This year’s Venice Film Festival made a huge push for VR, with a good number of projects debuting on headsets. Among them was We Live Here, Rose Troche’s hard-hitting account of homelessness. Now you can go behind the scenes of the project with a new making of video below, and a Q&A from producer Emily Cooper.
Director Rose Troche’s latest VR project, We Live Here, premiered this week at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. The project was made under the Oculus initiative, VR For Good and paired VR maker, Troche with Mark Hovarth, founder of Invisible People.
The piece takes on the subject of homelessness through the lens of Rockey, a woman living in a tent, in a park in Southern California. We Live Here places the user in Rockey’s tent. Through interacting with the different items in Rockey’s tent, the user discovers more about Rockey’s past, present, and what she hopes for her future and the devastation when all of who you are is ripped away by a sweep. We Live Here seeks a very simple message: we are not so different from those experiencing homelessness. It reminds us that most of us, we are closer than we think to the event that could leave us like Rockey – homeless.
Emily Cooper, the project’s producer, sat down, virtually, with Troche for a Q&A about the project.
Emily Cooper: Your directing career started in film, when and how did you start creating in VR?
Rose Troche: One of my favorite parts of the Sundance film festival is New Frontier. Each time I attend the festival I look forward to seeing the innovation displayed in that section. It was there I had my first VR experience. It blew my mind. I remember talking to Shari Frilot about it and several months later she introduced me to Morris May. Together Morris and I made, Perspective Chapter 1: The Party, and Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor. I was hooked from the beginning. Having been a film and television writer, director and producer for years I loved the challenge of this new medium. As soon as you are done with a piece the technology has moved forward at lightning speed. Trying to keep a piece ‘fresh’ in this creative landscape is the ultimate challenge, while also maintaining quality of story.
Cooper: Your past VR work covers timely and relevant social justice issues, what about the topic of this project spoke to you?
Troche: From my first foray into VR I wanted to make work that was socially relevant. In the rebirth of VR, makers seemed to share this idea. At that time we called it the ‘empathy machine’. We know now that you cannot make someone have empathy who does not possess it prior to putting on the headset. But, what we can do is use the power of immersive storytelling to dive deeper than we had in traditional mediums.
I had always wanted to make a piece about homelessness, so it was serendipitous that the folks at VR For Good paired me with Mark Hovarth, the founder of Invisible People. What transpired was an education. Mark took me under his wing and showed me the complex nature of the homeless crisis. Frankly, it was overwhelming and humbling. I decided I wanted to make a piece that would take on a fundamental truth – those who are homeless are not broken. They’re stories, and lives are familiar. We who are housed are not better because we have a key to a door. I learned and wanted to show in We Live Here that the road to homeless is one that does not have many obstacles. For most of us it is closer than we think.
Cooper: This is your first foray into a fully 6dof interactive VR project, with so many tools and technology at your fingertips how did that affect your process?
Troche: Oh wow! It was and still is awesome. I had, to this point, always shot live action 360 video. Suddenly, I was offered interaction. The opportunity to grow a story out in ways I had not in my past work was exciting. I love animation and wanted to work with artists to illustrate some of Rockey’s most compelling stories. I knew I wanted to create a safe space in the volumetric capture of Rockey’s tent. Having all of these approaches available gave me the opportunity to make a really multidimensional experience. Rocky’s life, our lives, are not one note or one color or one style – these different tools helped us to not only build the world, but also represent different stages of her life. We worked hard to seamlessly integrate all of the technical approaches in the experience.
Cooper: When you met Rockey, the woman who inspired and acted in the experience, what stood out to you about her?
Troche: At the point I realized I could not offer a solution to the homeless crisis, that it is far too large, far too complex, I decided to make the scope of this piece personal. It was at that time I began looking for someone to be the center of it. Mark introduced me to Eric Montoya at LA Housing and Eric introduced me to Rockey, the woman who would become the inspiration for We Live Here. I can still remember the first time Eric took me to the Sepulveda Basin to meet her. She wasn’t home but I recall standing outside her tent and being immediately impressed. Rockey had made a walkway – she built a gate, dug a trench around her tent so the water wouldn’t get in. She had a makeshift kitchen and shower. When I finally met Rockey, she was warm, hopeful and hilarious. She was creative, talented and smart – her life filled with adventure – breaking stallions, living on a boat, getting married on a motorcycle – these were just a few of Rockey’s stories. The search was over – the piece would revolve around Rockey’s life.
Cooper: Did face any challenges throughout the creation of the experience?
Troche: Yes, I think there was a tremendous learning curve for me. I am so used to being able to make changes to the bitter end- that is not how an experience made on a gaming platform works. Changes are time and time is money and that runs out quickly. I am so grateful for the work VR Playhouse did, that the animators have done and most of all the outstanding work Flight School has and is doing. There is a wonderful collaboration that exists in creating pieces like this and I feel it is the creator’s job to share the vision for the piece as clearly as possible and try best to inspire the team that will bring that vision to fruition.
Cooper: Do you have a favorite part of the experience?
Troche: I really love the house (music box) There is something about Rockey’s voice, her longing for a home that breaks my heart. I also have to give a big shout out to the horse animation.
Cooper: How have you views on the housing and homelessness crisis shifted after the two years you worked on this project?
Troche: Gosh I’m so grateful for my time with Mark – for the time spent going out into communities with various organizations. I learned to look at people experiencing homelessness, to say hello and ask, “how are you?”. I have learned not to leave my leftovers on a park bench and think that I’m doing something to help those who are experiencing homelessness. I learned that agency is key to feeling respected and seen. I learned that everybody needs a home and safety, that no mistake is so great that homelessness is the price paid. I know now that we don’t have enough affordable housing or healthcare. I learned you are nothing without a piece of identification. I now know you lose your rights when you lose your home. I know we are not doing enough to eradicate homelessness. I know now I am implicated in this despair. I don’t know how we got to the point where we think people living on streets is normal. I don’t know when we allowed this erosion of humanity to happen. I worry about the crisis exploding even more now due to Covid 19, as eviction moratoriums are lifted and jobs are lost.
Cooper: After the headset is taken off and the player walks away, what impact do you hope this experience has?
Troche: I hope a little voice stays in your head that reminds you, when you next see someone homeless, to take a moment and remember they are a person with a past, a present and a future. I hope that voice reminds you to take action to end homelessness.
Cooper: Knowing that not everyone has a headset, do you have hopes for people to see this project after Venice?
Troche: It’s interesting to make a piece about homelessness that can only be seen in a headset that costs about 400 dollars and one where you need at least a 7×7 unobstructed space in which to experience it. It almost seems contrary to the purpose of the piece. But then I think we must use the tools available to us to learn how to be better – to break down the barriers between us. I believe VR is an intensely powerful tool and it is my goal to have as many people see, We Live Here as possible, to take this tool to community centers, churches, schools, to the DMV and the bar – it would be so cool for all of us to get to see, We Live Here.
Cooper: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Troche: I still have notes on the project : )