Taking it 360

Daniel Citron '16 uses virtually reality as an artistic medium for storytelling and his senior thesis. 

By Olivia Munk '16

For many seniors (myself included), writing a thesis was a brutal reality, filled with lots of late-night library sessions and gallons of coffee. For Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator Daniel Citron ’16, however, creating a thesis was a virtual reality. Citron’s 15-minute film That I Wake explores the tension between virtual and tangible lives using the pioneering method of 360-degree, interactive “virtual reality” filmmaking. I spoke with Citron about choosing the medium, the stories it can tell and his advice on exploring new artistic mediums, virtual or not.  

Daniel Citron '16 PHOTO: David Citron

Tell me about your thesis.
This year I’ve been working on exploring what storytelling means in virtual reality. Storytelling becomes a really interesting problem when you think about the different aspects that virtual reality allows for, one of the main ones being 360, stereoscopic space. With film, or with theater, everything is focused: You have a framing device. With virtual reality, that’s no longer the case. Audience members can turn their heads, look away, look up or down and completely miss the ideas that you’re trying to get across. It becomes a problem of: How do you ensure that the audience is focusing on what you want, rather than just exploring the environment? It becomes much more like how people tell stories; it’s more about being present in the space, more about having the environment help tell the story by having the distractions, the moments where the audience wants to look away, help augment the story.

What do you want for the audience?
I really want audiences to feel like they have agency. I don’t want them to feel like I’m forcing them to look anywhere. The trick is to make them want to look in specific areas, to nudge them in the right direction. I did a bunch of tricks with shape, line and color to “trick” them into looking in the right areas. Certain areas will more beautiful than the rest, or lit in a certain way, or have motion in specific areas, which will incite them to look at certain areas. There’s a lot of work being done in virtual reality filmmaking right now, with “static content.” It was important to me that the environment was inherently interactive, since the medium itself is inherently interactive: Looking left to right is interacting with the world, rather than just watching something. As a result, the environment and the story subtly change in response to how you view it, so that your presence has an effect on the story, but only so much so that it’s more a directed piece than a video game. I’ve used “spatial-audio,” so that things sound like they’re behind you. You want to turn and check out what’s going on.

How did you come to this medium?
There was a lot of virtual reality research done up until the ‘90s, when it kind of died out because the Internet came along. So there’s a lot of really interesting film research that I looked at before beginning my thesis, and I also looked at immersive theater. Like I said, it’s kind of looking at how people tell stories in real life. There was also a lot of experimentation. I would spend so much time theorizing with my advisor or other people about what could work, and then try out, and then be like, oh my god, what was I thinking? Or, wow, that actually worked! Because we don’t have an equivalent to it, or many examples of it, you can’t really know until you try it. So it was a lot of testing and trying.

Do you think that virtual reality will become a new medium in and of itself, or will it transform
That I Wake existing media such as TV, movies and theater?
There’s this fear, I think, among some filmmakers that virtual reality is going to take over, and there won’t be any film or movies or theater anymore, but I don’t think that’s true. Just like when TV and film developed, theater and books still exist. There are stories that lend themselves to each medium, and there are a lot of stories that you can’t ever tell in virtual reality, and vice versa. There are some stories you can only tell using the medium.

How did you figure out what story you wanted to tell?
The story I told was almost a criticism of the medium itself. It builds off what we have right now: People can’t have a conversation for more than 10 seconds without looking at their phones. We’re kind of living these two lives; we have our virtual lives, and our real lives, and that’s especially true with things like dating apps or Facebook. My thesis looks at a future where, rather than this other life just being contained in a window in your pocket, it spans an entire universe. The story follows a girl named Sophia and details the struggle between choosing between the pleasures of the virtual world and her reality.

What was the biggest challenge in working on this project?
One of them was definitely detailing what the story is in this medium. I’m not saying that I figured out what it is, since that’s probably 40 years down the line. Another challenge was all of the software and hardware. It’s all in super-early beta, so I spent so much of my time having things not work since it’s so new, and people haven’t finished developing this kind of stuff. There was a lot of documentation that I had to figure out myself. But in spite of all these technical challenges, I think the biggest challenge was figuring out how to tell this story in this medium.

What advice do you have for students interested in exploring a new medium, or even just one that they haven’t explored yet themselves?
I’m a part of the VES department, and before my work, they had never done a virtual reality film or thesis. They were incredibly supportive and helpful throughout the entire process. They were really supportive in making sure I got in contact with the people and resources I needed. For people who want to try something new or another medium, if you just go for it and become excited about your project, other people will be excited by your passion and they’ll help you out, and help make it reality.

Or virtual reality...
Or virtual reality.

Daniel Citron’s thesis and the collected 2016 VES senior theses will be on display in the Carpenter Center through May 26. Free and open to the public. 

See also: Film, Visual Arts