In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival has grown to a showcase a variety of virtual reality projects. One of this year’s entries is Through You, an experimental multimedia dance project that uses the medium to place the viewer into the thick of a lifelong romance. Created by dancers and choreographers Lily Baldwin (who was our guide to the Women of Cinefamily Weekend film festival) and Saschka Unseld, Through You begins—much like Mark Danielewski’s experimental novel Only Revolutions—in the two main characters' teenage years, and follows them in a stream-of-consciousness style through time, space, and memory.
In Through You, viewers experience reality as the lover of a character (and main dancer) named Julia. After an argument in this teenage bedroom, Julia decides to leave the relationship, passing through the viewer and, in doing so, becoming the presence occupied by the viewer throughout the rest of the experience.
“The presence we embody in the experience is the memory our main dancer has of a lover in her youth,” Baldwin and Unseld explain. “We, the presence of her memory, stay will her throughout her whole life. We are her unrelenting memory (never-ending connection, enduring witness). We exist through her. We are her capacity to love and feel.”
“We start out by being Julia's lover,” Unseld adds. “And then, after she walks through us and leave us, we become her memory of us, seeing Julia's life continue without us.”
The Through You VR project began nearly a year ago after Baldwin and Unseld were accepted into the Sundance Institute New Frontier | Jaunt VR Residency Program. Though they worked with Sundance every step of the way, the two found themselves with their backs to the wall time-wise, as the final shoot unfolded two days before the final submission deadline.
Baldwin and Unseld tell The Creators Project that this is their first official venture with dance in a virtual space. They have, however, done a number of tests to see how much movement they can get away with as far as moving bodies and the roving VR camera.
With Through You, the duo were interested in how it must feel to be truly present with a dance—to not only be in the thick of the dance, but to be the dancer. This is the experience they want for their viewers.
“Watching a moving body in VR gives you a greater sense of body,” Baldwin explains. “It reincarnates the real life electricity of a performance—this outmoded art pastime that’s getting lost in the digital world.”
Baldwin, who trained and works as a dancer, started making raw stop-motion short films while touring with David Byrne. After 150 shows, she came to realize that dance involved helping people understand music. She found that dance gave audiences permission to feel something that did not necessarily fit into words. This is when she first felt compelled to turn the “electricity of a live performance” into an object or cinematic vessel that could, as she explains, “transcend borders, language, and endure time.”
To bring this approach to VR, Baldwin and Unseld had to take a number of risks and do a lot of trial and error. According to the two artists, they took a radical approach to camera movement. Unseld’s 15-plus years of work in cinematography and technology undoubtedly helped in this regard.
In VR, the camera is usually stationary so that the viewer barely moves in space. This is because it is assumed that sudden and sustained movement will trigger motion sickness. But Baldwin and Unseld saw this perceived drawback as highlighting the inherent power in moving the camera, so they found a way to, as they say, “constantly be moving, constantly be moved."
“Moving the camera is a problem as we shoot in 360°, so any direction of the camera is visible,” Unseld adds. “That is why shoots that move the camera are super expensive as the camera dolly needs to painstakingly be painted out in post.”
Baldwin and Unseld got around this problem by using a perfectly black floor and donning black suits that rendered them invisible when seen against the ground. In this way they could always be present and move the camera around without anyone seeing them in the final shot.
“The other breaking-the-rules aspect in Through You is editing,” Unseld notes. “Traditionally, VR pieces are slow and light on cuts, as cuts are normally confusing to people. But our approach is radical in that we cut in a speed and rhythm that is completely unprecedented. The way we cut feels closest to a stream of consciousness dream.”
Baldwin and Unseld are aware that their experimentation and methods, many of them explored in their video Lawrence (watch below), will likely provoke some controversy. But, ultimately, they want to remove 'accepted VR protocol' from narrative in general.
“We realized that VR is the ultimate medium to not only capture the raw energy of dance but to bring to it something that has never been possible before,” says Baldwin. “To let the audience dance with the performer—to make the audience feel as if they are wildly adept dancer, and to feel their body doing things they never thought possible.”