Lester Francois and Erinn Stevenson : Virtually There

December 9, 2019
We spoke to the StudioBento filmmakers behind the VR art sensation RONE, at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever conference, where the film won Best Interactive or Game Production of the Year.

In 2017, VR filmmaker Lester Francois and producer Erinn Stevenson embarked on an ambitious portrait of Melbourne street artist Rone, a renowned, underground artist who transforms abandoned and derelict buildings into distinctive murals.

Capturing the world of this internationally recognised artist, Francois and Stevenson produced the interactive short-documentary RONE, which takes viewers into the artist’s exhibitions, his studio; the houses, and crumbling spaces Rone works in.

Garnering significant international attention, the immersive documentary premiered at SXSW Festival in 2018, as well as Cannes NEXT and the New York Film Festival.

We sat down with the filmmakers to discuss collaborating on a burgeoning medium, the challenges of producing interactive content, and the golden opportunities for filmmakers in this exciting space.

Can you tell us about how you came to work together on this interactive film?

LF: Erinn and I go way back. When I was completing my graduate film, Erinn was a volunteer in that. We lost touch for a while, but then I caught up with her many years later in LA. I was looking for a producer, someone who I can trust and someone who used a different side of the brain that I just can’t access. I reached out to Erinn where RONE was getting to a stage where we were serious about putting together a finance plan and applying for funding. With RONE, that’s something I didn’t want to tackle myself. I knew Erinn was across that and was great with finance plans and budgeting. Luckily for me, she embraced the project wholeheartedly. The project wouldn’t be where it is now without Erinn.

ES: I’m drawn to the people that I work with. I first met Lester a very long time ago when we were both doing narrative drama. I loved working with him. This story was really interesting. Rone’s artwork is really haunting and really beautiful. I’ve learned through working on the project just how perfect his work is for the VR world. Which I was also admittedly, scared of to start with. But as we went further, I was quite excited about learning a new medium. The project was really beautiful.

Is there enough funding for the new format of VR in Australia?

LF: No, but it’s slowly changing with the funding bodies seeing how VR is a solid and emerging format that will become ubiquitous soon. I think they’re trying to fund successful projects right now. I feel that they’re trying to find talent to learn the tools of the trade, learn the craft and have stories told within this format.

Together you operate StudioBento. You’ve both had experience producing traditional content prior to working in interactive. Can you tell us about your past experience?

ES: I spent 12 months working on independent feature films in LA, two indies, and
one corporate job. One of my independent films is on Netflix. It’s called Preservation. It’s a thriller. I was the production coordinator. I really had a great time. I would highly recommend working in LA to anybody working in the film industry, particularly Australians. The traditional space is where we both came from. We produced the Network Ten pilot Dave together. At the moment, we’ve got a slate which is both VR and traditional. We also work in lots of different genres. So, we’re kind of a jack of all trades.

LF: Our backgrounds are in traditional, short films and music video clips, I’ve also developed TV and feature films as well. VR is our focus.

Can you tell us about RONE’s journey to premiering at Cannes Next and SXSW?

LF: The original RONE film premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival. At the same time, we were finishing up working on the interactive version of RONE. The interactive version was then accepted to SXSW. We went there and we thought we’d screen RONE and then come back to day jobs. But everything changed at SXSW. There was a bidding war with distributors and we were invited to all these festivals around the world including Cannes Next. We screened at a bunch of other festivals around Europe, and a whole bunch of other festivals around the world. That was amazing for us. Not because it’s great to see your project being screened at these festivals. We really established ourselves in the international community and made some long-lasting friendships, but also have some business partnerships, which are still paying off today.

How did the screenings raise the profile of the film?

ES: Unlike traditional filmmaking, where you can’t take a work in progress to a festival, we were able to do that. This unlocked a lot of doors for us. Being at SXSW helped the film get attention. Also knowing that we’re going to go onto all these other festivals helped convince the funding bodies that this is a worthwhile project to back. The festivals also helped us get funding.

Is VR getting enough attention in Australia? Are there enough filmmakers who have embraced the format?

LF: If you go to the festivals around the world, there’s massive queues for VR projects, from film buffs and filmmakers alike. I think they really embrace it and they’re more curious than anything. They want to see what is out there and what is possible. And luckily, a lot of these festivals curate really good projects.

ES: I think we have seen a huge change from when we began this journey where people were perhaps a little bit more reluctant to consider working in the field, but were happy for other people to do it. I think now, with additional content being made for traditional productions like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, people can see that there is a way to use it commercially in a way to adapt it to their projects. I think over the last three to five years, people’s minds have been opening and that’s just going to continue. We all know this technology is a little way off, but once everybody embraces it, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

LF: The analogy I like to make, is that there were a bunch of game developers making games for phones before smartphones. They were quite derided by the games industry. Then smartphones came in, and the same developers who are 10 steps ahead of all the game developers got in on the first wave of the gold rush of smartphone games and they made a fortune. I think it’s the same with VR. I think people who are experimenting now will catch that first wave when VR becomes ubiquitous.

What were the main producing challenges in making VR?

ES: I think for me personally, the language and the conversation that I needed to learn with the post-production team were quite steep. I didn’t have experience working in post-production. I’m not a post-production producer. And I didn’t have any experience working in VR or 360. So that was probably the biggest challenge. Communication was also a big challenge. Another factor we encountered was bringing that new language to the rest of the world and educating funding bodies about what it means to make a VR film.

What are the opportunities for VR? What openings can it offer to filmmakers?

ES: I think there’s a world of opportunities out there. Producers must tailor it to their experience. For example, because RONE is a virtual art gallery and documentary about a street artist, there are opportunities for us in the art world that are not necessarily open to somebody who is, say, making a more gamified project. It’s important to do your research as to where you sit in the market. And to get out of Australia and go talk to international partners because VR is really growing outside of Australia and they’re leading the way. So that’s where you’re going to find funding. And that’s where you’re going to find experienced people who can talk to you about what suits your project.

Is there an opportunity that’s not being maximised with all the funding and international interest for VR, yet few Australian filmmakers in the space?

LF: I think it’s changed because I’ve been going to the VR market in Sheffield for about four years now. When I first started going, I was probably one of the few Australians there. But going back this year, there were four or five teams, which is great to see. Things are slowly changing, but there are a bunch of other markets most Aussie filmmakers are oblivious of. I totally get that because traditional filmmakers know the traditional markets, they know how to raise money internationally. But with VR, it’s slightly different. It’s just a matter of them becoming aware of where the pockets of money are.

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

ES: I’m producing Mutt, which is an independent film. It’s about a pregnant woman whose dog goes missing, and she has to infiltrate the dog-napping world to rescue him, and along the way, learns what it really means to be responsible for the life of someone else and ultimately, what it’s like to be a mother. It is in post-production. We are going to head to festivals with the film and hope to pick up distribution that way. It’s made with a really talented guy, (writer-director) Sam Gallaway. It is also a subject very close to my heart, because when we started making it, I got a dog. And we’re still making it and she’s still only four, but I’ve also had a baby in the meantime. So, it’s sort of mirroring my life in one way. I would look out for that one. It’s a film I’m really excited about.

We’re both producing Truth to Power, which is a political drama based on Andrew Wilkes’ decision about whether to expose the Howard government’s decision to go into the war on Iraq, and the fact that there was no real evidence of weapons of mass destruction. We’re both producing that film. It’s all based during one night in a hotel. It’s a true story, which makes it a little bit more exciting. We’re at the early stages of casting and funding.

LF: We have a bunch of VR projects we’re developing. Our next major VR project is called The Fun of Fear. It’s an interactive documentary that explores why people crave being scared. So, we ask, “why do some people spend good money to get scared witless?” “What do you see in horror films and why go to haunts and ghost trains?” We’re exploring this topic through an interactive experience.

Photo credit: Lester Francois photo by Dijana Risteska


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