The acclaimed Traveling While Black from Felix & Paul Studios is an emotionally powerful and critically acclaimed 360 VR documentary that presents first-hand experiences of African Americans living and traveling around the US before the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in 1964.
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Traveling While Black is an emotionally powerful 360 VR documentary by Felix & Paul Studios. It presents first-hand retelling of experiences African Americans had in the years before the Civil Rights Act and the end of legal segregation, when traveling around the US was difficult and often actually dangerous for people of color. This culturally important and deeply moving production premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, and it was subsequently nominated for a Primetime Emmy and has been lauded by major publications including Variety, Forbes and the New York Times. We spoke with the producers at Felix & Paul to learn more about the project.
What did you learn from audience feedback?
Since the release of Traveling While Black the reactions have been quite overwhelming. We had hoped that the work would have an impact on people, but the reaction that we received was even greater than expected. Many viewers came to tears, and people from the shoot were touched, moved and very emotional. We even showed the work to CEOs of major corporations, and after they watched it they told us that they revisited their HR policies in regards to the social injustice that African Americans endure in the United States. The work was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy and was recognized by publications such as Variety, Forbes and of course the New York Times.
How did this project come to be?
Roger Ross Williams, our film director for this piece, and Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, the producer, had already been working on Traveling While Black for many years before we were involved with the project. They were not only thinking about the story but also the form they wanted the project to take. At some point in his process his path and ours started converging, but it was when we met Roger at Sundance and after he saw our work with the Obamas for The People’s House that his idea to make Traveling While Black a virtual reality experience became clear to him. We started working alongside co-director Ayesha Nadarajah and the team to explore the different forms that the project could take. We first thought about it as a fiction piece in virtual reality, but then the experience started to make more sense as a documentary, and so that is what we finally decided to make it.
Why did you feel this was a project that needed to be told in immersive media?
With this project we really wanted to exploit the intensity, the immersion and the presence that virtual reality can bring. In the case of Traveling While Black, the idea was to confront the viewer with a face-to-face experience with the people who are telling their story. A large part of the storytelling for this work was to show the viewer the intensity that it meant for those who had lived these experiences. By making it a virtual reality piece it allowed the viewer to be part of those conversations and to experience first hand the realness of these interviews.
Roger Ross Williams chose to tell this story using VR because of its ability to create greater empathy. When viewers have a headset on they can't really escape the story; they’re totally immersed and can't look down at their phones or turn away.
What prep did you do that you felt really paid off on this project? Storyboards? Pre-visualizations? Shot list? What is your process?
We spent a lot of time immersing ourselves at Ben’s Chili Bowl. This is where a lot of our ideas originated, such as staging the interviews at the booths, using the large mirror as a portal into the characters’ stories, and using the walls and ceiling of Ben’s as projection surfaces as an ode to its origins as a movie theatre. We really wanted to use the space to inspire the work.
What were some challenges you faced in production and how did you solve them?
The biggest challenge or fear that we had was doing justice to the material. It was a very sensitive subject, and we needed to make sure the story came across in the way that Roger Ross Williams wanted. Traveling While Black was Roger’s story, and as the project was his first virtual reality piece our role was mainly to support the theme and to make sure that the idea came across as intensely as it could through this medium. For that reason we gave Roger, Ayeesha and their team the space to tell their story and to navigate the essence of this piece. Our focus was to augment the ideas and make them as VR-native and impactful as possible.
For these stories to be truly impactful we wanted to get closer to our subjects than we had ever been before. We wanted the subject to be literally sitting at the table with the characters. For this we inaugurated the latest generation of our camera, which is optimized for close-proximity recording, as well as an entirely new post production process. We had tested this new platform in our shop, but this was our first time putting it into real-world use. The stakes were high as we were capturing highly poignant, unscripted testimonies. Thankfully the camera's maiden voyage went (mostly) without a hitch and the results were some of the most emotional footage we have ever recorded.
What camera(s) did you choose for this project and why?
Felix & Paul Studios Gen 3 & Gen 4 VR cameras and motion platform. Over the years we have developed our own camera technologies to be able to film for VR.
How many days was the shoot?
The shooting itself was done in 5 days
What was the most exciting part of the production?
While shooting, Samaria’s testimony was by far the most intense and meaningful experience we had ever shot or witnessed. It was a touching and real moment that we all shared. Her child was taken, and seeing her talk for the first time about his murder was a very emotional moment. For this shot we chose to have everyone in the scene listen to the story. The tension in the air was palpable and could not have been captured better in any other medium.
Another important aspect for this production was that no crew member was present while shooting. In 360º shooting we often still have the director(s) and crew in the shot then erase them in post. In this particular case though we wanted to create a safe space for the community to share their life experiences, so we monitored it remotely. We believe this contributed in large part to the earnestness of the testimonies; stories like these may otherwise never have been heard.
Can you give us an insight into your post workflow, such as the software used, mastering format, and editing process? What worked well, and what were challenges that you either solved or learned from?
We used Adobe Premiere for editing and various proprietary tools with Nuke as a hub for stitching and compositing. Our stereo masters are at 5K resolution.
The filming of Traveling While Black was the first time we used our most recent camera, the Gen4, in production, which means it was the first time we’d received footage from it. Almost half of the shoot was done with this camera, and because it was our first time with it we had to redefine the steps of the workflow and design a few new tools for it. This process was not easy and it did take us quite some time to master, but the end result was amazing.
One of the key challenges we had to overcome during this process was figuring out how the intimate settings with objects and people could be set up close to the camera. However, by working hard and using the right tools our team was able to succeed.
How long did post production take?
From the reception of the footage to the final delivery the process was about 10 months.
Did you have to fix something in post? What was it?
It was not really something we had to fix but rather something we decided to do in post even though it could have been shot on location: the projections that appear on the walls were indeed added into the work during post-production. They could have been captured during the shoot, but instead the team decided to add them afterwards. That allowed us a lot of last minute changes in timing and treatment of that footage. It was a bit of a challenge but it turned out well.
How did you decide to distribute the project?
We decided that Traveling While Black needed to be accessible to all. This work was important and we wanted to make sure that all could see it. Therefore it is available free on the Quest Store and on the New York Times website.
Traveling While Black also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and went on to many other festivals. Again, the idea was to create visibility for this important project.
What did you learn from audience feedback?
Since the release of Traveling While Black, the reactions have been quite overwhelming. We had hoped that the work would have an impact on people, but the reaction that we received was even greater than expected. Many viewers came to tears, and people from the shoot were touched, moved and very emotional. We even showed the work to CEOs of major corporations, and after they watched it they told us that they revisited their HR policies in regards to the social injustice that African Americans endure in the United States. The work was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy and was recognized by publications such as Variety, Forbes and of course the New York Times.