#1045: Process of Shooting a Feature-Length Documentary in VRChat: Director Joe Hunting on “We Met in Virtual Reality” Premiering at Sundance

joe-huntingWe Met in Virtual Reality is feature-length documentary by Joe Hunting premiering today at the Sundance film festival. It follows five different protagonists (2 couples in long distance relationships and a sign language teacher) throughout the course of a year in their various travels and relationships within VRChat. It starts to show the types of full-body tracked & embodied interactions that are happening within social VR as an observational, cinéma vérité documentary, but it also tells the stories of these five protagonists lives in a very real and humanizing way.

I had a spoiler-free chat with director Hunting about his process of fully immersing himself into VR that he did for nearly two years of making he previous three short film projects in VRChat (A Wider Screen (2019), Club Zodiac (2020), & Virtually Speaking (2020)).

Individual tickets for the screening of We Met in Virtual Reality for the 2p PST world premiere today (January 21), and all day January 23rd are still available for $20. And stay tuned to Hunting’s @Joeahunting or @WeMetinVRfilm Twitter accounts for more details of future screenings, including within VRChat itself.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality


Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So it's day two of the Sundance Film Festival, and I'm continuing to do a lot of different interviews with creators from the Sundance New Frontier. But there's also a film that's featured within the Sundance World Cinema Documentary competition called We Met in Virtual Reality. It's a feature-length documentary that's shot entirely within VRChat by Joe Hunting. I had a chance to have an early look at this documentary and have a chat with Joe Hunting. I was really curious about his process of how he immersed himself within virtual reality for an entire year and what it was like to be able to create this documentary and how the processes are different and similar than creating a documentary within the physical world. So, there's nothing in this interview that is going to spoil anything that's in the documentary. However, we do talk generally about some of the different characters and themes. So, if you would like to just go in completely fresh, I'd highly recommend getting some tickets. There's two screenings on January 21st and January 23rd, and go check it out. It's really well done, and I think it'll start to give a sense of what is happening in this full-body tracked social VR world, like VRChat. But the journey that Joe went on is pretty fascinating. So I think just listening to this conversation will also just give some general background before you check it out. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Joe happened on Friday, January 14, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:42.604] Joe Hunting: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on, Kent. It is a pleasure to be on the podcast. My name is Joe Hunting. I am a filmmaker and photographer working in social VR. And I've been focused on telling documentary stories through film inside a platform called VRChat for the past three years, since around the summer of 2018. And Most recently, I have just finished my first feature film called We Met in Virtual Reality, which is premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance Film Festival 2022 in January, which I'm currently preparing for. I'm in a flurry to get over there and celebrate. And We Met in Virtual Reality is a documentary filmed entirely inside of social VR and inside VRChat, which I'm sure that we're going to dig into very soon. But there's a quick me in a nutshell.

[00:02:39.715] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah. And maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.

[00:02:44.923] Joe Hunting: Sure. Well, I got into VR through my interest in documentary and through wanting to kind of jump straight into film, I think, funnily enough. But it's worth mentioning probably straight away that I've always been a gamer through my teenage years. I was always interested and loved gaming and online communities. And I had a lot of online friendships when I was growing up. And so I think naturally I had an interest in VR just from an entertainment standpoint. And it was in 2018 that I discovered VRChat and the realm of social VR and actually connecting with people physically through spaces and in a headset and through immersive online worlds. That really sparked my interest. That was so exciting for me. And that was really the catalyst. I think that got me my first headset and got me interested in filmmaking and brought me into the space. And that was in summer of 2018, as I mentioned. Yeah.

[00:03:42.758] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think we met in VRChat as part of Raindance. It was, I guess, a year ago now. We were both on the jury for looking at the different worlds. And I know you were helping to guide us through different experiences. So that was a lot of fun just to kind of get more into the VRChat scene and what was happening there. And I think at the same time, I don't know if it was at Raindance that was also showing the virtual speaking. Is that right? had a number of different films, short films, I think a series of 11, nine to 10 minute films that on aggregate is around 90 minutes or so that you had been producing. So maybe you could tell me a little bit about how that project of Virtually Speaking came about.

[00:04:22.498] Joe Hunting: Well, yeah, that's right. I remember our meeting at Braindance. Those good memories. That was a really pivotal time for me. Virtually Speaking was my first commissioned project. It was a series that was first written in late 2019, and we filmed it in the beginning of 2020. So throughout the first lockdown, And the series is an 11-episode series presenting funny, whimsical documentary conversations with people in VR represented by their avatars, covering different subjects of love, lockdown, and how everyone was feeling about lockdown, and people's thoughts on animals as well. And it's a kind of fun, light, playful show that was created in partnership with a streaming platform called Discover Film. And that was my first full-time project as a VR filmmaker. And it became quite an important project certainly throughout COVID. And yeah, I loved it. Great memories making that show. It was a lot of fun. It was my first time doing something comedic and episodic as well. So really enjoyed virtually speaking.

[00:05:37.266] Kent Bye: So had you made other films before virtually speaking then? Because you said it was your first one. So what were some of the other projects that you'd work on before you started making stuff in VR?

[00:05:46.465] Joe Hunting: Well, prior to virtually speaking, I made two short films, A Wider Screen and Club Zodiac, and both of those are short documentaries. Exploring A Wider Screen was exploring my first interest into what I was researching with the kind of profound experience of social VR and looking at gender and sexuality and avatar embodiment and how being in VR can affect the way we see ourselves and find relationships with other people and grow different facets of our personalities. And Club Zodiac is more of a portrait of a dancing community. It's about Club Zodiac, which is an exotic dance club. in VRChat. So I made those two short films over 2018 to the end of 2019, and they're really my first experiments in VRChat filmmaking. Prior to that, going back into my real life filmmaking days, I come from a world of art film, and I studied art and media and film at college and at university and made a lot of experimental documentaries. Mostly they were very personal outlets for my own feelings and were kind of formed by scraps of home video materials and travel photography and travel videos that I took and were really just kind of expressions for my own memory and experience. So they didn't have a lot of narrative and other characters aside from fleeting moments. So when it came to my VRChat filmmaking, that was really my first time working with subjects directly and crafting narrative and really crafting a story out of my films. Now that's where I come from, from a real standpoint.

[00:07:37.337] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah. And I just had a chance to watch through all the different virtualist speaking. And then, you know, I've had a chance to see a sneak preview of We Met in virtual reality. And so there's certainly a stylistic difference, I'd say, just between those two in terms of how you're shooting it. And so probably the most significant is the more cinema verite style of the handheld cameras that you have a lot more. And also just, you know, I don't know if it's the upgrade of VR chat or your rig, but the, even the world see much more rich and full And, you know, we met in virtual reality versus, you know, some of the different scenes. So I don't know if those, those scenes that were shot. So maybe you just talk about the evolution from what you learned from virtually speaking, and then what you wanted to do differently in terms of either the structure or how you were going to tell a larger story of what you ended up with, with we met in virtual reality.

[00:08:26.297] Joe Hunting: Oh, yeah, I think the attitude with going from something light, comedic and quite formulaic in its storytelling structure, as virtually speaking, into a feature film, which I kind of had bubbling in me for a long time. It was very different. And the biggest difference between virtually speaking and we met in virtual reality was definitely a camera that came out, you know, in between those times. I was very fortunate that when I wrapped on the series, virtually speaking, a camera came out by a really talented creator in the VRChat community called Hirabiki. released a camera called VRC Lens, which is essentially a cinema camera that can do anything and everything that a physical cinema camera can do. It can change lenses, it can fly as a drone, it can rack focus, you can have peaking and zebra on, so you can monitor your exposure and focus and depth of field, and it can do everything that I really wanted to exploit and use to tell a story in a way that would be on par with a real documentary and feel real. And when that camera came out, it was obvious to me that I just dropped, I dropped everything and decided this is the right time to make something longer form and really investigate the curiosities that I was having with VRChat with my short films and even with Virtually Speaking, you know, I felt like I could do that in a holistic and really cinematic way and definitely, you know, used cinema verite techniques to going into that process. I think also Virtually Speaking was my first project that I filmed with myself in VR completely. My two short films prior to that, I actually filmed on desktop. So I wasn't in VR or it was kind of a mix. I was in VR sometimes. But I spent most of the time actually composing and framing just on my desktop, so I was not in VR. And being in VR, being present with your cast and your talent and looking over your camera monitor and seeing them on the other side and listening wholly to their movement, not just with what they're saying, was really a profound moment for me during the production of Virtually Speaking. And I definitely leaned into that going into We Met in Virtual Reality. with shooting handheld with the camera that I just mentioned, and really listening and being present with the subjects and the communities that I was collaborating with to tell stories for the feature documentary. You know, that changed a lot of my attitude when it came to structuring a film and reacting to situations instead of crafting them myself, as well as writing moments that I felt a cast could respond to and creating moments that would create spontaneous action instead of really directing something specifically. And just letting the camera tell the story organically through movement and ambience as well. I think my feelings is just going into a new form of production.

[00:11:40.367] Kent Bye: No, that's all really helpful because, you know, it really hasn't been like a full length movie made in VR chat like this or virtual worlds. I mean, I'm sure there are, but they, and other virtual worlds, but they still have that feeling of looking into a portal, into a virtual space. And we're very well conditioned into having that rendered CGI look of lots of different virtual worlds, but actually have that embodied cinematographer that you're doing with the shots. I think it, it gives a deeper sense of making me feel like it was in that virtual space rather than looking at it through a portal or from afar.

[00:12:14.779] Joe Hunting: Oh gosh, yeah. I'm so pleased you felt that. That was the most distinct difference in direction for We Met in virtual reality. It was really important to me to represent the communities and the people of VR from inside it and speak from the place rather than from the outside looking in. There's so many internet documentaries and tech documentaries and even films about gaming communities that, in my perspective, coming from a place of being in gaming communities and online, they always felt like they were on the outside looking in. you know, I could mention Life 2.0, which came out a day to go, and it's about Second Life. And although there are scenes there which kind of are fleeting, moving through Second Life, you don't feel present there at all. And I remember seeing that film and being frustrated at the time, because, you know, it didn't represent the world that I was interested in, and in the way that I was experiencing it. And after two years of, you know, working with communities and playing around and making films in VR prior to the feature, I knew how important it was to make a film that would speak to the people who were there and would represent the place in a realistic and full way. And the only way to do that was to, you know, spend a year kind of living in communities. I essentially lived in VR for a year and immersed myself completely into the culture and around eight different communities and spoke with hundreds of people about their experiences. And that was quite exhausting. But it was also a huge journey of meeting people from all around the world. And, you know, fortunately, meeting some people that their stories really connected to not just the experience of VR, but I think everyone in the world and have stories that are very relatable, speaking to the lead cast of We Men Virtual Reality. But yeah, to follow up on your point, that was really a solid direction for the feature was to ground people in the world and to have a very distinct camera presence as well.

[00:14:25.472] Kent Bye: Yeah. It sounds like this camera coming out was really a turning point where you're like, it opens up all sorts of new aesthetic choices, but giving that deeper sense of presence. And so you mentioned that you were following eight communities, but also that you were embedded into VR for that whole year. And I remember running into you a number of different times when you were pretty much shooting every day within a VR chat. So maybe like, just talk about your typical day of shooting in VR. Like what would your day look like?

[00:14:54.115] Joe Hunting: Oh, gosh. Yeah, I wonder. I hope this answer, I mean, doesn't embarrass me or maybe lose respect because one could call me a hermit. But that's a misconception. I was with people every day. I was probably one of the most social years of my life because I was with people constantly just in VR and embodied in that world. So a typical day for me during the production, I Being on UK time, being on GMT, I would wake up in my morning and usually edit scenes that I filmed the previous night from maybe 10 p.m. till 3 a.m. with mostly people in the States and then review kind of the moment that I captured and think about how that could play a role in a story or if that could be something that would connect to other stories and what I was capturing. And then I would go location scouting almost every day. I would go location scouting because new worlds are uploaded to VRChat every day. And I wanted to always use worlds and locations to tell a story and really exploit environmental storytelling. and create an ambience around the moments I felt the subjects were in and they found themselves in. So I would spend maybe about two hours each day just exploring worlds and doing test shoots with myself, you know, taking photographs and positioning different scenes and then just creating a log of emotions that I felt I could tap into if I ever needed and kind of just creating a space that if there was a moment I wanted to bring someone into for a conversation and to open a certain emotion in them. I could take them somewhere and we could have that conversation in that space and let the space actually do a lot more of the talking for them. So they don't have to give a whole part of themselves, but actually the environment would do a lot of the talking for them. So a lot of my time was spent location scouting, and then I would be writing shoot plans as well. My shoot plans are always very loose. I would write, you know, a lot of content and questions and feelings that I had about whoever I was filming with. And then I'd probably use maybe 50% of my direction and my notes because it was always a reaction. And I think listening to the people you're speaking to is much more valuable than just reading the questions that you have on paper. But still, I always knew what I wanted to get when I was going into situations and moments. And then the VR community is, a lot of them are based in the US, so I would be filming from the hours of 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. sometimes, which was exhausting, but I got used to it in the end. So this is the hermit piece of my day where I would be in VR all night, spending time talking to people and traveling across VR chat and the different community with my camera and capturing my own experience. I want to mention this might be a good time to preface this. Everyone I was filming with, they knew the full context of what I was doing. And I was always very honest with what I was creating. But at the same time, I was experimenting and developing and learning myself as I was going and trying to understand the film that I was trying to make. So I was very fortunate to have so many generous people give up their time to come and speak to me and understand what I was trying to do and I'm lucky that so many people were just so excited to tell their stories and help represent what this experience is and what VR means to them because it's for so many people and specifically the people I was looking out for and targeting, you know, VR means so much to them. And so there was a lot of trust and honesty constantly throughout the production. And I filmed with so many people that unfortunately I had to tell a lot of people that they weren't, they didn't make it into the final picture, which was also a tough discussion, but everyone's been so understanding and the lead cast that appear in We Met in Virtual Reality, They're all incredible people, and I'm very lucky to have bumped into all of them. Only one of them I actually wrote into the film. Everyone else seen in the documentary I met whilst in production, just organically through traveling. Yeah, okay. That's my day in a nutshell and tangents.

[00:19:14.403] Kent Bye: Yeah, because whenever I would run into you, I'm here in the United States in Pacific Coast time, so I'd often run into you in VR chat. And I remember there was a moment when you said, oh, I know what my story is now. You had been, at that point, probably shooting for well over a year or so. And so it took, I think, a time for you to find what those narratives were. The film that you produced is tracking five different characters. So maybe you could describe where you landed in terms of the main arc of the story that you're trying to tell in this film.

[00:19:41.632] Joe Hunting: Yeah, of course. Well, yes, the film follows five protagonists, essentially. It follows two long distance couples who were growing their relationships inside VR throughout the pandemic because they were unable to meet during COVID because of the travel restrictions. And they were growing their relationships at that time and preparing to meet physically for the first and second time. and the other protagonist is a sign language teacher in the Helping Hands community who is committed to building a welcoming and supportive learning environment for deaf and hard of hearing VR users. So that's a quick overview of who the film follows and to go into detail, I met Jenny the American Sign Language teacher whilst making Virtually Speaking. She appears in the final episode of the show and was a huge inspiration to me in the way that she was so committed to teaching and had such a warm and welcoming aura that I think everyone in the Helping Hands Deaf and Hard of Hearing community has so much respect for. And she also has this iconic pink hair that I really wanted to use as like, you know, a visual icon in a documentary. And thankfully, she has been an amazing support in the film and contributor. And we had many, many conversations kind of exploring her identity and teaching career in the Helping Hands community from December of 2020 till the end of production, which was around October 2021, so a year. The others I met actually much later in production, after New Year's. Dust Bunny and Toaster, who are one of the long-distance couples, I saw Dust Bunny dance, they're both dancers, and I saw Dust Bunny dance in an international dancers' association dance battle. And the International Dancers Association are a dance community in VR focused on gathering people for dance battles and events to help build and encourage dance and very free expression in VR. And all of them have full body tracking, of course, and are actually dancing. I saw Dust Bunny dance at a dance battle and kind of shortly after reached out to her and discovered that she does belly dance and was trying to build this community around belly dance, and that was so exciting and it was clear to me that she was so driven to do that and it was a clear story for me in following her journey in trying to do that. That was my first feelings with Dust Bunny, and that was really exciting, I think, for both of us. And I wanted to help her on that mission. And then she introduced me to her partner, Toaster, and the moment that they were in with their relationship and the pandemic and that struggle, which I think was relatable for so many people. And we had a long conversation that is featured in the documentary that I think spoke so much truth in using VR as a way of being together during hard time, but also sharing the context of her dance. And they met through dance and she's trying to build this dance community as well. And there was just a lot of expression and emotion built into that moment, which was really telling to me. So I'm very grateful that we bumped into each other. And finally, Dragonheart and Is Your Boy, the other long distance couple featuring in the documentary. I knew I wanted to return to Club Zodiac, which is the community I made a short documentary with in 2019. Everyone there is so supportive of each other and it's a very clear and distinct community that I knew I wanted to take more time to really tell and explore so people could really see a different context in VR in a more truthful way because it is an exotic dance community and there's a lot of stigmas around exotic dance communities in VR naturally and all the questions come up. And I walked into Club Zodiac just to go see the show, you know, after, in the beginning of the feature production. And the first person who ran up to me was this tiny dragon who I knew from making the short, Dragonheart, and immediately just screamed at me, welcomed me back into the club. And we had a long conversation in a bar, playing pool. I had a few drinks and I got to know Dragonheart's partner, Boy Is Your Boy, who's also a dancer in the community. And, you know, similar to Dust Bunny and Toaster, they were in a moment where they couldn't meet. And, you know, we're planning to meet physically, but kept being delayed. And we're in this context of, you know, an exotic dance community. So these three moments in these three stories, I think, spoke to me in the film that I wanted to tell, because I knew audiences outside could feel what they were feeling and everyone is such good speakers, and they speak so well about their moments in their lives and have such strong voices that it was obvious to me that I'd really found. my stories there and really found the people and many of them actually have experience in film themselves. So understood the context of the documentary and what I was trying to create and excited to be a part of it. So they are the protagonists of the film, but the film also kind of goes off on other conversations and tangents from other people in VR. For example, the Better Together VR crew, who are a friend group and team of VR developers themselves, who share some very valuable context in the use of avatars in how it can reflect our gender and sexuality, which was an important message I wanted to include. And members of the Prefabs community as well, to kind of highlight the world builders that exist in the space and where the worlds come from in a kind of subtle way. So that is the protagonist of the film in a nutshell. I could go on, but I will stop myself from going on because I love them all to death. And I could just go off on a big spree, but I will restrict myself.

[00:26:09.678] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the thing that was striking about going back and watching the virtually speaking and having already watched the event in virtual reality was how much each of those characters and their journeys have a sense of embodiment within the virtual space, but also they're in relationship to other people who are embodied in different ways. I think it's probably worth mentioning that within VRChat, you can be in VRChat with just your hand track controllers in your head, but oftentimes a lot of the people that are featured in this film at least have full body tracking where they're actually tracking their feet. And you have this sense of full embodiment that I think is distinctly different than there's actually a lot of people that were in virtually speaking that were fully embodied, but they're just essentially standing there in groups of people talking to you about different ideas. And it's more about explorations of different contexts and how the virtual context is different, or just more about their own lives, about their past and their history. And so it's more about learning about them as individuals, but in an episodic way. And I feel like in this, we met in virtual reality, you're able to focus on these different characters to trace their own arc of their own stories, but also within the context of these scenes that are very embodied, that give you a sense of the wide spectrum of different types of things that are happening within VRChat. You sort of give a slice into a world that will likely be completely new for people. But for me, one of the more striking things was to really document the type of full body avatar interactions that are happening and how much that adds when it comes to communication in these virtual environments.

[00:27:41.875] Joe Hunting: Yeah, I really enjoy treading the line of telling a story about just someone's life, you know, a character portrait of someone that is very real. And, you know, one could say some of the stories that we follow are just very simple stories that you could watch in a physical documentary. But the line of seeing it through VRChat's eyes and in this virtual setting and they're in these wild contexts that no one has ever seen before, suddenly, you know, makes their life experience and their life stories so much richer and more fascinating. But I never wanted to explicitly say what their VR worlds and lives were like. It's more of the kind of the observational moments that the film does that for them. And they speak, just come from a place of truth and experience. of more so their struggles in their moments in life. And the film will tell their VR stories just organically through the moments of their dance and teaching, you know, for Jenny. but I do really enjoy treading the line of truth in telling kind of two stories at the same time, one being their virtual personas and the other being their real lives and, you know, creating a mystery in their real lives, but keeping that kind of icon of their virtual avatars. It's a really fun and new and exciting way of getting to know someone and getting to know a story and understanding a context of a person. And I definitely will continue to, you know, use that mystery and that uncanny experience of watching someone in a full body avatar in my next productions as well.

[00:29:34.522] Kent Bye: Yeah. Just even thinking about the language around the virtual and the real, it's almost like their real lives and virtual space and their real lives and physical space. And how those two are colliding in different ways because what I get from this is a lot of these relationships are, you know, for them to be developing those very real relationships in a virtual context, but then able to meet up in a physical context and how there is a continuity there between. you know, because there's a lot of things that have happening in online dating for a long time, but there's something about being immersed into a virtual space that I think changes the quality of romantic connections, which I think you're kind of starting to document in some ways here. And I don't know if you saw similar type of patterns there.

[00:30:15.935] Joe Hunting: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I completely agree as well on the nature of it being, you know, a versus of virtual and physical rather than virtual and real. For me, for example, and I think for everyone I filmed with in the documentary, real lives are so associated with our experience in VR. You know, I'm a filmmaker whose full-time position has been in VR and that really has brought me a lot of meaning to my real life experience, which I think is quite profound. And putting on a headset and putting on my full body gear to go into an event or a meeting or to go and film, you know, is second nature. And it just feels like I'm going to the other place, the other world, the other reality that, you know, I spent a lot of time in. And now I've forgotten what our question was.

[00:31:04.692] Kent Bye: The romantic aspect is sort of like- Yes, yes.

[00:31:07.974] Joe Hunting: That's always been something I've wanted to explore. Absolutely. I think my first film really investigated the intimacy and the intimate relationships that we can find in a virtual setting or in VR chat specifically. And I think I'm interested in relationships because you're getting to know, and this is a point that is raised in We Met in Virtual Reality, you're getting to know someone in such a pure-hearted way. You're speaking to them, just their pure voice, their pure soul. Obviously, you're seeing their movement and you're listening to their body, if they're in full body tracking, you know, even more so. but you're not seeing the full physical representation of that person, you're seeing an expression of their personality and listening to their voice and I think it's such a unique and special way of getting to know someone that's always been something I've really been passionate about and intrigued by as well. So yeah, that experience, I think it's just so terribly unique that I've been desperate to share it and actually just take the time to really sit in those moments with people. And that is something that I wanted to do with the feature film. Through trust and a really honest relationship with the people I was filming with, I was fortunate enough to find moments that I think really represent that for people who've never tried VR and really don't know about what that experience is like to be with someone and to really see them in that unique way.

[00:32:43.265] Kent Bye: Yeah. You mentioned that there was eight different communities and you mentioned a number of them, but I'm just wondering if you'd chronologically go through the ones that you started with, if you like started with like the prefabs community or where you started and then how you started to track some of the other communities, because some of the communities that are being featured in some of the communities that you tracked may not be featured as much like the international dance associations example. So maybe you could just go through the chronology of the different communities that you were tracking throughout your year of production.

[00:33:10.915] Joe Hunting: Oh yeah, sure. Yeah. I'd be happy to. It's worth mentioning, first of all, I was filming in the communities all at the same time, because thankfully in VR, I don't have to travel to different places. It takes me a second to jump from one world to another. So I could easily just jump into one community space and catch up with people there and then hop into another one. And, you know, I'm kind of filming two contexts at the same time and just being mindful of that was something that I definitely exploited and took advantage of because I could and VR has a benefit in that way, absolutely. But to go just chronologically for the sake of convenience, the first community I filmed with was Helping Hands, which is the deaf and sign language community in which we find Jenny. And Jenny gives a really beautiful explanation of that in We Met in Virtual Reality. Following Helping Hands, I filmed with the Community Meetup and Prefabs, which are both kind of world creation-led communities and creative-led communities. International Dancers Association, which I mentioned I met Dust Bunny through. Loner and Shelter, which are both clubbing music communities. Ghost Club, which actually has an appearance in the documentary. And Club Zodiac, of course. And I filmed with not just Club Zodiac, but a few other exotic dance communities that didn't make an appearance in the documentary. I kind of went through various different clubs for that piece. And then, oh, the Dragon Clan, which is Dragonheart and is your boy's own kind of family community. They make an appearance in the film, and they're kind of this, they're a wild family, very much from the club Zodiac, exotic dance space, and Dragonheart is your boy, the Dragon Queen and King of the Dragon Clan, so kind of medieval fantasy community, which you'll see in the documentary. And I am struggling to remember the other communities that I filmed with. They're a lot smaller, but I would say those were the big ones that I stuck with. Yeah. So it's Helping Hands, Community Meetup, Prefabs, Loner and Shelter, Ghost Club, Club Zodiac, and the Dragon Clan.

[00:35:25.498] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah. And so would your process be that you would basically just be in VR all the time and just, because in VRChat you can have private instances and then you can have public instances and you have different status as to whether or not you can join on people or not. And so you are in some ways a documentarian in almost like a press journalist type of context for some people. you may not want to be jumping into someone's private interactions. And so I don't know if you would have a way of dropping in with people or you would schedule ahead of time or you would just more, you know, have more frequent check-ins just because you were there pretty much every day.

[00:36:01.842] Joe Hunting: Right. Yeah. I'd say almost all of the interviews appearing in the documentary, but most of the films, most of the interviews that I did whilst in production, I scheduled. So typically I would investigate a community and just try to get to know people organically, not throw myself onto anyone immediately. You know, I always wanted to build a relationship with someone prior to telling them that I'm working on this documentary and I want to speak to them for it. You know, I never wanted to alarm anyone because it can be quite alarming for people to share some details a lot of the time. So I would try to kind of immerse myself into a community and understand the context before investigating. And then I would just reach out to people who I felt I could chat to, that I felt had a strong voice in speaking about VR and speaking about things happening in their physical lives as well and would be comfortable to do so. And we would arrange to meet in a private world and I would direct them into a world that I felt was reflective of their character and reflective of their avatar and how their avatar relates to a space was usually what pushed the decision to select a world in the earlier interviews, in the first interviews with anyone. And we would speak for maybe an hour, two hours. The first interview I did with Dragonheart and It's Your Boy, we filmed for actually four hours for a crazy reason. I think we just were getting on a bit too well, but ended up being a conversation that is a very important one in the documentary. So yeah, fluctuated in terms of times, but yeah, we're lucky that VRChat allows private instances because it meant we had, you know, I had full control over a scene and, you know, could construct a moment that was, you know, we were in control of. But then the spontaneity of public worlds and filming events and capturing events, you know, for example, New Year's is a huge scene in the film and there's so many moments which are hilarious in the documentary as well as kind of the more intimate conversations. So it's a mix of both.

[00:38:03.732] Kent Bye: Yeah, I was really struck when you said that you would spend up to two hours a day kind of scouting of different places and, you know, world hopping and trying to see your own emotional reaction. And so as you reflect back on the film of what made the cut, what would you say, what percentage of those scenes that were shot were worlds that you had discovered and directed people versus where people had their own connection to and that they were hanging out on their own that they took you to?

[00:38:30.609] Joe Hunting: Oh, that's a great question that I haven't fully considered myself. I think in terms of the worlds that appear in the documentary, I actually think, although I've done so much location scouting, it would be maybe 50% because I realised whilst editing, actually more so or towards the later half of production, that I really wanted to tell the stories will tell the story of the film, in a whole sense, through the events and through the truth of observational moments that, you know, the lead cast have found themselves in. For example, we meet Jenny teaching in her class and, you know, I didn't find the world for her teaching, that is the helping hands classroom world. And it's your boy, and Dragonheart who meet dancing in Club Zodiac, which is the Club Zodiac dance world. And many of the others we meet and get to know in their own contexts. Dust Bunny and Toast we meet at a party and they have their Friday night party, which is always the same world. So I think when it comes to the interviews and the intimate moments in the film, and the conversations, the kind of more talking head moments, those are worlds that I scouted and found. So I'd say it's actually a 50%, but I have countless hours of me running around different worlds in my little backpack avatar as Poe, as I am coined in VR, trying to craft moments, but I don't regret any time that was spent doing that. It made me, you know, just sometimes driving in a world and considering the moments that I was finding myself in was really helpful in just understanding what I wanted to tell and where I wanted to take each of the characters. There are some very iconic worlds. I hope that people will find them iconic in the film. There's a dance sequence, which I choreographed and very intricately and carefully directed, which I probably spent the most time location scouting for. Yeah, so there's kind of a mix in observational and more poetic moments, which required much more attention to space and detail.

[00:40:38.842] Kent Bye: I mean, there's so much about what's happening in the VR chat that there is a lot of, you know, what's typically called in the film circles B-roll or shots that are helping to set the larger context of the space. And I think a lot of the shots that you were taking from exploring these different communities, but you give a sense of the world outside of any individual interactions, you know, kind of these montage sequences that are allow you to kind of transition into the different scenes that are more one of the five protagonists. But I guess what I'm curious as somebody else who's been documenting VR through the context of conversations is that you're sitting on quite an interesting repository of documentary footage that is just documenting this time, six to eight hours a day that you were and VR and how much ever that is that you're recording, you've got terabytes of data. And so I'm wondering if you've thought about if there's other stories that you feel like you could continue to tell with stuff that you've already captured or just even to start to do like environmental recounts of the different worlds and stuff that more of the cultural aspects of to comment on the larger cultural dynamics that are happening within these virtual spaces above and beyond the individual stories. And if you feel like there's going to be ways that you could build upon this archive of footage that you've captured or you've extracted out the we met virtual reality and then whatever you do is going to maybe start from scratch.

[00:42:05.705] Joe Hunting: Yes, and I've definitely caught a piece of history. And I think it's an important piece of history in COVID as well. You know, the first lockdown, I think, brought so much attention to VR in the last year. So I do feel like I've captured a moment that is important. I have considered that question, and I definitely have stories that I'd like to return to. I think in this current moment, I'm tunnel vision on just getting We Met in Virtual Reality out there and making sure that gets out in the world safely and we can bring it to eyes as soon as possible. And then I might consider returning and digging through the moments that are not in the film and potentially creating something that is more of an extended cut or even a completely separate piece that just is a capture, a time capsule of that time in a much more ambient way. But I cannot say anything for certain yet. And obviously there's a responsibility as a documentarian to keep an ethical mind in using people's appearances. in something that is quite outdated now. So, you know, I'd have to speak to the many people that I filmed with over that time and see how they would feel. And that's really important to me as well. But it's there. I still have it with me. And I think there is a lot of moments that are not in the film, which speak a lot to me, certainly. One kind of ambient space that I think is so much fun and I filmed a lot at, which I actually haven't mentioned yet, is Poppy Street which is a Japanese street or it's a world in VRChat which is home to Japanese community who go drinking all the time every evening and it's where the documentary opens on this street and it's a very short short scene in the documentary, but I actually filmed there for days with the Japanese community, drinking and having fun. I don't speak Japanese myself, and so it was a really interesting experience for me, kind of dropping myself into that world and and capturing moments and then kind of speaking to those, the people who were captured afterwards about their appearances and, you know, getting translators involved. But there's some moments on that street which, yeah, feel like a moment in history because of the absurdity of what happens on that drinking street. So there, yeah, there's a lot of moments I could return to, but I can't say anything for certain yet. But I can say for certain that I'm interested in making another documentary piece of work. or something that is a hybrid between scripted and documentary, something that is a bit more experimental. I'm always interested in pushing ideas that inspire me and going for something that's more playful rather than something that's safe. So I'm currently writing something that is a hybrid between something that's documentary focused and scripted. which I'm really excited about, but I don't want to say too much yet because it may change during the release of We Met in Virtual Reality, but there's a lot of scope now with the camera and the talented, creative community that I've managed to get to know, and I can call friends to make something that is more scripted and very high production value, in my opinion. Yeah, so there's definitely a lot of opportunity in that. I'll end on this note, because I know I'm being vague. VR evolves so quickly, social VR and VR chat specifically. So, so much of my footage I feel is so different now to what the space is now. You know, the communities that I filmed with have all grown, they all have new worlds. they have new members in the communities. Some of the regulars have dropped off and there's new regulars in those communities. And so the portrait of those communities, I feel is already outdated, even though it's just been a year. So going from scratch and building something about the existing space, I think would actually look quite different from what I filmed during 2020. But that's also interesting. You know, that's also a piece of history. So, yeah, interesting.

[00:46:14.482] Kent Bye: I run into a lot of that as well in terms of having recorded 1600 interviews and publish a thousand, you know, there's, but yeah, I guess it's just a few more questions to start to wrap up here. So you spent an entire year in virtual reality and what has that done in terms of your own memories? Like what's it been like for you to kind of recount and reflect upon the nature of your own memories of this dichotomy between the physical reality and the virtual reality?

[00:46:44.723] Joe Hunting: Right, yeah, I think that's a great question. After spending a year, well really, you know, two years because I was making Virtually Speaking ahead of the feature film, my life's experience or social experience with people closest to me, those I call my closest friends, has been in VR and in a virtual setting. So my memory is completely based with people in VR, in that reality. And that causes me to dream of my friends in VR. I dream of everyone as their avatars and worlds I've been in and walking amongst spaces that are all virtual, but I think the fascinating and most profound thing of those memories and those dreams are that they feel genuine and they are as genuine as memories and dreams that you would have in the physical world. And that experience was, you know, an inspiration whilst in production. I think that was fascinating to me and was always really funny. More speaking to the dreams, you know, I'd wake up and think, That's wild, you know, how has that happened? But it is obvious that would happen because that was my life's experience. But I couldn't stress enough that the memories we make in VR are as tangible and genuine as the memories we make in the physical world. And that's definitely been my truth during the production of this film, and I think will remain to be for anyone who spends time in VR. Those memories are real, and they're with real people, and they're in real places. It's just another real.

[00:48:30.790] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's David Chalmers' reality plus virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy. He makes that argument that these virtual reality worlds are a genuine reality. and that there's yes, because there's often a polarization between the virtual and the real, but it's really a physical versus the virtual and that they're both different types of realities. So yeah, I think that's what you're speaking there too, is he makes the argument philosophically in that with the assumption that if we do end up living in a simulation, we should consider that whatever our world is within the context of that simulation as being real. And so just the same, there's different layers of reality when it comes to our different flavors of presence, of our embodiment, embodied presence, and mental and social presence, and the emotional presence. And I'd say the one that has the biggest changes are the senses of embodied presence, the haptics, the touch, the taste, the smell. There's ways in which that you can have a virtual body in these virtual spaces, but not always have the same physical haptic reactions you know, being able to touch the feel the nuances of that the tactile haptic experience, or there may be aspects of taste or smell that may not be fully there. And so there's things that are exclusionary when it comes to the differences between the virtual and the physical, being different flavors of reality. So anyway, that's as I'm sorting that out, just trying to change my own language of trying to get away from using things like in real life, and, you know, trying to really emphasize those dichotomies between the physicality versus the virtual reality.

[00:50:03.750] Joe Hunting: Totally. Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I should read that book. That sounds right on my alley. Was it reality plus?

[00:50:10.633] Kent Bye: Yeah. It's reality plus virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy where he makes all these arguments and it's kind of like an introductory to philosophy book, but it's got a lot of these different issues that I think experientially, you know, people within the VR community, It's kind of like an intuition that they just would see as common sense that a lot of their experiences that they've been having in virtual reality. Oh, absolutely.

[00:50:30.926] Joe Hunting: Yeah, yeah, it is, you know, and I hope that attitude and that feeling and that experience is something that is reflected upon in We Met in Virtual Reality, you know, especially in moments where it's less directed and it's much more just the truth of cinema and we're just in a moment with the characters of the film and, you know, there's not anything happening in the camera apart from just standing behind them and with them. You know, there's a few moments in the film where that's the case. And I think I want those moments to be a memorable moment for people to really connect with the memory of those scenes and understand that the realism and genuineness of VR and presence as well. But I should also read that book to consider that more fully. Yeah, I'll watch the film, read the book. That's the full context of VR presence, maybe.

[00:51:27.182] Kent Bye: Well, you got accepted into Sundance, which is obviously a huge accomplishment and a dream of so many different independent filmmakers. So maybe you could tell me about the moment that you learned that you're going to be getting in and showing at Sundance. And, you know, unfortunately, there's been a shutdown of all of the physical showings of a lot of Sundance. It's all going to be a virtual showing. online. And so, you know, the good news is that if you're at home, you can potentially get a ticket for this. But I guess the sad news is that you won't be able to get the full Park City experience unless you're going to go there anyway. But it sounds like they're not going to be having, not going to be having any screenings or showings. And so, but maybe you could take me back to that moment when you learned that you're going to be able to have this film into Sundance. And what was that like for you as an independent filmmaker?

[00:52:11.757] Joe Hunting: Oh gosh, I'm unsure how much I should share of that moment, but I will put it all on a plate. I was editing the full cut of the documentary at the time I heard the news and I received an email from one of the programmers explaining that, you know, we'd like to talk to you about your film and I thought, oh, okay, that's fine. They'll want to see the final cut, because I sent them the rough cut to review, or they'll want to, you know, just confirm when the final cut was going to be finished. I did not think at all that that phone call would be what it was, and they invited me to premiere in Sundance, and it was a complete shock and, you know, so much joy and overwhelming that I just fell to the ground and cried. for a good time. And I think that those tears were, you know, obviously happy tears and I was completely ecstatic. But it was also tears of, you know, I'm making this film, you know, on my own and have now so much to do with completing and I have a hard deadline in three months and I've got to get this film out. So it was also, you know, stressful tears, but it is a dream come true and a real honor to be premiering at Sundance. I am lost for words still, even to this day, which we're a week away from premiering. And so, yeah, that was a extremely powerful moment. And telling the lead cast and everyone who was associated with the film, that news was also such a special and fun experience. And everyone was so excited as well. To speak to the present moment. Yeah, it is unfortunate last week we heard the news that the festival is now going purely virtual. But if anyone is prepared for going purely virtual, I think it is our crew being so used to seeing each other in VR. But saying that, although we are so used to spending time with each other in that space, we're also people that are desperate to meet for the first time. So, you know, I tried to see if it was possible for us to still go. Unfortunately most of the crew that were joining us at the premiere have cancelled but there's an irony in this but Jenny and I are still attending and we'll still be going to Park City and we're going to make our own little sun dance there because we want to take the opportunity to actually see each other for the first time and I'd love to give her a proper thank you for the time that we spent filming together and our contribution to the story. So we will be present in our Q&A, which I imagine will already be up by the time the podcast comes out and you'll see us represented physically and Dust, Bunny and Toast will be joining us as their avatars on that Q&A as well. So we'll have a mixed reality stream, which I think is going to be good fun. So yes, I think there's an irony in probably the only crew that are still going to Park City are the ones who made the film in VR. But, you know, don't want to miss the opportunity. And we have our hotel or we have our house even booked and we can get a refund. So it would sit there empty if we didn't go. We took it. Yeah. So we can't wait. I'm flying out very soon and we will still have a little bit of an experience and we're going to make the most of the virtual festivities as well. And Sundance have been, you know, they've been prepared for this since last year, they've been virtual and they've got a lot of great things planned. So we'll make the most of it.

[00:55:42.636] Kent Bye: Nice. Well, yeah, just to ask a couple of questions just to wrap up. So what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable?

[00:55:54.526] Joe Hunting: I forgot this is the question of the podcast, isn't it? It should have been prepared. This is the voices of VR question that I ultimately forgot about when I was thinking about what to say. I think the ultimate potential of VR is I'm going to be really simple and just say it's just being in a space with someone. I think the fundamentals of social VR is what brings its full potential. I think in my experience, you know, filming behind a camera and looking over that monitor and seeing who I'm filming with and spending time just being with someone and getting to know someone purely for themselves by their person and in their avatar and kind of seeing VR not as a separate space to our physical world but one that is shared and combined and part of our physical realities. has been extremely profound. And I think that freedom of expression and attitude is what will bring a healthy and positive future for the technology. I just think that fundamental experience and attitude is what brings the full potential in. To speak to what the full potential is, My brain goes immediately to film because that's my bubble, but I'd like to speak to that. Certainly, we now are in a position where I can shoot a feature length movie independently with cinematic virtual cameras and it will sit on R to other documentaries and that goes for narrative and fiction filmmaking as well. So there's so much potential happening right now in the filmmaking community, in VRChat specifically, in creating avatars, creating worlds and writing scripts that can be entirely shot and produced and even distributed in virtual cinemas, you know, such as big screen or even VRChat community made cinemas for films to exist in a completely other universe. And I feel there's a cult wave waiting to happen. And I hope to ride that wave.

[00:58:21.518] Kent Bye: Yeah, we talk about distribution rights in film, and maybe there'll be a virtual distribution for VRChat, that type of thing. So anyway, that's something that came up. But it sounds like you're probably gonna be having some screenings in VRChat of the film at some point, depending on what distribution deal you'll have.

[00:58:37.165] Joe Hunting: We will. Yeah, we want to celebrate the film with the community it was made with.

[00:58:41.686] Kent Bye: Definitely. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:58:47.989] Joe Hunting: Oh, what an opportunity. keep encouraging freedom of expression, immersive community. That's what I'd like to say. I love making my own worlds. I love making my own avatars. I want to embody something that I create and, you know, be able to express myself freely. And I want to celebrate that always through film and through being. Yeah. And we should accept all virtual bodies that we see and come across. That is what I'd like to say.

[00:59:20.773] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Joe, with your congratulations again for getting into the Sundance, the World Cinema, World Cinema Documentary Competition. We met in virtual reality's premiering at Sundance Film Festival, you know, from January 20th to 30th. And yeah, I had a chance to see it. And I think you were able to capture the zeitgeist of what's been happening in VRChat. And it's a film I think you'll be able to point people to, to see what type of dynamics and interactions that have been happening in these PC-based VR with full-bodied avatars and the different types of social dynamics and interactions. It's just a nice capture of that culture. And, you know, to be able to also tell the stories of those people along the way as well, and give some montages of what's happening within the culture of VRChat. So great accomplishments and congratulations again. And yeah, thanks for coming on to the podcast and to help just share your journey with this project.

[01:00:13.822] Joe Hunting: Yeah, it's been my pleasure. Thank you for having me. And thank you to everyone who supported the making of We Met in Virtual Reality and everyone who contributed and spoke to me during production. The film would not exist without you. And you, Kent. You helped too, a lot. So thank you to you. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

[01:00:31.713] Kent Bye: So that was Joe hunting. He's the director of a documentary called we met in virtual reality. That's premiering at Sundance film festival and the world cinema documentary competition today on January 21st, 2022. So I've never friend takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, just to hear Joe's process and the commitment that he had from going in pretty much every day for a year and immersing himself within the context of virtual reality. What I found interesting was the degree to which he was doing location scouting and to be able to find these locations and listen to his own emotional reaction to those spaces and then bring in his subjects to be able to talk about a variety of different things and to see how the space could start to reflect the emotion that he was really going for. So he said about half of the shots or so were from those worlds that he was selecting and then the other half were more cinema verite and worlds that the subjects themselves were going in and out of and Yeah, I think just to see the different full-body tract interactions are happening within VR chat I mean the first documentaries that I saw you can certainly go take a look at them there. They're online you can check them out That's the virtually speaking and there's two shorts about the club zodiac and wider screen and both of those are on YouTube and the other one is on this special website called Discover Film. But you can watch all those different pieces and you'll get a sense of a static camera and you're listening to the characters. They're fully embodied, but you get a different sense of actually being in the space with them. It's like he's looking into a portal. And so, just to have his embodiment and the new lens that had come out, VRC lens that allows him to do that type of cinematic compositing of the different shots. It makes a pretty significant difference, I think, when you look at the final product. And so, it's pretty striking to see how much immersion from that embodiment as a cinematographer that he's getting from being able to be with his subjects that he's shooting. Just really fascinating to hear a little bit more about his process. I'm really curious to see where this documentary ends up because it's showing an arc of a number of different stories and relationships that are unfolding over time. Like Joe said, he was really shooting two documentaries at once. He was having the people talk about their physical lives in IRL. I guess it's a colloquial term of talking about them outside of VR. But within VR, there was very little speaking specifically about their I mean, there's a little bit, but most of it was just this kind of observational documentary observing them within their habitats and how they're interacting with the world around them, as well as other people. Really quite interesting to see how this film is able to start to capture almost like an anthropological slice of this time and this moment in history of virtual reality. Especially will be even more valuable as it continues to progress and you're able to look back on how crude something may look now, even though it's still on the cutting edge of a lot of different ways. As it continues to progress, I'm sure we'll have that kind of looking back at video games and seeing that sort of 8-bit aesthetic type of thing. I imagine we're still going to be able to see that. Even in his earlier documentaries, when you start to look at them, you start to get that vibe of there's a progression that's happening here. There is a lot of extra footage that he has. I'm sure he probably cut some stuff, but it was really interesting to hear him say that these communities are very dynamic and in flux and it's capturing a moment in time, but that if he's reflecting what's happening where the communities are at now, he'd almost have to start over. I'd be very curious to see what he's able to do with a lot of that archival footage that he shot. Again, like I said, there's such a documentary and anthropological interest to the stuff that he's captured so far. So yeah highly I recommend checking out we met in virtual reality and try to catch it at Sundance if you can I think tickets around $20 or so and then who knows where it goes from there He'll probably have some screenings within VR chat or some different European premieres And so keep an eye out on his Twitter handle Joey hunting or his we met in virtual reality Twitter keep up to date as to the latest if you're not able to catch it here at Sundance and One quick note is that I will be having other interviews with other creators from the festival, so I did finish my Twitter thread that recounts all the different experiences that I've seen so far. There's just a couple more left that I haven't seen, and those are performances that I'll see both today and tomorrow. But keep an eye out for more podcasts here coming soon. So that's all that I have for today and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of ER podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a, this is part of podcast and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing this coverage. So become a member today at patreon.com slash which is VR. Thanks for listening.

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