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“We Have Only Scratched the Surface of What is Possible in Erotic VR Media”: Jennifer Lyon Bell on Her Fantasy Film Workshop and Creating Erotic VR

Second Date

The last time I interviewed veteran filmmaker Jennifer Lyon Bell for this site topics ranged from “fair trade” porn to the inaugural Holy Fuck Film Festival in Amsterdam (where the expat feminist pornographer has long resided). And now Bell, recipient of both the Feminist Porn Awards 2014 Movie of the Year (for Silver Shoes, which premiered at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts) and a psych degree from Harvard, continues to expand her mission of providing sex education for those behind the lens, while also exploring the new media horizon through her own artistic work.

I caught up with Bell to hear more about two sex-related endeavors in particular – “Fantasy Film Workshop: Design Your Own Erotic Film,” a full-day workshop that just completed at this year’s Raindance, and Second Date, an unscripted, Virtual Reality 360° “portrait of two young people fumbling towards ecstasy” that is screening this week at the VR program at CPH:DOX.

Filmmaker: You’ve been teaching the Fantasy Film Workshop for quite some time, and I’m curious to know who attends and whether the class demographic has changed over the years. (Or perhaps from country to country?) Is it mostly women who sign up? Vanilla directors looking for tips on shooting sex scenes? Budding pornographers?

Bell: I’m always surprised at the range of people we get in the class. We’ve had all genders, a super-wide range of ages, all economic backgrounds, and a variety of experience levels, from experienced indie filmmakers to people who have never participated in an erotic workshop of any kind and are just genuinely interested in the topic.

For different organizations where I teach, we chat in advance about the likely audience so I can tailor it appropriately. At Raindance I’m pitching it slightly more to newer indie filmmakers without previous erotic-scene experience, though everyday people and experienced filmmakers are heartily welcome. When I teach at the Dutch Film Academy I make it more practical/technical, and at universities I prepare to have more theoretical discussions. In feminist organizations I know we’ll talk a lot about ethics and visibility. As part of my workshop I also show many samples of erotic film work from other filmmakers, and I tailor those. For example, at CineKink in New York I was sure to include lots of BDSM and kinky clips!

I think the most important thing is that I try very hard to create a safe space for discussion and exploration, where you can be completely honest about your skill level and your sexual interests. Everyone’s ideas are equally valuable. One change I’ve seen over time is that many more types of events and venues are interested in such a workshop — arts festivals, film festivals, sex-ed organizations. The other change I’ve seen over time is that when I first started teaching this workshop, the participants had never heard of any of the filmmakers whose work I showed and had never heard about crossover erotic/mainstream art film or indie porn of any kind. These days, alternative porn and feminist porn are a bit more in the media, so occasionally someone will have heard of one of the filmmakers whose work I’m showing. However, I’d say 90-95% of that work is still totally unknown to most of our participants. I think it’s rewarding to show there’s a whole world of alternative sexual representation out there that most people can still discover!

Filmmaker: Your class syllabus addresses ethical issues and also production issues specific to filmed sex. Are there any big mistakes you consistently see filmmakers making?

Bell: Shooting sexuality has a lot of unique challenges. For one, I think that anytime you shoot sex scenes, whether real or simulated, you need to build extra time into the schedule at both a pre-production and a production level. Many filmmakers aren’t aware of that. Casting is much more complex, for example. You need to assess how much the actor/actress knows about your project, really illuminate your perspective and approach, unearth any misunderstandings about real vs. simulated acts, and fully understand what will make your actor/actress safe on set.

And of course, chemistry is going to be key. I’ve had to come up with a multi-tiered audition process that lets me safely get a sense of which performers might have chemistry, and then offer selected pairs the chance to see if they feel that chemistry too. I always offer performers full choice as to who they’d like to work with. And as to the set, I always build in time to take extra breaks, to renegotiate anything the actor/actress might like to make them more comfortable, and even change the shooting plan if need be. I let performers know that their happiness is my number one concern. (Even if I am stressed about time and budget, I put my feelings aside.) As both a creative and an ethical matter, I also create the final plan in collaboration with what the performers would like to do — certain acts, a certain vibe. Every movie I’ve ever made incorporated details, or even large parts, of elements those individual actors or actresses wanted to explore with me. It made them safe and excited on set, and it created a final film that I think is more unique and special because of our collaboration.

Filmmaker: Your docu-erotic Virtual Reality 360° film Second Date premiered at Raindance last year (and was shortlisted for the “Best Sensual VR Experience” award, which is not an honor I would normally associate with a mainstream film fest!) And now it’s playing CPH:DOX. Considering you’ve long been so passionate about art-house cinema, why did you decide to transition from film to VR in the first place, and what were the biggest challenges for you in doing so?

Bell: Honestly, I thank my production partners Condition One (San Francisco) for inviting me into this VR world. The head of C1, Danfung Dennis, introduced himself to me and told me he liked the sense of intimacy and empathy in my other erotic film work. He asked if I’d be up for a collaborative experiment exploring the concept of intimacy in a VR environment. I loved his approach. He said, “I care more about the realism and the intimacy than anything else. I’d rather that nothing sexual at all happen rather than that they force anything.” He organically understood my own approach to directing. And he loved the Second Date concept I pitched to him, and basically gave me complete creative control. I was able to hire all my own cast and crew (with the exception of the C1 co-DP Christian Serge Nelson who came over to us from the USA), and I must say we had a great chemistry as a team. It was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever directed.

There are two big challenges for me in shooting 360 VR. One, the technology is still very slow in coming up with good, real-time monitoring techniques. You’re looking at a partial image at best. It’s very frustrating not being 100% sure what I have gotten! The other challenge for me is that I love multi-camera shoots. Lately, I shoot three cameras, at least one of which is 4K, and it gives me tremendous freedom to create a mood and a rhythm later with the editing. It also lets me protect my performers by reassuring them that I will only use the shots that look good. In VR I can still promise that, but with only one camera I’m really crossing my fingers that I won’t have to cut too often to create an edit that makes sense narratively and erotically. Fortunately, the Second Date actor and actress (Bishop Black and Anne De Winter) had so much chemistry that their date went amazingly, and we had way more great footage than we could ever use.

Filmmaker: When I was at the FilmGate Interactive new media conference last year I ended up chatting with a group of straitlaced white guys, who almost sheepishly admitted that the porn industry is often the driving force behind a lot of the tech innovation we’re seeing these days (and will see in the future. Haptics anyone?). But then, the porn industry has always been at the forefront of what Hollywood later coopts. So I’m very curious to hear your take on VR, AR, the new media in general — are you seeing any particular trends in the erotic realm?

Bell: Yes, porn has a longstanding history of driving technological innovation! In this case, the adult industry is especially poised to try and make the most of VR because the adult film industry has suffered such a hit in recent years. Most of the interesting stuff has been crowded out by ubiquitous commodity porn – porn made with no heart or vision, all about making fast money.

Most people who care about sex and porn are looking for something engaging and unique. Because VR is a bit special and new for most people, it’s intriguing. And because by definition VR “experiences” are never the same for any two people — it’s impossible that you and another viewer will choose to move your heads and turn around in exactly the same moments in a VR film — it’s wholly unique to each viewer. Not to mention, of course, that viewers of adult media are almost always wishing for a sort of physical and emotional closeness that VR can create.

So I think we have only scratched the surface of what is possible in erotic VR media. I have lots more ideas of things I want to explore in VR. The biggest challenge of all for VR, of course, is the platform problem. Most humans don’t yet understand how to download/stream and view VR media, and the VR platforms that exist are generally hobbled by the same puritan guidelines that affect other film platforms — they are so worried about crap porn taking over that they ban any sexuality, including ethical alternative sexuality. It’s an enormous problem for filmmakers like me. I can only hope that we can encourage a groundswell of film viewers who continue to support alternative erotic representation of all kinds, including both indie porn and mainstream art films with explicit content, to help stop this ridiculous bifurcation between the sexual and the not sexual.

Filmmaker: There’s been a bit of debate recently about the (perhaps false) promise of VR, and the “limits of empathy” (also the title of a terrific article on the subject at Topic). The basic argument is that many VR projects actually end up alienating rather than connecting as research shows that empathy requires a third-person perspective (and not the “taking on” of another’s experience). With Second Date you want participants to “empathetically take part” in the starring couple’s “fumbling toward ecstasy” as “invisible witnesses.” Were you always conscious of keeping a third-person perspective? (It seems like a lot of VR erotica might instead aim to put the viewer vicariously inside another’s skin.)

Bell: What an interesting article! I did indeed purposely plan Second Date entirely around using a third-person perspective, in part because 99% of all existing VR porn uses first-person POV. While first person is obviously an interesting and super-effective use of VR, I thought it could be equally powerful to witness Bishop and Anne’s intimacy developing from a very close distance, one you’d never be able to experience in real life — almost as if you are a strange part of that intimacy yourself. Also, I figured that anyone accustomed to VR porn would also be urged to experience Second Date in a different way because of this third-person perspective, so those viewers could get a new experience out of Second Date too.

When I read the article, it reminded me about a film we studied in my film theory masters’ degree class. Most film theory students watch the murder mystery Lady in the Lake (1947) because it’s a great film experiment. It’s entirely shot from the POV of the main character, Philip Marlowe. While it seems like we should experience extra empathy with Marlowe because we are literally in his shoes, that’s not at all how the film feels. For most viewers, it’s incredibly irritating to never see the expression on Marlowe’s face. How can we know how he feels if we never see his reaction? We even start to resist empathizing with him a little. It’s a great reminder that visual, and even audio POV, are not substitutes for cinema’s other tools for generating empathy (as well as sympathy, which feeds empathy) with the characters. (By the way, I’m personally enormously interested in the relationship of empathy to eroticism. I even gave the closing keynote at the new Sex And Cinema conference, soon to be the basis of an upcoming issue of the journal Film Studiesm and I called it “Empathy and Pornography.”)

Filmmaker: Finally, any plans to create a Fantasy VR Workshop? Are you already incorporating new media into your class?

Bell: Yes! Just yesterday I got a call from a London festival asking me if I could come talk about the relationship of eroticism to VR. So I might develop a whole Fantasy VR Workshop. In the meantime, I absolutely talk about VR in my regular Fantasy Film Workshop, and if I’m lucky someone might develop a VR porn idea with us. I would love if more filmmakers could take a step into VR. It’s been hugely rewarding.

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