VR Visionaries: Lily Baldwin + Saschka Unseld

Oculus Blog
Posted by Oculus VR
August 2, 2017

When dancer Lily Baldwin and director Saschka Unseld were accepted into the Sundance Institute New Frontier | Jaunt VR Residency Program in 2016, they had a vision to merge the worlds of choreography and cinema in a kinetic, 360° space. The result of their partnership, Through You tells one woman’s formative love story over a lifetime.

Following its world premiere at Sundance, the New York Times called the film “a powerful case for pairing dance and virtual reality.” Today, we’re excited to share that Through You is now available on Oculus Video for Gear VR.

To celebrate, we sat down with co-writers, directors, and editors Saschka Unseld and Lily Baldwin to discuss their creative process.

Lily Baldwin and Saschka Unseld. Photo by Albert Sanchez and Pedro Zalba.

What was the initial inspiration for Through You? How did the project change over time?

Saschka Unseld: I’ve loved dance all my life, but I was never able to talk dance. Working with Lily and helping her express herself in VR helped me be able to talk dance. Beyond that, narratively, I was always fascinated by the idea of memory and that we carry the memories of all our life with us. I came back to this fascination with memory and wondered, “How would the world look if we were a memory of a person that someone keeps around for all her life?”

Lily Baldwin: We both feel there’s a unique power to a live, moving body in real life/real time, and we wanted to explore the limitations and possibilities of the virtual medium to see if we could harness that inherent electricity and do something new with it. What if we put the viewer inside of a dance and even dared them to move and engage themselves as a dancer?

In my work, I’ve also personally been interested in themes of mortality and time passing. It was important to me to show an older, vital woman moving in VR. We did several test shoots that helped us understand how to capture that energy, and once we figured out what worked and what didn’t, we honed the narrative to work with our techniques. It became clear that we would lose the authenticity of a performance if we didn’t move the camera by hand, responding in the moment to what the performer was feeling and dancing. So we went to great lengths to create an environment on-set where we could invisibly be present with the performers, filming and engaging with them in up to 40-minute takes. Our story goals were focused on themes of intimacy. Technically, we wanted to break the rules in order to expand preconceptions of possibility.

Marni Wood and Amari Cheatom. Photo by Cameron Bertron.

How does your background in dance and choreography influence your approach to VR filmmaking?

LB: I’ve discovered that VR is my native thinking. After dancing professionally for 10 years on many stages, from proscenium to in-the-round, moving inside a 360° world is what I’ve been trained to do. I’ve also been dancing in my own films for years and always treat the camera as another dance partner. These two elements combined inform my creative choices in this space. I feel my thoughts before I think them. Saschka and I developed a unique dialogue of moving and listening, trial and error, on all aspects of this production.

Lily Baldwin, Amari Cheatom, and Joanna Kotze. Photo by Cameron Bertron.

Tell us about your experience in the Sundance Institute New Frontier | Jaunt VR Residency Program.

SU: I’ve never seen anything like the Sundance Labs and Residency. I’ve never seen a place so purely about helping people bring their vision to life—despite all its original incompleteness, its rawness, being so much in its infancy. Believing that underneath all this lies a genuine idea that’s worth telling is so important in the creative process. Seeing this embraced by everyone at Sundance moves me to this day.

LB: Each of these communities were pivotal incubation spaces for us. Sundance really encouraged us to trust our creative guts and try all risky impulses—equally, they were right there workshopping our story, treating our script with the integrity of a feature narrative. The Jaunt team was hugely generous with their resources, and we were able to solve our creative problems in a spacious way: ample time with the camera testing all movement and dance options. Brooke Chapman was with us every step, teaching us about the camera and communicating with our director of photography Dagmar Weaver-Madsen. There was a real fusion between art and technology.

Amari Cheatom and Joanna Kotze. Photo by Dagmar Weaver-Madsen.

How does the use of cuts and camera movement complement—or challenge—the dancers’ movements?

SU: After the first VR projects came out a few years ago, people were quick to ask what the language of VR is and what the rules of VR are. There was a rush for constants to make everyone feel safer—but these were false truths that were only created and retold to make everyone feel like they knew what they were doing. Breaking all these concepts—that camera movement needs to be sparse and controlled, that cuts are very slow things—bringing us back to acknowledge that we all know nothing was really important to us.

LB: The editing is choreography that wakes the viewer up. It creates a dance within the dance that asks the viewer to do more than just sit back and watch something pretty. Each one of our deliberate cuts is a unique courtship with the viewer that aims to not only tell story, but to communicate the feeling of being a dancer.

What does VR as a platform add to the experience?

LB:Through You was made with the tools of VR and couldn’t exist otherwise. VR distinctly puts our viewer in the culpable hotspot of feeling—right at the center of love and memory. Its 360° span demands that the viewer twist and turn themselves through space. As they follow, the story they find their own body.

SU: There’s this question out there that people often ask themselves in the beginning of a VR project: “Why VR?” I think this question is misguided. No one who writes poetry asks themselves, “Why words?” No one who paints a picture asks themselves, “Why paint?” It’s through embracing the process while making it, through expressing ourselves uniquely in the medium and embracing its strengths rather than fighting them that we create pieces of work that truly embrace a medium. That lies in the process, not as a gatekeeper question in the beginning.

Amari Cheatom and Marni Wood. Photo by Cameron Bertron.

Given that Through You progresses chronologically through several decades, would you consider it a narrative film or something different?

LB: I would absolutely consider this a narrative film, as I think we need to rethink our narrative conventions. I’ve also referred to it as a visceral poem.

SU: For me, everything is a narrative as soon as we as experience it. We are inherently narrative people—we even make narratives out of things where there is no narrative. We add beginnings and middles and ends to everything because it’s engrained in how our life is lived out. The only question, then, is if it’s a good narrative or one that is boring.

Joanna Kotze and Amari Cheatom. Photo by Cameron Bertron.

Where do you think VR will take us next?

SU: I have no idea, and I’m incredibly happy about that. The only thing I know is that we haven’t seen anything yet, and the biggest worry I have is that, right now, people are just repeating the kind of VR that’s been done before.

LB: I’m particularly interested in mixed reality spaces that seamlessly blur the lines between “reality” into alternate realms. VR, AR, and MR all have the capacity to stretch our perception, and I’d like to see more work that engages our neuroplasticity through a bold approach to style and pointed exploration of content. This work ultimately has the potential to expand our perspectives both personally and globally.

Joanna Kotze and Amari Cheatom. Photo by Dagmar Weaver-Madsen.

What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?

SU: There’s tons of things I want to do, and all of them need to include doing things that have never been done before. Lily and I have been talking about what could be the next level for dance, where people think, “Wow, this is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” We have the first kernels of that idea, but since it’s not been done, it’s hard to describe. Maybe it’s because of that that we couldn’t be more excited.

LB: Saschka and I are working on our next project, further pushing the scope of free-moving dance in VR. Additionally, I have another VR/AR project, Glass Invincible You, in the works. I’m also working on an episodic series for TV and feature film starring NYC teenagers. In all genres, I continue to be interested in stylized dreamscapes as storytelling tools.

Lily Baldwin, Amari Cheatom, and Marni Wood. Photo by Cameron Bertron.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

LB:Through You took a huge team of support, and I wanted to give a shout out to our producers, Shruti Ganguly and Elliott Whitton, and performers Joanna Kotze, Amari Cheatom, and Marni Wood, in addition to our composer Mark degli Antoni and sound artist and binaural mixer Q Department. The whole production team, pre- and post, fearlessly jumped on board treating every choice with aesthetic precision. Yelena Rachitsky and Colum Slevin from Oculus and Kamal Sinclair and Ruthie Doylefrom Sundance New Frontier have been believers in this project from the start. Thank you.

SU: What Lily said. These projects take a huge leap of faith from everyone. Believing in and creating something when no one knows if it will actually work or not is hard—assembling a team and getting the support for it from Sundance and Oculus is something we’ll be forever thankful for.

Saschka Unseld and Lily Baldwin. Photo by Cameron Bertron.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Lily and Saschka. We can’t wait to see your next project come together!

Check out Through You today on Oculus Video for Gear VR.

— The Oculus Team