Students learn the art of virtual reality filmmaking

Have you ever wondered what it would like to be transported into a movie? Students in the College of Fine Art’s Digital Arts Authoring class (FA 536A), are giving viewers that very experience through the creation of their own 360-dergree virtual reality films.

Last fall, their films were so good that they were slated to be shown at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in Austin, Texas, but the festival was canceled because of the pandemic.

In one semester, the students made films ranging from a horrifying witchy séance ritual, a tragicomedy starring a delusional superhero named Banana Man and a dark fantasy where the worlds of Marilyn Monroe and Tim Burton become intertwined.

“One of the starting points I think for all of this, was this idea of creating some sort of interdisciplinary class through the college of fine arts,” said Cynthia Stokes, assistant professor at the Fred Fox School of Music. Stokes co-teaches the course with School of Art professor, Joseph Farbrook.

“I was really interested in looking at how we could create a collaborative experience for our students,” said Stokes.

Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated experience that allows users to become fully immersed in a 360-degree video or computer simulated environment. Instead of viewing a two-dimensional screen, the user is transported into the experience thanks to the use of a VR headset.

Students enrolled in the class are taught the basics of performance though observation and participatory activities, as well as the steps in the production process.

“I learned that the filmmaking process is extremely production heavy and it really opens your mind to how much goes into every version of a film,” said Davaughn Hall, an undergraduate student studying Studio Art.

Although Hall and his team faced several difficulties during the production of their film, “Banana Man,” Hall said that he fell in love with the process.

“At the end of the day, I fell in love with the process. I trust the process. I feel very rewarded with what we came up with in every project, and this class is one of the many that I will carry with me into my careers moving forward,” said Hall.

Before brainstorming ideas for their films, students were broken into teams and assigned a prompt that they used to help get their creative juices flowing. Samples ranged from establishing meaning from artwork, learning about famous artists and listening to instrumental music.

“It’s been really amazing to put this to our students and say you guys are going to be the ones to discover this along with us,” said Farbrook.

During the semester, students learned the basics of filmmaking and the importance of teamwork in the film industry.

“The thing I loved most about this class was 100 percent the people,” said Roslyn Norman, a recent graduate of the College of Engineering.

“This was a fast-paced class which involved a lot of coordinating and close contact with other students and working with a whole class of open minded, hardworking individuals was amazing,” said Norman.

At the end of the semester, students displayed their work during a public exhibition that was held at the Fred Fox School of Music. In addition to screening their films, students were also tasked to create a live-performance element to add to the realism. Audience members in Hall’s group were surprised to see Hall (who played the role of Banana Man) dressed up and sitting in front of them after taking off their headsets.

“I liked the exhibit because while the videos were the main focus, I loved how everyone added to it by expressing it outside of their virtual-reality headset,” said Steve Beltran-Rodarte, a Studio Art major.

The course is set to be taught Monday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., this fall semester, and is open to graduate and undergraduate students from across disciplines.

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