Interview: Kim Voynar is on the Leading Edge of Virtual Reality Cinema

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Like the best movies, Kim Voynar’s cinema career has come with plenty of plot twists

For a decade, Voynar worked as a film critic, reviewing movies for Cinematical, Movie City News, Indiewire and Variety, and in 2011, she ventured into filmmaking. She wrote, produced and directed the short film “Bunker” and then working for three years for Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison, helping him build his film production company and producing and directing many projects for it.

In 2015, she founded Seattle-based WonderTek Labs, a boutique virtual reality content and consulting studio, with her partner, Nathaniel Pinzon.

“I was in my 20s at the beginning of the internet in the early ‘90s and working in startups at the beginning internet, so I already knew from that experience that an emerging tech bubble is a really excellent time to make a quick move. You can move laterally much faster in an emerging tech environment than in a stagnant one because there aren’t as many people working in the space and no one’s yet an expert,” Voynar, who is CEO and “chief imaginator” for WonderTek Labs.

“In a space where nobody’s an expert, the time from zero to expert is compressed about in half. So, you can make moves much more quickly, which makes an emerging tech market a really opportune time, especially for women and people of color, to maneuver themselves into positions of relative leadership and power much quicker and more easily,” she told me in a recent interview.

“We’ve kind of been in the space since the very beginning … of this new VR bubble, and we’ve seen the evolution of content, and we’ve been curating the content as it’s evolved. So, it’s given us a really good picture of how storytelling is starting to evolve.”

<a href=””><img class=”size-full wp-image-1490″ src=”” alt=”Riley Daniel appears in a scene from Oklahoma filmmaker Lance McDaniel’s &quot;Homecoming Trilogy.&quot; McDaniel worked with Oklahoma native Kim Voynar, CEO and founder of WonderTek Labs in Seattle, to produce part of the short film in 360-degree virtual reality.

<strong>Busy summer</strong>

It’s been a busy summer for Voynar and Pinzon, who is WonderTek Labs’ events technical director and “chief dreamweaver.” The Seattle International Film Festival hired them to curate and produce a 24-day ticketed VR Zone running out of Pacific Place, an upscale shopping center in downtown Seattle.

That overlapped with Oklahoma City’s deadCenter Film Festival, where they also curated and ran the VR film lounge, which was part of the festival’s three-day techCenter technology conference at the chic 21C Museum Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. The focus at techCenter was on virtual reality, augmented reality and drones, and in the VR lounge, deadCenter attendees could view 11 VR films from around the world.

deadCenter Executive Director Lance McDaniel credited Voynar with ensuring that deadCenter’s virtual cinema programming the past two years showcased VR and 360 short films that were more than just high-tech gimmickry. He presented Voynar, an Oklahoma City native, with one of deadCenter’s 2018 Oklahoma Film Icon Awards during the festival.

“It’s a tremendous honor … and it’s really cool how deadCenter and Lance have really embraced virtual reality as a new storytelling medium and how open he has been to bringing it into the festival,” said Voynar, a former member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

“A lot of the content that has been available feels very early-demo, content of an emerging tech, which is what it’s been. … For me, the fact that we had content that’s as mature as it is to share in 2018, to be able to show at deadCenter, is really remarkable.”

<strong>Emerging technology</strong>

But Voynar said VR storytelling is still in its infancy, with much of the focus and funding still on building better 360-degree cameras and developing better platforms to deliver content.

“We’re still not very much past ‘The Arrival of a Train’ stage of the film industry,” Voynar said, referring to the seminal 1896 French short film. “It took 120 years for the film industry to get from ‘The Arrival of a Train’ to ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and all these big tentpole Marvel films that we’re seeing. It doesn’t happen overnight. Storytelling in a medium doesn’t evolve over the course of four or five years, which is really all this space has had to evolve.

“It typically requires a decade to even attain what we would consider genuine expertise for an artist or a technician to work with the medium; we’re only like halfway there.”

One noticeable sign of progress in the development of VR storytelling came in January at the Sundance Film Festival, when the prestigious Park City, Utah, fest saw its first major VR acquisition: VR financing and distribution venture CityLights bought the three-part space series “Spheres: Songs of Spacetime,” a VR project directed by Eliza McNitt, narrated by two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, and executive produced by Academy Award nominee Darren Aronofsky.

Also during Sundance, documentary distributor Dogwoof acquired “Zikr: A Sufi Revival,” a 15-minute song-and-dance VR experience directed by Gabo Arora.

“We’re starting to see some evolution as far as freedom for artists and technicians to start to evolve the way that we tell stories in the medium. But the reality has been for the last four years or so that most of the funding in this space has centered around things like platform and hardware. … Content is a very esoteric thing, and if there’s not an infrastructure to support the content, you can’t get funding to build content,” she said.

“We’re just starting to figure out how to make it really appealing on a consumer level. We haven’t even begun to wrap our heads really around how to deliver it meaningfully on a consumer level to monetize the content yet. It’s still pretty much in its infancy.”

The main method of delivering VR storytelling is currently location-based entertainment, she said. That ranges from VR short film showcases at deadCenter, SIFF, Sundance and other film festivals to Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu’s (“The Revenant”) traveling mixed-reality installation “Carne y Arena” (or “Flesh and Sand”), which has sold out its runs in Milan, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., to the multi-sensory, location-based VR short film experience at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center, which takes visitors inside a Dust Bowl dust storm.

“I don’t think anyone could accurately say they know what VR is going to be when it comes to storytelling … until we figure out more what are the best ways to deliver content in this space. And when we talk about delivering content, really what we’re talking about is that space where audience and art intersect,” Voynar said.

<strong>Making movies</strong>

At WonderTek Labs, Voynar and Pinzon working on the leading edge – and sometimes the bleeding edge – of the VR space. They don’t just curate and run film festival’s VR slates, they also make the VR/360 films included on them.

In conjunction with The Posies’ 30th anniversary world tour, WonderTek Labs released this summer the 360 music video they shot for the band in 2016 for their song “Unlikely Places,” from power-pop group’s album “Solid States.”

In addition, McDaniel found Voynar’s programming at Oklahoma City’s 2017 deadCenter Film Festival so inspiring that he raised money and invited her back to their home state last summer to film a VR/360 short. McDaniel’s “Homecoming: Seduction” was one of the VR selections screened at deadCenter 2018. The finale of his “Homecoming Trilogy” of short films he helmed in his hometown of Alva, Oklahoma, “Seduction” uses the language of dance to explore the temptations of drug addiction, the highs of using and the inevitable lows that come after.

“That was really fun, not just to work on the project, which was great. We had a great crew, and we had a lot of fun shooting in Alva. The people of Alva were wonderful. We had so much fun on that shoot, and we had amazing dancers to work with and an amazing choreographer. But what was really cool to me was watching the evolution of Lance through the course of that project as he really started to internalize VR as not just a gimmicky add-on for a festival but authentically understanding the way that it is a new medium for storytelling,” Voynar said.

“We’re going to start to see the evolution of how we tell story in that space, and we’re starting to kind of see the needle on that move a little.”

To read more about how Oklahoma City’s deadCenter Film Festival and Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center are embracing VR storytelling, click <a href=”” target=”_blank”>here</a>.




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