Joe Hunting has made a name for himself in the world of VR chat rooms, venturing where few directors, if any, have gone before. The British filmmaker began making shorts that explore the social dynamics and possibilities of the platform VRchat at age 19, with the award-winning A Wider Screen. He went on to make Club Zodiac, a second short, profiling an exotic dance community within VR. Soon after, he made the docuseries Virtually Speaking to capture the early days of the pandemic from inside VR.
Hunting’s first feature film, We Met in Virtual Reality, builds on this experience. The doc, which was largely crowdfunded by an Indiegogo campaign, embeds the viewer in the atmosphere of VR chat rooms. While the avatars are far from real, many players vow they’ve found more authentic connections in their headset than in the outside world. We Met in Virtual Reality demonstrates how VR has become a preferred place to learn and find love for many people, especially amidst the physical limits of a global pandemic.
The doc follows Jenny, an ASL (American Sign Language) teacher who runs a virtual school called ‘Helping Hands,’ and two long-distance couples involved in the virtual dance community. Filming entirely in virtual reality, Hunting pushes the limits of filmmaking and the definitions of documentary. We Met in Virtual Reality is competing in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance 2022.
POV spoke to Hunting ahead of the film’s Sundance premiere about his deeply personal relationship to VR, the technicalities of shooting entirely in VRChat, and more.
POV: Madeline Lines
JH: Joe Hunting
The following has been edited for concision and clarity.
POV: How did you first come to be involved in VR chat rooms?
JH: I got into VRchat and exploring documentary filmmaking in the fall of 2018. I had read about VR chat in the summer, and in that article, there were loads of different quotes of people saying that VRchat really saved their lives and profoundly benefited their mental health and social life. That really sparked a lot of interest and curiosity for me as someone who’s been very connected to online communities for a long time.
I made my first film in the fall of 2018, released in the beginning of 2019. It asked a lot of questions around how VR can affect our forms of communication and emotional and social relationships, as well as explorations of gender and sexuality. After making that first short film, A Wider Screen, I felt overwhelmed with curiosity. I was inspired to continue telling stories about the experience of VR, but also using VR as a way to tell stories very genuinely about people, emotions, and the human condition.
There was a lot of technical learning involved and just living in VR with the communities outside of filmmaking. VR has been a very close piece of my heart when it comes to my social life.
POV: Had you always imagined your first feature film being something like this? Or did it surprise you that you’d chosen something so novel?
JH: When I made my first films, they felt like experimental career curiosities. They were ideas out of the ordinary that I thought had potential. They were also fun opportunities for me as an artist, coming from a place of enjoying games and VR, to be playful in the documentary film context.
After those films, and making the series that I did over the summer of 2020, that’s when ideas around doing something longer form and making a feature film really started bubbling in me. I did not expect to be making this feature. If you had come up to me and asked me this, prior to getting into VR and meeting people in VR, I would have no idea that I would be making this film.
It was only through exploring the platform, exploring communities and meeting different cultures in that space that I felt there were so many stories I could tell. I did not realize that I would be making it before getting into VR, but I’m very happy that I did.
POV: You’ve mentioned how the pandemic really set up the perfect conditions for viewers to be open to this kind of world. How did that timing play into you finally taking this leap?
JH: When we went into that first lockdown in March of 2020, I was working on a series and not really fully considering doing a feature. That production became so important to me on an emotional and social level. The cast and the people I was working with became my closest friends; that was my life during that first lockdown. Everyone was feeling so grateful and connected to each other in VR at that time. It felt like a moment in history that needed to be captured.
So that was certainly one thing. I had also been wanting to make a feature that would really connect audiences outside of VR to the world of VR. The context of the pandemic and the struggle of physical isolation laid the groundwork for having people outside of VR understand. It was a situation we could all connect to. The pandemic also raised awareness of online communication and brought a lot of attention to VR. It was extremely fortunate timing, but obviously not a fortunate situation.
POV: It seems like you met so many people with such unique lives that gather in VR. How did you decide who to focus on?
JH: First of all, the production of the documentary was over a year long period. During that time, I filmed almost every other day, and I lived in about eight different communities. I was going between each one and trying to immerse myself in a lot of different relationships and communities and have very casual conversations about the situation we were in with COVID, and reflect upon peoples’ experiences in VR. The production was organic and explorative. There was a lot of content that was left on the cutting room floor.
I decided on the core protagonists of the film around June of 2021, whilst I was editing. They all just had such distinct characters, in their avatars and in their voices, and in what they’re doing in VR. I felt people outside of VR would be able to connect with them.
So that was what really sealed the decision to choose them. How I met each of the protagonists… it was all organic, and they all have different stories. The first person I filmed with was Jenny, the pink-haired sign language teacher. We met during the production of the docuseries in 2020.
As a person who’d not interacted with sign language or the deaf experience prior to meeting Jenny and the Helping Hands community, it was just something that overwhelmed me with inspiration. Jenny has such a warm attitude towards teaching that I knew from the get-go that I wanted to explore her story.
DustBunny and Toaster are a long-distance couple who were struggling at the time of the pandemic, and I met them through a dance community called the International Dancers Association. Initially, their context was about DustBunny’s belly dance career and wanting to teach belly dance in VR. Then I got to know their relationship and the moment that they’re in. It spoke to a lot of different truths about COVID and struggling with long distance relationships. They’re also both amazing dancers, so that was an easy decision.
Finally, DragonHeart and IsYourBoi were another long-distance couple facing similar troubles, but in a very different context. I met them at an exotic dance club called Club Zodiac where they were performing. I pulled them aside and wanted to get to know them. We had this very long game of pool for about four hours and had a long conversation that became the centerpiece of the documentary. From that pool conversation, we got to know them a lot better. All of them have such confident voices and understood the context of what I was trying to do and what the film was set out to be.
POV: From their point of view, what are the characters seeing when being filmed? Is it your avatar holding a camera?
JH: Yeah, the way the film was shot, I am genuinely standing in the space with the subjects of the film, directing and having mutual casual conversations to lead those interviews. So they’re seeing me, and my avatar is quite similar to myself. I have a huge backpack and this little camera–it’s very subtle–in my hand. With this camera, I can change lenses, change aperture, or fly it as a drone. I have every kind of cinematic tool that a physical camera can, it’s just translated directly into VR. I’m operating it with my controllers in my real hands.
So I’m present and looking through my camera monitor at the picture. It’s really as organic as a physical production would be. Obviously, that’s hard to grasp for people who are just learning about it. It’s an amazing experience to be at the forefront of this new form of filmmaking in a whole new reality.
POV: How did you strike the balance between following a documentary-like formula while also immersing people in a virtual world?
JH: Having this new camera allowed me a lot of new cinematic tools. I was also looking to documentaries that influenced me, and some genre films, for inspiration. I thought, okay, I can actually translate a lot of my influences and inspirations directly into what I’m making because of the new camera.
In order to really connect with audiences outside of VR, I knew I wanted to draw upon more typical iconography and methods of filmmaking for this film. I wanted to do what I knew would feel normal and natural for audiences, so they wouldn’t feel disassociated, like you’re looking in from outside.
There’s a mix, in the film, of observational and more directed, poetically led scenes. I really wanted to embrace imperfection and represent the authentic experience of social VR. There are the observational scenes, where we’re grounded and with the protagonist in their typical social VR lives, and then there are more constructed interviews and dance sequences that were choreographed alongside the subjects.
In the balance of those two methods you get to see not only the truth and authenticity of the space, but also the cinema and the more fantastical world of the protagonist. Because obviously, VR is a very fantastical world, and so connecting to that side of their stories was important.
POV: At any point were you considering getting footage from the real world to intersperse with the VR footage?
JH: Oh, absolutely. It was an important consideration. In my first short films, A Wider Screen and Club Zodiac, I use footage of the real-life subjects. When those films were touring festivals, I’d ask people for the most interesting or most truthful moment, and they always said they were most intrigued when they got to see peoples’ real bodies. That was something that just felt off to me. I didn’t realize before making those films, but it was in those reactions that I realized I want people to connect with the subjects the way I see them. Not to force my direction upon the audience, but I think it’s much more fun and intriguing and truthful to work in the context of VR to leave the rest to an audience’s imagination.
I want them to be listening to the voices and the stories and feeling the weight of a moment whilst imagining what the person’s real context would be. I think as soon as I put the real image to the fantasy of the person in VR, there was a magical element of the film that was lost. It’s important to me to tread the line between the real and virtual.