April 17, 2020

Animation Alumnus Van Phan Premieres at Tribeca

His VR project Upstander is available online beginning April 17

Van Phan has been making notable animated films since graduation from the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts with an MFA in 2000. However, he finally achieved one of his career goals this year when his VR film Upstander, which challenges viewers to confront bullying, was accepted into the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. Phan won’t be walking the Tribeca red carpet this year, as the COVID pandemic caused the New York festival to cancel its screenings and exhibits. But he’ll still have a Tribeca debut. The festival has gone online and Upstander is included in its Cinema360 section, a partnership with Oculus to make Upstander and other VR projects available online from April 17–25.

He answered a few questions about Upstander and his work in Animation and VR.

What was the inspiration for Upstander?

Upstander was inspired by my partnership with youth charity The Diana Award.   The organization teaches bullying prevention by empowering bystanders to stand up to bully. Bullying is something that I can relate to as I was bullied as a kid and feel it is an important issue. 

How did you get interested in VR and why is VR the perfect medium for this project?

I have always been fascinated with emerging technology first with computer animation over two decades ago and now with VR and AR. VR gives the filmmaker so many opportunities to tell fresh and original stories using tools unique to the medium. Although we are still trying to figure things out, I think VR will play a larger role in storytelling as soon we learn how to maximize its potential. VR has the ability to not only increase empathy but through the use of interactivity, it can create an increased sense of agency. For Upstander, I was excited to explore the use of embodiment, scale, time and perspective to create VR WOW moments.  

Getting into Tribeca is a dream for any project. What was the process like for you?

Tribeca is so special on so many levels. One of the things that makes it special is how they treat the filmmakers and make our voices heard.  I was fortunate enough to meet Loren Hammonds the lead programmer of the Tribeca immersive. Loren graciously took the time to look at my (work in progress) film and gave me encouragement as well as feedback to improve it. His encouragement helped me stay focused and continue to improve the project as I felt I was on the right path. In February, I heard the news that Upstander was accepted and it felt like getting into the top choice college. Unfortunately, two weeks later, news broke that the Tribeca Film festival was canceled due to COVID-19. 

Were you disappointed about the event going online because of COVID? Is there a silver lining to this being an online event?

I was very disappointed when I realized, I would not be able to attend the Tribeca film festival in person. However, when I heard that the immersive lineup would go online, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Given Tribeca’s history, it is a privilege to be part of this amazing event where we are using art and technology to help connect the immersive community during a time of isolation. Not only will the Tribeca immersive be accessible for free, but will be available globally to millions of people while they are helping to flatten the curve. That sounds like a win-win situation. 

Has the pandemic affected your career in other ways?

My life has been a roller coaster filled with disruption and uncertainty, like for most people. When you add the Tribeca film festival situation it takes that craziness to another level. I feel the future is very uncertain. I have no control over most things, but I am fortunate enough to be healthy right now, be able to learn and still have the passion to create. Focusing on things that I have control over helps me regain my agency back during these crazy times. As we have this shared experience during COVID-19 I feel more connected to the world and have more interest in continuing to pursue projects for social impact. I also have to accept that things are harder for everyone, so I am hopeful and realistic about the future.

You have made many acclaimed animated shorts since graduating with an MFA in Animation. How did your time at SCA prepare you for launching and growing your career?

Attending the USC Hench animation program gave me the opportunity to fail, explore and learn from making a film each year. Taking multidisciplinary classes at USC opened my mind and pushed me to experiment so I can find my own voice as a filmmaker. USC had the best resources to not only make short films but also distribute them. Thank you, Sandrine Cassidy, from the festival office for helping me distribute to over sixty film festivals while I was in school. The world has changed so much since the time when I was a student.  I feel that the world is no longer telling you what to do, but instead it is expecting you to figure it yourself and make it happen.  Suffice it to say, I feel that Upstander would not have been made possible if it wasn't for my experiences at USC.  My USC student films not only opens doors for me to get into the industry but taught me valuable skills to fight on. Thank you, USC.

Find Upstander in the Tribeca Cinema360 lineup at https://www.tribecafilm.com/festival/immersive/cinema360