Catching up with VR director and two-time Oculus Launch Pad recipient Kiira Benzing.
Benzing is one of the first of her kind: a multi-talented, multi-faceted director and producer with an intuitive grasp of what works in VR filmmaking. Most notably, her production studio (Double Eye) won the jury award for ‘Best Interactive Experience‘ at SXSW 2019. But that wasn’t her first rodeo by a long shot. Her first VR creation, Cardboard City, earned an award at the Samsung Gear Indie Milk VR contest in 2016.
Benzing then moved on to create Hilda, which “had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017 and was distributed to Amazon,” and Diptych, which “had its world premiere at Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera (2018),” as is stated on her personal blog.
Also, according to her IMDB page, Benzing once “translated a 500 year old play from Middle French into English.” Impressive.
“[My story] goes way back to theater if we want to go that far,” Benzing told me over our Google Hangouts call. “I started off training in theater all over the world. In college I was a Lafayette undergrad, and then I studied at the National Theater Institute. I was also an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, before I went on to do some off-Off-Broadway shows.”
Benzing then acted in New York for a year before going off to grad school at LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art), a high-profile drama school that’s notable for its rich history. “It’s actually the oldest drama school in England,” Benzing told me. “I studied Shakespeare and all of the great classics like Jacobean and Restoration and Greek tragedy. I thought I’d be an actor for the stage, but I guess I was always designing worlds in my head. I remember having different teachers that would push me more and more to get really detailed with my imagination, and that probably carries over into VR.”
“When I was over there [at LAMDA], I developed this tangential piece that would be interactive, 3D, and multiplayer,” Benzing continued. “I wanted to work with all types of wearable technology. I was trying to figure out how the players would interact with the story.”
While searching her imagination for ideas, all Benzing could tap into was how people in the Digital Age tend to habitually walk around with smartphones and tablet computers. “So I guess what I was thinking of was a form of AR where people could actually walk through the animations,” Benzing told me as she explained how she crossed the wire from traditional theater to immersive technology, way back in 2015. “Tribeca was doing really cool [VR] installations, and for whatever reason, they only had one or two headsets, but you had to sign up two weeks prior and they had this really long queue.
“Finally, I put a headset on for this amazing project called The Enemy (at Tribeca Storyscapes), and you had to walk between these two soldiers where you had to hear two sides of the story. If you got close enough to the soldiers, they reacted. That realism and interactivity really sparked something for me. I took the headset off and was like ‘This is it. This is the technology that I’ve been longing for!’.”
Benzing had been writing scripts without knowing what the tech would look like. But now that it had been created, she says, she knew that she just needed to learn how to build for it. “The easiest way to step [into VR] as a filmmaker was to start creating 360-degree videos. So when I finally got an Oculus Rift DK2, I jumped in and started going to every meetup that was happening in New York.”
However, 360-degree video was just a starting point for Benzing. “It was like a layer, a tapestry, a paint on a canvas; that just wasn’t enough for me,” she explained. “I always wanted my ideas to be interactive, where the audience felt they could have an effect on the story and also interact with other people. Social VR was always a very important aspect for me, where players could jump in and add to the story if they wanted to. That continues in all of my work.”
Running for approx. 10 minutes, Benzing’s interactive music experience pits players directly in the middle of a dancefloor set to Reggie Watts’ and John Tejada’s Runnin’, the opening track of their collaboration album Casual High Technology under their duo alias WAJATTA.
“Something I’m really curious about as a creator is exploring all of the interactive 3D elements that you can bring into VR storytelling,” Benzing told me. “Getting an award specifically for highlighting the interactive component is really special for me because that’s the kind of VR [content] that I want to keep creating. I think it’s something unique that we can do in VR storytelling that, in other mediums like film, we cannot do easily.”
So how did Benzing make Runnin’ come to life in VR, anyway? “We filmed at Intel Studios, which has the largest volumetric capture dome in the world right now; it’s a 10,000 square foot stage. Which is significantly different from other types of stages that are doing volumetric capture,” she continued. “We’re working with Unity on this project. So there are game-like elements, but it is not a game.”
What excited Benzing most about working in a studio of that size was that she could capture multiple dancers at the same time. With the help of Unity and Intel’s volumetric capture dome, she was able to record the simultaneous movements of over 13 performers before translating all of the captured data into assets for Runnin’.
“We captured over a dozen dancers and then Reggie,” Benzing told me as I asked her about the volumetric filmmaking process. “[In volumetric filmmaking], we’re working with 2D cameras. The way that they’re configured at the studio is that the software that [Intel] built is generating a 3D image representation of each dancer. And specifically with Intel’s technology, they’re generating voxels. We’ve got these 3D pixels that the dancers are comprised of, and those are super fun to work with and throw into Unity and put these super amazing shaders on them.”
But Benzing doesn’t look at Runnin’ as just any ordinary music video; she looks at it as an interactive experience. She pressed the point that, because VR is a fully 3D space, the player has a unique opportunity to interact with the voxelized dancers in a unique way. “You would only be able to get close enough in a 3D space to have a one-to-one relationship with that dancer,” she explained to me. “In VR, you can have your full body tracked, and be able to engage with the presence of that dancer by moving through or dancing very closely to them.
“The [dancers’] voxels react to you the closer that you get. You have these magic glow sticks; if you push your glow sticks into their bodies, they transform as the voxels react. The voxels are audio-reactive as well.”
As to what compelled Benzing to choose Runnin’ as the song to choreograph over, she attributes it all to Tejada’s “incredible improvisational music” and Watts’ “diva-like” voice. “I can only imagine what it would have been like with them in the studio, hearing them record this,” she told me. “Reggie pushed this track forward to be the track for the piece, because it was my personal favorite track of the album.”
Benzing is currently busy with a handful of other projects that she feels equally passionate about. One such project is Metropoles, an in-development hybrid experience between live performance, social VR gaming, and 360-degree video, where players get together and collaboratively decide how (or how not) to gentrify a decaying Brooklyn neighborhood.
“I think that we’re losing a couple of really important, human cornerstones,” she told me while describing the concepts behind Metropoles. “I think a part of that is the sense of a neighborhood and the sense of a community. And what your role is in that community. Another piece is that when these buildings get turned over so fast you lose the history of the people that were there.”
In Metropoles, you’ll find yourself pit either alongside or against the other players, depending on how desirable you are to your prospective neighbors. At the beginning of a session, each player is told a different documentary story about their own role in the neighborhood. “So as you get these stories, you’re learning about the world. And then you have the main challenge which is to redesign the neighborhood and decide, collaboratively, which buildings and neighbors will be eliminated. As well as which new properties you’re going to add.”
“If we could bring local politicians and decision-makers together inside of this VR world,” Benzing added, “I can only imagine what would happen.”
Benzing’s other projects, Alive In Plasticland and This End Up, are both live theatre troupes that utilize social VR environments to tell their stories. Alive In Plasticland is an ongoing improv experience that has already hosted shows and public workshops inside of High Fidelity VR. Meanwhile, This End Up is an upcoming fully-interactive social VR play, written by Mac Rogers (a sci-fi playwright known best for The Honeycomb Trilogy), which is set at an abandoned post office on the night of a very particular event. “As the production goes on, you find out that the actors aren’t necessarily who they say they are,” Benzing said on This End Up.
Speaking to her, it’s immediately apparent that Benzing has a contagious love for her craft. And as far as her award at SXSW goes, she remains humble. “That was wonderful. I mean it’s a jury award, which means it was given to us by our peers. It was really wonderful to see that they’re acknowledging the work—that they’re even getting a chance to watch the work.
“I’m always keen to watch what other people are working on, and it’s so rare to get to interact with these people. I don’t know what kind of experience they had when they saw [Runnin’], but I guess they liked it, so that was very cool.”
Runnin’ had its World Premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2019, but is not currently available in a released form outside of its Sundance and SXSW premieres. Metropoles is also likely to only remain accessible in specific locations, namely locations in Brooklyn, but that may not be the case as more cities are included in ongoing updates. Stay tuned, however, for other Double Eye productions (Alive In Plasticland, This End Up) to reach social VR apps in a headset near you.