Aotearoa New Zealand is rich in extraordinary multi-hyphenates. Writer and artist Raqi Syed is one of them.
This year, her MINIMUM MASS: ‘a film experience by Raqi Syed & Areito Echevarria’, has been selected for three prestigious festivals — Tribeca, Venice and the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, where it won the Cristal for VR works. She is also a Senior Lecturer in the School of Design Innovation at Victoria University of Wellington.
Raqi began her career in feature animation as a Lighting Artist for Disney Feature Animation on films such as Meet the Robinsons and Tangled. She then went on to work as a Senior Technical Director with Weta Digital on Avatar, The Planet of the Apes films, and The Hobbit Trilogy.
With an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML)at Victoria University of Wellington, she’s been a Sundance New Frontier Story Lab Fellow, a Turner Fellow and a UCross Fellow. In 2017, The Los Angeles Times featured Raqi in its list of 100 industry professionals who can help fix Hollywood’s diversity problem.
Raqi’s writing focuses on film and gender, new media technologies, and the history and business of visual effects. Her essays have appeared in TechCrunch, Vice, Salon, Quartz, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
She responded to my questions on Zoom, with its snazzy built-in transcription.
Raqi: Hi Marian! I’m hiding out in my office at Te Aro which no one ever comes to! This is the perfect spot to be able to virtually chat with you…
Q: Let’s start with MINIMUM MASS (1), about ‘love, loss and black holes’ and set in contemporary Rotorua. Why did you want to tell this story? And why the association of loss with science fiction and black holes?
Raqi: I just kind of put them together and thought ‘Well, what if I was the kind of woman who wanted to make sense of this in a speculative way?’ The original story was ‘What if a micro black hole formed inside a woman’s body?’ What kind of woman would believe that, and what kind of woman would follow that logic, that maybe that’s why she cannot have children, maybe that’s where the children are going?
It was an attempt to deal with the real experience of miscarriage, but then also put myself in the headspace of ‘What if I went much further and allowed myself to believe speculative impractical things?’ I think it’s true that grief causes people to allow their mind to wander and to let go of reality as we know it, because reality is failing us. So why not create another reality in which the outcome is different?
I wanted to explore the idea of loss which was being understood in popular science as a fear of black holes. And also loss in the personal sphere of miscarriage.
Eventually we introduced a third idea, the 6-DoF [Degrees of Freedom] fully CG VR experience. The story didn’t begin as a VR, but it became clear that there was an opportunity to explore the medium. The more that we got into deconstructing what we were trying to say thematically, it became clear that perspective and changing your perspective, was going to be part of the story.
Q: I’m interested in the mechanics of a VR project and creating MINIMUM MASS in particular. How do you develop a VR?
Raqi: It took a long time. We wrote the script in 2016 but we weren’t really doing very much with it. In 2018 we started developing it, spent one year in development for the most part, and then spent all of 2019 in production. And a half of 2020. So I’d say it was easily two and a half to three years of time to make this project. You could have made a feature film in that amount of time. So that was surprising that it took that long. But it’s a very handcrafted thing. And I guess we all have day jobs we get paid to do. The three lead creatives — myself, Areito, and Sunny Teich — all teach at VUW. That was part of what took so long.
In terms of the technical aspect, at what point do we decide, ‘Okay, we’re going to use Unreal Engine an advanced real-time 3D creation application for interactive experiences’? And then decide to build these assets with these different pieces of software? That came after the story development and more in the prototyping process.
There’s currently a lot of discussion, as you know, about virtual production and how virtual production can be leveraged in live action and traditional cinema, to do stuff that gives more flexibility and allows us to use full digital pipelines. And also be, not ‘covid-proof’, but work in a way that’s socially distanced.
And then it turns out there’s massive optimisation that needs to happen in terms of resourcing. So you have an open world game and open world games look pretty good now, right? They’re fairly realistic and you can use the real-time engines to do Mandalorean-level visual effects which are also pretty realistic.
So we had to change the language about how we talked about this visual fidelity. Instead of photo realism, we started talking about it as photographic instead.
‘Photographic’ is, I feel, a much better representation of what we achieved, which is that there’s still a ground truth, what we call PBR, this physically based rendering aspect to it.
But it’s not not hyperrealistic. I do mean to use the double-negative. Hyperrealism is a Pop-Art movement that started in the 1970s in painting and sculpture. It aims to go beyond the Photorealism that we expect from a visual culture seeped in the photo image by drawing attention to high levels of detail and resolution. Often the result is grotesque because it’s SO REAL. In some ways I think VX has veered into the hyperreal, because it’s become an exercise in one upping the previous thing which was merely real. And with an emphasis on violence and destruction, the spectacle becomes grotesque.
Q: As you moved through the process, what were the challenges?
Raqi: There are these rules of filmmaking that everyone talks about when you make an indie film: don’t have the character changing their costume X number of times and have all these different environments, and we didn’t listen to that or we didn’t think about that advice.
And the original iteration of the story was mainly from the female perspective and feedback that we got at Sundance was, ‘Where’s the character of the father?’
So we went back and introduced the character of the father, which then pushed us to explore the story as a two-hander. If it’s about a male and female perspective, then how can the gaming mechanic, the interaction mechanic also reflect that theme? And then, from an interaction mechanic, how can you hold this world in your hand and use it to align your perspective to literally see the perspective of Sky, the male character and then also Rabia the female character? That was hard. And there was one advisor at the Sundance Lab who asked us to think about that.
The New Frontier Labs are run by women. And I think it’s a really great organisation for that reason. So the women were all in on this story and it was really wonderful to have that kind of support.
Q: How did you negotiate artistic choices about a story so close to home?
Raqi: There was one mentor there, a male mentor and he said, ‘Okay, are you guys sure that you want to live with this material for as long as it takes to make this?’ And at that time, we hadn’t done a project at this scale, certainly not our own work. We always worked on other people’s shows in a service role. And so we were just honored and excited to have the opportunity, and we thought, we have to do this.
We now understand that this mentor was saying, ‘Are you emotionally and psychologically prepared to live with this dark matter?’
In a miscarriage, a couple has to reckon with their relationship. The creative process further brings all that stuff to the surface and it’s intense.
It’s hard to turn the work off because we’re always talking about it and I do feel really tired and kind of burned out. I’ve lived and breathed this project for so many years now. I didn’t think about any of this going into it. This is something that I advise my students to consider when they want to tackle really personal subject matter.
I think this is art. Which is about going deep and exposing yourself, making yourself vulnerable so that people respond to the art and that’s great. But it also it kind of destroys you, and are you resilient enough to deal with that? I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think being real about your strategy for resilience as you’re dealing with this dark matter for whatever amount of time it takes you to make the thing is super important. And worth asking up front, ‘What is the self care that’s happening throughout this process?’
Q: You have a child now. Was it challenging to have a child after miscarriages when you were still processing those in such an intense and demanding way?
Raqi: Yes, there was an essay in The New York Times recently exploring this very idea, about women who have children after miscarriage. The author, Priscilla Blossom, describes how she lived with anxiety and never relaxed into early motherhood because of the trauma of what came before. This resonated with me, because for a long time I had to keep talking myself out of my anxious feelings.
Q: Has being a parent changed your priorities?
Raqi: One of the things I feel as a parent, and I know I share this with many of my colleagues who also have young children, is the chronic feeling of being time-poor. There’s this fear that as artists, we’ll never have enough time to make what feels like a backlog of ideas. But the thing that is also true is that parenthood leads us to particular kinds of stories. Areito and I couldn’t have made MINIMUM MASS if we didn’t have our son. The story doesn’t offer a specifically happy ending, but I believe our son provided the uplifting note it ends on.
Q: How did you manage the overall responsibilities for MINIMUM MASS?
Raqi: In terms of overall responsibilities, what’s cool is that Areito and I have very different skill sets. I’ve always worked as a lighter, which means I’m really interested in the art direction and cinematography side of things. And he has worked as an editor, and as a compositor and an effects artist. So he’s really interested in generating procedural systems. Areito was able to think about performance and motion capture and the character design in a generative way and I was able to use my skill sets in the look development, lighting and rendering space.
And that worked well together. There’s still a lot of stuff that between the two of us we didn’t know. And so we had other people come on to the project.
Sunny Teich did the effects elements. She designed all of the void, elements, the dark matter, simulated cloth, and the destructed environments.
And then we had Chris Garnier, a game developer to work through the user experience and level design. We had Jimi Wilson and his sound team. But I think because it was just the two of us for a long time, we had to use kind of a bricolage approach to work to our strengths and then hope that we were going to be able to either fill in the gaps with additional team members or up skill as we went to figure stuff out.
Q: What are your thoughts about the particular qualities and potential of audience engagement with VR?
Raqi: A lot of extended reality developers believe that augmented reality (AR) is where it’s at. Part of that has to do with the amount of friction involved on the audience side in terms of hardware. Most AR applications allow you to use your phone. The idea is that Apple is putting a lot of development into the supercomputer that everyone has in their pocket and that as soon as other stuff is figured out with AR content, we all already have the hardware. We can use our phones and hold them up wherever we are in the real world, and it’s just easier to add layers of narrative onto our real world. So a lot of people are much more excited about the potential of AR for long term adoption.
But I’m kind of all in for VR, even though its future is uncertain. The uncertainty is around hardware adoption and the massive amount of friction required to experience virtual reality. You have to have a desktop PC and it has to be a fairly grunty machine. It has to have lots of disk space to be able to download these massive executable files.
And if you looked at any of the festival stuff, if you go and watch for example, the Venice Film Festival which partnered with Viveport for this year, there were six experiences including MINIMUM MASS. And they were all free. Which was great. But it’s like three to five gigs an experience. So you have to figure out how many you can download at once. There’s understanding the platform, signing up for the platform. So there’s just like so much friction around you having all the material that you need before you can even experience VR. That is a problem.
But I also think VR is the last medium that we can single screen. Everything about our life now is about multi- screening or second screening. So we’re watching TV, we look at our phone, we’re doing augmented reality and listening to music. Everything is like you’re doing something and then something else is happening.
And back in the day, when people went to the cinema, cinemas were like a religious experience. The screen is an altar and you enter the theater as a sacred space and people didn’t have cell phones. You immersed yourself in this collective experience and then you emerged like out of Plato’s cave into the daylight and you had been transported for a certain amount of time.
And I think VR still does that, right? You have to put the headset on, you have to fully commit yourself. You can’t do anything else while you’re doing VR. So I just think that it’s more like traditional cinema in that way.
This is why I want to keep working with VR specifically, because I think that the ability to have audience attention in a focused way is really special and you can’t do that with anything else right now.
Q: Could you explain a little bit about the roles of spherical volume and deep time?
Raqi: My understanding of deep time is based on the writings of the media archeologist Siegfried Zielinski. He writes that media and technology progress in an elliptical way, in fits and starts. In order to understand the history of media, we have to look to a variety of precedents that aren’t linearly logical. So for example, the medium of VR can be traced to the early ‘key-hole’ films during the silent era, Pepper’s ghost during the Victoria Era, or the Expanded Cinema movement of the 1960s. I’m interested in how each of these moments use technology to explore theatrical space in the context of narrative while pushing at the edges of the two-dimensional frame. One of these things has a particular influence on MINIMUM MASS but they each inform how I think about VR as a medium that’s in dialogue with other mediums.
Q: What’s the future for VR, because of the friction and because headsets are so expensive?
Raqi: We’d have to ask a real futurist! I can only observe that Oculus’s Quest headset continues to come down in price and improve in visual fidelity, which most people agree is what needs to happen for mass audience adoption. I personally am concerned about the way a technology company like Facebook is shaping content. Facebook is not an art organisation, so artists have to push back very strongly on how the platform is addressing privacy, audience building, and censorship. I’d like to develop for the Quest, but I also don’t want to have a Facebook account. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
We also need to have a conversation about distribution pathways and again, how tech companies like Facebook, HTC, and Valve are essentially shaping content by the degrees to which they do or do not censor content. The history of cinema tells us that corporations are not great at self-regulating. What we see on these platforms is that violence is acceptable, but nudity isn’t — an age-old problem in the art world which we need to interrogate more directly.
Pick-A-Path: Audience Agency
Q: I loved your discussion with Charlotte Graham McLay about problems with pick-a-path projects, where one writer can’t provide 200 hours of branching narrative. You gave Cormack McCarthy as an example of the kind of storyteller whose style you’d like to infuse a western story. What’s the future for more sophisticated pick-a-path filmmaking?
Raqi: So in terms of choose your own adventure stuff there’s a whole audience of people that are still really into a genre called text-based games. In terms of branching narrative, we’re really not going to be able to do cool meaningful stuff that doesn’t feel trope-y until we have more artificial intelligence support for narrative and storytelling and then through machine learning will be able to create these generative story worlds where you can have different experiences based on your unique position and taste.
I don’t know that I see value in that. I know it’s intriguing and it’s like a design problem to solve. But I think the reason people want to experience art, whether it’s a painting, orchestra, opera, or a film is that it’s a curated experience. It arises from an artist’s unique perspective and we want to share that, and that inherently is not multi branching. That’s a story that someone’s going to tell you that transpires over time in a fairly linear way.. So I don’t know… I think interactivity is interesting and building in specific interactive moments into stories might be useful. But I think we prefer the highly curated experience because that’s what makes it special.
Q: When I researched you, mostly through your amazing MINIMUM MASS website, I struggled to understand the meaning of some of the many roles you’ve played and your choices of language to describe them. Fundamentally you’re a writer and artist. But your MINIMUM MASS credit reads ‘film experience by’… you and Areito. Why not a film ‘by’ or ‘written and directed by’?
Raqi: I love this question because you focused in on a thing that I’m actually struggling with right now, which is that I do a bunch of things and I have different names for them.
Why is it ‘a film experience by…?’ We did think about that a lot. And I think that it’s the hybrid nature of the project. We’re film people and I feel like whatever medium I experiment with and learn about and use in my art I’m kind of like cinema ride or die.
For me, it’s always going to originate with cinema and then I try to understand the other things that it could hybridise into. With MINIMUM MASS, we wanted it to be cinematic, but we also wanted to learn about immersive and gaming and interactivity. When we play a game we say, oh, I had a game experience. Or I experienced this theater event. Or I experienced this festival that I went to, which is where the immersive space comes from. So we wanted to tell you right up front that you were going to be in a hybridized experience. We felt like ‘a film experience’ captured the idea of the film audience as active participant.
I like the word ‘participant’. Film has ‘audience’ and an audience is largely passive. Gaming has ‘player’ or ‘user’. ‘User’ is so productized. It’s so late capitalism. I don’t like calling people ‘users’ because it implies that there’s some corporate consumption happening there. And ‘player’ also implies something different. It means that you’re granting a lot of agency. In the open world game that makes a lot of sense or in something like Star Wars — The Void where people are running around a large play space and they have a lot of possibilities.
In MINIMUM MASS the possibilities are contained. So we like the word ‘participant’ because you’ve chosen to come here. You are participating in an event, there is some interaction but it’s a curated experience.
Q: You’ve also been a ‘Lighting Artist’ and ‘Senior Technical Director’. What do these terms mean and how has your visual effects career progression worked? Is it a ‘normal’ career trajectory?
Raqi: I think this gets into an interesting part about labour organisation. The thing that weighs heavily on my mind is the future of visual effects. As visual effects artists have we been good ancestors to the next generation of visual effects artists? I think the answer to that is no, and the reason is because we haven’t done enough to organise labor, to empower visual effects artists.
The trajectory of a visual effects artist becoming a storyteller is not a straightforward one and there are a lot of barriers. There’s also a lot of misconception that when you’re a visual effects artist you’re a demo jockey. You know how to do something really well in the service of someone else’s vision. We are not even supposed to communicate with the outside world about the details of the work.
In some ways that’s just the nature of service work and that’s fine. But I also think it’s a disservice to the medium. Visual effects is a medium and it can be used to do lots of things. It could be an art medium, but we don’t understand it as that because we have only allowed ourselves to explore it in this really particular photorealistic form in the service of big budget franchise storytelling. And I think that if we allow ourselves to think of visual effects as an art medium, then we can do lots of other things with it. We could make it weird, we could make it small. We could make it indie. We could make it experimental.
So in terms of pathways for technical visual effects artists becoming key creators and storytellers — these pathways don’t really exist. You have to almost leave the system in order to reinvent it for yourself. And there’s a lot of people that are doing that on an individual ad hoc basis. So I think what you’re responding to is that there’s no pathway. I don’t know what the right terminology for my skill set is and I’m trying to figure that out. There are different words, terms that I’ve landed on. Digital cinematography is one that speaks to me, because it encompasses some of the practical skills that I have, which is lighting, but also thinking cinematically. But what is a fantasy title for me? Something that I thought about is visual mythography, someone who visually makes myths. I like that idea, but it might not be very practical.
Labour Organisation in Visual Effects
But to the other issue about labor organisation. One of the things I’ve heard from folks that I’ve talked to is about why have unions not come into common practice in visual effects. It’s the last part of the filmmaking puzzle. Visual effects started to become part of the filmmaking process in the 1970s and it wasn’t until the late 90s, early 2000s, that we developed the pipelines that we now use commonly.
When I worked at Disney, for example, Disney is a union shop and so they organise their titles and their departments based on titles that make sense in a union context. So lighters are ‘Shot Finalers’, because in the traditional 2D animated pipelines, the person who finaled a shot was doing specific things at a specific stage and it was clear what they were doing, and there’s all this language around what a shot finaler is. Versus an animator versus a layout artist — the title and the thing that you’re doing correspond to each other. When visual effects houses started to spring up, this ‘Technical Director’ title came up, but it’s a very opaque title. What is a Technical Director? You’re not a Director. And yes, you’re technical but technical about what? So it’s very hard within the union context to say ‘I understand what you do from your title.’ These two things — the actual work and the title assigned to it — became disparate.
So part of the inability to unionize is that in the larger Hollywood context people don’t really understand what a visual effects artist does based on their title. I think you tapped into something that’s a much bigger issue. A Lighting Technical Director is a hybridised role. I am kind of a cinematographer. I’m figuring out what the shot looks like. But I’m not Roger Deakins. I don’t get that kind of power and in reality, I’m actually just the gaffer, the person that sets up the lights, except I’m doing it in the computer. In the Hollywood context, we understand the cinematographer and gaffer and the labour that goes into those roles to be different. From a hierarchical point of view they’re very different, one is above the line and the other below the line. And that’s what a lighter is doing in visual effects. They’re doing kind of both of these things. So it’s very confusing and I’m still trying to figure out what I want to call myself because there’s not a lot of good examples.
Someone that I admire a lot is Haskell Wexler because he was a cinematographer who became a director and I love Medium Cool because of the way that he constructed the story based on a person who thinks like a cinematographer. So I think about who are some people that have done things that I want to put myself in that mould of and how does that help me understand what I want to call myself? But I haven’t landed on anything.
Relationships & Partnerships
Q: How do you build relationships and partnerships? How did they enhance MINIMUM MASS?
Raqi: I didn’t know what I was doing when we started MINIMUM MASS and I think I’m really lucky that the XR international community is a pretty small one. And it’s a very generous one. So, beginning with the Sundance Lab, we got plugged into this community. After Sundance we got invited to an event called Dev Lab, which is put on by an organisation called Kaleidoscope which is an international platform for funding and partnerships. And through that we met a lot of people. Then we went and did other events.
I went to Cannes XR in 2018, the first year that Cannes did XR.They had a marketplace and I pitched there and I met more people — people doing what I’m doing — which is how do we figure out how to raise money for our indie projects? And who do we go to?
Do we go to technology companies, do we go to Hollywood studios, do we go to NGOs or people for social justice work? There’s a lot of social justice funding in this space and I think like anything else it’s just aligning yourself with people that have similar values. Sundance was the first institution to say we believe in this project and we want to support it and almost simultaneously, we got funding from the New Zealand Film Commission, through their Interactive Development Fund.
Those two things happening set the project up and formed its DNA. Because the Film Commission supported it, it became this very New Zealand project and I love that. I love that it’s set in New Zealand, it’s New Zealand talent and it’s very much the New Zealand ethos of making films and storytelling, that we do a lot with very little. And it’s important that the landscape is represented in a particular way. When I think about iconic New Zealand films whether it’s Once Were Warriors, or The Piano or, even the more contemporary stuff, which is kind of franchisee, like A Wrinkle In Time, there’s something very special and beautiful about New Zealand and how you capture light, New Zealand light. The changeability of this light is something we talk about my lighting class like ‘How do you capture New Zealand light when you’re shooting in the bush?’. And then when you’re out and in open spaces there are all these clouds and the light is changing quickly.
And I am really honoured that the New Zealand Film Commission recognised that this is going to be a Kiwi project and they wanted to support it. So I think support from those two organisations are what set us up for knowing whoever else comes on board must also support this vision. So, with the French Film Commission funding that we got we have a partner, a French production company called Floréal and I met them at one of these events that I went to, when I was pitching at Cannes and they just said ‘We really liked the project and we want to support it and want to figure out how we could do co-production’. So they raised money for us to get some work done in France. And of course, the French are great with animation. But also it was important to us that they understood that this is a New Zealand project and we must preserve the integrity of that.
And then with Epic Mega Grant that was another cool thing where I felt like our particular Achilles heel, which is also our superpower — being visual effects artists — allowed us to talk to the Epic folks in a very technical way. So I guess this is the other interesting thing about XR is that I feel like there’s power in being a producer who has a particular technical skill.
So, as someone who’s responsible for fundraising I can hopefully talk to the person in the language that they are interested in talking to me in. And in the case of Epic, they’re very focused on, ‘What are you doing with the engine? That’s interesting. What are you doing that’s technical and pushing the envelope?’ That was their focus and we love having those conversations because that’s just like nerding out about technical stuff and lighting and real time rendering. Connecting with people that are aligned with us, whether it’s on a technical level or on a thematic level or even a political level, like what is the meaning of this project, the guiding principle, that allows us to do stuff together.
Safety & Equity
Q: How do you perceive the big picture globally and locally? What kind of safe and equitable future is possible in the screen industry?
Raqi: There’s no silver bullet to this problem of equity and diversity and the fallout of #meToo. But I do think there’s a common denominator when we look at the abuse of power that’s happened in different places. Abuse of power is happening because there’s a lack of transparency in the industry itself.
The public learned recently about the history of some of the things that have gone on at Weta Digital. We’ve heard about what’s happened with women who’ve worked at Pixar. We’ve heard about people who have left Pixar because of the culture John Lasseter created. And then, of course, Harvey Weinstein.
At every level there is an abuse of power. It’s not a silver bullet, but I really believe we’re not going to make progress until we have labor organisation within visual effects. But it’s not going to happen on the goodwill of the industry itself. We have to make that happen.
I have never in my entire 10-plus years where I worked in the industry on feature films worked on a team that was led by a female supervisor. That’s pretty devastating to me when I look back on my credits and I see that.
I do think at some studios things were and are a little bit better. So one of the things that I noticed when I went to Disney Feature Animation was that half of their entire shader department was women (2). That’s a big deal because it’s one of those really specific disciplines where men tend to consolidate power. Supervisors are picked out of the shader writing department and then those supervisors ascend.
But there were no female shader writers in the 8 years I worked at Weta.
There’s absolute value in uncovering and reckoning with these 20 plus years of history and bad stuff that has gone on at places like Weta Digital with Porn Friday and all the other things that have been written about. But I don’t believe that staying focused on that is going to help us. That will shame some people. That will have a reckoning in terms of a conversation about the reality of it, but it’s not structurally fixing anything.
In order to structurally change things we have to push for labor organisation in every place that you have a visual effects hub. It worries me that the media stories are not allowing us to have that conversation because that’s the one that needs to happen.
I believe unions create a level of transparency that mitigates some problems, because lack of transparency around pay scales creates abuses of power and inequity. We have to be able to interrogate who occupies which role, to look at leadership and management in technical roles, creative roles, and production as well and look at the pay scales. And when you have unions, you have a publication of pay scales and titles. You know how many people are employed based on gender, race, perhaps even sexuality. This data gives early career artists, especially women, the power to negotiate better rates.
We need to understand with clarity how many women and people of color are occupying the very top roles at studios and on productions. And then we need to be able to measure the shift in those numbers over time. That would be a great outcome of some of these sordid stories that we’ve read about, if we could move in that direction.
The other thing that I want to say is that there are a lot of tax incentives in the visual effects industry and not just here in New Zealand. The reason why you have visual effects production in the UK, Montreal, and Singapore is because there’s massive tax incentives. And if there’s tax incentives the public is funding that.
When public money is used to fund anything we need to have transparency and we need legislation. We need to have a conversation about — if every visual effects worker’s salary is being subsidised by whatever, $10 to $30,000 a year — then there need to be deliverables associated with that. Strings attached to public funding should be put in place, right, including strings attached to tax incentives offered to big budget productions?
I believe public funding should be tied to inclusion measures. Legislation around diversity and inclusions on below-the-line roles on big budget productions that receive tax incentives could be an option. Maybe we should formalise a below-the-line inclusion rider (3).
I’m energised by the volume of pushback we’re seeing against the screen sector and our conservative political structures right now. #MeToo, and especially BLM’s global reach indicates that collectively we are hungry for reform.
But I also see how quickly radical movements get appropriated by late capitalism. On Blackout Tuesday I watched corporations and VFX studios post black squares in support of BLM without any meaningful call to action or restructuring of the status quo. How many Black artists were promoted to top levels in the VFX industry since June? How many pregnant women were contractually promised work and childcare support after their maternity leave ends?
I see how BIPOC are routinely called up to moderate diversity panels which frankly, white men take cover behind. And I see in institutions like the University of Southern California and Weta Digital, where I spent many of my formative years as an artist, that decades of misogynistic practices have gone unchecked. I very much appreciate that there finally seems to be some sort of reckoning with these dark histories in the public sphere. But what I still see happening is that women are being asked to undertake the weight of reliving the stories and bringing this truth to light. When will the perpetrators of this violence publicly share in this burden?
The Next Project
Q: What’s your next project?
Raqi: IIML is directly related to why I left visual effects. I did the IIML MA a few years ago, when I was working on the first Hobbit. My thesis project was a novel based on the story of my father’s life. I wanted to tell my father’s story of growing up in Pakistan and emigrating to America. I imagined that it would be in the tradition of all these amazing writers who wrote the great the post-colonial novels, like Kiran Desai, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie. I wanted to tell the a multi-generational South Asian and post-colonial family story. I wanted it to be an American pre-9/11 novel, which ends at 9/11. That was my vision.
I wrote it as my thesis and I got a lot of great feedback and then I went back to VFX to work on two more Hobbits. During that process I’d seen something like a spark of what happens when you start telling your own story for the first time. I learned that you can’t untell it. You have to keep telling it. I needed to rewrite it several times to make it good. And I knew that wasn’t going to be possible if I was working 50, 60, 70 hours a week as a visual effects artist. I just didn’t have the creative bandwidth at the end of the day to do that.
So the IIML was the demise of my visual effects career because other things, like film school, started to haunt me as well.
I went to the University of Southern California and in the late 90s the Division of Animation and Digital Arts was run by women who had come out of the Cal Arts tradition. It was and still is a feminist program. And they really instilled in us this idea that you have to have your own independent practice, no matter what your work is they would ask, ‘What is your practice?’. As soon as I left school and went into the industry I put that aside. But when I did the IIML degree, all of that stuff started to haunt me and I remembered the words of all my professors saying ‘What is your practice, what are you doing to tell your story?’ and I knew that I hadn’t done very much. I had gone to film school to be an artist, and I wasn’t really an artist. I was a craftsperson and it was no longer satisfying. So I had to quit visual effects to address this thing, which is, how am I going to tell my own story. And when am I going to do that, when am I going to get serious about being an artist?
So I had a year of existential dread after I quit visual effects because I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wrote the novel again. I was casting about for ‘How do I be an artist?’. And then I got this job at Victoria, which helped me. Being a design academic means that you have an art practice. So it was really great and helpful. It took many years and I’m still figuring that out.
But now I know that if you want to have an art practice you just have to make time for it. And you have to give up a lot of other things that you’re not going to do because you’re going to tell your story, or many versions of it. So I wrote that novel three times and it’s still not good. And what I’ve decided to do is to carve off a chunk of it, just a little piece of it and explore it in virtual reality.
In January, I got invited to do this residency at Ucross, which is historically a residency for writers and theatre folk to go and spend three weeks at this amazing ranch in Wyoming and do your thing. I took the time to ideate on this project and how can I take this character based on my father and create some kind of virtual reality experience out of it? It might be a soliloquy in VR, with one character. I want to create a realistic digital human of my father and see what happens when you raise the dead. How how do I interact with my dead father and ask him all the questions and I never got to ask?
My father died when I was in my early 20s and he died in the weeks before 9/11. 9/11 was a collective traumatic moment. But in the specific context of my family it was the end of everything. It was the end of our lives as we knew them because my father died. It was the end of our lives as a model minority. Being a Pakistani growing up in the United States you were, at that time, considered an Asian model minority. But after 9/11 we became very suspect. So it was the end of everything. And what I wanted to investigate in the story is, what does that mean, ‘the end of everything’.
And I still haven’t figured it out. So I’m trying to figure it out through an exploration of character in VR. I’ve been thinking about the script for most of this year because I have a little bit of bandwidth now, after MINIMUM MASS.
I’m hoping that when my teaching trimester ends I’m going to spend the next several months figuring out the story.
But I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s about, except that it’s about my father. And it’s emotional, so it’s not necessarily going to be less difficult or less dark than MINIMUM MASS. But I guess these are the kinds of stories I have to get out of my system. It’s very slow, it’s filled with a lot of uncertainty and I don’t know where it’s going. But somehow I feel like this is the right way to tell the story. I have an intuition that I’m on the right track, but I don’t have much more information about it.
(1) All caps because ‘MINIMUM MASS in all caps is my habit, from writing it so often on social media. Our chosen font for the project, Rig Shaded, only does all caps, so it’s merely a design choice. I wish it was something clever related to bell hooks. If you prefer to make it Minimum Mass, I am totally fine with that!’
(2) Shader writing is a specialty in computer graphics where code is written to apply to the surface of 3-d models. This code appears as textures and materials which responds to light. It includes everything from skin and hair to the fabric of a character’s costume to water to clouds.
(3) A ‘rider’ is a provision in a performer’s contract that mandates a personal amenity of some kind. An inclusion rider (or equity rider), as negotiated by a powerful actor or filmmaker — or enshrined in legislation — provides for a specific level of commitment to diversity/equity in a film production, and may include provision of child care for cast and crew.