Kaohsiung VR Film Lab 2019: An Interview with Director Wu Po-Hung 吳柏泓
Interview by Chng Ying Tong
In My Syrian Neighbours《我的敘利亞鄰居》, director Wu Po-Hung uses VR to simulate the experiences of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Told through the perspective of Judy, a young Syrian girl, it also details her budding friendship with her unlikely neighbour Anny, a Taiwanese mother. The 7-minute short follows 20 Gifts 《二十個禮物》, another of Wu’s VR works which won the 2018 Taipei Film Festival’s Audience Choice Award. My Syrian Neighbours made its world premiere at the 2019 Kaohsiung Film Festival in its VR Film Lab Originals segment.
Sinema had the opportunity to sit down with director Wu as he discussed his vision for VR in the making of documentaries, and the challenges he faced while filming this bold short:
Is this film your first time working with VR?
Strictly speaking, this is my third time. But I think that this is my first true experiment with VR. Before this film, I have used VR to capture the Wangye boat burning festival, but I have not completed the post production. At that time, it was more of understanding the technical aspects. This film was my first real try at using VR and its 360 degrees filmmaking to tell a story.
I had limited experience with VR. My initial impression was that VR would be suitable for filming documentaries, so I tried putting VR and documentary together. The aim of documentaries is to see and present reality to the audience. At that time, I thought using VR to film documentaries would be a breakthrough since the audience would be fully immersed in that reality, as though they are at the documentary location.
嚴格來講是第三部，不過它比較算是我第一支正式的VR。在這一部之前，我有拍一些像是台灣的燒王船的慶典VR，但是我也沒有真的把它剪出來，因為那時候還在技術層面的理解，而這支是我真正用 VR 或 360的思維真正在嘗試怎說故事。
我接觸VR的時間不長。起初會接觸它也是因為它跟紀錄片本身是很適合的。我想嘗試把兩者結合看看。拍紀錄片其實就是希望把一個真實的故事透過影像來觀察、呈現給觀眾。 那當初就會覺得用VR 來做紀錄片可能是個突破，本來做紀錄片是要讓你體會到真實，透過VR就讓你彷彿在整個紀錄片的第一現場裡頭。
Looking back at the making of this VR short film, is there anything that you would have liked to change or do in a different way?
I don’t think I have fully grasped how to do narrative storytelling in VR yet. I think what is most important for me is to improve how I can tell my story through the use of 360 degrees filmmaking.
The clearest difference between making a documentary and VR is in its framing. In VR my frame is rectangular. I would have to use long, medium, and close-up shots of my subjects. With VR, my framing would essentially be circular. Your environment, starting from my camera, is a circle around me. Making a film traditionally only requires the incident to happen before my eyes. As a director, I would have a clear vision of what I want the audience to see. Yet because of the nature of VR, the framing design feels more like theatre. If I wanted the audience to experience what is like to be a refugee, I would want them to look all around and not just with what is happening in front of them. I don’t think VR can tell a complicated story, but it might be able to convey an idea.
So if there is really anything that I want to change about the process, I hope to think of what narrative could best fit and what is possible with VR and its 360 degrees filmmaking. We could not apply the same techniques with VR as with traditional filmmaking, because there are no close-ups, no edits. For example, if I want to show someone who is always in a hurry, always anxious about everything, I could express it through camera and editing techniques. This is not possible with VR. VR mostly relies on the sense of space and human relationships to communicate its message. VR has not formed a narrative structure yet. I hope that, in the future, there will be more topics, more opportunities for cooperation, and more stories that would fully realise VR’s language.
所以如果我真的要改善的話、我是很希望可以去思考到底在360敘事和VR敘事上面，他會有什麼樣的可能。 我們已經沒有辦法用電影的思維來思考它，因為他裡面沒有特寫，沒有剪輯的概念。比如說，我想要表現一個很匆忙的人，對任何事情和焦慮。 我可以在一般電影裡用一般的鏡頭語言把你的人格製造出來。我可以透過剪輯很急促，塑造出這樣的一個人。這是不能在VR 360做到的。VR比較是透過這個環境的空間感和人的關係。VR還沒有一個成形的敘事結構。未來我希望能有更多題材，有更多的合作機會，甚至有更多的故事可以讓我們去嘗試說，這個就是VR文法。
What do you think is VR’s role in filming future documentaries?
I think VR itself is very suitable for documentaries. Let me give you an example. We might not be able to have first-hand experience being at the ground in the Syrian Civil War, the border issues between Mexico and the US, or even the issues in China and Hong Kong. We could feel pain over these issues but it’s still very difficult to know how it feels to be in the shoes of those who live there. This is why I wanted to focus on overcoming one challenge, which is how far I can go in simulating that feeling of being there. With traditional documentaries, what I feel is mostly because of how I can relate to a certain character. But this emotion is what I project on myself based on what I see with others. But I think even by its first scene, VR will enable us to feel like we are a part of them. If I can make some Taiwanese and international audiences to wear the VR goggles, it would really feel like they are with them. I think the atmosphere they experience is completely different from photographs or film.
I think the challenges now with VR is if there is any way to make post-production more efficient, and if there is any way to the goggles more comfortable.
其實 VR本身是非常適合紀錄片，我舉個例子，可能現在敘利亞內戰發生， 美國墨西哥的問題，甚至中國跟香港問題， 這一些事情，我們可能並不是第一現場者。 我們會對這一件事情心痛，會有點感受但是我們可能並沒有辦法真的完全用一種換位思考方式去說原來現場是這樣。所以當初我只想要挑戰一件事情，我有沒有辦法把真實的事情推到極限。一般傳統紀錄片，我再怎麼感動， 我感動的原因是因為我認同這個主角。但是這種感動是我看別人而投射在自己。 但是我覺得其實做VR的第一現場， 你開始會覺得你跟他們是一樣的。 如果我可以讓一些台灣的觀眾和各國觀眾戴上頭盔，就真的像在現場，我覺得那個氛圍跟你去看人家拍的照片跟影片是完全不一樣。
How long did the entire production process take?
Actually my producer has been involved with this short for a long time. In fact, “My Syrian Neighbour” started out as a traditional documentary. Before applying for Kaohsiung Shorts Grant, there were already two years worth of pre-production.
What were some of the challenges faced, and how did you overcome them?
This year was actually my first year in Turkey and that was also when I first met the documentary’s lead. However, the producer and lead already knew each other, as they went to Turkey together before and filmed some materials from there. My producer is the one who is most familiar with the story of the documentary, and the advantage here is that she can tell me a lot about it. I also did not have to spend much time with preparation and research. It only took about a week for location scouting, site coordination and personnel coordination. We spent most of our energy and effort on thinking of the best ways to present the story with VR.
After receiving the grant, we spent about one to two months preparing the crew. Thinking back, I think we were pretty brave, at that point of time, we weren’t very confident – although we know the story, we did not fully understood the capabilities of VR. We thought of using some of the grant to hire a VR production crew from Kaohsiung. But if that was the case, I still wouldn’t have understood the process of filming in VR by the end. My whole crew did not have experience with VR, leaving me as the most experienced even if I cannot consider myself as a professional in this aspect. I could only mostly rely on my own imagination and understanding to work on the project. Before we started, I approached the Kaohsiung Film Archive for assistance and found a colleague with experience with audio recording for VR. Before we left for Syria the five of us had sort of a training session with him, listening to him talk about how to receive audio with VR, and how to make a 360 sound field.
In My Syrian Neighbour《我的敘利亞鄰居》, the voices can come from different directions. I am not sure if everyone can hear it but this is my first attempt. In addition, we did not want to use a multi-camera stitching to make this film, so in the end we found and worked with a Chinese camera manufacturer. At that time, I only took some of my works along and went alone to Shenzhen to ask if they could assist me. They later sent a technician to join us in the shoot, and we only needed to pay part of his salary and equipment rental fee. He played the role of technical director in the team since he was most familiar with their equipment and the areas which VR should pay attention to. It is because of this where we responded to many on-site situations well.
Was this your first time working with your producer?
We have known each other prior to this project. How I came to know this story was because when I was making documentary proposal in New Taipei City, I was preparing other stories when I came across the producer with this one. We kept in touch later, and she told me that the story was a bit difficult to produce since the original co-director had no idea how to continue the process. Although the goal was to record the story of the Taiwanese mother, because of the controversial nature of the story, the producer did not want to overexpose the story. So the idea of VR was put forward by me, hoping to change the way we present the film. She was acceptable of the idea since the medium of VR made it so that the speed of spread is slow, while allowing people to really experience the content of the story. It was as if the shortcomings of VR became advantages for the story. That is how we decided to use VR to fully portray the atmosphere and environment of the scenes.
Are you preparing for any VR, MR or XR projects for the future?
I just came back from a Pacific island country with a production team a few days ago. My next VR story will be about the aborigines there. Maybe VR will be used to record their ceremonies and dances. I think this is one of my breakthrough experiments: in addition to using VR to record reality, I also tried to include singing and dancing elements.
Check out the short’s trailer and behind-the-scenes interview here: