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Spotlight Interview: Paisley Smith, Filmmaker and VR Creator

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Paisley Smith is a Canadian filmmaker & virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles, California and Vancouver, British Columbia. She grew up on the Unceded Territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Her latest project, Unceded Territories, is a provocative VR experience created in collaboration with First Nations artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, and presents an interactive landscape that grapples with colonialism, climate change and indigenous civil rights. The project had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, and will be shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month.


When did you become interested in VR as an artistic medium?

I kind of fell into VR, specifically. I was TA-ing for Alex McDowell, a Production Designer, and he was teaching a new class at USC called World Building. I came on as his TA, and one of the students in the class was Nonny de la Pena. She is now known as the Godmother of VR; she’s a pioneer of the industry, and she said I should come work for her in the summer.

World Building is the concept of building your story world first, then transferring it to whatever platform you’re excited about, or whatever is available to you. When I started working for her is when I got excited about VR because it had a lot of potential to change the world. We showed one piece all over the world the first year I worked for her, and the wonder and awe in their faces when they took off the headset was so powerful, that even if you are a big skeptic – and I am a skeptic – you were convinced of the power of the medium.

What was the inspiration behind your latest work?

I studied film theory and art history in undergrad, and I was familiar with Lawrence Yuxweluptun’s work as a painter. We became acquaintances when he shared a studio with a good friend of mine in Vancouver.  I ordered a book online that paired creative technologists with fine artists, and Lawrence had an essay in that book. My art history nerd side and my VR experience, all the things I found exciting about the industry, came together. I got a chance to see his VR project, called Inherent Rights,Vision Rights, in Vancouver at the Museum of Anthropology, and I reached out to Lawrence about collaborating on a new piece together. He hadn’t been doing VR since the 90s, so he was pretty excited about us working together and making something with the new technology.

Has it played other festivals, or will it be making its debut at VIFF?

It had its world premiere at Tribeca Immersive in the Spring, and VIFF will be its Canadian premier. Lawrence and I are both from Vancouver, and he lives there now, so it’s a big deal for both of us.

What happens if the technology doesn’t work?

One thing we faced at Tribeca was, we had built this beautiful mask based off one of Lawrence’s sculptures. The idea is that you, the audience, are embodying the character of the Super Predator, someone who is taking resources and using them for your own gain. But the mask blocked the sensors on the Oculus headset, so it caused a lot of interference in the project. So we were faced with the dilemma: do you take the mask off and have a flawless VR experience in the headset, or use the mask and risk it breaking? It’s an interesting problem to have because the mask acted as a way of showing people what’s happening in the virtual world and got people more excited about trying our project. So take the broken project, or not have the excitement of the exhibition design? We’re currently working on a version that doesn’t interfere with the sensors. It’s just juggling the pros and cons, and you need to tell people this is an experimental and emerging industry, so we’re solving problems facing the industry as a whole while we’re showing you this work at a major festival. It’s just part of the journey.

If you were to do this particular piece five years ago, how would it have been different?

It’s my 5 year VR anniversary right now. So, 5 years ago there was such a different audience for this kind of content. People had hardly heard of VR and were very hesitant or unsure of what they were getting into when they put on a headset. This project wouldn’t have existed for a number of reasons, but I think having another project under my belt as a director gave me the confidence to do this project. It deals with pretty serious issues of climate change and Indigenous civil rights, but approaches it in a fun, artistic way, and in order to carry a project through the pipeline independently has required a ton of experience.

Lawrence and I wanted to create a project that played with the audience’s expectations of what they were doing in the world. Once they realize what they’re doing, it’s too late. They realize they had a role in this and they can’t do anything about it. You might not think you have a role in colonization or climate change, but you do.

What would you say is the biggest challenge working in VR?

As an independent creator, it’s extremely tough to fund projects in the beginning, and when you do fund them, it’s hard to get it seen. There isn’t a distribution model yet in place for paying for the projects you make. If you don’t get it onto a major store like Oculus, it’s through the festival pipeline, and that can be challenging if you don’t have an “in” to show your project. I still don’t have access to a lot of my own gear because it’s super expensive and often changing. Committing to the cost of that can be daunting to someone getting into the industry.

Community groups are super helpful. Women in VR/AR is a Facebook group I belong to, but doesn’t solve a lot of the emotional struggles that come with working in a new medium. There’s no person who’s done it one way and it’s worked. It’s all a little bit of luck and a little bit of determination.

How is financing a VR project different from (or perhaps similar to) financing a film?

There’s so many different ways of finding support for your projects, but there isn’t an easy answer. I’m considering using Kickstarter to support Unceded Territories because I still have money to pay on that project. If I want to redevelop the mask, for example, that’s going to take time and research and production, and those things take money. There’s no straightforward way of describing what I’m trying to do to funders.

Do you see a lot of artists in other mediums – painters, filmmakers, writers, etc. – gravitate towards VR?

I see some. There are a lot of people who are excited about the industry, but there are a lot of questions. If you’re a successful painter, what’s the allure of coming to a new medium to create new work? There’s no production pipeline to make money, so if that’s a concern, it’s probably not the right fit. But tons of people are working with amazing artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians. Personally I would love to see more artists getting into the space. But I think transparency is the way we’ll be able to solve a lot of these issues, and right now it feels like there’s a need to say everything is flawless to protect the industry. The whole industry is riding on the backs of people who are trying to make content, so why would you say there’s anything wrong or challenging about it? But at the same time, we need to be transparent about the challenges are so we can solve them, and not set people up for failure who come to create work and they’re not able to sustain themselves.

Do you feel that VR is a more accessible medium? Or is it like any other, likely to be co-opted by an elite audience?

There are a lot of institutions working to make VR technology available to the public. The Knight Foundation just launched a research campaign this month to figure out the best way to share this technology with people. I like to think we’re still at a place where that’s not written in stone. There are challenges with getting technology into the hands of the people, and that’s all technology, not just VR, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get more answers in the next couple years as mobile VR gets better. That might it more accessible because it’s a lower cost point.

It’s a question of art making in general. Who is making it? Who has access to experience it? These are not problems limited to virtual reality. VR is still in a stage where if we fight for it, equality and access is something we can write into the foundation of the industry.

Do you see women and more underrepresented groups participating in the VR community?

I’m fortunate that I started out in the industry working for a woman, and I’ve been surrounded by diverse creators during my time in the industry. But there’s always room for improvement for lifting people up and getting them into the space. A lot of people are fighting for equality in this space. Kamal Sinclair of Sundance Institute did a research project on diversity and inclusion in emerging technology, which is very thorough and presents a lot on how to elevate diverse voices and get people into technology, whatever that technology may be.

Technology changes so quickly these days, do you think audiences are scared by how fast they need to learn in order to keep up with the artwork?

Milo Talwani, [VR artist and Paisley’s collaborator] and I have been running an exhibition this summer called Robot Remix XR, and we have been problem solving how to create a VR exhibition that’s welcoming to audiences who are unfamiliar with the technology. When I first tried a VR headset, I was very hesitant because I knew people would be watching me do it, and I was afraid I’d react in an embarrassing or inappropriate way in the context of viewing the content I was seeing. You get over that quickly when you start going into VR more often, but how do you make it super comfortable for someone to come to a show and get excited about going into a bunch of projects? Strapping something onto your face when you don’t know what you’re about to see can be very intimidating. We’ve tried to create a fun space and have enough staff who are knowledgeable about the experiences to suggest a good opening experience for them.

These are experiences where you learn how to look – look at the sky, at the ground, at the characters. After that you have a better understanding of what to do. Showing a project like Unceded Territories, on the one hand I don’t want to give too much context, but at the same time, I want to make sure they know how to engage with the experience.


Check out https://www.uncededterritories.ca/ for more info on Paisley’s latest work

Jessica Hobbs

About Jessica Hobbs

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a writer’s assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute, while also working as a freelance writer and producer for film, theatre, and TV.