At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Wevr unveiled a new virtual reality collaboration with Reggie Watts called Waves. It’s a silly and psychedelic experience drawing inspiration from Tron, Monty Python, The Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sound weird and fun? It is.
I had the chance to check out Waves at Sundance, where Wevr was showcasing four different VR experiences. Along with Waves, they showed theBlu: Encounter, Irrational Exuberance, and Hard World for Small Things.
At a panel, I heard the director of Waves, Benjamin Dickinson, speak a little about how it all came together. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty fascinating. I followed up with Benjamin for an interview and am happy to share with you these six simple rules for creating a virtual reality film with Reggie Watts.
1. Hit record.
Benjamin Dickinson doesn’t smoke weed, but when he does, it’s with Reggie Watts. It’s an integral piece of their creative process. So when they sat down to create a concept for Waves, Benjamin made sure to set a voice recorder on the table before the ideas started flying to ensure the good ones didn’t go the way of the white buffalo. If you’ve seen Waves, or even read the description I just gave, this should come as no surprise.
2. Design the production for improvisation.
Reggie Watts needed no convincing by Dickinson to join him on a VR project. He’s been interested in virtual reality since he was a little kid. Since the days of Lawnmower Man and Dactyl Nightmare. Reggie and Benjamin have worked on five or six projects together already. In fact, Dickinson also premiered a film at SXSW called Creative Control. Which is about virtual reality. In which Watts was was also cast. A total coincidence, or “synchronicity,” he said.
On how to work with Watts, Dickinson said “Whenever I work with Reggie, it’s just about creating a context. An environment he can riff on and respond to. I can give him marks but he has to have a lot of freedom and flexibility.” For Waves, they did a ton of shooting on green screens and black screens with more of a premise than a script. He says VR is more corollary to watching something live.
The experience of watching Reggie live is a very unique experience. Hanging out with Reggie is a special experience. So i approached this piece from that standpoint. What’s it like to hang out with Reggie and be drawn into his mind and his way of looking at things?”
I have to admit. I never made it through Watts’ Netflix special. I tried, but something was lost through the flat screen. His talent was evident, but I felt no investment in his stream of consciousness. That wasn’t the case in VR. He’s right. Waves isn’t a film, so much as an invitation into the mind of Reggie Watts. Once I was in there, I immediately got it.
3. Nathalie Emmanuel
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Dickinson and Watts discussed their motives in a KCRW interview, so I won’t be repetitive. In the interview, Watts says “VR’s biggest threat is itself taking itself too seriously.”
5. Become a Virtual Etymologist.
Dickinson is a big fan of etymology. After reading the autobiography of Malcolm X and his study of the language of racism, Benjamin immediately bought an Oxford English Dictionary. And the companion app. Together, they delight him almost daily. He made it clear that one of the mainstays of his friendship with Reggie is their shared desire to deconstruct human language. When he talked about the need to rewrite the language of VR with the same tone I sometimes hear in my own voice, I was excited to explore.
When you watch Reggie’s comedy, he’s subtly deconstructing our assumptions about language.
Benjamin said “We use language to construct truth. What happens is that we start to identify language as truth, as opposed to something that represents truth. And we actually start to construct truth through language without any reference point to an experience. I think part of Reggie’s genius is that he’s deconstructing language to get at truth. And he does it often by being very silly, making false metaphors, false associations, ridiculous conclusions, and also making fun of language itself. We’ve become so identified with language as being the ultimate reality when, in fact, it’s just a symbol. That’s the essence of our approach to Waves and what it became was inspired by being in Reggie’s energetic orbit.”
So to summarize, language is merely our best shot at a representation of reality. More specifically, our own realities. So it makes sense that with a new medium like VR, we’re at a loss for words sometimes, reverting to a dusty list of old favorites like “empathy” and “storytelling.” They just don’t feel right for virtual reality a lot of the time. A good example is Dickinson’s favorite experience at Sundance, Notes on Blindness, the recordings of a professor who is going blind accompanied by a rendering of his descriptions in blue dots over a black void. Benjamin was able to see how the old man constructed his physical world through sound and now understands what it’s like to be blind in a way words couldn’t accomplish. But what he loved about Notes on Blindness was that it didn’t try to tell a story. It simply provided a shift in perspective.
THIS is a story. I gathered a bunch of information and packaged it all into my own fabricated narrative. Take that, word slave. But one of the great things about virtual reality is that it frees participants from people like me. How can we create a better vocabulary to convey this distinction?
Benjamin took a few swings, replacing Director with Doula or Spirit Guide, and describing his new craft as midwifery or shamanism. I hope the former sticks. As for storytelling, the best we could come up with was storyshowing. Needs more work, but at least it signifies a relinquishment of control as we seek to provide a place, a perspective, or a mind to explore.
With every tech wave comes a new crop of pseudo-titles and bios on Linkedin and Twitter. At the end of our interview, much to his delight, with the imaginary power vested in me I gave to Benjamin Dickinson the title of the world’s very first Virtual Etymologist.
6. Have the support and money of a company that let’s you do whatever you want.
Finally, Dickinson felt extremely fortunate to meet the folks at Wevr, the LA-based VR studio behind a handful of great experiences. He worked closely with Co-founder Anthony Batt and Creative Director Luis Blackaller on Waves and said that level of support is absolutely necessary when working with Reggie Watts because “he’s at his best when he can experiment, be free, and try stuff.”
If you want to hear more from Reggie himself, there’s a great interview with him over at Voices of VR. If you have any other questions about Waves or ideas for the new language of virtual reality, put them in the comments below.