Lucy Walker’s impressive roster of documentaries have earned her two Oscar nominations: One for her feature, “Waste Land,” and one for a short, “The Tsunami and The Cherry Blossom.” She was recently tapped to direct the followup to Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club.” Filming “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios” sparked an interest in Cuban music and dance, which led Walker to make “A History of Cuban Dance,” a lively VR short chronicling Cuban history through its many dance styles. The feature will also have an accompanying VR film.
Walker is also currently a creator with Chris Milk’s Here Be Dragons, a prolific production studio making some of the most narratively compelling virtual reality films out there.
“I love using documentary films to take the viewer on a journey to a world they’re not physically in. Film is the most impactful way I can give audiences that life-like experience,” Walker told IndieWire recently. “However, it’s got its limitations.”
In 2011, while shooting “The Tsunami and The Cherry Blossom” in post-tsunami Japan, Walker was struck by the totality of the devastation. “My beloved medium could not convey the impact. I felt like every horror movie I’d ever seen was crap. The devastation was so unbelievable in every direction, it was nothing I could convey in a flat image.” Shortly after that, she watched her first VR film on an Oculus Rift, the newest generation of VR technology. “I immediately dropped everything to pursue this new medium.”
Walker has always used film as a tool to evoke emotions and tell stories, and for that reason, she sees VR as a natural extension of her nonfiction filmmaking. “It’s a teleportation device. You engage human beings in their empathic connections when you really take people there,” Walker said. “And it’s super clunky right now — the headset is smelly, it’s this totally odd sweaty headband, and it messes up your hair — but it’s happening, and I kind of can’t believe it’s in our lifetime.”
“It’s changed the way I think about reality,” she continued. “Flat things look flat now, and I love flat things, but I get so emotional when I put on a headset. I feel like I’m really there.”
Walker cited research that with the latest Stereoscopic technology (think Stereo sound for your eyes), the brain is 60 percent fooled that you are experiencing reality. “That’s with the little tech we have right now,” she explained. “When is it going to be indistinguishable? Probably not too far in the future. It’s really a trip.”
The storytelling possibilities of such direct brain engagement excite Walker to no end. “Roger Ebert talked about film being the most powerful empathy machine of all the arts,” Walker said. “Chris Milk said that VR is the new most powerful empathy machine, and I think he’s exactly right.”
Walker compares the technological advancements in VR to the same advancements that drew her to making documentaries. Just as the invention of mini-DV opened up the world of nonfiction filmmaking by allowing filmmakers to ship footage more easily, VR technology opens up new possibilities for cinematic storytelling. “It’s like our toolkit just got a whole extra layer. There’s a whole set of tools that we haven’t even imagined before,” Walker said.
Walker directed theater in her home country of England before attending the graduate film program at NYU on a Fulbright scholarship. While she loves documentaries, she took that path out of necessity more than choice.
“I’m a filmmaker,” she said. “I just happen to not have gotten any fucking breaks with fiction. At the same time, the world of nonfiction film became technologically electrifying, and I went for it.” It is too soon to tell if Walker’s newfound love of VR will lead her back to fiction filmmaking.
“I am always attached to fiction projects and they never go. You make your own deductions,” she said. “I would conclude that there’s some sexism there. I never stopped wanting to make fiction. Everyone thinks I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I am actually a completely failed fiction filmmaker.”
With the affordable Samsung Gear VR and the free Google cardboard headset, VR is becoming more accessible to audiences by the day. According to Walker, filmmakers and executives better take note, or risk becoming obsolete. “In Silicon Valley, doors are being knocked down by over-excited people who are pouncing on this,” she said. “There’s tons of money flying, tons of excitement, tons of innovation. I’m like — dude — I know which industry I would invest in, and it would not be the movies. Much as film is my love, it is definitely moribund. I think if you compared VR viewers and movie viewers, film people would be sobbing into their VHS collections.”
Walker is quick to place VR within the context of film history, citing the ever-evolving camera rigs (she has used a different one for every project) as a throwback to old Hollywood. “People have always been innovating on the job,” she said. “Think about old Hollywood — they were designing all the camera gear. Cinematographers needed something, so they built it.”
She notices the same scrappy mentality on a VR shoot. “Sometimes these rigs go up in smoke, because they’re literally hacked together in a garage. And you better have a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, because you’re going to need it,” Walker said.
With two shorts on the Within app and at least five VR projects in various stages of production, Walker may be placing herself in the context of film history very soon. “Last time I checked, film schools had never heard of VR. We’re making it up. We are creating the film grammar that they will be teaching in film schools next year and in fifty years.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, we said that Walker studied theater at Oxford University. She studied English literature and language at Oxford University. In addition, we stated that her feature “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios” would be released this year, when in fact it is still in post-production.