When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay in their homes two years ago, a few people sought to maintain their social lives by any means necessary. Armed with their VR headsets and custom-made avatars, these people joined a virtual world unaffected not by COVID, but by gender norms, language barriers, and location, among others.
Among this virtual community was Joe Hunting, a documentarian who sought to record this unique social interaction in VR with his new documentary We Met in Virtual Reality. In an interview with Digital Trends, Hunting talks about the appeal of virtual reality during a pandemic, how the LGBTQ community helped pioneer the space, and how one goes about documenting something that isn’t real.
Digital Trends: What compelled you to make We Met in Virtual Reality?
Joe Hunting: I have a great personal attachment to VR and specifically VRChat myself. I came into the space in 2018 and was making short documentaries and was an active participant in VR for a few years before the pandemic came.
In the first lockdown, VR really became a second home to me, and the relationships and the people I was working with became an integral part of my social life and my family. That in itself was really a key inspiration to wanting to seal that time in a capsule and make a feature film about that connection and how virtual reality was affecting us during that time.
You mentioned that you were in VRChat before the lockdown. What led you to join that community?
I’ve always been a big gamer myself. I’ve enjoyed online communities, I’ve had a lot of online friends, and loved being in an immersive virtual world. That was a key appeal for me to step into VR from a gaming perspective.
I was studying documentary and film at the time in 2018, and I read some articles about how social VR and VRChat were affecting people’s mental health and really bringing them freedom in themselves and saving lives as well. That just led me down a path of curiosity. I got myself my first VR headset and started talking to people about the VR experience, playing VR games, and immersing myself in different communities.
Immediately, my documentary brain sparked, and I was desperate to explore that story and explore stories about people in this world. And I didn’t stop doing it. It was so much fun and remains so.
When I first heard about this project, I thought “how the hell do you make a documentary in virtual reality?” Can you shed some light on how you approach capturing reality from a made-up world?
It’s the first question everyone asks. The first thing I’d like to say to that question is how the camera works. As a self-shooting director, I’m wearing a headset and full body tracking as well. I have a tracker on my hip and then two trackers on my feet and my controllers.
And so I am immersed in VR as a filmmaker and I have a virtual cinema camera that acts the same way as a cinema camera does in the real world. I’m holding it in my hands, and with this camera, I can control my aperture, change my depth of field, and my focal length. I can zoom in and out and I can even fly the camera as a drone or shoot handheld. I can do anything and everything that a real film camera can in the real world. I’m just holding my VR controllers and controlling it with my analog sticks. In the VR world, I’m holding the camera in my avatar’s hands.
Once I’d trained myself with this camera and the technicalities of filming in this VR space, I interviewed people and captured moments just as I would in the physical world. They can see me holding the camera and we’re having a conversation, you know, just as we would in the real world.
If you want to get really technical in terms of how I got my output from that camera into the editing suite, my output of my camera would become my desktop display and then I record my desktop screen in 4K. Okay. So it’s essentially screen recording, but that image is being captured by myself standing in VR with a camera.
Is there any image degradation from that transfer or it’s just a clean transfer?
It is a clean image via the VRChat app window.
Can anybody can acquire a VR camera in VRChat and shoot their own documentaries?
Absolutely. There are multiple camera systems just in VRChat alone. There is a native camera that everyone can use in the space. You can jump into the VRChat app, open your menu, and find the camera. And with this camera, you have very simple tools to zoom in and out and add a simulated depth of field.
The camera that we shot We Met in Virtual Reality on a third-party camera, which was created by a member of the VRChat community called VRC Lens. And that camera costs about $10.
That’s a pretty fair price since real cameras cost a little bit more than that. I want to talk about the documentary itself. We meet several fascinating people like DragonHeart and Toaster. How did you select them and the others that we see in the documentary?
It’s a real mixture of reasons. They have such strong voices and are so relatable and inspiring. They could connect with audiences who have tried VR and have a wealth of experience and a wealth of knowledge in that technology, but they could also speak to audiences who’ve never tried it before.
You know what they were going through in their relationships and in their communities was very relatable. And so I knew that all audiences could connect with them specifically, and they’re also such genuine people that they knew what I was trying to do. They were very cooperative and we’re excited to collaborate on sharing their stories.
The documentary accentuates themes of identity and mental health in your subjects. Was that intentional on your part or did that happen organically when you interviewed them?
Themes of mental health, self-expression, belonging, and identity were inspirations of mine from the very beginning. I really questioned those ideas in my first documentary that was released in 2019, and those are the themes that inspire me as a filmmaker and as a person in regard to the stories I enjoy reading and enjoy watching.
So from the very beginning of We Met in Virtual Reality, I knew I wanted to connect with people who could speak to those themes and had a story to tell. In VR, you can escape and be someone completely different, or you can be the person that you want to be and that you’re striving to go towards. And in both cases, that can be temporary or it can be, something that you hold forever.
That was especially true with one of the documentary’s subjects, IsYourBoi, who was able to connect with the person that she wants to be in her physical world. She was able to in VR. And you know, that story and the ways that she navigated that and the person that she found in VR is so inspiring to me and I’m so grateful that I was able to share her story. And I can say now she’s really becoming that person in the physical world. You know, she’s meeting up with a DragonHeart. They’re finding their relationship now together in the real world. And she’s really striving to be the person that she wanted to be in VR in the real world.
I think that’s the story that I really wanted to tell in that context regarding mental health and people as well as the LGBTQ community that really speaks through the documentary as well. Those were themes that were important to me in representing the true people who are pioneering the space in the forefront. The beginning of the internet was pioneered by marginalized communities and voices that we really didn’t get to see on screen.
With this documentary, I really wanted to raise awareness of marginalized communities and how indie communities and people in the LGBTQ community are really leading to the spaces that will shape the future of this technology.
What do you want viewers to take away from this documentary after they watch it?
I want people to walk away from the documentary feeling enlightened about a whole new world and reality that they may not have discovered or seen before. I want them to connect with their emotions and help them see themselves in a different way and raise a conversation about how they want to express themselves in this world and in reality as well. I want people to examine how their relationships and communities affect them and what they mean to them. And I hope that the film pushes people to get closer to the ones that they love and hold them dear as well.
We Met in Virtual Reality is currently streaming on HBO Max.