Spotlight: Nyla Innuksuk on Perspective in Virtual Reality

Still from Bang Bang Baby

This is Worldtown’s new series features Indigenous media-makers exploring themes of identity, reconciliation, and resistance through visual storytelling mediums. This month, we feature Nyla Innuksuk.

Nyla Innuksuk is an Inuk Virtual Reality (VR) content creator, filmmaker and producer, based out of Toronto. She founded her company NKSK, a small tech start-up, in order to create immersive, interactive and cinematic content in new platforms such as 360, VR, and the ever growing Augmented Reality (AR) space. She previously co-founded Pinnguaq Productions, which focuses on video game and 360 production, as well as STEM education in Nunavut. When she is not working within other realities, she loves to watch films and continues to direct 2D films (flatties) and sits on the board of directors for the Glenn Gould Foundation.

How did you get started in the industry?

I was raised in a very creative household. I studied film and I started making documentaries and scripted content since I picked up a camera when I was a teenager.

I became really interested in VR / 360 stuff, and early on, someone asked me to produce a piece for them and I agreed, even though I hadn’t done it before.

After this first job, I tried to meet everyone I could in VR; understanding the community, getting a camera, shooting stuff, learning how to stitch. These were the early days, when everyone was on the same playing field and nobody really knew anything more than anyone else. So it didn’t matter that I came from film and not from video games. And nobody had seen this stuff, so I would put a headset on anyone that I came across. It was impossible to describe, so I had to stress meeting in person to show them. Because they had never seen anything like it, their minds were blown.

And maybe they didn’t become a client then, but a year later I would get a call. Timing was a big part of it; it was everything. There’s a saying: it doesn’t matter necessarily if you’re the best, but if you’re first. The thing about VR, 360 and AR is that the technology is changing so quickly that there’s always potential to be the first.

How would you define “virtual reality”?

I think VR is another creative platform to tell stories. For documentary, it’s really unique because you can really feel as if you are existing in a space and with people and it brings you closer to the subject matter.

I did a documentary called IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTAIN where we went very quickly after this diesel spill off the coast of BC in a community called Bella Bella, and my friend Zoe Hopkins was the director of that piece. We were able to focus just on her family’s experience. Of course we could have done it in 2D, but to be standing in the water and seeing oil at your feet is going to be much more impactful than just seeing it in 2D. To actually feel like you’ve got a seat at the table while they’re serving all this seafood that we don’t even know will exist in 10 years because of this diesel spill is that much more impactful in 360.

Still from Impossible to Contain (2017)

What’s your opinion on perspective in virtual reality storytelling?

For me, there’s sensitivity around every kind of content creation. I think minority voices interpret the world differently. Everybody interprets the world differently; women will interpret it differently than men and children experience it differently than adults.

I think when it comes to gaze, more so than traditional film, we need to be thinking about who is making this stuff. If there was a team of women following a refugee crisis and making an experience about that, even if they weren’t refugees themselves, they would have a different takeaway than a male team making that experience. So even that level of diversity is important. If you were able to work within a community and train people to use these tools, you’re going to get a totally unique perspective and you’re going to find different stories within the story.

I think a lot of projects within the Indigenous community are very reflective of things that have happened in the past. Our histories involved colonization and residential school systems and you see that a lot in our media that we create. So there’s a lot of documentaries, a lot of heavy dramas that exist within the Indigenous community and i think that’s partially because we feel we have this responsibility to tell these stories.

In VR, what I find is if you’re actually giving the marginalized voices the chance to make their own content, you’re probably not going to get a lot of heavy empathy content pieces coming out of them. Because if you’re from the community, you’re going to be seeing the people that are making a change in the community, you’re going to be seeing the resistance and that power within the community, not the things to be looking down upon. You’ll find, time and time again, stories of survival and perseverance and love and happiness and levity.

What is your vision of the future with the work that you’re creating?

I think there’s still a lot of room in finding out how to tell narrative stories within this new medium. There’s obviously limitations from the tech side of things, but also just coming up with new ways of telling the story. We’re stuck in using the same tools we use in traditional film, but I think these kinds of molds need to be broken, and that requires testing out, breaking things, putting them back together. It requires time and experience. That’s just innovation, that’s how it works. And I hope that’s something I never stop doing.

What’s next for you?

I’m in development of my first feature, it’s called Slashback. It’s about a group of girls in Nunavut that ride on their dirt bikes and chase down aliens and battle them. It’s going to be this fun adventure movie and I can’t wait.