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Spotlight: An Interview with Walter Schönenbröcher ("Artists Up Close")

Walter Schönenbröcher is filmmaker and producer, who specializes in VR projects. Based in Germany, Walter produces with his company WHITESTAG several virtual reality film series and short films using stereoscopic 360 ° film technology. Among them is also the cinematic continuation of his contemporary historical documentary HANDwerk with which he received the insta360 Award in 2018 and 2019 nominations at international film festivals such as Nashville Film Festival, and FIVARS.

Since 2018 Walter Schönenbröcher has also been producing a virtual reality film series "Artists Up Close", in which he portrays art prize winners on film. Among them are well-known artists such as Günther Rechn, Matthias Körner, Kani Alavi, Hans-Georg Wagner, Chris Hinze, Jörg Engelhardt, Rita Grafe u.a.

Recently, Artists Up Close won Best Virtual Reality award at LAFA (April 2020). We invited Walter to join us for an interview.

What was the first piece of filming/photography gear you owned?

My first camera was a Polaroid instant camera in 1976 with which I took my first photographic steps. Today I still like to take pictures with a Polaroid camera, because it simply takes real pictures.

When did you form your production company, WHITESTAG, and what does the company focus on?

WHITESTAG was founded in 2017. Our focus is on the production of interactive 360° 3D Virtual Reality films for companies. But also feature film productions are realized at WHITESTAG. Also, a portal is currently being created which will virtually depict the region in which I live, to carry everything that surrounds us here into the world, and to be able to experience it immersively from any place in the world.

What sparked your interest in producing Virtual Reality, and how did you go about it? How did you first come up with this truly fascinating concept for Artists Up Close? What were you inspired by?

Virtual Reality is for me the film production of the future. In the event sector but also in marketing. Through this technology, a visual event becomes a much more intense experience than when we look at a screen. The viewer is right in the middle and emotionally more involved. The possibilities of experiencing virtual worlds and real worlds that are depicted virtually are many times greater. The reactions of the viewers simply show that with this technology we can get very close to real experience and feeling and this opens up a market for the most diverse industries.

As a photographer, I started to take pictures of old and rare crafts and to depict them in my artistic way as black and white photography. Later I filmed the craftsmen with the 360° technique to give a more intensive insight into areas that a normal person can rarely penetrate. With these first film shots, another field opened up. That of artists whose works can be admired everywhere, but which, if you are not friends with them like I am, you can never experience in their creative process. So the idea was born to accompany the working methods of various artists in my home country on film and thus to bring their work to the public in a new way and thus also to awaken a new understanding of this work. But also to simply give insights into previously closed rooms.

The project features some of Germany's most interesting painters, sculptors, ceramic & installation artists, such as Matthias Korner, Gunther Rechn, Kani Alavi, Rita Grade, Chris Hinze, Has-Georg Wagner, and Jorg Engelhardt. Why did you choose these particular artists, what was the filming process like and how long did it take to shoot everything?

Many of these artists are art award winners. The interest in their art in our region is very high and this was a good basis to let the audience participate even more in the work of the artists with interesting insights in the form of the 360° films and also to further develop the awareness for art and its creation. Unknown artists are of course brought more into the public and at exhibitions and in galleries these films are a great addition to the works of art that contribute to the understanding of art or simply to arouse interest in the artist.

I am friends with some artists and as a person interested in art and also as a small collector it was and is my desire to bring art as an important cultural asset to the perception of people. Over time, through the series but also new artists who are interested in the presentation of their artistic work and so my work continues and an extensive network with great connections and opportunities is formed.

The shooting process itself is always similar. I am on location with my camera, recording all the important scenes while the artist goes about his work. On average, it takes 7 days to shoot a sequence. 2 to 3 days of shooting in which I accompany the artist, about 3 - 4 hours to record the interview. Then I go to the post-production, where I review the filmed material, cut and join the film and the interview. For national use, the audio then goes back into translation, is re-recorded and added by an external speaker, so that in the end there are 2 films, one in the original language and one in English. Rendering is still a factor with this amount of data, which makes the work a time-consuming project, but that runs on the side.

What are the challenges of shooting a 3D project? Tell us about your experience with this series. Would you say shooting in 3D is more difficult than shooting in a regular series? If so, in what ways?

Is it more difficult to create VR movies? It is just different. For a VR film shooting everything has to be well prepared and clear in advance, because neither light, sound, scenery nor the scene itself can be corrected during the filming because in a 360° film everything that happens within the scene in a room can be seen.

Thus, when shooting a scene, the actors are also alone with themselves and everything must work without further instructions. For the artist series, this is certainly an advantage, because the artist can devote himself completely to his work or art without having to follow stage directions and therefore virtual reality is a very beneficial format for exactly this series.

One of the challenges in the production of feature films is that a scene must be at least 30 seconds long to be suitable for VR and that this scene must be shot without additional lighting and sound equipment and without changing the camera angle or setting. So everything in the room has to be planned exactly and also executed precisely.

For me as a director and cameraman, most of the work lies in the pre- and post-production.

You probably had dozens of hours of footage to edit. We think you landed in a pretty sweet spot, in terms of pace. How did you approach the editing? Do you normally edit your own materials?

I only work on my own materials. Everything I have created as VR film so far, I have conceptualized and realized in advance.

What message were you hoping to convey to the audience?

With this series, I would like to give an insight into the work that otherwise only takes place in secret. It should enable the audience to experience a process, to dive deeper into the creation and workings of art, and to experience more than what the artwork alone reveals. The interviews that I add to the pictures as an audio collage are also an opportunity to discover and understand the personality of the artist. Of course, only as far as the artist himself wants to.

If you could have dinner with any person in the visual media industry, who would that be and why?

Helmut Newton. He has been one of the most important photographers for me. More than others, he has managed to tell stories within his photographs.

That is also what I try to do with my VR films. To breathe life into a more or less static scene. This is what I worked out in my photos and can now apply it well in my VR films.

What can you tell us about your next VR project which you've written, titled The Egg? Have you started production yet?

The shooting for this project has not yet started, but the script is ready and the castings are already underway. It is a film about death, because unfortunately this is still a taboo subject in our society and I would like people to open up to it more and not only with fear but also with interest. One part of the film contains content from the book "The Egg" by the American bestselling author Andy Weir, who also wrote the Martian, and which was filmed in Hollywood with Matt Damon and Ridley Scott. I have received permission from Andy Weir to use and film his short story in my story.

Are there any other projects you're currently working on?

Yes, there are many projects. Among other things, as mentioned above, a portal that will portray our region virtually and make it an interactive experience. I am currently working with many companies and institutions of the city on the implementation to create a supra-regional image of my adopted home, Lusatia, and thus to build a scalable network. Also, we are currently developing Cottbus as the location for a Virtual Reality Academy to establish this medium and to develop various possibilities to integrate VR even more strongly into the market. And besides all visionary projects, I work for companies that want to include VR in their marketing strategy and create marketing concepts and solutions to present their products and services in a contemporary way, especially in difficult times like these, when you cannot travel without restrictions and demonstrate your messages directly from person to person.

Where can our readers follow your work?

Would you like to add anything or thank anyone?

I would like to thank the Los Angeles Film Awards team for honoring my series. I am delighted that it is now being carried out into the world in this way.

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