Chris Milk: The VRenaissance Man

Everyone should know who this guy is. He has spearheaded the VR movement in extremely creative ways, ranging from art installations to moving short films that have influenced policy change in war-torn countries.

He is an entrepreneur, innovator, director, photographer, and immersive artist. Essentially, he’s a modern renaissance man. He started off his career as a music video director, then expanded to bridging the gap between emerging VR technologies and quality storytelling. He’s been featured at the MOMA, Tate Modern in London, and the Cent Quatre in Paris, just to name a few. He presented a TED talk in 2015 on VR’s capability as an empathy machine to drive social change.

Milk’s TED Talk on VR as an Empathy Machine

Milk discussed his various projects as an artist and focused on his UN project with Within, a VR company he currently owns. Him and his team created a short film, Clouds Over Sidra, which followed the life of a 12-year old Syrian refugee in 360 video. Milk used this film to influence policymaking decisions in the UN after screening it with HMDs for UN members. After the success of the project, Within continued to create more films in 360 video as a means to advance social change in marginal parts of the world. Milk’s main argument was that VR is the only medium that completely immerses you in an environment, and therefore, is the medium that can evoke the most empathy. Amazing, huh?

I was very moved by the talk and the actual film. I think I teared up during the film (though I couldn’t tell because I watched it through my Google Cardboard). I completely agree with Milk in his endeavor to establish VR as a tool for social change through immersive, compelling, quality storytelling. It is something I want to do in my own career as a creator, as well. I’m curious about the implications VR will have in domestic policymaking. Imagine if it were a requirement that Congress watched VR films of their constituents’ struggles, from poverty-stricken neighborhoods to racial discrimination — if Milk’s point that VR is the ultimate empathy machine is true, then we would likely see a much more proactive Congress. So much of policymaking is influenced by benefactors and vested interests that are entirely detached from the tangible needs of the constituents. VR could have the potential to turn how policies are approached upside down and create a culture of empathy. I’m also excited about the implications in VR filmmaking — Milk touched upon that idea briefly in his talk, but I still think it’s a medium that hasn’t been established yet. Imagine the level of intimacy with characters we could afford audiences through 360 filmmaking. It’s self-explanatory, but after watching Milk’s UN film, I immediately started considering the possibilities for creating quality content for entertainment in VR.

Milk’s VR Projects: Within

I focused mostly on his Within films. After each film, I was left amazed and wanting more. The one that stood out to me the most was Invasion! Featuring Ethan Hawke, the animated short film depicts a bunny-like character interacting with aliens from outer space on earth. It is quite adorable and visually stunning. It was from BaoBab studios (VR animation studio) and directed by Eric Darnell (director of Madagascar). It even got selected for the Cannes and Tribeca film festivals. In short, the film was  a huge success in furthering the establishment of VR as a cinematic medium.

The film’s direction was clearly influenced by the fact that it would be screened in VR, as the shots and orientations of the characters in relation to one another and their environment encouraged the audience to move around to follow the story. When I watched it, I felt an urge to keep up with the story and take as much as I can out of it. The whole world was so beautiful — natural, majestic landscapes and gorgeous sound design that made you want to follow every detail of the story. I’m excited about how films are wrote and directed within the purview of VR, as it was clearly paced and shot according to the predicted users’ experience of it. For example, you see a flight of birds above, so you follow it, only to find a UFO headed towards you when you turn around. Minute details of orientation like this are present throughout the entire film — I see it as a form of manipulation of the audience. But then again, that’s what films and TV shows are doing already. In VR, however, the level of control you have over your audience is far greater, as demonstrated in Invasion!

Chris Milk has various other projects you should also check out here, here, and here.

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