Virtual Reality

3 Stories


Daniel Askill

Take Flight

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Virtual reality is here. We may not know exactly how the technology will evolve or how it will be integrated into our daily lives, but somewhat suddenly, it has arrived. Few companies are embracing VR as a new medium for storytelling as much as the New York Times. Recently, they tapped filmmaker and artist Daniel Askill to utilize VR in creating a series of immersive portraits titled, “Take Flight.” We caught up with Askill on a recent visit to NeueHouse Hollywood, getting his take on the technology’s future, and learning a bit about his identity as a filmmaker.

 

NeueJournal: How do you see virtual reality enhancing the power of good storytelling?

 

Daniel Askill: This is my first experience making a virtual reality piece and I must say that, as a result, I’m kind of a convert. Obviously, it’s going to be an amazing tool for storytelling but I kind of believe that, moving forward, it’s going to get close to being a kind of parallel to real life. It’s got incredible potential for storytelling but even more so, it’s got this incredible potential for a whole new form of experiential entertainment and education.

 

NJ: We were in the Miami program with Vanity Fair and we brought Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer in immersive journalism. It was incredible — putting on the headset and being in a refugee camp in Syria.

 

DA: Imagine when it’s not the goggles anymore but it’s embedded in a contact lens or something. We can pretty quickly start imagining a future where people are living in paradises of their creation. That’s kind of the dystopian, as an incredible amount of beautiful stuff is gonna come of it as well — being able to make people empathize with other people’s situations is gonna be a really powerful way to use the technology.

 

NJ: Do you have any reservations or anxieties about the technology?

 

DA: I wouldn’t say it is an anxiety, but you can also start wondering if we are already living in some weird extrapolation of some technology…it can get quite trippy.

 

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NJ: Do you see virtual reality as the natural next step for motion picture or is it a separate medium entirely?

 

DA: I still love the motion picture — the idea of a frame, the control you have of a composition in that space, directing someone through a story. Hopefully, VR won’t be something that obliterates that craft.

 

NJ: What is your favorite saying or aphorism?

 

DA: I mean this is a bit cheeseball but, if I’m on a shoot things are getting a bit hairy, I will often find myself saying in my head, “Bring love and good energy.” I find that that chills me out.

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Ksubi Kolors Directed by Daniel Askill

 

NJ: Who’s your favorite poet if you have one?

 

DA: The first name that comes to mind is a filmmaker who I think really is a poet — Tarkovsky. My favorite films are ones that verge on poetry more than traditional storytelling.

 

NJ: What do you mean when you say film that is more like poetry?

 

DA: Something that is less of a traditional narrative and more storytelling through mood and connection between image and music. I guess there is a sense of poetry in metaphor, abstraction, things that are implied, things that leave more space for the viewer.

 

NJ: What natural talent do you wish you would have been gifted with?

 

DA: This is a bit of a supernatural talent, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind just because of this project: I’d like to be able to fly.

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Sia’s “Elastic Heart” Directed by Daniel Askill

 

NJ: What do you hate?

 

DA: When people are judgmental. I don’t hate people who are judgmental, but the judgmental sentiment is something I find difficult.

 

NJ: Where would you like to live?

 

DA: I have been thinking the next place I would live is Los Angeles or back home. Where I’m from in Sydney, you can have an urban life but still have a home in nature. LA has that too. Where I live in New York, I have a house upstate.

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Paul McCartney’s Hope For The Future Directed by Daniel Askill

 

NJ: Do you have any heroes?

 

DA: Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Tarkovsky. People like David Lynch have always been a big influence on me, not just regarding filmmaking but also a type of attitude towards creativity — creativity as an intuitive force that you need to be still to tap into.

 

NJ: What book inspires you?

 

DA: This collection of stories by a guy called J.G. Ballard. He’s an English writer with a really broad range, most of it is pretty weird and sci-fi. The other book is called ‘Sketchbook With Voices’ which is a book I picked up when I was 19. It’s edited by Jerry Saltz and has a whole bunch of empty pages and at top of each page is a line or paragraph from an artist that is a call to action for a young creative, maybe something as simple as, “Empty yourself from everything.” As you flip through, it really gets your mind thinking in different ways.

 

Photography: Shane McCauley for NeueJournal

Chris Milk

Technical & Creative Frontiers

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Chris Milk is everywhere. He made a name for himself directing music videos for the likes of Kanye West, U2, Arcade Fire and Green Day, but now the scope of his work extends well beyond the arena of MTV, as he’s become more than just a great storyteller, but one of the pioneers innovating how we tell stories. Straddling the realms of art, photography and film, Milk’s comfort zone seems to lie on both the technical and creative frontiers —  he’s always pushing for new methodologies of experiencing content.

 

The collaboration between Milk’s companies, Vrse & Vrse.works, and The New York Times Magazine will be a bellwether experiment for the practice of virtual reality enhanced journalism. With their partnership launching at NeueHouse Madison Square early this November, NeueJournal caught up with Milk hoping to learn how this particular marriage of technology and storytelling may change more than just how we get our news.

 

NeueJournal: How can VR bolster the power of good journalism?

 

Chris Milk: Journalism is about conveying the truth. And in pursuing that truth, you hope your work affects people. So to craft a journalistic piece in VR simply means using a fresh, different tool to reach people. We as an audience have been inundated with good journalism through the written word, radio, and visual media – like TV and documentaries. But TV and documentaries are meant to “show” you something, whereas VR is meant to take you somewhere. What we try to do is craft stories that literally teleport the viewer, or at least their consciousness. VR can give people a different perspective, instead of just showing them one.

 

NJ: People mostly imagine VR as a tool for gaming or entertainment. What are some possible uses for VR that you think could extend beyond that realm?

 

CM: A lot of people are thinking about VR in so many different ways, and that excites us. We want to see this new medium grow in surprising capacities, and I think it will. I’ve seen some promising directions in medicine, therapy, and especially education.

 

VR, for me, can be an experience maker. What are the moments of real life that we find intriguing, beguiling, or intoxicating? It could be sitting next to a couple at a café in Milan, catching intimate snippets of their conversation. Or it could be a car chase. What I find important is the medium’s ability to share our human experiences, and potentially help people understand one another.

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NJ: How do you think VR will affect our powers of imagination? Will it cause them to atrophy? Will it enhance them?

 

CM: The same question was asked of radio, cinema, and television. And look at the beauty and scope of imagination that came of those tech / human interactions.

 

What’s so great about VR right now is that no one really knows with certainty what shape it’ll take, or what it’ll inspire us to achieve. But all the previous modes of storytelling have broadened our capacity for imagination. It’d be strange to think of VR’s impact as anything short of that.

 

Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal 

Jake Silverstein

Immersive Storytelling

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Jake Silverstein was made Editor in Chief of The New York Times Magazine before his fortieth birthday. As a somewhat unknown quantity to the magazine’s devout readers, Silverstein could have played it safe, using his first months to work within the framework he inherited. Instead, without apology or fear, he took on an ambitious redesign, building a fresh, contemporary New York Times Magazine that feels responsible to the publication’s storied history. Another aspect of Silverstein’s early endeavors at the Times include the integration of virtual reality as a technology that can bolster immersive storytelling. So, with the launch of the magazine’s new Virtual Reality app taking place at NeueHouse Madison Square, NeueJournal’s writer in Residence, Gideon Jacobs, caught up with Silverstein, hoping to learn more about the ideas shaping the future of modern journalism. 

 

Gideon Jacobs: How do you balance the goal of making a magazine that is, in your eyes, of the highest quality, and the goal of making a magazine that is popular and profitable? Do you feel that the internet, with its click bait, listicles and shock videos, has only reaffirmed notions that those two goals are somewhat incongruous?

 

Jake Silverstein: I don’t think we really compete with clickbait, listicles, and shock videos. Obviously, there is a lot of traffic that can be generated around certain trends of content, and if you are smart about it, you can generate a lot of revenue based on that traffic. However, the way that we tend to create stories and publish them is a different game — one of quality. And there is a lot of space for that to succeed right now despite all the other forms of content. There is also value for advertisers in being associated with a content of quality rather than quantity. I think from our perspective, we focus on a kind of high-quality work, and in saying that, I don’t mean to disparage other forms of online writing. I think that type of thing also has its place in the kingdom of content. Maybe the same audience wants one thing with their breakfast and another thing with their lunch.

 

GJ: What do you make of our culture’s constant anxieties and fears about the death of print media? How do you make sense of the psychology of it?

 

JS: I think that print newspapers and print magazines have for so long been the way that people got their information about the world and there is anxiety because now there are a whole bunch of new ways to get that information. Part of what we like about digital content is that you have so much more agency as a user, but that agency can also be scary for some people because they don’t exactly know how to use it and they want those decisions to be made for them. Then there is the logistical fact that we, as a society, still haven’t figured out what the business model is going to be to support these kind of news gathering operations. So I think that the anxiety is a valid one, but I also think that the death of print can be overdramatized. I actually believe the future news ecosystem is gonna be one in which print remains a part of the larger whole. I don’t think it’s going to go away completely.

 

GJ: So more to do with the fear of change and less about this intrinsic switch of the tangible to the digital?

 

JS: There is still a bias amongst some readers and writers about digital being less serious and containing more frivolous content. However I think that isn’t fair and most people no longer feel that way,  there is tons of serious content online and equally tons of frivolous content in print.

 

GJ: I guess I was wondering if you have any romantic notions about the tangible read. I’m not sure Whitman was imagining us on a tablet when he said, “Read these Leaves in the open air…”

 

JS: I absolutely do. We relaunched the magazine in February and one of the things that we tried to do is to make a magazine that was a tactile physical object, felt high-quality, more bespoke, more custom. To do that, we started printing on a heavier paper stock , and we brought in some really incredible designers and pushed the design envelope. We’ve been doing a lot of custom typefaces. So, the product feels like a much more rich and valuable object. I believe that because readers are so bombarded with all forms of digital content during weekdays, the weekend is when they can sit down, look at the New York Times magazine and have a ritualistic relationship with something that gives them an experience.

 

GJ: What personal beliefs — maybe spiritual, ethical or emotional — inform your work?

 

JS: I would say that both as a writer and an editor, a fundamental curiosity about the world and how people operate in it has animated most of the work that I’ve done. I like stories that give me a different perspective. I think that you can keep doing that ‘till the end of time and never run out of interesting stuff to read about. I also tend to think about the theatrical quality of the work that we put out there. I think about the experience of the audience, what is the role that I have as a person creating a ‘show’ for that reader: can I challenge them? Can I surprise them? How far can I push them one way of the other? This could be something that you think about in terms of a sentence and it could be something that you think about in terms of the whole magazine.

 

GJ: When have you failed? How do you react to or cope with failure?

 

JS: I started out as a writer before I became an editor and, I can tell you I was extremely familiar with the feeling of failure. That includes my own self-criticism and also just sending work out and having it turned down, waiting by the phone for editors to call back…I’ve been there.

 

GJ: What powers of good journalism do you see Virtual Reality being capable of heightening?

 

JS: I think that the good journalism that VR can be used to accomplish is journalism that is respectful of the world and respectful of the subject while using this new immersive technology to tell readers a responsible story about those subjects. That’s what we tried to do in our first film. VR is a really powerful medium because there is immediacy and connection, and the feeling of being there is so palpable.

 

GJ: What is worth fighting for? What is capable of making you really angry?

 

JS: Other than traffic? It makes me upset when there are obstacles in the way of the incredible ambition of the people I work with. This is an amazing staff of writers, designers, photographers, editors, and they have such bold ambitions for the work that they do. My job, in part, is to facilitate that ambition and let people do the great work that they want to do. Sometimes it’s practical stuff, like someone can’t get a visa to go to a country or something —  those things make me angry. I don’t tend to throw paperweights across the room, but I do get frustrated because my goal is for this magazine to be as ambitious as it can be and not feel as though there is anything standing in the way.

 

Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal