13th British Shorts, Berlin | 2020
"At this time VRChat was still in it’s early developments so I felt compelled to document the first people to be engaging in this new media, especially as most the people there were as excited and inspired about it as I was."
Dir. Angela Clarke

Mon 20.1. 18:00 / Sputnik Kino 1

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A Wider Screen is a 13 minute documentary filmed inside social virtual reality (VR) platform VRChat, explaining this tangible social media in a comic yet heartfelt way. 

Hi Joe, thanks for talking to TNC, how is your 2020 going?

Firstly, thank you it’s a pleasure to be featured! It’s only been two weeks of 2020 and I think it’s been the busiest time of the year for me. Thankfully I’ve just come out of a whirlwind of deadlines for university projects which was motivated with a lot of late screenings of Little Women. Only recently I’ve been able ground myself back in my personal work, which I’m glad about.

Congratulations on having A Wider Screen selected to British Shorts, what does it mean to you to be part of such a great showcase for British Films?

Thank you! I’m so grateful and inspired to be among the other film makers there. I was unsure how A Wider Screen was going to be received by festivals, and it means the world to see it playing in screenings especially overseas in Berlin. 

How did you get introduced to VRChat?

I saw clips of VRChat online, and immediately started reading articles about it. I grew up playing online games, and was always the excitable one to ask, “where are you from? what do you for work”? meanwhile the people on the receiving end mostly just wanted to play the game. Years on seeing VRChat was a natural curiosity for me. Going into it for the first time is like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone, except they’re all robots, anime girls and game characters. The welcoming attitudes there are tremendous however, and the ideas I had regarding film flourished from there. 

What was it about the work that VRChat are doing interested you as a filmmaker?

Initially, I had just an overwhelming curiosity of what socializing with people in VR would feel like emotionally and how real it would be. I did a lot of mingling in different worlds and it became immediately apparent that people had forged such intimate bonds in VRChat, and huge communities existed. At this time VRChat was still in it’s early developments so I felt compelled to document the first people to be engaging in this new media, especially as most the people there were as excited and inspired about it as I was. I couldn’t shake that I’d found myself in this dawn of an incredible form of online communication and I had to tell about it.  

Can you talk about A Wider Screen, what how did the film come about?

In my first proposals of A Wider Screen I knew I wanted the people of VRChat to tell their own story, It frustrated me that a lot of documentaries about the internet and gaming view it from the outside and don’t quite engage in the joys of the experience. I wanted to represent VR communication with the same warmth and excitement you feel when receiving a letter from a pen pal.

Those thoughts naturally lead the decision to shoot the piece inside VRChat, once I realized that I didn’t question it; there are hundreds of users created worlds that gave me the creative freedom to use locations to help tell the story visually, representing the people of the film as their chosen avatars was entertaining and reflective of the subject, and I had a tiny budget. 

The first time I met the dogs is actually seen in the film, in the opening montage where Pluto (brown dog) is taking a bath. Through talking about their VR relationship we realized they were really falling for each other, and the confusion around sexuality and even being together online was beautiful in recognising how intimate people find themselves communicating in this uncanny way. Sexuality and gender became focal themes especially after discussing experimenting with female avatars with the princesses Dutch and Cozmic, who through absolute luck I was able to follow in real life too. 

"My friend worked a lot with older people, and had been keeping an eye out for me for someone we thought might fit the bill."

Noah Robinson I discovered at a lovely VR talk show called Endgame, and his work studying VR in regard to therapy was / is amazing, and I couldn’t resist touching on the idea. Breaking away from the dogs and princesses for a moment also felt necessary and I just love the cut to him with his awkward uncanny avatar.

Did you have any apprehensions about tackling such a unique subject for your documentary?

No actually I think it being a unique subject fuelled my freedom in fact. I was apprehensive that I was representing VRChat very positively; because most audiences had never heard of the platform I believed it was much more valuable for people to see the joy in it and question the negatives for themselves. 

What would you say have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned during and after making A Wider Screen?

When creating the piece, building friendships with the people I was filming was invaluable in not only creating a comfortable on camera atmosphere, but to have fun and learn more about them outside of filming. Lucky for me this wasn’t hard as we were in a virtual utopia filled with games and hang outs from space to the ocean. 

Be grateful for every recognition of the film, feel proud of your work and listen to people’s reactions. I almost went straight into the next film after A Wider Screen though I had planned a 6 month exchange to New Zealand, where I spent a lot of time listening. That reflective down time was valuable in grounding myself back in what I was creating, and I think it’s healthy to find inspiration in other things for a while like New Zealand’s incredible bird life, which I fell in love with.

"If you have little to no cash but a lot of enthusiasm for your subject matter, that will keep you motivated when things seem impossible, or you hit a stumbling block along the way."

What was the most challenging part of making this film? 

Definitely balancing the whole production with my job and full time university, I remember I went through a week of having two nose bleeds a day because of the stress put myself under… Not a proud moment for me. I’ve learnt not to put so much pressure on myself, or else it comes out in literal blood. Finding the edit was naturally the most challenging as shooting was so malleable and convenient, simplifying was what made the story obvious to me. 

Looking back is there anything you would want to do differently on this film?

Less nose bleeds. Although being completely stuck in the project was an electric experience, I’m not sure it was healthy. I was taught at design school in New Zealand to paste my whole creative process on the walls of the studio, and once I really let myself be free in that way I haven’t looked back. Seeing a film as paper on a wall unconsciously helps you reflect I think, I actively structure edits with paper now, and so far no nose bleeds. 

You are in your final year of film production what has this experience been like for you?

The most memorable experience was actually on my exchange in New Zealand. I did a variety of design courses there which emphasised individual expression and understanding your own creativity. At a practical based film school you’re really pushed to engage in the fundamentals of film making and storytelling, which was great, and I found a love for sound production, but I only realized how my creative brain works in NZ; which I think is extremely important for finding your feet after graduation. I directed once in my first year at film school, in the experimental course, but sadly I was the only one to really engage in that class. 

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking? 

Yes, I did dip into photography throughout a lot of my teenage life, but then I really missed sound. Throughout college when I was 16 – 18, I created around ten experimental documentaries, and I that’s where I found my passion for documentary specifically. Through university my passion has only grown for documentary, I’m not sure I’ll ever direct fiction, we’ll see what the future brings.

What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?

Regarding my personal film work, Ben Jarret one of my design tutors in NZ once threw a poster up on the studio wall that read “procrastinate whilst doing, don’t procrastinate about doing” which always resonated with me. Another is from the fabulous Brune Brown and her TED talk on vulnerability, she states “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” I used to be quite hung up on intimate topics needing to be treated with maturity, she helped me feel comfortable in putting joy and fun into my stories without making them feel vulnerable, but stronger instead.

What are you currently working on?

Currently I’m editing another documentary short about full body tracking dancers who perform stage shows in VRChat, which will go to festivals this year. Similarly, I’m in pre-production for a short web series filmed in VRChat, will be announcing that this year.

And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from A Wider Screen?

To ask questions about what this upcoming media should be, and to want to engage in it! This could easily become a very normal way of communicating, so the more people that try it, the more we can bring it up with positive intentions and a safe future. On a more emotional note, I’d like people to reflect on the stunning progressive attitudes the VRChat community have regarding mental health, gender and LGBTQ+ representation.

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