Sundance Interview With: Morris May

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Morris May is an award-winning visual effects artist, filmmaker, and technology expert. His newest project, the virtual reality (VR) experience film Perspective, Chapter I: The Party, had its World Premiere in the New Frontier section of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The project, co-created with writer/director Rose Troche, has received significant acclaim for its combination of groundbreaking interactive visual technology and dramatic narrative. Perspective, Chapter I: The Party allows participants to experience the sexual abuse of a young partygoer through the perspectives of both the victim and the perpetrator.

In attendance at New Frontier, Morris May spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about his collaboration with Rose Troche, supporting his first work at Sundance, and the powerful responses to Perspective, Chapter I. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: You and I were speaking just after I watched the two parts of your project about the fact that you had to invent technology to make them possible. What are the technological precedents that you used to figure out what you needed for Perspective?

Morris May: There aren’t too many precedents for a project like this just because so few people are filming in VR. I did some research about other projects and I’d watch the technological progress online, but ultimately the technology for Perspective had to be invented to suit Rose’s vision [as director]. When we first started doing this “movie”, we were looking at the typical 360-degree stereo-narratives, which had a lot of problems. It was important to figure out what we needed to tell the story. With the cameras being used, you couldn’t get very close or you’d become cross-eyed. But for Rose, it was very important: “I want to get close, we need to get closer to the actors.”

SM: For an experiential film about rape, I would argue you need that kind of intimacy.

MM: What is a movie without a close-up, after all? You need that kind of closeness for storytelling. So I tried to follow that and develop this technology so that the vision [through VR glasses] is as close as I could get to being inside the character’s head. You can move your head, go around the room, or look down and see your body. People pass cups back and forth.

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SM: You have a background in Hollywood as a VFX guy. Is this project the most involved you have ever been in terms of production beyond just the technological or effects aspect? Is this the most heavily you’ve impacted story and narrative?

MM: I’ve written and made some films on my own, so I can’t say it’s the most involved, but it was a totally collaborative project. I had originally started this project without Rose, and then Sundance – actually Shari [Frilot] through Sundance – paired us together. It’s definitely the most technology-forward story I’ve ever been involved with, and one of the better successes.

SM: This part of Perspective is labeled Chapter I. Now that you and Ms. Troche have collaborated so successfully, do you have plans for subsequent chapters?

MM: Totally, totally.

SM: And in those chapters will the lines remain distinct: Rose will write and direct the narrative, you will construct the storytelling technology?

MM: Well, yes and no. The original concept was that you would become someone and experience an event; then you would become someone else, and see that same event happen. That idea was what I took to Sundance and at the time, I had some stories that weren’t as successful as Rose’s by any means. So I think we’ll continue to work with that format again: I’ll come up with the overall concept; Rose will write the story, cast it, direct the story and the actors; and we will create the technology to tell that story.

SM: “We” as in whom – is it a team, or just you?

MM: *Laughs* I will create the technology. The less Rose understands about the technology in some ways, the better. That’s been one great thing about working with her. Out of all the people I’ve worked with, she was one of the most focused on telling the story instead of the technology. That’s really helped our relationship come together so well.

SM: It’s almost, if not literally, serendipitous that Sundance would pair you together. Ms. Troche is a kind of legendary figure in the independent film world for her groundbreaking, low-budget projects; and you are well-known for innovative commercial film work.

MM: I think I’m just lucky. *Laughs* The work on these tentpole, Academy Award-winning films that I’ve done gave me the technical kung-fu I needed to pull Perspective off. Pulling it off in the time that we did and with the budget we had is one of the most difficult things I have ever done – much more difficult than the 2012 disaster film or something. This is truly groundbreaking technology: not only did the technology not exist, and we didn’t know how to tell these stories, but it’s also got a really intense subject and material. Those three things made it a huge challenge as well as a dream project for both of us.

SM: There seems to be a substantial divorce between storytelling and the use of innovative technology in films like 2012. That doesn’t take away anything from filmmakers like Roland Emmerich, an amazing director of spectacle, but it does adhere to the old complaint of prizing “style over substance.” How does that approach play into the kinds of projects you take on as an effects artist as well as a filmmaker or inventor?

MM: Too often this kind of work looks like an experiment for the developers. Something that Rose and I share is that we wanted to keep this project from looking like a science experiment. Again, it’s about staying true to the story for me when I work.

SM: Normally, I wouldn’t ask this kind of question because it’s a bit rudimentary, but what was the production process like for your team?

MM: I had been working on it, on and off, for about six months, building the camera and buying the film stuff. I had gone out to Venice Beach and shot some silly things. I would grab my neighbors when Rose would send me a script and say, “How close can I get to you? How else can I move the camera?” So I had shot [like] this maybe twenty times before Rose flew in to work with the actors. By the time we got together, Rose and I had a pretty good idea of what the guidelines were going to be in terms of what was possible for us.

SM: There’s something ironic about the fact that this is the smallest budget project you’ve worked on in some time –

MM: Oh yeah, by far.

SM: – Yet paradoxically it’s one of the most technologically involved and groundbreaking works of your career.

MM: When you’re really passionate about something, you don’t really think about its budget or whether or not something can be done. I’ve done things that have never really been done before – that’s my background. They call me when they want an entire rainforest to be sucked into a tiny little hole in The Mummy Returns [2001, dir. Stephen Sommers], stuff like that. If it’s never been done before, I’m going to figure it out, and this was the same kind of thing.

SM: I remember as a young man being astounded and terrified by that scene. Have you read Ebert’s review of Mummy Returns? He didn’t like the film, so I’m sorry for bringing it up, but in the review he does this great analysis of how fast Brendan Fraser’s character must have been running to save his son from death by sunrise. He was thrilled, too.

MM: No, I’ve never read it but I did work on that sequence.

SM: Even Ebert was forced to call attention to the artistry of that scene. At the time you and I are talking, Perspective, Chapter I has been showing in New Frontier for a few days now. Do you find the regular, non-filmmaker citizens as aware of the technological ground you’ve broken with this new project as people have been with your tentpole work? Or do they just take in stride as being of a kind with the other projects in the New Frontier section?

MM: It’s a little bit of both. Our project is more story driven than some of the other projects. Some people come out [of the VR booth] very excited by what they’ve just been through, and others are just overwhelmed by the story. And then others are just…

SM: Distanced from the story by the technology?

MM: Exactly. You know, I can’t even really watch the film because the technology is just so far visually behind what we’re capable of now, and it’s only a few months later. But I think that one of our great successes is that there are technical problems with it, but the story is so emotional and well-executed that those [technical] issues just disappear for most people.

SM: The story is extremely emotional and intense, no doubt about it. Did you work with the actors in those twenty or so test-rounds that you and Ms. Troche did?

MM: I did not work at all with the actors, that was completely Rose. She handled casting them and directed them as well.

SM: Knowing that she was not the most technical filmmaker, were you satisfied with what she captured in her time with the performers?

MM: What came out far exceeded my expectations…I was absolutely blown away with it when I saw it. We had built this camera so that she could be in the bedroom [where the rape takes place] with the actors, working with them on getting intimate performances. Had I been left to my own demise, I would have put an actor in front of a greenscreen one day and another actor on a greenscreen the next day, and then tried to edit their footage together even though I know that that always ends in disaster. Without Rose’s work this thing would certainly have ended in disaster, too.

SM: To a layman like myself, the audiovisual experience is remarkably immersive and high-tech, so much so that it’s emotionally paralyzing to see what takes place.

MM: No one comes out without needing a second. I didn’t mention this but I had seen the actors in rehearsal. And even when I had previously seen it, just the rehearsals with them was enough to make my eyes water several times. When we were shooting it, at one point I just put the headset down and walked around the block.

SM: Just to grab a much-needed breath of fresh air.

MM: Even though the whole crew was waiting for me. I just said, “Goodbye,” ran out the door, and walked all the way around the block so I could compose myself.

SM: Over the last few years, audiovisual technologies have changed the way we conceptualize storytelling in Hollywood and in independent film. Mo-cap, greenscreen, rotoscoping, you name it – they’ve all complicated how we make and classify moving-image work. Where do you see technology this like going in terms of its capacity as a storytelling tool?

MM: The technology three years from now will be nothing like this. We won’t need to be gluing GoPro cameras together. It won’t be an uncomfortable experience for the viewer. We’ll be able to achieve real parallax so that when someone sticks their finger in your eye, you’ll be able to move your head back and forth. There are a lot of subtle tricks your eye plays on you that you don’t really notice. Like if someone’s finger moves closer to your head, your eyes actually converge to meet the finger, but that doesn’t happen with this technology. Depth-of-field is nonexistent in this piece; everything remains in focus. Three years from now, as you step into a scene, images will come in and out of focus, which will be a major step toward creating what we call “True Presence.”

I think the ultimate goal of oculus technology is that you just believe you’re “there”, you feel like you’re “there.” You don’t think you’re watching a screen.

SM: Given your background, I imagine that you have a strong understanding of what it takes to make these images, much less the films themselves. In the timeframe you’re talking about, can there be a sustainable production model for the virtual reality field?

MM: I think this is an absolute game-changer – VR is the next big medium in storytelling. Oculus experiences don’t all have the same release dates but they’re just going to completely dominate the storytelling field. Samsung GearVR is out now for purchase. Google Cardboard has turned out to be even more exciting than I had envisioned. It’s way more immersive and involving. Seeing that makes me want to take Perspective to college campuses and just hand out some cardboard; we haven’t yet, but hopefully soon.

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