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Film

A War Survivor's Virtual Reality Film Brings the Terror of a Conflict Zone to Life

A new film called 'GIANT,' directed by Kosovo survivor Milica Zec, uses immersive tech to make you live out a terrifying tale.

by Beckett Mufson
15 March 2016, 1:55pm

Still from GIANT (2016). Images courtesy the artist

Milica Zec’s childhood is defined by bombs. Growing up during the NATO bombing of Serbia, conflict destroyed much of her country’s infrastructure. On April 23, 1999, allied forces fired a missile into Serbia’s national television station, killing 16 people. It was Zec’s 17th birthday.

Zec has spent the last decade-and-a-half trying to forget this part of her life. But over the past two years, she’s found some solace in a virtual reality flagship film called GIANT. Set in the basement of an American family home during a fictional air raid, the film delivers a fly-on-the-wall look at the trauma Zec experienced as a teenager. The actors are American, a choice which she hopes will ensure the faces, clothes, and accents make GIANT a story Western audiences will relate to. Incorporating live action, depth camera footage, 3D modeling software, and haptic feedback, the film is a heart-wrenching and immersive experience that cuts right to the soul. Few projects so well live up to virtual reality’s potential to be the ultimate “empathy machine.”

Still from GIANT (2016)

GIANT premiered at Sundance in January, earning accolades from The Guardian, the LA Times, and The Verge, and will be screening at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco this week. The film is currently being developed at the New Museum’s art incubator, NEW INC, under the guidance of Zec, creative technologist and director Winslow Turner Porter, III, and a team of creatives interested in advancing the medium of virtual reality and supporting Zec’s mission to properly tell the story of her own wartime experience.

Sitting in the sleek, industrial offices of NEW INC while technologists discuss the applications and implications of virtual reality at the New Museum’s Versions conference next-door, Zec and Porter discuss the experiences that led to GIANT’s inception. Zec’s youth was characterised by the moment she decided to abandon the fear of death in order to maintain her sanity. “I couldn’t be freaking out every single second, otherwise I’m going to collapse,” she tells The Creators Project. “So I decided it was OK if I died. I had to totally let go and not be paranoid in order to live normally. So I was ready for whatever was my destiny. It was an incredible decision to make as a teenager, but that’s what calmed me down.”

She and her friends wore targets painted on their shirts and gathered along bridges and other public spaces to protest the violence. Since then, she’s adopted an attitude of accomplishing things in the present, because there might not be time to do them later. “Your life can be taken away at any second, so you’d better use it wisely,” she says. “I don’t have any regrets. I’m doing everything I want to be doing. The urgency comes to you.”

After earning admittance into Serbia’s extremely selective public University of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade (many must apply two or three times to get in), she graduated with a degree in Film and Television Editing and traveled to the United States to continue her studies at New York University.

She quickly found her place in the American film industry, directing and editing fellow Serbian Marina Abramovic’s most notable works, including her breakout project The Artist Is Present, and the Kickstarter video for the Marina Abramovic Institute. She also directed and edited commercials, TV episodes, and music videos.

None of these projects reflected the complexity of life during the Bombing of Serbia. It wasn’t until after a conversation with screenwriter Lizzie Donahue reopened that chapter in Zec’s life that it leaked into her creative career. Donahue told Zec her past sounded like a movie, and that she should make a film about it. “But if you come from a war situation, you want to forget about it and try to have a normal life,” says Zec. She rejected Donahue’s suggestion at first. Zec later reconsidered, recommending that Donahue write it herself. Seven days after that, the first draft of GIANT was done.

When Zec read the script, she realised the story would be best told through virtual reality. “The reason I want to do this is for the sake of the people who are in this situation right now. I want the viewer to fully experience what it means to be in a conflict zone, so I decided to see if virtual reality really is an empathy machine. It was a huge risk and experiment,” says Zec.

GIANT had to be produced on a strict budget and deadline set by Sundance, but neither Zec nor Porter wanted to sacrifice quality. They pioneered a combination of live-action footage and 3D animation, enhanced by Kinect depth cameras. Their process affords their characters the emotional depth and realism found in films like Chris Milk and VRSE’s Clouds Over Sidra, while maintaining the freedom to build enjoyed by video game designers and 3D animators. Porter and the technology team built GIANT in Unreal Engine and Maya, software used both in franchises like Gears of War and Street Fighter and GIF art and viral videos. This combination lets them weave clues about the world outside of the basement, direct the viewer’s wandering eyes during the experience, and move the action forward. Details are key, Porter explains: “If one element doesn’t work, you’re thrown out of the virtual world.”

Zec and Porter are advancing the technical capabilities of virtual reality storytelling, but perhaps more importantly, are actively adding to the cinematic language of the medium. Transitions are often sloppy in 360° video, a drawback GIANT circumnavigates with flickering lights that enhance tension and act as cuts between takes. Surround sound encourages the viewer to look at different parts of the basement, eventually finding the aforementioned hidden clues about the fictional world. Animated dust particles floating through the air make it easy to believe the world is real, even as CGI is evident in its details. Perhaps most significantly, Zec and Porter prove that a combination of high quality two-dimensional footage and depth sensor data can create a convincing 3D actor. See a clip of the experience in the video below.

GIANT is successful at translating Zec’s unique experiences into something anybody can learn from, and more importantly feel from. If you’re in San Francisco, check out GIANT at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), presented by Unreal Engine. Learn more about GIANT on the official website.

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