Milica Zec is a New York City-based film and virtual reality director, editor, and screenwriter.Her directorial debut in the virtual reality medium was a short narrative piece called, “Giant,” which premiered at Sundance Film Festival New Frontier 2016. “Giant” is a virtual reality experience based on true events, that transports the viewer into the experience of a family struggling to survive in an active war zone. Since its premiere, “Giant” has been lauded as a seminal expression of the potential of virtual reality as a storytelling vehicle, and has been featured in numerous press outlets as one of the top VR experiences at Sundance 2016.
First of all, tell us how did you continue you career in New York, after graduating from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade?
After graduating from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts I moved to New York to pursue a career as a film editor. I was working on numerous feature narrative films and documentaries. I also worked for nine years with Marina Abramovic as an editor, director and producer.
Did political situation in Serbia and the wars in the former Yugoslavia pushed you into thinking more about the issues of conflict, identity, human struggle?
Yes definitely, because of that experience I wanted to create a VR project called Giant where I wanted to share my experience through a narrative fictional story. What mattered was to transfer the emotion and realism of what people are going through in conflict zones. I wanted to share that primarily with a Western audience who have never been in such situations, so that they can broaden their understanding through being immersed in the story. The family in Giant is Western, too, so the audience can relate more.
As a director, screenwriter and editor, you have worked with Marina Abramovich on many projects with. Where does the interest in VR come from?
The reason I came to VR was to communicate the message in a stronger way by placing the audience inside the screens, in a VR environment.
During our CGA Belgrade conference audience will have the opportunity to see your latest project called “Tree”. Can you tell us more about it and what can we expect? What was the inspiration for the VR Tree project and how do people react to it?
In the early stages of writing Giant, I thought that if we are developing a story based on how humans harm each other, we should also show how people harm nature. My creative partner Winslow Porter and I thought of how to tell this story about climate change, and decided to place the audience in the body of a tree, with a first-person perspective. The piece was inspired by a sound composition called Nightmare of a Tree made by my friend, composer Aleksandar Protic. We worked closely with Aleksandar to adapt his composition into this new VR piece called Tree. There are no words, just the sounds from nature and you get to grow from a seed, interact with animals, butterflies and birds, and fall in love with the rainforest. It’s all wonderful until humans come to the forest. You’ll have to take part in the experience to find out how it ends!
We are witnessing terrible events around the world. Does art, thanks to new technologies, gain a greater power of influence on people, especially those who make decisions?
Over the past two years, Winslow, my team and I have been traveling the world, witnessing the moments when people take off their headsets and we see the faces of people transformed.
Many leave the experience in tears. We get to spark conversations with people about what can be done to create change. I definitely believe that VR has the power to make an impact.
Giant and Tree are part of your trilogy and you’re currently working on the third part. Can you compare the challenges of working on your first VR project to those you have nowadays, with two successful projects already behind you?How much the environment has changed and what advice would you give to anyone who wants to dive into developing content for the VR?
The third part of trilogy is called Breathe and speaks about hope and interconnected human experience. For us, the challenges are constant, because we always use the latest tools and technology. We don’t make projects that have been made before. This means that for every project we have to build a new pipeline that has never been done before. With the new developments in technology and finding new ways to tell our stories, it gets more challenging.
Tree has been on many festivals - from Sundance and Tribeca to Cannes and IDFA. Is there a big difference between VR communities in the US and Europe?
Yes, it seems like the US adopted VR earlier, with an open mind. Europe is catching up now, but began with more skepticism and questions about whether it can work. The truth is, no one knows whether it will work, but it’s on the creators and the technology developers to make it work.
How did you choose associates for your project? Do you have any favorite tools that you like to use?
We work with Unreal Engine, Maya, and Houdini as tools. We chose to work with both traditional film VFX companies and gaming companies, bridging the film and game worlds together to create cinematic VR experiences.
In your opinion, is VR the last step in the development of the entertainment industry? Do you think after that there will be no major discoveries in that area? (Is the next step maybe a hologram?)
No, this is just the current medium. Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality are coming as well. Who knows what else will come. Exciting times are ahead of us!
Thank you Milica for your time. See you on your presentation on CGA conference in Belgrade.