Chris Milk: What Happens When We Step Inside The Screen? Filmmaker Chris Milk uses cutting-edge technology to create a film experience that immerses the viewer. He explains how virtual reality has allowed him to create the "ultimate empathy machine."

What Happens When We Step Inside The Screen?

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OK so all this episode, we've been talking about what's happening to us on the real-world side of our screens, like how we interact with them from the outside, but this is a two-parter. And next week on our second episode about Screen Time, we're going to step inside the screen. And we're going to ask a lot more questions about what it means for our lives, more and more to be lived there. So to end this first episode, someone to lead us in. Do you think it's conceivable that we're heading towards a future where most of our lives will be lived digitally?

CHRIS MILK: It's certainly not my goal. Although it might look like that sometimes.

RAZ: Chris Milk, he's the guy who made those virtual reality films we showed around the office at the beginning of the show.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, that's pretty [expletive] cool.

RAZ: You remember all that, right? So Chris started his career making music videos for people like Arcade Fire and Kanye West. He did the video for this track.


KANYE WEST: (Singing) I got to testify.

RAZ: But after doing this kind of work for a while, he was looking to try something different, something more meaningful. So Chris started to design these interactive video installations, these films that he would mount in art museums. And he started to notice something.

MILK: I would sit there all day just, like, watching it from a dark corner.

RAZ: By it, he means this film he designed. And the way it worked was that a camera would project your shadow onto a bright white wall. But if you moved your arms, your shadow - your actual shadow would grow wings.

MILK: And if you flapped them, you actually start flying up into the air and off the screen.

RAZ: And Chris would notice that people changed when the screen was more than just a frame on the wall.

MILK: What I saw was this very visceral human reaction. People would just lose themselves inside of it.

RAZ: So this sparked an idea for him, but also a problem.

MILK: The problem was there's just no way to scale something like that.

RAZ: Yeah.

MILK: Yeah I can fit six people in it at a time. I can build it in another museum simultaneously. And then I've got 12 people in it at a time. I want a million people in it at a time.

RAZ: Chris started to think more and more about the limits of the screen and how film hasn't really changed all that much since he was a kid growing up in the 80s. Here's Chris' "TED Talk".


MILK: The film, it's an incredible medium. But essentially, it's the same now as it was then. It's a group of rectangles that are played in a sequence. And we've done incredible things with those rectangles. But I started thinking about - is there a way that I could use modern and developing technologies to tell stories in different ways and tell different kinds of stories that maybe I couldn't tell using the traditional tools of filmmaking that we've been using for a hundred years? But then I started thinking about frames, and what do they represent. And a frame is just a window. I mean, all the media that we watch - television, cinema - they're these windows into these other worlds. And I thought well great, I got you in a frame but I don't want you in the frame, I don't want you in the window, I want you through the window. I want you on the other side in the world, inhabiting the world. So that leads me back to virtual reality.

RAZ: OK, so before we talk about Chris' specific role in virtual reality, here's what's going on in that world, generally. This holiday season, and early into next year, a bunch of companies like Sony and Microsoft, Google, HTC and Oculus - that's the company now owned by Facebook - they will all release virtual reality headsets. Basically it's a big pair of goggles with a 3-D screen inside. And along with some hand controllers, you'll be able to play all kinds of video games in a completely new way. That's where most of the focus is - video games. But Chris Milk isn't interested in videogames, he makes movies. And he wants to make movies designed to be watched using these new headsets. And that means changing everything about the way movies are made, starting with the cameras.

MILK: The current technology that we're working with and most people are working with is sort of a ball of cameras with a lot of lenses that look in a lot of different directions simultaneously. Then, we go into a postproduction process, and we stitch all those different directions together so that we have one singular sphere where you can look in every direction.

RAZ: Which means if, say, the Rolling Stones put one of those cameras on stage with them, you could put on a VR headset and be there with them, too. And from your vantage point on stage, you could turn your head in any direction, and you would see a different part of it.

MILK: And when that happens, you get this feeling of what's called presence.

RAZ: Yeah.

MILK: The way the world moves around you as your physical body moves through it is different than the way that you see a movie or you see a television show which is this thing that's a rectangle and it's on a wall. But virtual reality actually mirrors the way that you see the world in real life.

RAZ: So in Chris Milk's TED Talk, he describes how the better this technology gets at making you feel like you're really there, the more powerful and emotional these films will become. And one of those films is already pretty powerful. It's an eight-minute movie Chris described on the TED stage.


MILK: So this film is called "Clouds Over Sidra". And it was made in conjunction with our virtual reality company called VRSE and the United Nations and a co-collaborator called Gabo Arora. And we went to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and shot the story of a 12-year-old girl there named Sidra. And her and her family fled Syria through the desert into Jordan. And she's been living in this camp for the last year and a half.


SIDRA: (Through interpreter) My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old. I am in the fifth grade. I am from Syria.

RAZ: So Chris, in this clip, which I guess we should explain that if you watch this in a VR headset, you're basically seeing this girl - she's right in front of you. She's talking to you. She's, like, sitting on the rug on the floor of a - in this dusty, hot building in this refugee camp.

MILK: Yeah, and the thing that happens in virtual reality that does not happen in a rectangle on your wall, is you find yourself in the same room as this girl. When you look down, you're sitting on the same earth that she's sitting on.


SIDRA: (Through interpreter)I have a big family, three brothers, one is a baby. He cries a lot.

MILK: And something changes when that happens. And I can't tell you from a biological level, or a cognitive level what that exactly is, but something definitely changes.


SIDRA: (Through interpreter) I like cloudy days, I feel like I am under a cover.

RAZ: In this film, you can watch Sidra's friends walking right past you on their way to a temporary school. And when you look at them, they look back at you and smile and wave. Seeing this film in a virtual reality headset is so powerful because it's as if you are there. And Chris knows it, he's already shown the film at places like the World Economic Forum in Davos, to some of the world's most powerful people. And when they watch it, he's seen tears literally stream down their faces as they experience that refugee camp.


MILK: We're working with the United Nations right now to shoot a whole series of these films. We just finished shooting a story in Liberia. And now, we're going to shoot a story in India. And we're taking these films and we're showing them at the United Nations to people that work there and people that are visiting their. And we're showing them to the people that can actually change the lives of the people inside of the films. And that's where I think we just start to scratch the surface of the true power of virtual reality. It's not a videogame peripheral, it connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I've never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people's perception of each other.

RAZ: I mean, it is all those things, right? Like, it is so exciting. And it's also so terrifying because you can imagine that it can change the truth. I mean, people's perceptions can be so affected and moved by an experience in this world that seems so real, that it becomes real, right? Like, you can imagine a - you know, somebody could take this technology and create what seems real, a real version of an idea and convince minds - change minds, and actually create real hatred.

MILK: Yeah, you can use film and you can use radio and you can use literature to change minds for the purpose of evil. And you will be able to do it in virtual reality as well. I mean, you can't - would you - let me ask you, let me turn it back on you. Would you say that we shouldn't have literature or we shouldn't have cinema because it can be used for those sort of purposes?

RAZ: No, of course not. Right? No, of course not, that's a thing. It's like you can't really fool-proof this stuff. You can't make it impossible for evil people to use. It's just not....

MILK: You can't.

RAZ: Right?

MILK: No, you can't.

RAZ: Yeah.

MILK: So what I'd say, though - my hope would be that allowing people to have experiences that are impossible in the physical world can be an enlightening, life-changing, transformative experience. I was in Sicily last week, and we were in this little village, in this town square. And there was an elderly Italian couple there. And I had a headset in my backpack. And we asked them if they wanted to try it. They were friendly and smiling and talking to us and we asked them if they wanted to try it. And the man tried it on and came out on the other side with his eyes wide open. And in his broken English, he said that there is lots of very bad things in the world, but this was a good thing. And I hope he's right.

RAZ: That's Chris Milk. You can download his company's app VRSE - it's VRSE - to see some of the films we talked about with or without a virtual-reality headset. Now that we've stepped inside the screen, join us next week as we ask what it means for our lives increasingly to be lived there.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I predict that years from now, we'll regard taking away your access to virtual worlds as completely inappropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What does this really mean? Are we going to be creatures that are going to live differently, breathe differently, love differently?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We're creating hundreds of thousands, in not millions of pieces of content that are going to live online long after we're gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The way we are defined on the internet, on Google, has become more and more important than who we actually are as people.

RAZ: That's next week on the show. Don't miss it.

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