Shooting an Interview in VR for CNN's 'Mostly Human'
Director of Photography, AK Hottman breaks down shooting a scene in Reality and Virtual Reality for the premiere episode, I Love You Bot, for CNNgo's Mostly Human with Laurie Segall
For the entire series, we were dead set on using only long, or mid-length lenses. We wanted the audience to feel as if every moment was intimate and at times even a bit voyeuristic. I was adamant on dirtying the frame up (placing an object out of focus within the frame usually in the foreground), both for the interview setups and for the b-roll coverage. If there was a foreground element nearby, it was going to be used.
All of our lens considerations were driven by the idea of bringing the audience into each story, in a very intimate way, especially for the interviews. We’d move between a 70mm, a 105, and a 175, and in those “lean-forward” moments, we’d jump up to a 200.
We also wanted everything to have a little bit of life to it so everything was shot handheld or on monopods, with the exception of the masters in our interviews, and the occasional b-roll here and there. Since the show is about finding humanity through and with technology, we wanted to make sure the camera reflected this idea, and was never cold or distant feeling.
Of course, there are times when it’s necessary to veer away from the established language in order to tell a different story.
BREAKING FROM CONVENTION
When director, Roxy Hunt, mentioned that we were going to tell a woman's story about sexual harassment in a VR game, she had the brilliant idea of Laurie interviewing her in the actual virtual world. This meant that Laurie would be wearing a headset and Jordan (not her real name) would be wearing a headset. Their characters would meet in the virtual world, and the interview would take place there. Not only was this a brilliant idea for storytelling purposes, but Jordan also wanted to remain anonymous, so this allowed us to tell her story in a very personal way but keep her identity hidden.
But this storytelling technique obviously presented a number of different challenges.
FIRST, THE CHALLENGES OF SHOOTING THIS IN THE REAL WORLD:
Every other interview that Laurie conducted, we would shoot our over-the-shoulders with Laurie and her interviewee across from each other or next to each other. This allowed us to use our long lenses and the foreground character to dirty the frame, making the two interview feel more intimate, as mentioned previously. With Jordan’s interview, Laurie and Jordan were not going to physically be in the same space, so we knew we would have to approach this differently. So, instead of finding arbitrary objects to dirty the frame with, we decided to save our dirty over-the-shoulders for the virtual interview (which we’ll get to later). This freed us up tell Jordan’s story differently.
This story was also one of the most personal stories we told, and since the incident that occurred left Jordan feeling isolated and alone in the virtual world, we thought it best to not shoot our traditional over-the-shoulders but instead have Laurie and Jordan in separate spaces, drawing attention to this theme.
I was going to be in one space, with Jordan, and Ben Garst, our other camera operator, would be in the other space with Laurie. Since we knew were going to have our virtual interview in addition to this physical interview, Ben and I decided to take the opportunity to expand upon the visual storytelling techniques used…
JORDAN’S PHYSICAL INTERVIEW:
The space that Jordan was in was quite small, so I resorted to very tight frames and the use of more abstract images. In order to conceal her identity, we backlit her (a simple back-lit green backdrop… green to match Laurie’s backdrop). We also used the VR headset itself to conceal her identity. Both of these techniques help to keep her anonymous, but they also create this very somber, dark tone. The combination of these dark tones, mixed with the tight framing help to mimic Jordan’s feelings of being trapped in the virtual world as her aggressor sexual harassed her.
LAURIE’S PHYICAL INTERIVEW:
The space that Laurie was in was much larger, which gave Ben the opportunity to move around more and tell the story from Laurie’s perspective a little differently. While sticking with our usual Canon 70-200 lenses, Ben was able to move about the space and use his frame to create a somber tone in which Laurie is engaged and focused on Jordan’s telling of the story. There are moments where Laurie appears smaller in the corner of the frame, which allows the audience to feel the weight of the situation. There are other moments where Laurie is remarkably still in profile, quietly engaged in Jordan’s story, just as the audience is.
But both of these physical interview setups were only half the battle. The other half, was the virtual interview itself.
SECOND, THE CHALLENGES OF SHOOTING THIS IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD:
First, we wanted to address the idea of screen direction. In order do to this, we simply had Laurie always framed up screen left, looking screen right (in both worlds) and Jordan the opposite. This way we were able to establish who is who at all times.
Next, we needed to be able to capture the characters in the virtual world itself. We worked with Upload, Inc's, Upload SF Collective, as they allowed us to use their space and their virtual world in order to tell this story.
Both Laurie and Jordan’s characters were not only avatars of themselves, but we were able to use their POV in order to capture the other person’s avatar. This meant we always had this very intimate, personal piece of coverage to cut to, even if it was just an avatar.
Lastly, Roxy was able to step into the virtual world as well and use her POV as a third camera, in order to capture our wide shots, extreme wides, over-the-shoulders, and any additional coverage that we would traditionally get in our physical setups.
The final result is a wonderful dance between the real world interview setup and the virtual world interview setup. This interplay, combined with the editorial decision to have the audio move between literal voices and digitally processed voices, creates a sensation in which the audience finds themselves moving seamlessly between the real world and the virtual world. By the end of the interview it almost begins to feel as if the virtual world and the real world are one in the same. This aesthetic perfectly mimics Jordan’s story, in which she says (in reference to her virtual sexual assault),
“It’s that someone felt that they could take control of your space and violate you and get away with it. And there would be nothing you could do about it. And that is 100% the same in virtual reality and in reality. The mental repercussions of what happens afterwards feels similar. It’s what stays with you.”
All 6 Camera Angles
Mostly Human is available for streaming on Mach 12th on CNNgo. Watch the trailer here: