April 11, 2022
Alumni Spotlight: Raqi Syed '03
By Claire Wong
In a world of evolving media, with new technologies developing at an exponential rate, artists are challenged to continually push the boundaries of innovative storytelling and immersive entertainment. Raqi Syed BA '98, MFA'03 takes this challenge head on as an immersive media artist, visual effects designer, and faculty member at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Most recently, Raqi created the award-winning immersive experience MINIMUM MASS, which was featured at the 2022 South by Southwest Film Festival after exhibitions at other festivals including Venice and Cannes. MINIMUM MASS is a virtual reality narrative centered around love, loss, and black holes. Raqi joins us to talk about the development of MINIMUM MASS and further discuss her experiences as an immersive media artist.
You began your journey here at USC in the Critical Cinema Studies before further pursuing a MFA in Film, Video and Computer Animation. Could you start off by telling us about your transition into interactive media?
I transitioned into interactive media in 2015 after I left full-time VFX studio work. 2015 was an interesting time for virtual reality—although many pioneers had been consistently working in the medium since the 2000s, 2015 is when questions about VR’s relationship with cinema were being asked in technology circles. Questions about how editing, camera placement, and performance work in VR were the same questions directors had asked in the 19th century when they began experimenting with film. Because I had studied film history and theory at SCA, I recognized the cyclical nature of these questions in relationship to mediums and film technologies. I had spent the previous ten years working in a very technical role as a VFX artist, which helped me work comfortably in the converging tech-film space. It felt like the "Train Arriving at a Station," but for a VR moment - so I decided to dive in.
You hold both a B.A. and M.F.A. from the School of Cinematic Arts. How did your time at USC shape your creative endeavors? What are some takeaways from your education that you use in your career today?
A pivotal moment for me was when I first learned about the French New Wave in my History of International Cinema course. This was the first time I had heard about filmmakers who had been film theorists. Their love of film history (particularly American film history), was the driving force for their own experimentation with genre and form. This seemed so powerful and exciting to me. At the same time, I had come to film school because I had already been making short, animated films while I was in high school. Animation was my gateway into the filmmaking process. Much of my BA and MFA at SCA was about reconciling the fact that I loved both film theory and animation. I wasn’t sure how that would translate into a career.
Later, even after I graduated and worked at Disney and Weta, I struggled to reconcile this. While developing an independent art practice and teaching at Victoria University, I also started making my own VR projects. These seemingly, disparate parts of my education all clicked and came together. Writing and questioning the possibilities of a new medium is something that a Critical Cinema Studies degree prepares people for. During my time at DADA (thanks to all the feminist animators I studied under), I learned that animation is perhaps the best medium for crafting personal and emotional stories. One person can make a beautiful, handcrafted and animated film without ever leaving their home office. At the same time, animation can scale to make expensive big budget spectacles as well. These findings have been essential for how I make work in VR.
Your project MINIMUM MASS has won numerous awards and was just featured at SXSW 2022. Can you expand on the development of this piece?
MINIMUM MASS started as a script my partner, Areito Echevarria, and I wrote while we were on our own journey to conceive our son. The writing was a way of processing our sadness and grief around miscarriage. The project took off when we were invited to the Sundance New Frontier Story Lab to incubate it in 2018. We knew we wanted to turn the story into an interactive experience, but not much more. At the Sundance Lab, we received lots of mentoring and feedback about developing the story, while exploiting the affordances of virtual reality as a medium. From there, we were able to create funding pathways with the New Zealand Film Commission, the CNC (French Film Commission) and the Epic Megagrant program. Areito and I, with much of our team went into the project as traditional visual effects film artists. Two years later, we emerged on the other side as VR developers. We learned about real-time technologies, the relationship between film and immersive storytelling, and how to work remotely with an international team. It was an intense, but productive process.
With so many mediums and new technologies in our world today, why did you decide to tell this story using Virtual Reality (VR)?
The Expanded Cinema movement in the 1960-70s was something I had always been intrigued by. At DADA, I took Kathy Smith’s Expanded Animation class. Smith's class changed my perspective of how the screen and cinema function. I learned that animation, more than even live-action, had never stopped “expanding.” Animation is a medium that can shrink or grow to accommodate any type of screen-based storytelling. When we set out to make MINIMUM MASS, we knew it had to be animated because it was set in a speculative world. With VR technology finally becoming available for independent developers with the Oculus Rift headset, it made sense to make an animated VR experience.
Both Areito and I had spent our careers working on traditional and linear big-budget films. We wanted to see if we could take that knowledge and make something that applies mainstream ideas about genre and production value to an experimental form. The other thing about VR is that in 2018 and currently, it’s still a wide open medium. There are things that have never been done in VR from a storytelling perspective. There are very few rules about who can make VR or what kind of stories can be told in VR. This is of course a challenge, but also a huge opportunity.
After experiencing MINIMUM MASS, a jurist described their experience as feeling "like Hitchcock playing with Barbie dolls." Can you discuss your intentions for the audience's role in comparison (or in contrast) to the actuality of the audience's experiences?
From a story perspective, one of the things we wanted to explore with MINIMUM MASS was the journey a couple takes together in conception. Not only has miscarriage been an underrepresented issue in popular culture, but much of the emotional labor has been discussed from a mother’s perspective. We wanted to tell a story that explored the dual emotional perspectives of both parents. The theme at both a story and user experience level is perspective - and whether or not we can learn to change our own perspective in order to better understand another person. So when the Participant enters the VR experience in MINIMUM MASS, they are interacting with the world and the characters which are built at a miniature scale. The Participant literally holds these characters in their hands and manipulates their world in order to see their story from different perspectives. That was our intention as directors. Based on the feedback we have received so far, different perspectives is what most appeals to participants about the experience.
What does immersion in media and storytelling mean to you?
From a cinematic, Hitchcockian perspective, there is a voyeuristic quality to looking and gazing that we want to encourage in MINIMUM MASS. We know from our feminist, semiotic, and psychoanalytic film theory classes, as well as from watching a lot of movies, that when a character walks into a bathroom and gets undressed, something creepy is going to happen. We as an audience have an urge to watch. In MINIMUM MASS, we’re relying on this by using lighting, music, and mise-en scene to direct the Participant. Having said that, the real tension in VR is between the director’s intention and the Participant’s agency. As directors, we have hopefully created a user experience that is intuitive and feels good for the Participant. But once the Participant is in the headset, they may go off script and interact with the experience in their own way. They may ignore all our art direction cues and look away from the performance and the action. This is part of the control that we as filmmakers give up when we work in VR.
What is special about visual effects (VFX) that allows you to tap into stories unlike traditional mediums such as film and television?
Visual effects has historically been used mostly in the service of big budget spectacle feature films. The reason for this is because the technology, tools, and talent required to create VFX are expensive. What’s happened recently is that the tech and tools have become more readily available. This is exciting because it allows creatives in the indie and low-budget space to access VFX for more experimental and art-based applications.
What I believe is most powerful about VFX is that it is digital material that can access psychological and emotionally driven story worlds. We know that VFX can be used to blow things up and do workhorse tasks, such as compositing live-action characters into virtual environments. VFX can also allow us to experience the subjective and uncanny consciousness of any living thing. Its real power is accessing unreality—dream states, future states, and what Freud called “the unhomely,” which was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has now come into the open.
What is something about the design process of VFX that audiences often overlook or under-appreciate?
Something that audiences and even creatives from other parts of the filmmaking process overlook about VFX is that like any other aspect of storytelling, it’s as good as the direction it’s given. There’s really no such thing as “bad VFX,” there’s just bad direction or supervision. For example, VFX can be photorealistic and physically accurate. A shiny, reflective surface made with computer graphics can respond to light and shadow exactly as it would in the real world. VFX can also be very stylized and non-photorealistic - they can look like a graphic novel or oil paint. Whether or not VFX does either of these things is dependent on the story it serves and how the material is shaped by the people crafting it. At the end of the day, VFX always requires the labor of a skilled designer. That designer needs to be given clear direction and objectives by a VFX supervisor and film director. “Bad VFX” are the result of a breakdown or gap in this process, not a limitation of the technology or medium.
Where do you see the future of storytelling and new media?
The future of storytelling and new media is in convergence. Cinema has always been an interdisciplinary medium requiring artists and designers from many different fields (fashion, music, performance, business, finance, etc.) to make one film. Immersive technologies go further by using the affordances of theatre, games, spatial audio, literature, virtual production, and artificial intelligence to change narrative design. Even though a good story is still as Stanley Kubrick said, “something that is interesting and true,” the way audiences embody and interact with the story keeps changing. The screen itself keeps changing - in many ways becoming more personal and more intimate. If anything, the subjectivity and diversity of the audience or participant in VR will become increasingly important to how we shape and present stories for new media.
What are your words of advice for those who are seeking to tell stories through new and immersive media?
The advice I give to my students is the same advice I received when I was at DADA—to always maintain your personal, artistic practice. There’s a pragmatic component to this - in order to live in the world, an artist needs a skill that is useful in the commercial market. For me, this was learning how to be a Lighting Technical Director and working in the studio system. Maintaining an artistic practice means using those skills to explore your own stories and investigate experimental and unconventional technologies. Sometimes, there is a synergy between these technologies because studios are often looking for out-of-the-box solutions to hard problems. This can also mean spending 8 hours a day doing a repetitive task at your day job and then writing and researching in the evenings to make progress on a side project. This is challenging, but what I found is that when I was ready to leave studio work and direct my own story, that artistic practice was the roadmap for moving forward as an independent artist. Finally, I feel some working knowledge about computer graphics and 3D art is essential for new media and immersive creators. To write and design a script with an understanding of what can be achieved technically is a very powerful way to tell stories.