In 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, director Joe Hunting turned to the VR world to compose an immersive documentary about its various communities that practice inclusion and freedom, inhabiting a digital, yet no-less deeply felt reality. Hunting’s “We Met in Virtual Reality,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, follows a variety of people from all over the world, in their avatar form, to capture their stories of loss, love and friendship away from an all-too-judgmental physical world. The result is an empathetic, humanistic, gracefully tender yet visually arresting documentary that’s also one of the most adventurous films of the year.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Hunting talked about his film’s influences, such as “Paris is Burning,” the use of Vance Joy’s “Riptide,” and the calming connectivity offered by VR.
There are quite a few storylines and people you talked with. How did you decide who to focus on in this world?
The decision to choose the subjects had a lot of different inspirations, but the key for me was looking for voices that could connect with people. Not only in the VR audience, people who have tried VR and know what that technology is, but also people who've never tried it before and could relate to these people and relate to their stories. And I felt the subjects that are in the documentary: Jenny, IsYourBoi, Dragon Heart, Dust Bunny, Toaster, and others—they all had a story and a voice that all audiences could connect with. That was really the key to my decision. But I interviewed various people all around VR chat and immersed myself in about eight different communities. So it's certainly a journey of patience and finding the right people. And I feel very grateful that the community allowed me to do that.
What sort of hesitancy, if any, was there among the subjects to participate? I would think on a platform that can afford some anonymity, this might have been somewhat difficult?
I wouldn't say it was difficult. Not to pat myself on the back, but, for me, my approach to the film was always, as you would approach a live-action documentary, was to always be very transparent with everyone who was participating in the film: What I was doing and how I was going to represent their stories in the documentary. So when meeting subjects and having those intimate conversations that we see in the film, we were always on a level, the same level of anonymity and trust and understanding of where this footage might go and how it's going to be used. I think that was extremely important in this scenario. Maybe more so than if you were making a live action piece. Because it's harder to appreciate where this filmmaker is coming from—Who is this director? And where are my words going?
Because, you know, I'm not there traveling to them, showing up with my real face and showing them the footage after we've shot it and showing them the rest of the crew. It's just me as an avatar. So that was really important to me, ethically speaking. I didn't receive any pushback, thankfully, because of that. And I think that just comes with transparency and honesty as well. But I can say most of the subjects, if I had asked them to make this documentary and to have done what we did in real life, most of them would've said “no.” It’s the fact that it was in VR that made them feel comfortable and allowed them to share their stories openly.
I was reading in your interview with Filmmaker Magazine that you were influenced by “Paris is Burning.” I was wondering if you could go into more detail about how that film shaped your vision for this one.
Oh yeah, absolutely. “Paris is Burning” really inspired my ideas around the club scene, with the kind of burlesque show that we see in the documentary. I was really excited to represent that community and do it in a way that was a celebration of it by speaking from inside the space rather than from the outside. So certainly in the more exotic dance shows and the performance aspect of the documentary, there's a lot of “Paris is Burning” influence there. Of course, “Paris is Burning” is not quite about burlesque, but it has a very similar vein in the visual language of the documentary and how Jennie Livingston balanced that with these really intimate interviews across various different characters. I think the key inspiration with that film is how it follows around four characters throughout this community and throughout the documentary. How she balanced those arcs in between each other and allowed them to flow between each other as well. So in its themes of dance expression and its narrative structure is why it was really an inspiration to me.
Yeah, I can definitely feel Herzog there. Same with Andrea Arnold. But “Paris is Burning” somewhat surprised me. Also much of what informs pathos and empathy for humans arises from a person’s facial expressions, but the expressions here are minimal. How do you pull pathos in a digital or artificial world?
That was naturally really important to me. That was the peak I was trying to climb to where the documentary was able to reach that point where people could really grasp the authenticity behind these avatars and with these people. I think my key to finding that in camera and in sound and in the language of film firstly, was recording their voices through their microphones. Often their voices sound crackly and poppy and not quite right. And it's because we were recording through their own headsets, in their own spaces, with their own sound quality coming through the VR chat. I think because you feel like you're there and you have that authentic voice coming through the avatar, and you feel the weight, and you feel the space of where they are—it really helps you build an image in your imagination of that person and the situation that they're in.
It's a very subtle decision, but I think it's actually a very powerful output. On the other side, in a more visual way, having a very distinct camera presence, like the Andrea Arnold inspiration, in really feeling the weight of my camera as a cinematographer, being in the space with them and having a sense of spatial awareness and pulling focus and embracing imperfections also really adds to the madness of the film. Through madness, you can reach that peak even further and allow people to feel like this is real and they're with real people.
Now that you’ve mentioned the sound, I’m really fascinated by how you created your soundscape. What was the process of recording, cleaning, and arranging the recordings?
Although the subjects are recorded through the headsets and I was embracing that, I certainly did a lot of dialogue cleaning to ensure that their voices were audible and not too scratchy. I spent a good few days just cleaning up pops and cracks and pieces of their dialogue that were just frustrating and were not lending themselves to those ideas I discussed previously.
What I would love to talk about, and reveal, a bit of a secret here, is I only recorded voices throughout the entire documentary. There's a few moments where I captured music. You know, the songs that play and some ambient sounds that are made in-world. But I would say 80% of my production was only recording the voices of the subjects, which means all of the ambient sound that you hear: the car scratches, the wind in the trees, the lake, and the insects buzzing, that was all added in post. And I was very delicate on how much sound to add as I always wanted to stay truthful to the space by having that feeling of disjointedness. So I didn't add foley. I didn't add sound effects. That really felt like a little bit too much. When Ray lights the lantern there's no fire sound. So I limited how much I designed and how much I added. But regardless I did add a lot of ambient sound just to bring that truth up. The soundscape is almost all artificial, apart from the voices, but you could argue the whole documentary is artificial in a sense, in the way that it's in VR and in this fabricated world.
I really liked the use of Vance Joy’s “Riptide,” which is covered by one of the avatars. I was wondering when you knew you were going to compose an entire date scene around it, and if you were weary of including covers of known songs in what’s probably an unknown world for many viewers?
Oh, of course there was hesitancy because, you know, well known songs are hard to grasp in the world of film and are usually very expensive. I always wanted to capture the truth of the space and not influence the music too much myself. There's a pretty good mix of tracks that were the subjects’ decision. It was music that was playing at that moment. For example, at the opening of the film, we start where everyone is piled into this pickup truck and driving like mad across an island listening to War’s ”Low Rider.” And that scene just wouldn't be the same without “Low Rider.” From the moment I shot that I was really passionate about getting the rights to that song and using it in the film just because I knew it would be an iconic moment, and it's a moment that always makes me smile.
In a similar way we see two performances in the film, and the first one is a live performance of “Riptide.” It comes at just the perfect moment to really establish Dust Bunny and Toaster’s relationship and what they were going through and how they were falling in love in this space. It's a completely live performance from one of their best friends in VR. It just spoke so much truth to me on their relationship and the world that they live in, in VR. And so again, I was passionate to include that to help show their truth. A lot of the time, the popular songs came from the subjects. I was passionate about including them for them and for the film.
People during the pandemic were struggling to fully mourn their loved ones, and here you have a grief stricken scene where Ray releases a lantern into the sky for his deceased brother, which is so cathartic. What was your visual and tonal approach for that scene?
That scene was certainly one of the most emotional pieces of film that I've shot. I brought Ray and Jenny very intently into this clearing in a field as I really wanted their moment to feel in a natural space where it's calm and serene, and we can really feel their voices and be with them in this moment and have a sense of spontaneity. I could never have predicted Ray would lose his brother during that time. And I feel extremely grateful that he was so gracious to include this story in the film. And I asked him to simply share what had happened. And Ray shared this story and Jenny kindly translated. And I knew after that moment, I wanted to give Ray a moment of peace and solitude to honor and respect his brother.
I went location scouting to find an appropriate scene, such as an outside field. And I found this lantern world where you can light lanterns and set them free. It felt like the perfect tone and action for that sequence and for him as well, personally. I brought them into that world and simply asked Ray to light a lantern for his brother. I had no idea he was going to deliver the prayer and blessing that he did. I actually had no idea what he was saying because I did not know American Sign Language at the time. But I could feel the weight of his words. And I feel very lucky to have caught such an emotional moment in his life and in that moment. So I really didn't know that he was delivering that prayer, but the landscape was certainly intentional as a way to let him pay respects to his brother.
It’s just such a fantastic scene. When I was re-watching it last night I remembered how much it destroyed me when I saw it during Sundance.
It's powerful. It's his body language that naturally really carries that moment. It really allows audiences to connect with sign language in a way that personally I've never been able to connect with before. And I hope audiences really get to feel what the joy and the pleasure of seeing that language and speaking that language is.
What emotional reaction did you have exploring this world, especially during the pandemic?
Well, I'd been in VR for a few years before coming into “We Met in Virtual Reality,” and I was working on another documentary series at the beginning of the pandemic when the first lockdown came in. It was during that other production when VR chat specifically became a second home to me. All of my friends and the colleagues I was working with on that series became so much closer. They were my only social outlet, really. That production became my full time job. And that was really an inspiring moment for me. I wanted to seal that moment in a time capture and celebrate that and understand those relationships in a deeper way, which really led me to “We Met in Virtual Reality.”
And I really let myself be patient. I gave myself grace while spending so much time in VR and just trusting in the fact that this is a production, and it has a cause, and I am learning so much and just meeting all these new people. It could have been an isolating experience, but it was probably the most social year of my life. I was meeting people from all around the world, all the time, every day. And so during the pandemic I had an extremely socially exhausting experience; which I think is probably the opposite experience to everyone out there. That's what the film was about. I really became a subject of my own film through this production and finding family and a community out of VR.
What do you hope viewers take from your film?
I hope people walk away from the documentary feeling enlightened, firstly, about a new technology that they've likely never heard of or a social world they've never come into contact with. But also a film that they can connect their emotions to, and consider their own self-expression, and consider how close their relationships are with others and realize how much we need support and community and family in our lives.
"We Met in Virtual Reality" is now streaming on HBO Max.