A question and answer section featuring Claudio Lai and Director and Producer of “The Wall VR.”
Q: Why did you make this film?
A: (Claudio Lai)
I am an immigrant. In fact, I immigrated two times to two different continents in my life. I am forty-seven, and a proud U.S Citizen. I have lived in the United States longer than any other country. Today, when I go to visit these countries, I feel like the tourist in the places where I was born and used to call home.
I am also a childhood immigrant. I was born in Italy and my parents moved my sister and I from Italy to Australia in the early 1970s. I don’t remember much from that time; however, my parents have told me that it took many months to reach Australia by Ocean Liner. This Ocean Liner stopped in Africa and other many other countries before reaching Australia.
I cannot imagine what it must be like for undocumented adults living in the U.S today who never knew their parents did not have the correct paperwork. I was lucky, at the time my parents came to Australia, the Australian Government was giving immigrant visas to anyone who would come to work at least two years to help build roads, etc. Today, Australia is more difficult to immigrate to than the U.S!
I was not even one year old when we left and in fact I celebrated by first birthday on the Ocean Liner while traveling to Australia. My sister was eight years old at the time. My dad told me that he was told that Australia was offering “free homes” to those who came to Australia. The Government would even pay to get us all there. The “free home” offer was not true unless you wanted to live somewhere in the middle of nowhere!
Once we arrived, my dad and mom were told they had to learn English. The Australian Government provided this service for free, which I now believe was critical to allowing them to acclimate to their new country. While I spent my first few years in Australia, my dad worked many jobs in construction, I started to learn English at the same time they did.
Something which makes my immigration story unique is that my parents had money when they immigrated to Australia. They were not rich but they had sold properties in Italy and saved for many years and could afford to buy a home in cash right away. These days, this would be like coming the U.S with more than $500,000+. When we first came to Sydney, Australia my dad told he noticed how differently we were all treated. We were always all dressed up. We looked different, we spoke differently. At that time anyone NOT from England but from other European countries was called a “Wog.” Which was not a nice term.
The most popular show of the time was “Kingswood Country.” A show which made fun of these new European immigrants. In Australia there is a city called “Wagga Wagga” so this YouTube clip below makes fun of the fact that this immigrant is from that town because he is a “Wog.”
Italians, Greeks and other new European immigrants were considered second class citizens compared to the established English people who had been there for many years before. My parents were told where to live, “you should live in the Inner West” that is where ALL the Italians live.” More than forty years later, I realize that those areas were not as good as the Northern or Eastern suburbs. Those areas were at that time “Only for English folk.” My parents had the money to buy in almost any part of the city. Had they bought a house in those “richer suburbs,” today it would be worth more than three times what their home is worth today.
So I grew up in the Inner West of Sydney. Which at the time was NOT considered a great place to live. My dad opened a Shoe Repair store right next to one of the most expensive and elite private schools in the City. This school now cost over $15,000 per year to attend. It is more than one hundred years old and just happen to be very close to where we lived. It was built when that area, now occupied mostly my immigrants used to be owed by rich English people.
When I was around five years old as my dad worked at a Shoe Repair store, next to this exclusive private school, something happened. I vaguely remember it. I was going to a public school nearby, and let’s just say, that some of the boys were being rude to my dad as they walked home. These were privileged kids and their actions were prejudice and demeaning towards my dad. At that time, and even today, over 90% of all the kids who attend this private school live more than 30 miles away. They live in the Northern and Eastern suburbs – where most of the rich people live.
Really upset at what these kids had done to him, my dad went to the principal of this school and confronted him about what had happened. The principal asked if he had a son and perhaps they could “work something out.” I realize today that for me it was like I won the lottery. This is a golden opportunity, to attend one of the best schools in the country.
This school has a 5+ year waiting list. You can’t attend unless you know someone. My dad accepted and I attended 3rd grade all the way to the 12th grade.
During my entire childhood, I only knew three other kids who lived near where I did and went to this school. I remember when I first started going to this new school how academically challenging it was for me especially because at home we only spoke Italian. In a school of over 3000 kids in grades from 1st to 12th they had less than 10% of kids at the time who were not of English decent. I remember being treated differently and how difficult it was growing up at times and having to struggle at school while other kids could afford tutors.
My parents both worked very hard in order for me to attend this school. My sister has told me her story was like mine but in some cases, it was worse. She was older than me when we came to Australia. She had a much harder time learning the English language at first. She remembers living in Italy and leaving everything she knew and loved. I was luckier than her being so young when I first immigrated.
Once I finished school I decided to go to U.S to study and attended U.S.C Film school. I fell in love with the U.S right away. The U.S is a melting pot even greater than Australia. In the U.S I was no longer a “Wog” I was just “white.” I was no longer minority. I found this to be very strange as I was used to being told I was. I was used to being treated differently.
Living in the U.S, even today, I notice many people of diverse cultures being treated like I was. In some small part I relate to them. Many years later, I got married and now have four kids and a grandson. I feel so grateful for being able to come to this country and all it has given me and my family.
About a year ago, I started hearing a lot of talk about “The Wall” in the media.
I have lived in El Paso, Texas now for almost ten years. It is one of the safest cities in the country.
I thought for a long time about how someone should make a film about crossing the border, especially since I live right next to one. I thought about using Virtual Reality to immerse a viewer to understand how difficult it is to leave one’s country for another. Relating it back to my own experiences.
I wanted to portray not just how difficult it must be for immigrants to leave everyone they know but just like my sister how they can feel ripped from the only homes they know and the heartache it can cause. I met with Joe and Barbara Cueto about six months ago and realized then that it could be possible to make this film a reality. We started working right away creating the script, getting actors and this lead to the creation of the film “The Wall VR.”
Q: Why did you decide to film this project in VR.
A: (Claudio Lai)
I had been almost seventeen years since I last filmed anything. Since I moved away from Los Angeles and moved to El Paso, Texas my focus has been on software development. However, about two years ago my son showed me a first-generation Samsung Gear VR headset and from that time I was hooked. I immediately invested in my first 12 camera 360/3D Go-Pro camera system and 360 VR editing software products. I began filming in VR and was fascinated about this new format. For more than a year I was looking to create a “story driven” project in VR and how this new format could be pushed to its limit. Using 360 / 3D audio, overcoming parallax issues and much more.
Q: What were some of the challenges of filming The Wall VR?
A: (Claudio Lai)
The Wall VR is one of the most difficult projects I have ever worked on. I wanted to complete this film for Sundance, which meant we had three months to write the script, film and edit it. I waited for more than two months for an all new VR camera. This camera provided real time monitoring in 360 VR and had an 8k! However, this camera was stuck in “pre-order” and even today is still back ordered. So like most things I have done in my life, I leaped in and started filming The Wall VR using my 14 Camera / 360 Go-Pro camera rig.
With major stitching issues to fix, no monitors I started production on The Wall VR. The cameras only had a 30 minutes maximum recording time. The cameras would overheat all the time. With temperatures in El Paso sometimes getting over 110 degrees! Constantly the camera would not want to turn on, or remote sync. I could not be near the cameras. In many of the shots and had to rely on the actors without even knowing if anything I filmed worked out. I had to wait many days later when I was able to stitch and edit the footage. It took around 10 hours to copy the files from the cameras to the computer. It took more than five days to render the footage from just one day of filming. Most filming days could only last 2-3 hours because of the limitation of the camera.
It was very challenging and reminded me of my days at U.S.C filming on 8mm and 16mm film where you had to know what you were doing because there is no playback or chance to reshoot.
There were also other issues:
* Actors could not be too close to the cameras because of parallax issues.
* I could not have actor’s cross cameras because of stitching issues.
* Everything was filed in wide angle which meant I could not get good coverage of actor’s expressions like a regular film.
* We could not use any normal lights or cinematography and could only use practical lights.
* I could not be anywhere near the camera for that matter anyone else in the crew.
* We had to come up with new ways to get sound from the actors like hiding microphones in their backpacks or behind a rock.
* Wind was also a problem because camera movements would affect the alignment between the cameras.
* Tracking shots (which I did two of) had to digitally removed frame by frame.
* Green screen work and digital masking removal like in the church scene (good bye scene) had to be done using all new VR software.
* I had to think about each shot, where the user is looking in comparison to the next shot so they are not lost in VR. This goes for action shots as well as the transition between scenes.
As you can see in the compressed 2D version, I was not able to get good coverage of actors from different angles like I would in a regular film. In most cases a whole scene was filmed like a play with only 2-3 angles and I had to incorporate digital motion to make it look more like a regular movie in the non- VR version.