Redefining Womanhood and VR Cinema

Museums of the Future is a column dedicated to discussions with creatives who retell stories of the past through new media. Our first guest featured on the column is filmmaker and producer Carol Liu. Founder of U-MA studios, she aims to bring to her audience the stories of marginalized women throughout history, with an ‘out of body’ experience through VR cinema.

Could you tell us a little more about U-MA studios and some of the projects you have worked on?
I moved to San Francisco in 2013 when interest in the VR industry was  growing. I joined a couple of incubators and development programs where I realized that, through VR, you have the possibility to create a new consciousness. To me, I wanted this new space to be a place where I can bring the stories of marginalized or misrepresented women to life and create a catalogue of ‘her-story’ rather than ‘his-tory’ through our projects.

Our first project under U-MA studios was Marie Antoinette VR. My understanding of Marie Antoinette initially came from my grandmother who offered a much more sympathetic perspective than the person everyone else recognized as the vile women who said “Let them eat cake!” I knew that there was something here and I needed to research more, which is when I discovered that she’s completely different from what we’ve understood her to be in pop culture, how could that be?

In our popular understanding, you find rumors about her saying she bankrupted the Navy to buy an expensive necklace and was engaged in these traitorous orgiastic affairs but that is far from the truth of the matter. I wanted to see if in VR we could really bring a spirit of forgiveness and empathy to this figure who has been terribly maligned. I’m not saying she’s a martyr or saint but she was a real woman who faced a lot of the same challenges that we do in finding ourselves, with the added pressure of being a political pawn.

We have watched several adaptations of Marie Antoinette and each rendition of her story seems to offer an added dimension of complexity to her story. In your process of research and uncovering the truth behind her story, what surprised you the most?

“I always like to think that maybe in another life, I would have been a detective. I just love following the trail of clues and I find that when you start your research on a project and you really pay attention, all these resources just start to come up”

One fact of her life that I found incredibly surprising is the “affair of the diamond necklace” where she was blamed for the purchase of an expensive necklace. What happened in reality is that a prostitute was hired by a thief to play Marie Antoinette who then tricked a wealthy Cardinal into purchasing the necklace for her.

Besides primary research, I would say that visiting the actual locations is an experience in itself. When it comes to the Marie Antoinette Project, we filmed in a royal chateau outside of Paris and we have established a relationship with the Palace of Versailles and plan to film there too. The on-site experience of recreating this story with so much history is something that you can really feel and it’s quite magical to see all these elements just fall into place for us around the story. Whenever I’m in a location, I try to be fully present to feel the history and the atmosphere in the hopes to transform that into an embodied experience for the viewer.

The VR cinema market is quite niche and we can hardly think of people we know who have experienced it. Could you give us an idea of how it works?
With VR Cinema, I have tried to create a live action experience in a 360 environment that can be followed via the headset and several of my pieces are also 3D. The idea is definitely to allow people to inhabit another reality, not in an escapist way but rather a more reflective one.

While filming, it can be a very intimate experience for actors as the production crew is usually offsite. This is a requirement since we use 360 cameras to capture the whole scene but also it gives the actors a space that is much closer to reality than your traditional crowded film set. My pieces have been filmed with 3 degrees of freedom which means that you can turn your head and look anywhere in the room and are given the freedom of choice to follow the story however you like.

There is now content utilizing 6 degrees of freedom where technologies such as  photogrammetry or volumetric capture generate subjects that follow your gaze, walk around with you and even mirror or react to your movements to then trigger another action in the video. This kind of technology is evolving exponentially but there are still some developmental hurdles to get over with regard to cinematic VR and 6 d.o.f.. I’ve seen online forums where people are anticipating a follow up on the Marie Antoinette project and I would love to do a six d.o.f version which to me really is just  a chance to add an extra degree of magic to this story.

Aside from Marie Antoinette VR, we’ve seen that a couple of your other projects draw from your background as a Chinese American Woman. Could you tell us a bit more about some of them?

Currently in the US, there have been a lot of racist attacks against Asian Americans and now more than ever, it is important for us to have greater representation in the media. Typically, as Asian immigrants, we adopt a  mentality of keeping our heads low out of fear of becoming politically embroiled. I myself am actively trying to change those patterns within my personal interactions by speaking up more and taking risks, but it’s an ongoing process.

“It’s all in your mind, right? so once you start to question how you have been before you started to see possibilities for who you can become”

Some of the pieces that I am currently working on are focused on the untold stories and experiences that mark the lives of Chinese women.

For instance, a project I’m working on is a TV series about four immigrant women in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, navigating the ins and outs of love, career, sexuality and spirituality.  It will be sort of like “Eat, Pray, Love” meets “Silicon Valley” in what I hope becomes a tribute to self love and care that women often forget.

Within our association, we are interested in how the stories told through the media affect us. Since we are discussing how the stories of women have either been misinterpreted or left untold, what impact has this history of bad societal storytelling had had on you personally?
I think the dominance of male driven social narratives doesn’t provide much space for stories that women can relate to. In our earliest mythologies  centered on male protagonists, they  follow a trajectory called “The Hero’s Journey”. No matter what the backdrop is, the hero of the story receives a call to adventure where he enters into an unknown world, faces his fears, slays the dragons and then returns home as the master of his world. To this day, the stories of men tend to follow this heroic narrative. Growing up, I couldn’t find myself in these stories and looking at the women on screen didn’t provide much of an answer either. Actresses on the silver screen were typically sex symbols, some sort of bond girl.

Much later on, I came across Kim Hudson’s “The Virgin’s Promise” and Maureen Murdock’s “The Heroine’s Journey.” They propose  archetypal narratives that characterize more of women’s experiences. Something as women we need to overcome, for example, is the traditional conditioning of being dependent in order to survive. That is one of our great  internal struggles we must grapple with.

According to Hudson, this path is not something that is restricted to women but is something personalities on an internal journey encounter on their way to establish their independence.

On a personal note, I never really questioned much of my own conditioning  and a lot of the systemic issues regarding sexism that face us. It wasn’t until I had to take on the role of primary caregiver to my grandmother – who is also one of the biggest inspirations behind my work –  that I felt this urge to really understand myself. Throughout her life, my grandmother took on this self-sacrificing role that built up this latent anger in her and I realized that I did not want that. 

Understanding yourself is really important and then testing different ways of being and trying to find, you know, what actually flows with you. That’s a lifelong process and I think all humans have a right to fulfill their desires, express their needs and express themselves creatively and if that’s impeded in any way then that’s something to look at.

You mentioned “other states of being”, what do you mean by that?
As a filmmaker I realized that all of the things that are held up in the media for us, expectations from our families and society have been defined by the patriarchy. Realising these are not authentic depictions of women can be both destabilizing and inspiring as a filmmaker. There is so much more space for us to create and to come up with a new paradigm for how we want to be as women in this world and  empower ourselves.

Branching out to the global perspective, we are so cut off from our ‘Feminine’ right now. We base our economy on this rapid expansion of GDP, there’s pollution, climate change and of course, COVID-19, a result of an encroachment into natural systems, so we need to come up with a new way to balance out what is not working.

What advice would you give young women trying to find their voice and write their own stories in this loud world?

“I think our lives are works of art and we have to make sure that what we do with our lives is going to satisfy and fulfil us and when it does it will create a new model for other women around you to feel inspired”

As women, one of the hardest struggles we go through is the taboo placed on pleasure and expression when really, that is the energy linked to creation. It is important that we discover who we are, let those creative powers shine through. This way in the future, we can celebrate more authentic expressions of women’s journeys in the media that will just contribute to a more diverse and interesting world.

Some of the most amazing and inspiring people I have met have gone through the most difficult struggles in their lives. Knowing this, I would encourage people not to see yourself as a victim of a circumstance but consider how you can be empowered to change. Everything that happens to us is an opportunity for us to grow and even though you would rather not be in a painful situation, you won’t grow or change otherwise.

I think we’re all going through that right now with this pandemic and collectively we should see this as an opportunity to ponder and act upon a shift that will transform the next 100 years to something more positive.  

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