Producer Jamie Wong Brings Prison to Life with VR Film
Jamie Wong is a producer, writer and entrepreneur. She was formerly a producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where she helped the show win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Series two years in a row and an institutional Peabody Award. Jamie also researched and produced for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, PBS Frontline’s The Persuaders, American Experience’s Kinsey, ABC News and Sundance Channel digital and is currently writing a nonfiction book on Silicon Valley.
She is the founder and CEO of Vayable.com, a digital platform that creates experiential local stories from around the world. She holds a Master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. from Wesleyan University.
‘Left Behind’ is being released on the heels of Project Empathy’s first VR film, ‘The Letter’, a teaser for the series, written and directed by Wong, that previewed at the Democratic National Convention in July. ‘The Letter’ takes you into the home of Shaka Senghor, a man who served 19 years in prison, including seven years in solitary confinement, for second-degree murder and tells the story of redemption and second chances.
Where are you from and how did you get into show business?
I was born and raised in Berkeley, California where I grew up writing and performing in musical theater that inevitably delivered some left-leaning political message that was never subtle. My love for the arts continued in college where I studied history and filmmaking. Shortly after graduating I landed my first job as a researcher and production assistant for Michael Moore on Fahrenheit 9/11 as well as for a PBS Frontline documentary called The Persuaders.
I loved the art and craft of narrative documentary so much that I went to get my masters degree at Columbia Journalism School. After graduating in 2006, I spent six months writing a screenplay about how a controversial TV personality winds up becoming a presidential candidate (no joke!) and later took my dream job as a producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Describe your breakthrough moment.
Throughout my teens and twenties, I had always worked for other people. This was something I had always viewed as a huge privilege: to do meaningful work and take home a paycheck while learning from the best in the field. But just as I was approaching 30, something changed and I could no longer find the motivation or inspiration to spend my days executing against someone else’s vision.
I had worked with the most talented, brilliant and kind people, millions of people watched content I helped create, we won awards, and I had access to people and places I otherwise could have never had. But those were no longer the things I needed or craved. I had this vision that kept coming to me and I wanted to bring it to life; I had to bring it to life. So I left my dream job, I left New York and moved back to the Bay Area and began building my first startup, Vayable.
Why did you decide to venture into VR filmmaking and how has the process been different than traditional film and television production?
Over the years, as new developments in virtual reality began gaining traction, I took a huge interest in the medium as a powerful tool for creating stories and experiences that impact how people perceive the world, which has always been at the heart of my work. It also calls to my strengths and passions as someone who loves to create experiences that touch and influence people on a deep level. The potential that virtual reality has already shown to create empathy is so powerful and extends beyond what traditional film or television has ever been able to achieve.
Tell us about ‘Left Behind’ and why you wanted to use VR as the medium for your storytelling?
One of the greatest powers of virtual reality is that it transforms viewers into participants, which means we’re no longer telling a story, but creating an experience, which is exactly what we aimed to do from the onset. I had been in the business of storytelling (The Daily Show etc.), creating and curating unique experiences (Vayable) and most recently virtual reality (as a creator and producer on several projects prior to this one).
The idea for Project Empathy was to answer our question: what would be the most exciting way to use virtual reality right now? By allowing people to have experiences they never otherwise would, we begin to close the gap in understanding one another, and develop greater empathy. Left Behind is our first scripted piece. We wanted to use a scripted format because it would allow us to create the highest level of emotional honesty in a short 5 to 10-minute piece.
Fictionalized, scripted narratives based on real-life experiences traditionally are more effective in creating an emotional experience for a viewer because it can bring them into the story more, whereas documentary has a tendency to keep viewers on the periphery of the story. Producing Left Behind gave us an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with the best way to exploit that power within the practical constraints of virtual reality, (namely high production costs–about 10x that of a traditional video–coupled with technical limitations) and is unlike anything we’ve seen before and goes beyond what we can achieve in linear television, film or videos.
Not everyone has access to a VR headset. What is your plan in getting this film seen by the masses?
The best way we’re finding to get the films out is by tapping into strong community networks where we believe our audience exists. This includes leaders in the social justice space, schools, arts communities and virtual reality creators who are looking for fresh content and new uses for the hardware and software they develop and can help us distribute across their platforms.
The majority of people watching our content are using VR for the first time, so it’s important to us to make it a positive experience for them and expose new communities not typically thought of as “early adopters” to the tech and content, so the pioneering of VR is inherently inclusive at the onset. Live events are a big part of our plan, given how physical the experience itself is.
VR headsets can often induce negative side effects when worn for extended periods of time (i.e. headaches and nausea). How long is your film and how do you plan to counter the physical restrictions that could take away from your storytelling?
The biggest factor in whether or not people experience negative side effects is how the content is created. Camera movement, hyper-stimulation within the 360-degree sphere and that causes you to move your head quickly and often are what most commonly create nausea. I have as weak of a stomach as you can get, and from the onset of the development process we had the user experience in mind.
We haven’t heard of anyone becoming nauseous with our films, and that was very deliberate and by design. We may have sacrificed some sexiness in the content and special effects for it, but we prioritized keeping a broad audience comfortable over tricks that would make some sick.
Your production company focuses on hard-hitting issues. Why have you chosen to focus this film series on mass incarceration?
I saw a lot of the same people I’d seen in Silicon Valley working on the hard problems in VR, and as a result, a lot of the early content in VR has catered to a predictable and insular audience. If VR ends up being a dominant medium for disseminating information, communicating and sharing experiences — which I believe it will — then I wanted to make sure that I had a seat at the table. That women have a seat at the table. That people of color have a seat at the table and the voices, stories and perspectives of those typically “left behind” in early adoption of anything innovative and important, were not left behind this time.
Being immersed in a sad reality can take its toll. How do you remain positive on a daily basis?
My first job out of college was as a paralegal at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund in Lower Manhattan where day in and day out I was tasked with taking calls from incarcerated individuals who believed they were unjustly sentenced and needed legal representation, but couldn’t afford it. Their stories were full of so much pain, but also of hope. That year cemented my ambitions as a storyteller because of the hope that inevitably emerges when sharing stories of extreme hardship.
The same thing has kept me going with Project Empathy — by providing a space for people to share their stories, discover commonalities and differences and learn how others live, so much hope and light has emerged and the reward of feeling like we’re part of a solution has a way of transcending all the darkness. When you speak to people who have endured the worst physical and mental abuses in prison and came out on the other side, they all speak about the same thing: the light that shines when they are able to tell their stories and imagine a different ending than the one immediately available.
To learn more about Jamie Wong, “Left Behind” or Project Empathy, visit Vayable.com