Face to face with VR artists: an interview with Gerda Leopold, director of Ballavita

Director and producer of Ballavita, Gerda Leopold takes us on a journey through her work and her love for virtual reality.

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I don’t know if you have ever been at the Venice Days or at the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival. Usually, after you watch one of their movies, those who helped creating it (often the director and the actors) walk on stage to share their creative process with the audience and answer questions about it.

This is something I find particularly useful after movies I understood little about (such as Rigor Mortis) but also with movies I liked and that I am curious to know better (Charie Says, to mention one).

A moment from the Q&A of Charlie Says, directed by Mary Harron, Venezia75

Indeed, talking with those who gave life to an artistic or narrative experience always add that something more to it: more depth, a memory, a story; sometimes, even a soul.

That is why, when the River College VR announced Gerda Leopold among its panelists, I was incredibly happy for it: director, producer and writer, she presented her first VR experience at the VeniceVR section of Venezia75, arousing the interest of those at Lazzaretto Vecchio (where the section takes place).

Ballavita is a stereoscopic VR film that connects dreams and reality, and offers the audience a romantic fantasy through dance and music that captures and fascinates.

A scene from Ballavita (Gerda Leopold) by Amilux Films
A scene from Ballavita (Gerda Leopold) by Amilux Films

I had the chance to talk with Gerda during those study days at the River College VR and it was exciting to listen to her enthusiasm for VR and the worlds you can create with it. That is why, a few weeks later, I asked her to share some of this enthusiasm with us all and she happily agreed to this interview.

Gerda Leopold and a new cinema

How did your interest for virtual reality start and how did it progress from there?

Whenever I saw a movie, I had the feeling that I would have loved to broaden the screen. And when I saw someone, from the 3rd person view, doing something, like jumping into water, I felt left out. I wanted all of us to jump, and not just see someone else doing it. The idea was, we all do it and feel the actual sensation of jumping!

You have created an incredible work in VR: Ballavita is a powerful and poetic experience, that was very much appreciated in Venice and that we had the chance to live at the River College VR, too. Could you tell us more about it?

In 2014 I made a movie; it was not VR, but a pre-version of it. My idea was to film La Ronde, a theatrical piece by Arthur Schnitzler, out of the subjective view of the protagonists. 

Poster for the movie Carrousel (2016)
gerda leopold carrousel
Shooting Carrousel (2014)

In each scene, there were two main characters, and they wore a special camera helmet, which recorded the front, back, up, left, right of their environment. Each scene was shot twice, first from the point of view of person A and then from the point of view of person B. 

We even built a special cinema for the film “Carrousel”, where the audience was surrounded by film: four walls and the ceiling! The Cinema XR.

The Cinema XR

Producing Carrousel was great, so we decided to create another movie but during pre-production we finally decided to shoot in VR, because of the better world distribution. But we also decided to shoot in stereo, with real people and animated backgrounds. That was a big challenge. Creating the staircase scene took a long time, but I know it was worth it.

The story was born with the idea of two people getting lost in a cellar not being able to find each other. Everything else was developed out of this first idea.

From the VR film Ballavita

For in cinematic VR it is very important to create a palpable feeling, which allows you to experience the film with your body. VR is interesting because it really makes you aware of the things around you. 

Gerda Leopold

Your production company, Amilux, is specialized in cinematic VR: what is your opinion about the relationship between VR and cinema?

I think it is a great thing to discover a medium and  people should not be so scared of it. I think you can basically take any story and shoot it in VR, but you have to examine why it is necessary to shoot it in VR. Something like the staircase scene in Ballavita would not have been possible in a traditional movie for the screen. But it was important to me to create especially this scene: we (=the camera) are sitting in the middle of a staircase, while we watch the argument between Anton and Maria unfolding. When she finally runs away down the four floors of the staircase, we simultaneously glide down, while Maria is running around us. In her downward movement, we can feel how much she is hurt by Anton.

It took us a long time to add all the stuff in the background in the scene in the apartment of the Old Man and Maria. For in cinematic VR it is very important to create a palpable feeling, which allows you to experience the film with your body. VR is interesting because it really makes you aware of the things around you. 

For all of us storytellers in VR, it would be a lot easier if there were some fundings around. That would be really great and it would encourage people to get into it!

In general, how does it feel to be part of the VR community?

It is fun to meet all these people, but the most important contacts are the ones you feel a true personal connection with. Last June I met at IVRPA Tokyo Rachel Bracker from 360° Labs in Portland, Oregon. I really liked her new project “Through Darcelle’s Eyes”, a VR film about the world’s oldest drag-queen so much, that I decided to be her Executive Producer!

A last question for you: are you working on other projects, VR or not-VR related? And do you have what in Italian we call a “sogno nel cassetto” – a dream that you really wish to make come true, in relation to your future projects?

I see myself as a VR filmmaker but I also want to work in traditional filmmaking. I am going to be a co-producer in a German film made for the cinemas. Keep your fingers crossed that it will work out. And: I am developing a cinema version out of the 360° film Carrousel ! Falk Peplinski, our editor, created out of the 5 film a film for the cinema screen! Now we are working on the music and the cinema version of “Carrousel” should be ready by fall. 

Gerda Leopold

But of course there is the challenge to get deeper into the VR world; I mean, to go into interactive, into XR experiences where also Artificial Intelligence also comes into play. I am going to work on a project, which is about a painter, who painted people, how they really were. It is about his last few hours, when he knows he is going to die and you, the participant, are taken by him on a journey through his most important stations of his life.

Throughout this journey you are asked questions again and again: how would you have reacted in comparison to how he reacted? He is the AI who gathers information about you, so – being a painter – you get a picture about yourself, about who you really are.

Even though I have tried VR in many forms, I always find amazing to read about the incredible things you can create using this medium. Gerda’s new project has the merit of mixing art, science and a complex story and we can hardly wait to see it taking life. And, who knows, maybe experiencing it once again in Venice.

To her, a special thank you for sharing all this with us and if you want to know more about her works, please visit the following links.

About Ballavita and Gerda Leopold:

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