When was the last time when you had a good Chocolate Milk? Well, if you can’t even remember it, it is time to…make one. Take that cup, and continue reading our story. This is a different kind of Chocolate Milk story, maybe more sweet, maybe more spice, maybe more flavoured? We are not so sure yet, as it is in the making, but hopefully you will like it, because it talks to you honestly, is able to transport you to places you have never been and reveal minds of people that you never imagined. All with a little bit of VR-magic. This original idea for this receipt was born in the mind of Sonja Bozic, but she needed a co-creator to prepare it all properly. So, Jonathan jumped on the boat. And you will find out soon the whole story.
Sonja is originally from Serbia, where she studied Film Editing, but now lives and works in New York. She moved years ago to the US, to perfect her studies, and she earned her Ph.D. in Transmedia Storytelling at Ohio University. She teaches at the New School, NY.
Sonja is currently working on her VR project “Chocolate Milk,” an immersive exploration of a mind of a person with autism. We talked with Sonja about this project, about the stories behind the scenes, but also about challenges faced by the XR industry and tips for wanna-be creators.
TVA: How did the whole story of Chocolate Milk start?
Sonja: My first inspiration for Chocolate Milk was a person in Serbia, who speaks five languages and knows Shakespeare Opera by heart. His parents couldn’t understand what I wanted to do. I was impressed with that kid, really wanted to understand him better by creating a project about autism. The topic just couldn’t leave my mind because I wondered why these people are kind of abandoned in this society when they have so much to offer. It’s not fair! And then I met Jonathan through his father with whom I work together in New Jersey. I was blown away with Jonathan’s personality and realized he is the one.
TVA: Why did you choose VR technique to reveal autism problems?
Sonja: I selected VR because it gives the option to really feel and experience something different. It’s one thing when we watch a movie, read a book, hear stories. We remember it, but it’s kind of somewhere in our brain.
But when you experience something your body remembers it, your feelings are much stronger and it stays with you. That is why I decided that this has to be done in VR, because I want to understand and work with Jonathan’s feelings and translate it into the technology.
VR is focused on how his mind works, how he reacts to specific situations, how his memory works.
The characteristics of people without autism is something called 3 M (music, math, and memory).
Jonathan has exceptional memory. He remembers things that happened years and years ago as it happened yesterday. He is also musically talented, has a perfect pitch, and plays the piano. To understand his mind, I sat with him to learn how a person with autism thinks or reacts in certain situations so we can break through that wall that has prevented us from understanding. We are also planning to produce a documentary that it’s more about his intimate life since there is more to tell about him than to confine him into the box of a person with autism. So, Chocolate Milk is going to be a transmedia project which has two platforms.
TVA: You and Jonathan work together, travel together, pitch, present in front of public project ideas. It’s amazing. But at the same time, how this action changed his personality?
Sonja: Because the project is about Jonathan, his life and personal experiences, he needed to be part of it, so that’s why we are co-creating it.
Jonathan and I became really good friends. I could see how much he grew because of these experiences we had together. We traveled several times. We were in Prague and Switzerland (in each place for a week), where he was accepted as equal. When we got back to his parents, they realized he is a new person because of all these experiences. I also learned a lot from him. We both influenced each other.
TVA: I remember this huge corridor. And it’s like a feeling of fear. I am interested in how you co-collaborate. Because the images you are suggesting, for example, express fear in this case, are very different from the visual expressions of fears that already exist in the DNA of artistic expressions. I want to ask you, how it really happened? Jonathan just verbalizes his feelings and says to you, yes I feel like I am on fire, or used other analogies? How did you know that your visual translation is exactly and truthful of his fear?
Sonja: It was a constant conversation. I never wanted to put any of my ideas and my understanding. I wanted everything to come from him, and in the end, he came up with all these ideas. I just kept asking question after question, kept pushing: “tell me how did you feel, make me feel the same like you, tell me visually, think about visuals that are going to make me feel the same way” till he came up with that concept. The good thing is that he understands that. Together, we identified the situations we want to work on, and then for each he came up with visuals. I asked questions and waited patiently for his answer, assuring him that we have all the time in the world because they get very nervous if they cannot immediately answer, which is stressful.
TVA: Indeed, that scene is very powerful, and even when I watched it without a headset, it kind of got scary…What impact do you expect to have?
Sonja: So, the video that you saw in our test scene will definitely be stronger in the final design because we wanted to focus on technology and breathing as our interactive element for the test. Related to the impact side…. We’re doing this project for people who are not on the spectrum, but for people who are directly related to someone on the spectrum such as parents, friends, teachers, so they can understand if something like that happened what the person is going through, how they might feel so you can help them. Our impact is focused on actually these surrounding of people without autism. They all have different experiences, but then having the approach to slowly calm them down and do something that makes them comfortable is helpful.
Sometimes even parents are struggling to understand their own kids in those situations, and sometimes the parents are just tired or annoyed in a moment when the kid is maybe screaming and when it just gets tense, so we would like to make sure that these people can understand the feelings of their loved once. I don’t know how it feels for those parents, but Jonathan’s parents helped a lot. We all work together, Jonathan, his father who wrote the script, and I, trying to combine something that can help and have an impact. The second group we have in mind are teachers, professors, even police officers, as well as the general public.
TVA: Many times, we were told to accept people with different abilities. We were playing this role of acceptance. But, accepting it, doesn’t mean to understand it.
Sonja: Exactly. I think VR is the perfect medium to understand it. The traditional media can make us cry or laugh. When you watch movies, you probably cried several times or laughed at something funny, all of us did. And we kind of can empathize, but it doesn’t really have that effect on us, until we feel and experience something. But when you’re placed in that situation of the other and that experience becomes your experience, it’s embedded in our body.
Our body remembers everything, our brain doesn’t remember every detail, but the body does. And I like what you said that accept doesn’t mean understanding. VR gives us the option of understanding that other that you haven’t been able to understand.
In case you want to stay up-to-date with the evolution of the project, you can check their Facebook page, HERE. And in case, you are looking for collaboration with the team, you can contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
TVA: . I am curious also why this title
Sonja: It’s a metaphor for Jonathan’s approach to life because he’s a 33-year-old adult who sees the world with simplicity and honesty as a kid. When I met him for the first time, he came with his father and ordered chocolate milk at lunch. And when he said chocolate milk, I got enthusiastic and recognized that is that’s the essence of his personality. He doesn’t care that he’s above 30 and adult person he stays honest to himself. People who are on the spectrum are sincere and will always tell you how it is. They will always do the way they want and feel, and there is nothing to hide or be ashamed of.
TVA: Tell us about the system in the US, I’m really curious because the US was always so business-oriented even in the cultural or creative industries field. But now I feel that they don’t understand it, or where it’s going, but they put in money just to see if it leads somewhere, like supporting some kind of experimental field.
Sonja: Here, in the US, everything is more business-oriented, so funders expected to earn a lot of money with VR and since this had not happened, many institutions that gave funding stopped doing that. Tribeca Film Institute was one of the first, they had the new media fund, which stopped funding two-three years ago, and now the Institute doesn’t even exist anymore. This is a common situation, the new media funding supported different types of projects, it started early on, they were supporting interactive web-based projects and installations in VR and AR. When they realized that there is no big return, there is no huge money bringing in, funding stopped. Other institutions followed. It’s all about business even in film, and the question is: “if I invest money, how much I’m going to get back”.
Since VR is still limited in terms of availability to larger audiences, usually, you have festivals to see, but also, there are limitations in terms of the number of people that can see it.
And the businesses are perceiving it, that they would fund a project that will be seen by, for example, 15 people? And that was the biggest problem, the business model did not work. VR is still expensive, it takes time, and then the effect is limited, so most of the VR funding disappeared.
I think that the US jumped on this first, and then they kind of got lost. Europe was a bit behind but having a better model. They’re funding the VR projects, have distribution models, different markets where they’re going to present and pitch projects, workshops, and so on. There is a need for it, because I also teach and see students and new generations who are into the new media. This is their normal way and approach to storytelling and technology because they grew up with the technology.
TVA: So, what do you think it’s missing? What do you need? More festivals, or we would need other distribution channels, or we would need not a business model but maybe another funding model or…?
Sonja: Funding, definitely a funding model that would work from within this XR field, not only VR
The funding model that would help creators get funded to be able to go from pre-production to production, to be able to finish projects. The festivals are there and we have possibilities in places to showcase work. In terms of distribution channels, there are platforms, apps and places where people place their project, so it’s more available not only if you have headsets. And some people don’t like to put on a headset, they just move their phone 360.
TVA: Considering that everybody is kind of a baby in this VR field, what would you recommend in terms of books?
Sonja: My transmedia recommendations would be: “Independent Filmmaking and Digital Convergence” by Vladan Nikolic. That’s one of the books, there are some others as well, but I like this one because it connects independent filmmaking with the new media. It’s more related to us. Because in the US, there is the Hollywood side and then the independent filmmaking and documentaries, and the book wonderfully connects it all with the transmedia storytelling.
TVA: And any other advice for someone new in this field, course, classes, workshops?
Sonja: Universities here in the US, they do have classes, but it’s very expensive. The University of Southern California has programs, for example. I teach at the New School and I would recommend that. But, I learned a lot through workshops in Europe. It’s one thing when you’re teaching, but when you’re working on your project, you need someone to work with, another set of eyes to guide you. Besides, it’s one thing when you learn in school, but there is a lot that happens when you’re at events, because your network, you connect, you find collaborators.
It is usually very creative time and the time when you focus on your project during those events. I definitely recommend looking at all markets and places where people can present. There are things that you cannot learn in school, but you can learn by networking, connecting and communicating with different people from different regions, different backgrounds.