The Art of Narrative VR Filmmaking with Steven Schardt and Auto

A still from the film Auto — Photo Credit: Nathan M. Miller

At Jaunt we always want to make sure we showcase unique and groundbreaking work and recently there has been an influx of independent filmmakers to our platform. So many filmmakers have flocked to the medium of immersive technology and we are lucky to have the best and brightest bringing their content straight to you. Writer / Director Steven Schardt (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Treatment) found the combination of immersive technology and narrative filmmaking was an easy fit, especially for his latest film Auto.

Where did the inspiration for this piece come from? It is very different than many of the narrative pieces we have seen in VR before.

Auto is about a middle-aged Ethiopian immigrant on his first night out as a ‘safety driver,’ an invented term for someone hired to simply sit in the front seat of a self-driving car, to soothe passengers who may not yet be comfortable with the idea. It’s a speculative fiction, about an inevitable technology that will soon be upon us.

I think what is different about this piece is that it is very traditionally structured. At the time I shot Auto, I had seen very few pieces in VR that I considered narrative in the traditional sense. 360 videos, particularly in 2014–2015, resembled very early films, single shots of ‘exotic’ places, train (now, rollercoaster) rides, and dramatic scenes where the performance was fixated on the idea of the camera as spectator — in early film, often as an audience member at a theater, and now, as first-person POV. In both early film and early VR, the camera is fascinated with itself.

There are countless other parallels between VR and early film — the unity of producer and exhibitor, films as exhibitions or technical marvels … anyway, it’s all there. For me the important thing to realize from the historical hindsight (and Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attraction”) was this: film didn’t really settle into itself until the innovations of parallel editing, the close-up, and montage were pressed into the aesthetic service of telling a story. I wanted to make a film, to let VR do what film does. This is a first step.

The cast of Auto and director Steven Schardt rehearsing the film.

It seems like casting played a huge role in this film. Can you walk us through that process?

I found Musay by telling the story from the backseat of an Uber, over many months, to twenty or so East African drivers, all men whom I reckoned could play Musay. Almost always, the ride ended with an excited response (“You speak my heart!”) but somewhere between the end of the ride and a follow up phone call, few responded. 
It wasn’t until the Uber app introduced me to Zee who plays Tsehayi that things started to work out. When I finished telling her the story, she said, “Don’t go to the Ethiopian Community Center. My family will do it.” From that moment, I was operating on faith, though I did insist on meeting the man who would play Musay.

I worked Zee’s son Jon, the former Washington State Debate Champion, to translate my English script into Amharic. We had several translations and rehearsals. For these first-time actors, we were mapping the dramatic intentions through finding the right language and idiom and intention.

Incidentally, Jon introduced me to Éthiopiques, a collection of Golden Age Ethiopian Jazz from the 60s through the early 80s, with amazing artists like Alèmayèhu Eshètè, Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, and Getatchew Mekurya, whose “Aha Gedawo” opens the film.

The locations for the piece were also very interesting choices. Where did you find them and how were you able to capture futuristic environments in our current time?

Amazon has constructed a futuristic campus in downtown Seattle. They actually do live in the future. I shot it there back in August, 2019.

Was this your first foray into VR? As a narrative filmmaker what pieces of the process posed challenges for you?

Before Auto, I did a lot of experiments — a dance piece with Seattle artists Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey, some music performances, interviews — and I carried a 360 camera (a Ricoh Theta) with me everywhere I went for over a year. I basically shot drafts of the movie, first alone and then in prep with cinematographer Nate Miller before we actually shot the movie. But yes, Auto was my first narrative film in VR.

Physical production is modified: camera mounts are different or must be built, crew has to be hidden from 360 view, and lighting has to be hidden or originate from practicals, diegetic sources. Acting and pacing are significantly transformed: scenes function more like stage productions, which pushes the aesthetic in a certain direction. Though the camera’s view can change, by actual movement or cutting (or manipulation / remapping, but Auto is in a realistic mode), both of which are discouraged, or practiced with caution, for fear of motion sickness or disorientation. Common sense here.

In Auto, the camera is moving, almost in every shot. Auto cuts from scene to scene and within scenes. By necessity, most cuts are what I call match cuts on attention. (“The Hero’s Journey” figure illustrates this.) All this means a lot of choreography, and finding locations you can rehearse. I made schematics in Cinema 4D to demonstrate camera placement and how one shot would link to the next.

Previs for camera blocking for the film. Photo Credit: Nathan M. Miller

It’s also important to remember that in 360, every shot is a VFX (visual effects) shot. At the very least the camera rig has to be removed, and before that stitching … so the role of the editor, is much expanded. Auto’s editor, Fred Beahm, is a stalwart in the VR / 360 community and his knowledge runs deep and wide, from codecs, to compositing to color, and he was also able to marshall stitchers and colorists to our aid. So post-production is much more technically challenging..

Everything in this process was challenging. Good luck.

Schardt screening the film at Cannes

Where do you see the future of 360 filmmaking going?

The term ‘360 filmmaking’ to me sounds already antiquated. While I don’t believe it’s some oddity like painting angels on the head of a pin, it will change rapidly. 360 video is only one strain of concurrently developing technologies what we hazily call VR, AR, XR, mixed reality — spatial media. And film’s relationship to spatial media is vital, because it’s intrinsically linked to telling stories.

Film includes painting, theater, photography, speech, and music, and VR stands to inherit from all these forms, plus interactivity, which includes more than just games. This, to me, this suggests not just stories but stories within story worlds. Something vaster, less formally constrained. And I do hope that we prioritize human stories and human experience.

See Auto now on Jaunt.