, you know, beyond dehumanizing. And I think it's a testament to the women of that region that the ones who have come out aren't gibbering wrecks, and they're not just sort of withered and completely broken. They're angry. They are furious, and it's a quiet intensity that I haven't seen in any other female population while I've been traveling. The women of that region aren't coming out going, my life is over. They're saying, my life has just begun. But it's a new chapter of it in which this will never happen to another woman while I'm breathing air. And that's what it comes down to. And ISIS are terrified of these women, because they enslaved them not knowing the women that they were enslaving. Because now that they get out, ISIS can't go to heaven if they're killed by a woman. So like it says in our film, when these women escaped and created their own military unit, they are hunting ISIS and they sing when they do it so that ISIS knows that the people who are killing them at that point are women and they are not going to heaven.

[00:15:31.555] Kent Bye: Yeah, and in terms of telling that story, I guess you have a couple options. One is to have the women tell their own stories in that way, or you ended up sort of using clips in a window from, in a spatial way to sort of see different, you know, clips playing at the same time to sort of show some of these clips and give a little bit more of that backstory. I'm just curious to hear more about your process as you're trying to tell something that's a very complicated and nuanced story.

[00:15:56.192] Celine Tricart: Yeah, it's a good question. So we knew we had to tell the backstory for the people to understand where those women were coming from. And Christian and Dylan has a lot of resources in terms of footage and also they found some news clip telling the whole story of 2014, the attack by ISIS, what happened next. And so I was scratching my head. It's like, OK, this is 2D footage. We're in VR. And of course, a lot of people do that, just add a little rectangle like TV in the VR world. But then I decided to push it to the next level where it's like, this is a very overwhelming story. It's very shocking to some people. And I want to make that moment as overwhelming as possible. So then we started multiplying the source of information. So we have not only one or two, but 10 different windows showing news clips and footage and photos. and have the sound of the different news clips compete with each other, which is interesting when you watch the movie with the special sound mix, because you can hear where the sound is coming from and you can find the source of information. Actually, when we were cutting the film, we called that scene the nightmare moment, because it's truly a nightmare. And a little bit later we decided to add our little animated character. Because people were getting a bit lost in the narrative because there's too many sources. They were a little bit too overwhelmed. So then we added that little animated character who is a main character looking around and guiding the audience left and right and then collapsing by the weight of the anger and the sadness of the information. So that's the scene that it took a while to create that scene to make it the right amount of of information versus emotion. And yeah, at the end of the day, I'm pretty happy with it because I think we found an original way of telling a backstory without it being boring, but just having its own emotion that's part of the film.

[00:17:46.023] Christian Stephen: Yeah, and I think, you know, with a story that broad and that large, you know, having something to tether to, as Celine says, was vital for us to find the key or sort of the legend for the map for the entire piece.

[00:17:58.570] Kent Bye: Yeah, and while we're here at Sundance, I think at some point you had mentioned that there's been some kind of breaking news that's happening in the region. Maybe you could give a bit of an update as to what's happening now in that region.

[00:18:07.737] Christian Stephen: Yeah, I'll try and keep it as succinct as I can. No, I mean, everybody's seen the news of, you know, ISIS being pushed out. And, you know, of course, Donald Trump is claiming victory for that. I'll leave that with him. And it comes down to, you know, with ISIS being pushed out of the region, that doesn't mean they're gone. And it doesn't mean that the women who were taken have been returned. And so at this point, the Sun Ladies narrative is evolving into, you know, just because ISIS is gone, quote unquote, doesn't mean that they're not still active. Because at this point now, they are looking to go and find the women if they've actually been taken while ISIS is retreating. So the narrative is getting larger and more intense as ISIS is being diminished. And so it's really become, exciting is the wrong word because of the subject matter, but it's a vital time for the Sun Ladies and for the greater story at this point.

[00:18:58.167] Celine Tricart: Something that happened when we had our premiere a few days ago. The news came that Turkey was invaded and started bombing a Kurdish position in northern Syria. And that was the day of our premiere. So that was a very overwhelming and intense piece of information that happened at the day we were showing the film for the first time.

[00:19:17.470] Kent Bye: So I'm curious to hear what each of you think in terms of the role of virtual reality and 360 filmmaking when it comes to covering these types of topics and what it means to sort of, you know, start to tell these stories that, you know, as you've been doing this through different mediums, what your experience was and then for you, Celine, what you see in the future for your own storytelling.

[00:19:37.583] Christian Stephen: So yeah, so I've been in the quote-unquote VR game for, I think it's coming on four years now, which absurdly enough makes me apparently a veteran, which is mad to think about. But no, it's interesting. You know, I went to, this is my second festival. The very first one I went to was called the Copenhagen International Film One, and that's where I took Welcome to Aleppo, which was the first VR in a war zone and all that. And I was asked to give a talk about how VR is the future of storytelling. And I wrote a very nice speech that was pre-approved by the company that I was working for at that moment, which was a VR company that will remain unnamed. And I got horrifically drunk the night before. And I sort of had a look in the mirror and then hungover the next morning just before my speech. I deleted the entire page or two and got up on stage and winged it and said that, you know, I don't think that VR is the future of storytelling for the work that I do. But that doesn't mean that it's not a vital part of storytelling. Because it doesn't make it the beginning and end of everything now that it's just been introduced or is in its infancy or adolescence now. It's another arrow in the quiver of tools that we have. We're telling stories around a fire. We can't focus on the fire. It's about what's being said, not about the way that we use a tool to say it. And I think a lot of the hyper-focus has been on the tools instead of the story. And that's why I think the piece that we've done here, that's close to my heart because it's It's a reclaiming of VR in a way to say, you know, it doesn't have to just be basically digital masturbation on look what we can do with this piece of technology. Like it can be used as a tool, which is what all filmmaking tools are for. And I think VR is a vital part of that. I don't think it is the beginning and end. I think something else will come along as well. But at this point, I think it's perfect for the story that we just told. And I think that in all humility, the way that we used it to tell that story was a perfect match.

[00:21:25.423] Kent Bye: And just to follow up on that, is that because a lot of the type of reporting that you have to do requires just doing off the record, no photos and just the logistics of having the VR camera in order to be kind of at the bleeding edge of action, there's kind of like a logistical overload with the bleeding edge technology that is kind of like would slow you down or would prevent you from building the trust to be able to get the story in the first place?

[00:21:48.154] Christian Stephen: Yeah, well, I mean, it comes down to, you know, especially on this trip, like when I did Aleppo, we had four GoPros on a 3D printed gimbal that I had to press record on individually. That's pretty difficult with barrel bombs coming down when you have to leave it, and snipers chasing you. Now this trip that we did, thank God we had Celine, because Celine's a master. And it wasn't a small camera, but for the story we wanted to tell, it was the right level of quality. And so it came down to, what we did was we were able to marry the experience that Dylan and I have of running in somewhere with a 2D camera or a notepad, which is how we work, So we would do that while Celine was figuring out what she needed that way, and then we would trade off. So it was sort of a tagging in, tagging out sort of way of working, which was perfect. So we built the trust. at expert speed, if I can be so bold, and then we would come in and get the shot that we need. But also, we wouldn't have got any of the stories from the women that we did, at a level that we did, unless Salim was the one in there with them, asking the questions. So we would set down the 360 camera, Salim would be sitting in the room and asking the questions. Because, put simply, as a man, I can't do that with that subject matter. But also, as somebody whose past is in 2D documentary and basically war photography, I also can't feel out quite yet the best way to pull that out for 360, whereas Celine was all over it.

[00:23:03.875] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm curious to hear your experience, because it sounds like this is really kind of pushing your skills to the limit and beyond. There's really a lot of growth opportunities for you to really push both technically, but also to kind of be in this intense context, but to deal with subject matter that was so intense. Just curious to hear a little bit more about your experience with all that.

[00:23:22.519] Celine Tricart: Yeah, it's funny, it's very different than any other project I've done before. I would say the most intense VR film I was a part of before The Sand Ladies was called Under the Canopy. I was a DP of which we spent one month in the Amazonian rainforest. And it was crazy weather, problem with the plane, so no food coming in, and camera issues, and long shot that would take two days to rig a shot. So that was my most intense experience before. So compared to that, the Sun Ladies was way less intense in terms of the environment, if I can say. It's not the right word, but it was a whole new level of just emotional intensity. Yeah, I mean, it was really hard to focus on my work while being a mess on the inside, emotionally. And that's something we just had to keep going. And day after day, I remember we actually had my birthday in Iraq. And it was the weirdest birthday ever. Driving back from the border with Syria where we met with the sand ladies and we actually went to a nice restaurant in Dohuk. And I'm a vegetarian but I ate a bunch of kebab that day to celebrate my birthday. It was just weird. I have a very blurry memory of my time in Iraq because of the weird state I was in. But thank God we had pretty good equipment. I was reliable. We used the Odyssey, the camera that was made collaboration between GoPro and Google, which is an excellent camera, excellent for especially for 3D. Like I said earlier, we have only six days to prepare the shoot and no money. So I'm very, very grateful to my friends at Google, Sarah Steele, Emily Price, that I really begged them to get us the camera because I knew the star we deserve the best. We thought about bringing a little GoPro rig or a little Samsung camera. I was like, I'm not going to Iraq with that. I mean, those cameras are great for certain things, but not for this project. And thank God, literally two days before the shoot, they got us the camera and I was able to fly to Iraq with a weird looking camera and a bunch of cable in my bag, which was an interesting experience at the airport too. But, yes.

[00:25:41.775] Kent Bye: So yeah, I'm curious what's next for each of you, and what type of projects or stories that you're chasing after now.

[00:25:49.139] Christian Stephen: Well, I'm leaving in a week to Bangladesh. And we'll be starting the story of the Rohingya crisis, the mass ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, which is criminally underreported. So it's sort of harkening back to my usual work that I do. But we're doing a full-length 2D, and we'll be doing some VR alongside that. But I mean, on the broader scale, our team for Sun Ladies, The way that we pulled this together, with any other people it wouldn't have worked. And the fact that we were able to do it means that we have a model that works. And I think that the team that we have together now is looking forward to doing projects after this and many more.

[00:26:22.123] Kent Bye: Yeah, and just to follow up on that, I just saw the Cleaners documentary, which was about the people who are in charge of deleting photos on social media that have been reported for either violence or harassment. But they talked about the Mohinga in that film in the sense of like the fake news, like we had some fake news here in the United States, but I guess in there and Myanmar, the fake news is kind of at another level of actually leading to genocide.

[00:26:46.405] Christian Stephen: I mean, it comes down to genocide is permissible via amnesia and via digital amnesia at that. And you find a despot or a government that doesn't want you to see their dirty laundry, they'll pay out the nose for a nice little warehouse somewhere where there are a bunch of servers and people who have no moral compass whatsoever. And so I think our role is to combat that. Literally, I mean, they are our antithesis. The people who would delete the truth with a keyboard. We have to sneak through borders and try and run through with strange cameras and try and make sure that people know that it is happening and it is present and it is a clear and present danger. And, you know, if we don't keep our eyes on it, it's already infected the United States and also, you know, places in Europe. You know, there's a melancholy and an amnesia and an ambivalence, but there's also a slow burning hatred. that's under sort of the breath of the planet at the moment, which comes down from media manipulation. And so, you know, I see it as our job to combat that to the best of our ability. You know, we need all the help we can get, but, you know, as long as we can, we will.

[00:27:47.292] Kent Bye: Right. And about you, Selene, what's next for you?

[00:27:50.467] Celine Tricart: A lot of projects in development that I can't really talk about but for me my focus, I just published my book on VR filmmaking which is great and it's also a sign for me to move on from purely technical occupation so I decided to not be a DP anymore and to really focus on my career as a director. So I have a couple of VR projects I'm very excited about coming up, and also traditional as well, feature, commercials. So I really want to refocus on storytelling, not rejecting my knowledge of the technical aspects of filmmaking. I think actually it's a great skill to have as a director. But VR, yes, traditional too, and hopefully a lot of new exciting projects.

[00:28:41.649] Christian Stephen: I would say, as an unsolicited opinion, if anyone is listening who is looking at getting into VR, is interested in VR, sees themselves having a career in VR, the first book you want to have is Celine's. It's the one-stop shop.

[00:28:55.976] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:29:05.661] Celine Tricart: The ultimate potential for virtual reality All right, I have yet to see a narrative VR experience that really blew my mind. And that makes me very sad because I'm a storyteller and I love VR. So I do believe that this medium is going to continue being successful in documentary, in the documentary field. And of course, games. Most of the people I know who own a VR headset without working in VR themselves are gamers who bought the PlayStation VR, for example, and are playing video games on it. So, I really hope we'll have a genius storyteller who will crack the code of narrative VR and that will really take it to the next level. I cannot wait for that, but in the meanwhile, I would focus on experiences which are the in-between gaming and filmmaking, or documentaries for virtual reality.

[00:30:03.219] Christian Stephen: Yeah, mine differs a little. I'm waiting for VR to be, you know, to be a way of combating isolation. But I think, you know, if we're really pushing forward into this sort of, you know, brave new world, I'll coin Huxley there, to pull ourselves out of the outer world and into an inner world, like, why can't the inner world be healing? And so my ideal place for VR would be that, you know, people can use that to heal trauma, to go through certain experiences, to build up their internal resolve, a way to not just set off your serotonin or your dopamine, but a way to really do some work on things that you wouldn't have been able to otherwise. And I think that the surround and the full experience of what VR was, is, and will become, it could be an incredibly powerful tool for helping people who are in great pain.

[00:30:49.114] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:30:54.007] Christian Stephen: I would plug you as probably one of the best interviewers I've ever talked to.

[00:30:58.533] Kent Bye: Wow. Thank you. I appreciate that.

[00:31:01.590] Celine Tricart: No, just again, like, kudos to the rest of the team. Maria Bella, who brought us all together, and she's been an activist her entire life, and if The Sun Ladies exists, the film exists, it's because of her. And Mark, our editor, Tim, our sound supervisor, the people at Framestore, I mean, we have so many great human beings, mix of women and men, who got passionate about the story and helped us deliver The Sun Ladies, so thank you to them.

[00:31:30.167] Christian Stephen: And I would say, again, I'm thinking that people who would listen to this are interested in the medium and probably getting into it as well. I would say that, you know, as somebody who fell into it accidentally, it's not difficult to fall into, but it is difficult to do unless you find people who are just as mad as you. And so my recommendation is, you know, not to be discouraged by, you know, how lofty it all seems or how, you know, it's not like watching a future noir film or something dystopian. Like, it's here, it's present, it's happening and it can be done. All that matters is, you know, you surround yourself with good people who are as passionate as you are and are willing to bleed into it and, you know, maybe you'll lose some money, maybe you'll break even. Maybe, you know, God will smile on you and you'll make five dollars. But, you know, if you really want to do this thing, it can be done.

[00:32:15.357] Kent Bye: Well, Christian and Salim, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast.

[00:32:19.318] Celine Tricart: Thank you. Thank you very much.

[00:32:21.648] Kent Bye: So that was Celine Tricart and Christian Stephen, and they were both producers and co-directors of The Some Ladies VR. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview, is that first of all, this is just an amazing story, and I look forward to it being released so that you can go watch it. But the backstory to me is also really fascinating, just the process of what it was like for them to go in to capture the story. So I think the team that they've aggregated, I think is key for even drawing the story out, both with Maria Bello, who is an activist and was able to kind of discover the story, but to then send these war journalists who are able to navigate this landscape, but also, you know, working with Celine to be able to actually shoot this piece. well as in the process of editing to be able to have the thought and innovation to say hey I need this shot of this war and conflict but you know they're not on the front lines and so they didn't have that shot and so they had to create a symbolic representation of that through using Wesley Albrook's quill illustration where she's actually animating different parts of the piece. And in order to make that a little bit more of a seamless transition, they have integrated this blending of spatial animation, which you can think of outlining the architecture of a landscape. So if you look at a landscape, your mind is kind of detecting the different edges. And they kind of went through and did this edge detection in a way that created this symbolic representation of these spaces. And then when they start to overlay the actual footage, then it was just a really amazing effect that I think worked really well as an innovation for VR storytelling. They were trying to solve a very specific problem of not being able to actually have access to combat footage, but in the end, they actually created something that would be way more cinematic and beautiful to really capture this warrior spirit of these Sun Ladies. I mean, the topic that they're talking about is super intense. I mean, these women have been through absolute hell being sex slaves and then escaping and then The key point that Selene was saying is that they didn't want to just do the normal depiction of women as a victim and not being able to have any impact or agency in their lives. And to not only do that for themselves, but to also create this fighting unit that is protecting other women, but also this other dimension of like ISIS's own belief that if they get killed by a woman that they go to hell. So there's so many fascinating different parts of the story that is a really powerful piece. And, you know, a thing that Christian also said is that it was really vital for Selene to be the one that was actually getting the story out of this woman. I mean, he's someone who is a war journalist, but in talking about these specific issues and these experiences, it was something that they just needed to have Selene one-on-one and doing these interviews, as well as being able to capture different shots of these women within their living quarters. So, Overall, it was interesting to hear Christian's perspective of how VR fits into the larger landscape of storytelling. And it's not like he's going to completely abandon all of his other methods of reporting because it's just not logistically possible to do what he does as a journalist and to always have a VR camera there. mainly because he said that VR camera looks like it's a bomb and so it actually makes you a target when you're in these different war zones and it's just not logistically possible to tell some of the same stories that they can tell and you know whenever you start to record somebody with a video camera that changes the context whenever you start to do it with a 360 degree camera there's a little bit of like less of an observer effect because you can kind of just put it there but still it you notice that impact of that there and there's a different quality of what you can do if you're just talking with somebody off the Record where they have to protect their location and identity and everything else the podcasting for me is great because I can get a different layer of the story and not have that pressure of people being on camera and actually makes it easier for them to have this deep conversation about these things and and and not feel pressured by the constraints of a video to have to kind of create different sound bites. We can really kind of dive deep into these different topics. And just the same, I think that the power of VR is that it kind of transports you to these other places in the world. And the first VR documentary from a war zone that Christian did called Welcome to Aleppo was really about transporting you to look at the devastation that's happened within Aleppo. the power of seeing what used to be these bustling streets to what is essentially this utterly devastated city has much more of an impact when you see that within a spatial virtual reality experience. And that, you know, one of the things that Celine said is that we're trying to still crack the narrative code within virtual reality. And if there's any one thread that I think is kind of continuing through the Voices of VR podcast, as well as, you know, expanding into the Voices of AI and other topics as well, is to try to figure out what that code is. And One of my preliminary conclusions is that in order to really create a framework for both designing stories and experiences, you kind of have to come up with a model of reality that describes all of reality, but also the human experience. And I think that's not an easy task, and I think that's part of the difficulty. And I think that any model that's an experiential design framework has to have some sort of trade-offs between you adding one thing in and taking something away. So I think just starting with presence, my elemental theory of presence, it talks about the different dimensions of the active presence and social mental presence. That's the ways of you both making choices and taking action within an experience and that includes much more of the game components of virtual reality. And then the more cinematic side is thinking about the story, narrative, character, plot, and that's more of the emotional presence. And then the environmental presence and embodied presence is transporting you both to another place and making you feel like you're in another world, but also giving you some sort of first person embodiment. And I think in terms of storytelling with each of those different dimensions of presence, there's different types of storytelling that is really Afforded to that and this is what I'll be sort of diving much more deeper into into the voices of AI this week I'll be releasing a number of different interviews that are looking at artificial intelligence in order to create these higher level models for interactive narratives because there's a bit of like intelligence within the system that has to be able to respond to people but And talking to Michael Matias, one of the things that he said is that there's a number of different types of storytelling that he sees. There's emergent storytelling, which is much more about high agency and more of an improv or LARPing, and that is much more into the active presence. And then there's social simulations as well as collaborative storytelling, whether that's from Dungeons and Dragons or improv or LARPing in terms of being related to other people and telling stories. as well as a choice-based narrative. So, you know, choose your own adventure and being able to actually have branching narratives and different forks that you're making choices and then that you're being taken through different paths of the narrative. And then there's the typical stories and cinematic VR and character-driven and finally the environmental storytelling as well as storytelling that happens from you being able to actually embody the different characters. And so that's something that I think VRChat is being able to explore a lot of in both exploring different environments, but also the process of you telling the story through the environment. A lot of immersive theater is doing that as well. So I think if you start to combine game design principles and storytelling principles, as well as immersive theater principles, and what's happening in both virtual and augmented reality, as well as artificial intelligence, what I'm seeing is that there's all these different patterns between all these different domains. And then even pulling in, you know, math and science and philosophy and all these other things. So for me, I think cracking the narrative code as, you know, one of the holy grails of both virtual and augmented reality. And that by doing that within these experiences starts to allow you to participate in your life in a different way. And this interview that I did with John Booker about the connections between depth psychology and storytelling and virtual reality. and episode 613 starts to get into that as well. So I think there's a bit of like this dream of the holodeck such that you can go into the holodeck and have these experiences that are very customized to you. And I think another holy grail within this whole trajectory is this idea of personalized narrative, a narrative that is very specific to you, what you're going through, what you need, and what type of experiences that you want to have. And so you know, having a model for how to even approach or do that, I think is sort of the work of these immersive technologies of where things are going to go in the far distant future. But for right now, we're just looking at these different higher level qualities of experience that you can have within virtual reality. So that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, there's a couple things you can do. First of all, just spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member to the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, so I do rely upon your donations and membership in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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