At ODL with Jessica Brillhart – Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google

By Sara Rafsky

To conclude its semester-long Hacking VR Speaker Series, ODL hosted Jessica Brillhart on May 2 to discuss her latest projects and the interests that have guided her work as the principal (and first and only) filmmaker for virtual reality at Google. Over the course of her several years in the position, Brillhart has traveled the world and experimented with VR as part of Google—and the tech and filmmaking world’s— wider efforts to understand the facets and possibilities of the much-hyped new medium.  Through a presentation of several of her recent projects, Brillhart shared the main lessons she’s learned along the way.

Citing inspirations ranging from a memorable planetarium show that “terrified” her as a child to a scene of giddy Google engineers playing around with VR technology for the first time,  Brillhart has sought to create experiences where the storytelling unfolds less like a film and more like a “conversation, or a dance.”  Creating these environments has meant abandoning much of the dogma that guides traditional filmmaking and learning to literally re-see the ways in which one builds the no-longer filmic world.

This ethos, Brillhart said, starts with abandoning the traditional concept of crafting a single premeditated frame in favor of the notion of an infinite number of frames depending on the “visitor’s” (her preferred terminology) choice and direction.  Thus the process of editing becomes one that is no longer about linking frame to frame but rather world to world and pulling the visitor through the universe of the particular experience. Geometrically, Brillhart illustrated, this means forsaking the logic of the rectangular frame for one that more resembles concentric circles.

Similarly, after relinquishing control of the frame Brillhart had to explore new editing techniques to guide the visitor’s attention. In some cases, this meant examining data from heat maps to see what was capturing people’s attention in certain scenes and putting something of interest in the same spatial place in the following scene. Ultimately, however, she warned against trying too hard to dictate an experience. “Sometimes it’s just nice to be there,” she said, and she tries to allow ample time for a visitor to explore a space so that he or she doesn’t feel the constant anxiety of having to fulfill a task. She encourages crafting for moments of “rebellion,” where a visitor might turn to look in an unexpected direction or simply get lost. 

The role of someone creating a VR piece, Brillhart says, is to deliver a potential story rather than a “full-baked” one as in traditional film.  Whether she is allowing people to visit Icelandic glaciers, experience music or mingle with spectators watching a hockey game, she sees her process as enabling people to craft their own stories.

Though her ambitions for the medium are lofty, Brillhart acknowledged in the Q and A session the lack of accessibility that continues to plague the medium, a process she says that seems to be getting worse, rather than better. In the meantime, she is also experimenting with web VR and more accessible projects. A wacky piece involving multiple weather panes showing the climate in Omaha set to Kenny G music was an unexpected hit and a great source of pride. Despite having the vast resources of Google at her disposal, that project, her most low-tech effort to date, was the only one so far to go viral.