Virtual Reality Trailblazer

March 4, 2016
Installation artist turned filmmaker Lynette Wallworth is paving the path for virtual reality filmmaking.
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“It’s more like we are experiencing it than watching a film,” says Sydney-based artist Lynette Wallworth of Virtual Reality (VR), the day before she headed off to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland and then onto the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, USA for the premiere of her 14-minute VR film, Collisions.

“The potential to have that immersion… that’s what’s up for grabs here,” she continues. “Dialogue is much harder to listen to and to concentrate on because you’re so visually driven, you’re always trying to locate where you are; so a dialogue heavy work would not really work I don’t think. But a really powerful immersive filmmaking experience that is not driven by dialogue but by the space… those kinds of films work best in VR.

“There will be areas that will naturally open up to VR more than others, and I think that narrative long form will be more of a challenge,” she continues. “But for documentary I think it’s a natural because it allows you to actually be there. You perceive it as an experience that you’re having; to locate it within the real seems to me a powerful combination.”

VR has been the buzz word in entertainment circles for a number of years now, but it’s gained momentum in the last 12 months with Hollywood studios, Facebook, Google and PlayStation all announcing VR initiatives, and the Sundance Film Festival devoting a large chunk of their New Frontier program to Virtual Reality filmmaking.

Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions was part of this initiative in 2016. “I have shown two other works at Sundance’s New Frontier, I mentor regularly at the Sundance Institute, so I have a close relationship with Sundance and they have been very supportive of my work over the years,” says Wallworth, whose presence at this prestigious film festival was hardly noted by Australian media. “They’re close to my work, and remained interested in what I am doing there.”

A possible reason for Sundance’s affinity with Lynette Wallworth’s work is her belief in the collective experience of cinema, which she insisted on for Collisions. “We are doing synchronised screenings,” she proudly tells us. “We will have up to 200 people experiencing the work at the same time. Normally it’s one person at a time. I’m interested in storytelling and talking to people afterwards and chewing over the work. That’s why I think cinema has played such a pivotal role in our lives, because of the collective experience of sharing a story together. And it’s a question around VR, especially given it’s so immersive and potentially so powerful; what is the way to create a collective experience for that?”

Collisions is about Aboriginal elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe, who live in a remote community in West Australia, and recounts the impact of their first contact with Western culture. “Nyarri Nyarri Morgan told me this story close to four years ago,” says Wallworth. “Initially I thought to create an enormous installation for that work. But when I saw virtual reality, I realised that what it does, which is so incredible, is that it makes everything personal. It’s so extraordinary in that it locates the viewer inside the story. I have worked my whole life to create ways of calling the viewer inside the work. This technology does it in a remarkable way. So for me it was a really natural transition.

“I am comfortable working with new technology but I’ve never chosen a technology for the sake of the technology, which is why I don’t necessarily repeat using a technology. I’m always driven by the story,” she continues. “So for this work, I took four years to contemplate what the best way was to tell this story. And virtual reality, I believe, is the best way to delivery this particular story.”

Apart from its immersive quality, one of the main attractions of VR to Wallworth for this particular project was also ethical. “I wanted to almost flip the perspective of the lens. In Collisions, we have a sensation of travelling. We’re not just landing there, there’s a sense of being brought there and being invited there and then being met by Nyarri Nyarri Morgan. There’s protocols of meeting that apply to a normal visit in that community which I tried to instil in the film. We understand that what we’re seeing is what he wants us to see. We’re almost trying to say that this is not my romantic perspective; I’ve travelled in this technology in order that this man can send his story out.

Lynette Wallworth’s transition from artist to filmmaker has not only been supported by Sundance but also the Adelaide Film Festival, whose Hive Fund backed Wallworth’s acclaimed 2013 documentary, Tender, among her many other projects. When we put it to Wallworth that she’s breaking new ground in moving into filmmaking and new technologies she is quick to point out that she’s not the first.

“There are people who started as artists and became filmmakers such as Sam Taylor-Wood [Nowhere Boy, Fifty Shades of Grey] and Steve McQueen [12 Years a Slave, Shame, Hunger], and there’s a history of artists who have worked in installation and at some point moved into film,” comments Wallworth. “It’s a very satisfying transition to make because you get to construct a complex narrative. There’s always been an element of story in my work even though the work has been fundamentally exhibited in galleries. I’m always interested in narrative. That’s not true of all artists, but that’s where I stand. So I found it a very satisfying transition from installations to film.”

With such a new technology melding with a traditional one such as cinema, Lynette Wallworth has met fellow ground-breakers along the way, who are helping her pave the way for this exciting new format. “You do find people who love those technical challenges and delight in being the first people there, and I think a lot of those people have worked on Collisions. We did the sound design and sound mix at Skywalker Ranch. Tom Myers did the sound mix and he worked on Toy Story 3. Because sound is crucial in VR, it becomes a tool for directors to guide a viewers’ attention. Because you’re in a 360 space, people can be looking anywhere at any time, so with the visuals I can’t draw you to the right or left, but sound can. It was a delight working with Tom Myers because he was as captivated by that and the possibilities of working in this space, as I was.”

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