Winter 2018


Iñárritu's 'Lumiére Moment'

The director's Carne y Arena immerses the viewer in the harrowing experience of immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the U.S.


Alejandro González Iñárritu directs on the motion capture stage. (Photo: Chachi Ramirez)

When Alejandro González Iñárritu's virtual reality installation Carne y Arena debuted at Cannes in May—the first-ever VR entry at the international cinema showcase—festival director Thierry Frémaux called it a "Lumiére moment." The "walk-around" experience, as opposed to the typical stationary "head-turn" VR associated with gaming, was made with the help of Iñárritu's Oscar-winning DP Emmanuel Lubezki and Industrial Light & Magic's immersive technology division ILMxLAB. The Academy awarded a special Oscar to Iñárritu at its Governor's Awards in November. Iñárritu recently shared his thoughts on the 6½-minute exhibit, currently at LACMA, and the technology behind it.

DGAQ: Let's start at the beginning of the experience and the choices you made before the VR begins. Viewers wait in a holding tank prior to going into the VR space. It's as chilly as a meat locker in there and you're required to remove your shoes. It puts one in a very vulnerable position.

AGI: You know when they caught the immigrants in the desert, they put them in freezers, and they told me these stories over and over again. I knew a long time ago there is no reason to put some people in that environment, with one toilet in front of everybody.

The original plan I had was that you would see the portraits [the last third of the exhibit] first—I would introduce you to the characters, then you'd go into the VR experience, and then at the end, in line with the chronological order of the event as it really happened, you would go into the prison room before you leave.

But there was a moment that I thought this is not a didactic experience. There's a beginning, a middle and an end, but not precisely in that order.

So I changed the order because I wanted people to really get into that fragile state, that space they will not understand but will feel in their bones. And that's the beginning of the journey because it puts you right off.

DGAQ: I found the images of the migrants almost ghostly. And I felt like a ghost myself, because of the seeming invisibility of my presence. Was that part of the aim going in?

AGI: In a way I found myself like what you say, when I was doing it. When you are blocking those digital ghosts, suddenly you are into a program that gives 360-degree dimension, the multi-dimension of reality. And it's that sensation that you are a visitor in a kind of a ghostly world.

But yes, the sensation is very, very strange, especially because we have been used to seeing creation in bidimensional or dual-dimensional forms but not in multidimension.

And I think the part of [VR] that can affect our perception is definitely the sensorial evidence, the sand below your feet, the breeze on your skin. The body does not lie. So once your body's telling you something, you know that it's true. And the wires in your brain are tricked, and then you lose a little bit of the sense of reality. And I found that very interesting and very dangerous at the same time.

DGAQ: I found the discomfort of the sand part of the experience—it wasn't exactly the kind of powdery sand you encounter on a tropical beach.

AGI: I did it on purpose because I tried to get some of the real sand from the desert. The stories of these people always end up in differently, but sand is always involved in the journey. Shoes were lost or broken, every night to walk for days with that, with rocks, with stones, and then obviously, the night, with the wind, how the sand gets into the food, into their mouths. So the omnipresence of sand; that's why the title of Carne y Arena, Flesh and Sand, because that relation is so important and so uncomfortable that I think it's crucial to experience a little bit what they go through.

DGAQ: Tell me about the end, when you feel like the Border Patrol is shining their flashlight on you.

AGI: It was a long year of experimentation to understand how it works, and I found that all the people experience it differently. Every visitor, in a way, chooses where to stand and to be protected, or to be in a way vulnerable, or to expose themselves, or to defend people, or shout or just hide.

But I wanted the moment where people shift… even when you resist intellectually to be in there, that you are suddenly saying "no, this is not happening." I wanted at some moment for people stop being a visitor and become a participant.

When that happened, wherever you are, when the police point at your head and order you to get down, I found that 99 percent of people go down to their knees or raise their hands and they become one of them; their identity shifts. So you surrender your intellectualization and become part of the experience, and I think that's crucial.

DGAQ: Now you said that it took a year of learning to undergo this process. What was the most difficult thing about it?

AGI: I would say that to get it right, you should not get distracted in the craft, in the technique. I wanted people to forget about the technology.

I have two millennial sons, and they are so obsessed with technology and nothing more is important. And I just wanted to subordinate technology to the emotional experience.

I thought if humanity does not eclipse technology, then why am I using technology?

I was questioning myself, "Why do we have to make virtual reality to talk about real reality? Are we so narcissistic and so egotistical that we think that it's better than reality?" I went into a kind of crisis.

It triggered in me a lot of questions, because I always had been fighting against social media and technology that is used with banality and stupidity and for no purpose that really can enhance the human experience. We know more about the moon than the ocean for God's sakes!

(Top) Director Alejandro González Iñárritu works with a non-actor (a baker from El Salvador) in a motion capture suit during the project's arduous production phase; (Bottom) A scene is re-enacted in the California desert by actual migrants who have experienced a border crossing. (Photos: Chachi Ramirez)

DGAQ: You also mentioned that there are incredible limitations that exist in VR. What are those in your mind?

AGI: Well, I will say that to make human faces real, it's still far away from being true. We have 300 muscles in the face. So to really make a human face real, I think we are years away still.

I think the quality of the glasses is still very primitive. Things should be obviously much better now than when we started. Every week it changes.

The data that we are rendering is so huge that we need a cable, but I think [eventually] there will be no cable attached to your body.

And then the lighting. You know, we suffer a lot with the lighting. I knew that when I got this idea of night, I knew, "Bingo!" that's where it has to be, because night was my incredible partner.

Just to give you an example, when the helicopter comes up, there's a light, and there has to be a real bounce on the face from below. But we can't do that so we have to make decisions that were not great, but it was a balance.

I think the more ambitious you are, the more you want to show. We need a little bit more time. But every week things are working better.

DGAQ: Why is it that you had to use motion capture suits as opposed to just actually photographing people the way they look naturally?

AGI: Because you can't. You can shoot with the eight-camera thing but then you will be using normal VR, which is you sitting in a chair. For you to walk 20 meters with them, you have to create them. And that was a big, big challenge.

And because we shoot it in the desert, we learn from the particle, from the lighting of cinema, so it's a combination of media that got it done.

But when we were in trouble in the middle, I promise you there was a moment that it was a disaster. Looks like shit. And we said, "This is a failure!" and we spent a lot of money already, there was no way back, and it was very scary.

But I remember when I put on my headset, and the voices were so truthful and so emotional—because these people were not acting, they were just recreating what they went through—I had chills in my body.

DGAQ: What is it about the process that takes so much time?

AGI: You are working with so many tech guys. They are really good but they are not necessarily experienced or they cannot see what you want, so you have to be everything, the movement, the texture of the things.

And then obviously, to learn from the reality, it's like a painting actually, so you have to observe reality in micro-detail to really be imitating it. It's a very time-consuming technology.

DGAQ: Will the future of the VR platform, outside of the gaming world, rely on the affordability of the equipment for consumers, in terms of getting more people to experience this process?

AGI: I think it has to do with the concept. For this concept of Carne y Arena, it would have been a mistake to have a communal experience. What made it very special is that you are alone in that cold room, and you don't have a telephone, you cannot take a picture and share it on social media. It's like going into a forest. It's your experience, nobody will do it exactly as you do, and you cannot even talk about it, because it's very hard to describe.

I think the communal experience of the art would be very, very fun. But you have to have very big equipment. It will not be available soon in your house, I guess.

DGAQ: Would that communal experience involve the people who are sharing the experience to actually interact with each other?

AGI: Yes, I think the technology is available now. We are going there.

(Top) The filmmakers test to get just the right amount of sand on a shoe; (Bottom) A warehouse space with desert sand acts as a blank canvas for the Carne y Arena experience (Photos: (Top) Chachi Ramirez; (Bottom) Emmanuel Lubezki)

DGAQ: What kind of cameras did Mr. Lubezki use?

AGI: We shot it normal, in digital with an Alexa. We just project it [in 360], but we didn't shoot it in 360.

We went to the desert two hours from here, and I blocked the scene. I wanted to see how their bodies move, because remember these were not actors, these were immigrants, so I blocked it in the warehouse, then I blocked it in the desert. I wanted to see their bodies move there, to learn the texture, every angle, how the light in the desert at night behaves with particles, all that. So that was a great reference for the digital people to really take it. That's why it looked so real.

DGAQ: So how did that translate into that sort of multidimensional 360-degree experience?

AGI: Well, what you do is that then you mockup these people, you put them in those suits, and then they recreate it exactly… I create the blocking.

There was no precedent of this. That's why I had to be trying and failing to give you the results of it. Then I put these people in mockup and then you have to recreate everything in digital. So yeah, you create the world.

And then we have cut-and-paste elements. For example, the sky is real. It's a pastiche of real things with CGI, things, and you have to discover which ones match with which ones, because sometimes when you combine reality and CGI it's a disaster. One or the other will get [compromised].

DGAQ: In an interview with Variety recently, you said that there were a lot of secrets that you hide that nobody has seen. What did you mean by that?

AGI: Well, the thing is that if you do it one time, you almost see nothing. The second time is essential. And then you can do it 70 times and you will discover so many things, because every time that you go it's different.

The dream sequence for example, when the woman faints and we go into her conscious[ness], that's what I wanted to represent. They are sitting at this table, the kid is watching their future, lighting it with one lamp, and these guys in sand sinking… I think it's great that people can go later and discover other things.

DGAQ: What would you say to other filmmakers who want to go beyond experimentation with this form?

AGI: I would say that it's fascinating. First of all, I really enjoyed it on every level, because I felt like a kid with a new toy that I knew nothing about. For me, learning is fun.

The more we get rid of our old baggage that comes with theater or narrative or plot or storytelling, we liberate ourselves, because this is definitely a new art form, and we respect it, and we can feel how ambitious we can be with it. When we let new generations embrace it and find the new code, the new syntaxes, the new visual grammar, I think it will be amazing.

I think every filmmaker should try it. It's very humbling to say, "Wow!" To create reality in every frame is a massive enterprise, and that's a great exercise for a storyteller.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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