Why Virtual Reality Never Shows Its Subjects IRL

If you see, “We Met in Virtual Reality” director Joe Hunting’s avatar in the virtual reality platform VRChat, he’s holding a little camera that lets other avatars around him know he’s filming. And it’s a good thing, because he filmed a lot.

“We Met in Virtual Reality,” an XTR film that debuts via HBO Documentary Films on Wednesday night, is a cinema vérité documentary feature shot entirely in VR. It’s a film that explores the lives and relationships of a handful of people who spend much of their time within the world and many communities of VRChat.

And just when you think Hunting is about to pull back the curtain and finally introduce us to the avatar’s real-life counterparts, he never does. Because no matter how many of the film’s subjects resemble anime teens with wild pink hair and dragon tails, blocky and colorful robots, or monsters that look like Pokémon, Hunting was committed to showing that just because these characters are virtual, that doesn’t make them any less real.

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“That wasn’t the idea I was interested in capturing. I I knew from the very beginning of making ‘We Met in Virtual Reality’ that I wanted audiences to connect with their virtual personas in the same way that I did; the same truth that I saw them in in the very beginning. I wanted to celebrate that but also on that note, leaving the authentic, live, physical world to the imagination,”Hunting was a.

“That questioning is what leads your curiosity throughout the documentary,”He went on. “I think without that, their stories might be lost. It’s about their emotions. It’s about what they’re dealing with and the way that they’re finding support. Their physical selves don’t really matter, but it’s their story that does.”

Hunting began VR use in 2018 and his first short films were also shot within VRChat. He would show the person behind the VR glasses in those films. He had to rethink his approach after 2020’s pandemic. This forced him to tell a feature-length film entirely in the real world. His goal was to capture the moments of people trapped in their homes, finding comfort in virtual spaces. After spending eight months in VRChat communities online, he ended up editing and filming for the better part of a full year.

All told, he would shoot around 200 hours worth of footage. He followed dancers, teachers, and just plain people who had met their significant other virtually before they actually met in person.

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Hunting, however settles on telling the stories of only a handful of people in the film. One is named “Jenny,”He is an American Sign Language Instructor at Helping Hands. VRChat hosts a virtual classroom. There’s also “Dust Bunny”And her partner “Toaster,”Hunting met Hunting at a VR dancing battle. He is now one of only a few people who can teach belly dancing online. Hunting gets to attend the VR wedding. “IsYourBoi”And “Dragonheart,”We meet them at a virtual burlesque show. They then get engaged and marry over the course the film.

Why Virtual Reality Never Shows Its Subjects IRL
“We Met in Virtual Reality”Joe Hunting, director in real life (left) with his avatar in VRChat/WarnerMedia

What’s so surprising about “We Met in Virtual Reality,”It is, however, how authentic it feels to the documentary format. Hunting strove for a cinema vérité style for the film and found VR to be the perfect medium.

“You’re using a mix of observational storytelling with more poetic language to create a world and create a space that people can really escape and find themselves in,”He stated. “And when you’re filming in VR, that’s not too difficult to do because the visual language is escapism, and it is completely otherworldly.”

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Hunting is just one person, one avatar, and he didn’t enlist any other cameramen to follow his subjects around. Yet he’s able to capture strikingly framed cinematic moments within VRChat in real time from multiple different angles. That’s because, since everything is virtual, his body and his virtual camera are not bound by gravity or the usual limitations. His avatar can fly across the room quickly to obtain coverage from other areas, and he can also levitate his camera to hover over the ceiling like a drone camera. His audio was even edited so that it sounds like the crackly sounds and overlaps one would expect to hear if they were using VR headsets.

“I think that’s the the material that really gives the film its authenticity, is the fact that we’re seeing this world as it is and as it should be. And we feel the weight of the voices in the same way that we would feel it if we were there,”Hunting was a word. “So it was about working with that and not limiting myself.”

Hunting used VRC Lens, an app that displays the VR camera’s images on a separate display in his VR headset. This display feeds back to his desktop monitors. Hunting could also choose to shoot like a handheld camera, which gave him the option to adjust the focus, zoom and exposure to create the intimate, fly on-the-wall feel he desired.

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“I could very easily capture moments in an organic way that you would operate a camera in the physical world. So it was about training myself on this camera and understanding the visual language they wanted to use in the film and in the intimacy of the subjects faces,”He stated. “When it comes to the observational scenes, really feeling my my presence as a camera operator and as a cinematographer, being very close to the subjects and moving and pulling focus and not being afraid to make mistakes and look at the imperfections of the space and that people feel like they’re in it as well as observing it.”

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of “We Met in Virtual Reality”It’s amazing how sincere, positive, and heartfelt this documentary can be. Hunting avoids any of the low-hanging fruit about probing the obvious toxic underbelly that can exist within these online communities, and he’s clearly not cynical about the concept of virtual reality or people spending so much of their time living out their lives in a video game.

“We see so much media and so much representation already out there about how there’s negative aspects to VR. And VRChat specifically is constantly being burdened with negative representation in the media. So I knew that those questions, they already have answers,”Hunting was a word. “My intention with ‘We Met in Virtual Reality’ is to show where we could go if we see this world with the same positive outlook as the incredible people we see in the film and use it for good, make educational communities and help each other and support each other. It is not about ignoring the negative aspects, but embracing the positive ones.”

“We Met in Virtual Reality”On Wednesday, the debuts on HBO and will be available on HBO Max.

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