At Facebook Connect, we announced IN PROTEST: Grassroots Stories from the Front Lines, a 360° film series chronicling the unsung heroes of today’s racial justice movement. A four-part documentary, IN PROTEST devotes each volume to a particular region: Minneapolis; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and Atlanta. For those not able to participate in the protests and marches happening around the country and for those who want to learn more from leaders on the ground, this experience drives home the importance of current events to inspire change. Volume 1, IN PROTEST: Minneapolis & St. Paul, is themed around the grassroots nature of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as first responders, and it’s available for free on Oculus TV for Oculus Quest.
IN PROTEST is the latest project from GRX Immersive Labs, a collective of creators and changemakers led by Managing Director Alton Glass. “Our mission is to show storytellers and educators how to leverage emerging technologies so they can craft compelling immersive experiences,” Glass explains.
Glass is an alum of Oculus Launch Pad, our program designed to support promising VR creators from diverse backgrounds by providing hands-on training and support. Of his Launch Pad experience, Glass notes, “It was a reward—peer-to-peer learning and mentorship, gold! I was not a developer and was able to learn a new language and way of collaborating.”
That new language and collaborative spirit is on full display with IN PROTEST, which Voices of VR calls “a powerful and profound series that starts to show the power of how virtual reality storytelling can be used to tell stories that go beyond what other mediums can achieve.”
We sat down with Glass and IN PROTEST Director & Producer Adam Davis-McGee to learn more.
What was the inspiration behind IN PROTEST? How has the project changed over time?
Alton Glass: Bringing the protest to the people who may not be able to experience history in the making and hopefully inspiring them to find their own means of protest. The people are continuing to push the movement forward and this is not just a “one-off“ moment, so this gives us the energy and hope to keep pushing out these experiences and sharing the voices of the people doing their part to create impact from community to community.
Adam Davis-McGee: IN PROTEST started with a conversation between Facebook Reality Labs Executive Producer Amy Seidenwurm, Alton Glass, and myself surrounding how we capture and archive the protests that were taking place around the US in response to (primarily) the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. We wanted to figure out how to bring the conversation of Black Lives Matter into the immersive space. We also wanted to put a spotlight on the unsung heroes of the movement. And we wanted to show how Black people specifically protest beyond just taking to the streets and how this idea of protest is something that we as Black people live every single day. The inspiration for the project hasn’t really changed—these are still our guiding themes and intentions. However, we are constantly reevaluating ways to responsibly and creatively facilitate the experience for the viewer when introducing 360° protest footage.
How did you first get involved in the VR space?
ADM: I first got involved in the VR space in 2016 when I launched my XR start up in Atlanta, Georgia. It was an incredibly awesome learning experience to begin curating Immersive stories and experiences. My team and I worked on everything from 360° music videos to augmented reality engagements to custom mixed reality activations. We just dove right in, got our hands dirty, and started collaborating and fostering incredible relationships around Atlanta and the US. I really give thanks to not only my co-founders, Ricardo Spicer and James Few, but also the Atlanta XR community for being so open and so receptive to the projects we were working on and putting out. Atlanta is still a very supportive XR community.
AG: I attended VRLA expo and was moved by some great experiences. Around that time, the barrier to entry for the tech was extremely high and I wanted others to be able to participate who were ahead in the learning curve, so I got involved as an investment to plant the seed and share what I could and also learn from them. I literally started over from directing feature films to just being a student and hanging out at Radiant Images.
Did you run into any technical obstacles while filming IN PROTEST? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
AG: Plenty. With VR, you have various tech and financial challenges along with limited time to try and seize the moments that matter and get them out. We had to put our pride to the side where we seek artistic and visual perfection and lean on the message and the urgency of the moment, so technically you run into areas you don’t have time to make perfect but overall you can still feel the experience.
ADM: Some of the technical obstacles we ran into while filming IN PROTEST were certainly time-related because we’re trying to move with urgency and agency—but also COVID-19-related to make sure that our team is safe and our interview subjects are comfortable with coming and speaking in front of the camera. There were technical obstacles in post-production trying to deliver an immersive journalism story with creative integrity and punctuality. And even right now as we are continuing to film and capture the stories, we are fine-tuning and tweaking our technical strategy to be efficient for our team while we collaborate remotely and turn around things quickly for each episode. Shooting an immersive journalism docu-series during a pandemic is not something I would highly recommend unless you have a lot of time!
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?
AG: Our Project Manager John Agyepong has a background in music, so he tapped G’harah “PK” Degeddingseze to produce the music, who has done some of my favorite songs with artists Chris Brown, 2Chainz, and Toni Braxton. He created some very touching compositions that move the experience. Our Sound Designer Eduardo Patricio really stepped up with our intense schedule to work with our Director on a nice spatial audio experience.
ADM: We really love the music and sound design for this so far. The emotional intensity dials up when we lay down the music underneath our subjects. Same with sound. The soundtrack of a protest isn’t typically a pleasant one and can be very triggering. So you are mindful of what you push in on and what you don’t. Because Minneapolis had to come out so quickly, we weren’t able to truly take advantage of our incredibly talented Composer “PK” and Sound Designer Eduardo. In the remaining episodes, you’re going to see a much more in-depth and robust audio experience. One of the things that Alton always reminds us of is how music and sound can do a lot more for your project then certain visuals can. And we are going to lean on that much more moving forward as we tell the stories in the coming episodes.
How do you think VR will continue to impact storytelling and culture writ large in the future?
ADM: VR will continue to impact storytelling and culture because it’s unapologetic. I believe the foundation we are laying now will bear beautiful fruit in the future so social justice initiatives can have an even greater impact in transforming culture. Protest might look completely different down the line with regards to digital witnessing, and VR will have a place in that.
AG: Hopefully we can get our location-based experiences back going and, in the meantime, as VR headsets get better pricing like the new Quest 2, we will see more adoption and compelling experiences. VR has the power to create community, and with the right experience, we can build something impactful together.
What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?
ADM: My advice is to think about what you truly love and are passionate about, explore the landscape of what’s out there, and commit to failing and re-tooling your craft. The VR landscape is wide open for you to experience and innovate. We are in a climate of reimagining what policing looks like, what storytelling and image-making looks like, what education and teaching looks like, what justice and equality looks like—VR is arguably the most explicit tool to actualize the reimagining and build new worlds.
AG: Tap into a community, introduce yourself, offer what skillsets you have, or even just grab coffee. I’m old school, so I like to get my hands dirty and dive in. No role is too small when gaining the knowledge I need to advance my craft and my vision. It will all work out and pay off if you build with the right team and intentions.
What’s next for you?
AG: We are in post on Volume 2 of IN PROTEST where we captured The March in DC, are preparing for Volume 3 and 4 of IN PROTEST, and will continue sharing the global movement from communities across the country. GRX Immersive is growing and looking to continue developing creative entrepreneurs and immersive experiences.
ADM: I look forward to sharpening my experiential design and virtual production skills to produce stories that place Black people and our intellectual properties at the center. So I’ll be continuing to put together creative ideas that create space and opportunity for BIPOC in this XR arena.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
ADM: Yes. Don’t be afraid to call out the injustices you see. Black Lives Matter.
AG: For information on what’s next and how we can continue to build the immersive economy together, visit www.GRXimmersive.com.