“Filmed entirely inside the world of Virtual Reality!” That’s how HBO Max marketed the documentary We Met In Virtual Reality by director Joe Hunting. My interest was peaked. I’m a former documentarian who lost his work when the pandemic hit. I’ve spent the past year exploring virtual worlds and recording interviews with Avatar creators in VRChat for my new company Mebot Exchange (a marketplace to buy & sell Avatars and accessories.) This movie felt very close to home.
Watching Joe’s documentary confirmed all of the feelings I had about the potential of VR as an exciting medium for filmmakers. We Met In Virtual Reality is a touching, intimate and honest movie about people finding friendships, forging deep connections, and even falling in love inside of Virtual Reality. I was blown away with the cinematic techniques Joe was able to bring to the virtual space. Before the credits rolled I had already messaged Awards Radar to try to set up an interview with Joe – recorded of course in VRChat.
For full effect, I recommend you stop reading and watch the interview here.
At the scheduled interview time, Joe and I logged into VRChat – me from Boise and Joe from Sacramento, as he is touring his film around the world for festivals. Joe popped into my VRChat home world, his adorably cartoonish avatar dressed like he was backpacking the wilderness while on holiday. After a quick greeting, Joe dropped a portal to the world “Take My Hand” by suzuki_1 – I let Joe choose the world to conduct the interview that “best suited his vibe”.
Joe: I’m going to take us to a world that was one of my first worlds that I shot for the documentary. Unfortunately, the scene got cut, so you don’t see it in the film. But it’s still a place that’s very nostalgic for me.
Lukonianlogic: Let’s go do it.
I followed Joe through the portal into a world filled with the sound of crickets, butterflies floating in the breeze, bright sunlit mountains; a picturesque rendition of a natural landscape.
Joe: Here we are. It’s still a world that I really enjoy. And I think it really suits my avatars aesthetic.
Lukonianlogic: Oh for sure. I see that you have this wonderful, outdoorsy look going on, can you tell me who designed your avatar?
Joe: Of course, my avatar was made by a really talented creator, called G1Fan. He’s a great friend of mine, and is a member of the VRChat community. I commissioned him to create this, and my avatar is somewhat based on my real personality. I really enjoy the outdoors. I love hiking, and I love photography, travel photography, hence the tripod on my backpack. And I also have all of these patches, representing all the people I filmed with. You can see Helping Hands [the American sign language group in VRChat featured in his documentary] and Dust Bunnies streaming logo from Dust Bunnie’s classes [one of the stars of his documentary].
We trekked through the world until Joe settled on his favorite backdrop near a weeping willow tree and a small babbling brook. After making sure the lighting was right, edging Joe back a little bit to be out of some shadows, I set up my virtual streaming camera and pressed record.
Lukonianlogic: Tell me how did this come about? How did you become inspired to make a documentary in VRChat?
Joe: Right? Well, firstly, thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be on. It came from a real mixture of feelings and inspirations. But it came really from the pandemic, I would say, I’ve been in VR since 2018, making short documentaries, and exploring what it means to be in VR and meet someone and the social and emotional impact of the space. And when the pandemic came, all of my creative friends and the people that I was working with, and just the communities that we’re spending time with, became so important to me, and really vital to my socialization. And VRChat, this platform really became a second home to me during that time, and immediately I wanted to drop everything and see all that time in a capsule: one, to celebrate the community and what that experience was like, but also for VR’s history. And then how that time impacted the art is really the pandemic that shifted my gears into wanting to make a feature film. But I’ve been in VR as a participant in VRChat since 2018.
Lukonianlogic: You are not only in virtual reality. You love exploring these worlds, but you also love exploring the real world. And I think for a lot of people that feels like a contradiction. So can you explain to me why that level of exploration is actually very similar?
Joe: Oh, yeah, that’s a great question. I think I’ve always been someone obsessed with culture, and travel, and meeting new people and anthropology, as well. Understanding differences and cultures and just enjoying the presence of other people. And that, to me, is no different in virtual reality, too. I came from a world of experimental film, and I made a lot of films independently and was making art films and documentaries. And none of them had people in them. They were all travel documentaries, I collected and constructed through home videos, and travel photography and random footage that I was collecting. And so in 2018, when I was in film school, I was really thirsty to bring people and stories into my work. And so VRChat, a platform filled with different landscapes, or different worlds and different people from all around the world, just felt like the perfect space to explore.
Lukonianlogic: One of the things that I truly loved about your documentary is that you approached it exactly as you would film in the real world. You brought that to the virtual space. Did you find that any of your skills that you’ve developed creating your short films was applicable when you switched it over to VRChat?
Joe: Yes, definitely. I used all of my inspirations and cinematic interests in the physical world and really brought those into VRChat and was able to do that in the fullest way with We Met in Virtual Reality. And that’s because of a camera that released in September of 2020, An incredible member of the VRChat community called Hirabiki created a camera called VRCLens. And this camera allows you to use a much more accurate depth of field, you can control your aperture, so you can control your zoom in turn, control your exposure, fly the camera as a drone or shoot handheld. And this camera gave me the ability to film in a much more rich way that is similar to live action. And so with We Met In Virtual Reality, it was an amazing experience shooting because I could bring in all my inspirations. My interest was real to shoot a film in a verite´ form, mixing observational storytelling with poetic imagery, and creating a real sense of presence in the film. So you’re dropped in it, and you feel like you’re there as a participant in the space, but also using common documentary language to bring people in, who’ve never heard of the space and help them relate to it, with talking head interviews.
Lukonianlogic: I know when you where you start and where you end up are completely different. What crazy turns came up that inspired you to go pursue in a different direction? If any.
Joe: Gosh, that’s a loaded question? Oh, there’s loads. Entering the production of We Met in Virtual Reality, I was very patient with myself. And I wanted to let myself play and explore and not have any pressure on the specific people and specific stories I wanted to follow. And, you know, the first people I filmed with was Helping Hands Jenny and Ray, the American Sign Language teachers. I met them a year before we went into production for the documentary, and I was just so inspired by them. And after filming with Jenny and Ray, I really knew I had a truth and a story and a message to, to share. And so I started immersing myself in other communities, around eight different communities. And I filmed with all of them, but I only found myself drawn to Dust Bunny and Toaster, and IsyourBoi and DragonHeart and several others. And as soon as I found those core stories, I knew what the film was. And it was going to speak specifically on moments that I could have never have foreseen, and even knowing that they were going to be in the film, you know, Ray’s tragedy of his brother passing away, which was a big shock to everyone in the community. And I feel very lucky that Ray was so gracious and kind in sharing that part of his life and his story, as it is so personal. And that’s because so much truth and how this space can help people connect and be a support and a crux during hard times. And so that moment is a great example of a magical moment in documentary filmmaking, where you find this pure truth nugget. And it just has to be in the film, and then you work around that. I’m really happy with how the documentary found itself. It was like I was driving through a tunnel, I came out the other side with this story, and with this whole film. I feel very grateful for the message that I’ve put out and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lukonianlogic: The amount of footage you capture to what ends up on the screen like sometimes it can be 150 hours to one. So what was kind of your shooting ratio on a project of this caliber?
Joe: Oh, yes. It’s really easy to get carried away when you’re filming in VR, because, tape is free. Essentially, you know, you can film something and your limitation is your hard drive space. And I bought a four terabyte hard drive for shooting We Met In Virtual Reality. So I shot way too much footage, I would say it’s over 200 hours, most likely, in an hour and a half documentary. But I was editing as I was filming. And so it was not a tough process. When I came to the picture lock, I had it and doing the rough cuts and the final edits. And because I already knew by that point what what specific scenes were going to be structured in. Had I’d not edited as I was moving along with production, I think it would have been very tough for myself.
Lukonianlogic: As I’ve been making more friends and contacts in this space, I’ve realized that a lot of people who struggle in the real world really thrive in this environment. And I was wondering if you had a similar experience? And if so ,why do you think that is?
Joe: In terms of accessibility and disability, I think the space is actually valuable for those audiences. And I’m always pushing awareness for that. And you know, in the documentary, and this is slightly outside of the disabled community, but we see the deaf and hard of hearing community represented in We Met in Virtual Reality. And I love the way that Helping Hands and Jenny, Ray and that whole community are adapting and building sign language to communicate with others. And I think what’s so special about that, as well as the language and then the Linguistics of that, but it’s also bringing a bringing people together, who could be marginalized in their physical spaces. Not everyone has access to a sign language community or deaf people nearby, you know, so we can come here, and they can find people that are similar to them and find community.
Lukonianlogic: And that’s the messaging I got from your documentary was how inclusive the VR world is right now. And as we all know, a lot of times often in social media, what starts out as the fringe subculture ends up exploding into the pop culture. So where do you see VR heading? How do you see this becoming part of pop culture?
Joe: Yeah, I love that question. But it’s also such a difficult one to answer, like the question of the future. I think VR, every aspect of VR, and you know, and especially social VR apps like the one we’re in right now, it’s just going to get more popular and more mainstream. And through popularity, we’ll have more content, more communities, more events, more engagement. And, you know, through that, we’ll have so much more to explore and a much bigger world. And I think that’s going to change the face of how we connect online. To me, I see VR as becoming as accessible as the smartphone, something that if we want to take a meeting or catch up with friends or want to, you know, connect in a space that’s a bit further from a video call, we’ll jump straight in here and can go and explore together, I think that will be the norm, or “a” norm. I don’t think it’ll override video calling or any other social communications that we have. But I do think people will be able to comprehend and understand it a lot more than than we do now. And I hope the documentary aligns people on what that experience can be like and the positive ways we can use the technology to connect and to be with each other. In terms of filmmaking, I personally am certainly staying in VR for a bit longer. I’m in development for a new project currently that I have to film. And which I’m not going to say too much about, because I want to keep it under wraps. But I do want to say outside of documentary, which has a lot of potential and lots of excitement. This space is also such an intriguing setting for fiction filmmaking, instead of doing a usual virtual production process of building your characters, your world, and then animating each frame or doing it within an engine, you could create costumes for your actors, bring them into a virtual space and use mo cap and a camera operator in VR to shoot that scene for a fiction show. And I think that is really intriguing. And I’m really curious and excited about how that sort of workflow is going to impact bigger studios, as well as indie filmmakers who are starting out and don’t have access to those departments in their physical spaces.
Lukonianlogic: What do you say to convince people who are complete VR skeptics?
Joe: I would like people to enter the documentary with an open mind, most of all. And seeing how we can support each other in various different ways, in ways that might shock others in ways that might be surprising and otherworldly. But there’s still support and there’s still ways that we can find friendship and love in other worlds. So go in with an open mind.
I thanked Joe for his time and he promised to give me a tutorial on VRCLens to up my virtual photography game. He also inspired me to sign up for one of Dust Bunny’s dance classes for next week. Just another example of two people from different parts of the world but with similar passions connecting in virtual reality.