Adriana Vecchioli of Velvet Unicorn: “Speak up!”

Speak up! You know what’s more painful than expressing an uncomfortable truth? Silently putting up with it. This one is a hard one for me still as I tend to avoid conflicts, which I mitigate in doing what I can today that my future self would thank me later for. As a part of my series […]

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Speak up! You know what’s more painful than expressing an uncomfortable truth? Silently putting up with it. This one is a hard one for me still as I tend to avoid conflicts, which I mitigate in doing what I can today that my future self would thank me later for.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adriana Vecchioli.

Adriana Vecchioli is a French-Italian actress, filmmaker and AR/VR creator, living in Los Angeles.

She quit her software job to follow her passion for filmmaking. Since then, Adriana Vecchioli designed and engineered immersive experiences for the likes of: Warner Bros., Viacom, The Hunger Games, NBA, Coachella and Snapchat.

Layered female protagonists, dark humor and immersive storytelling are the staples of her cinematic language. Her short film ‘How Far’, which she wrote, starred in and produced, is currently in the festival circuit.

Adriana then produced and starred in the viral comedy series ’Shoot Your Shot’, written and directed by Tanyaradzwa Fear (‘Doctor Who’). Adriana is the lead in ‘Portals’, an independent sci-fi feature film currently in post-production. She is developing her first feature film ‘Mermaids’, a psychedelic horror story on consent and female desire.

Adriana Vecchioli’s work has been exhibited in Paris and Los Angeles. She speaks 5 languages.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

Sure! I’m Adriana Vecchioli, a French-Italian artist, filmmaker and XR designer, living in Los Angeles.

I was born in Paris, raised in a rather traditionalist culture. I became a dutiful science student, following a long line of engineers. Well, that was in the daytime, because at night, I was an actress… You could find me performing on the stage of Paris’ Théâtre Bobino or training at Cours Florent on evenings and weekends.

After a challenging year, I paused acting at 16 to focus on math and science… the break lasted a decade. Fast forward to 2016, working as an engineer in London, I was pretty successful at it and yet, it didn’t feel quite right.

So I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Brazil.

I then spent 2 years as a ‘digital nomad’, roaming in Latin America, while remotely consulting for tech companies. I delved into VR and got a growing interest in filmmaking. That’s when it clicked and I finally reconnected with the arts.

Today, I’m an artist using several media to express myself: acting, filmmaking… and of course, XR design! I am proud of my path, blending software magic with artistry. I am making movies and designing immersive experiences for the likes of: Warner Bros., Viacom, NBA, Coachella and Snapchat. Technology empowers me to create new tools to bring stories to life.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

‘Edward Scissorhands’, directed by Tim Burton, left a lasting mark on me, growing up. I watched this movie when I was a little too old to be a child, too young for the world I lived in, never quite fitting in. I was first intrigued by its mix of pastel pop with gothic aesthetics, before the characters’ rich emotional universes pulled me into the story.

Edward is a gentle and sensitive artificial being, whose recluse creator dies before finishing to assemble his hands. Despite his frightening appearance and the cruelty of the outside world, Edward finds a loving family who accepts him as he is and nurtures his artistic talents. The ending is bittersweet; Edward is cast away but never forgotten by the ones who love him. This film resonates with me as it shows there’s beauty in being different.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

Oh yes, it was in 2014 and I was attending a Game of Thrones exhibit. Facebook hadn’t acquired Oculus yet — VR was still little known outside of nerd zones. The event culminated with a virtual trip in the elevator taking Jon Snow atop The Wall — and a surprise freefall. With a (pixelated) Oculus Rift DK1 strapped to my face and headphones blocking the real world, it only took 90 seconds to take me out of my reality.

I took the VR headset off. My clothes were ruffled, my hair disheveled, my mind blown. This was my first VR experience — it was madness. I got a taste of what entertainment would look like in the future.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

I believe XR is a revolution in entertainment, as radical as the shift from analog to digital. Just last year, for the launch of The Hunger Games’ prequel; The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, I designed an AR experience that transforms the book cover into a portal towards the city of Panem. It inspired fans all around the world to edit screen recordings of this experience. For instance, some readers used nifty transitions and props, blending digital and practical effects, which they shared on social media.

As I was watching these videos, I had my eureka moment: AR brings VFX straight to the camera, which opens infinite possibilities to marry post with production and open the medium. Actors and performers interacting with the visual effects and coming up with new storytelling ideas, on the spot. We’ve seen prolific creators on TikTok and Instagram making mini-films using a variety of effects; different face filters to represent different characters or green screens and 360 videos to replace diverse locations.

We pushed this idea further when Tanyaradzwa Fear wrote, directed and starred in the viral comedy series ‘Shoot Your Shot’, a romantic comedy exploring pandemic era love. I stepped in to produce her project and used AR filters to enhance the cast’ performances, all recording remotely.

Therefore, even though COVID-19 has disrupted the movie industry, filmmakers can still thrive in the post-pandemic world. I am inspired by visionaries like John Favreau who leveraged VR technology to shoot The Lion King and The Mandalorian, such as the use of headsets to block his shots and 8K video backdrops.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of my very first professional experiences was in marketing at the NYC HQ of luxury house Hermès. The VP of Finance was showing a very serious presentation on quarterly earnings (or something in that vein) and asked at the end if there was any question in the audience. Back then I thought that “BS” stood for “Business School”. Anyway, I don’t remember my exact words but I practically said that I found his presentation “BS”, in front of the whole company. I was an intern. Communication is an-going challenge when moving between different worlds.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Only one person? It takes a village! I am fostering and nurturing a community of loving, creative souls. We continuously support one another.

To name just one, it would be Tanyaradzwa Fear. Tanyaradzwa is an actress, filmmaker and writer. She has been playing a critical role in my artistic journey. She’s constantly seeking to speak with truth and empowering others to do the same.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My directorial debut is comin’ in hot! Well, literally, since “COMIN’ IN HOT” is the title of my next film. We’re in pre-production and we’re about to launch an ambitious crowdfunding campaign to fund it..

This is a singular story about a young and introverted woman, running away from her marriage, who crosses into the desert… to surrender to her secret splashy obsession.

Women do not belong only in front of the camera; our stories matter. I’m hoping it will inspire young women to achieve whatever they set their minds to.

Additionally, most people feel weird about themselves, it is paradoxical that this feeling is commonly shared. This film will be an invitation to embrace our free nature and be our odd silly selves.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

I cannot wait for future generations of hardware that gracefully fit the human body. Look at us, slouching behind screens and letting algorithms make decision for us. It’s high time to remember that technology is meant to serve us and not the other way around. Rather than adapt ourselves to the devices (huddling in packed offices behind monitors, close to power outlets), I’d love to see these devices disappear into our lives (untethered, truly wearable and not obstructing the view). The pandemic might accelerate these changes, proving how unsustainable our lifestyle and use of technology are.

Then I’m looking forward to discovering new forms of entertainment at the intersection of interactive and cinematic storytelling. That is, the interactivity of video games, coupled with the emotional power of movies. Netflix’s “Bandersnatch” was a taste of it and VR is poised to offer many more trail-blazing experiences.

And finally, an on-going process of lowering barriers to entry for storytellers. Just smartphones democratized photography and filmmaking, the same is happening with mobile AR and 360 videos. Anyone can be empowered to craft and tell their stories.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

First, not enough attention is put on hardware to fit most humans. Heavy headsets, clunky devices, standardized sizes. Not enough care is put into hardware design for disabled people or comfort. For instance, when I moved to the US, my accent was pretty thick and Siri or Alexa would not understand my commands. Plenty of XR experiences rely on voice-activated commands and this is the type of issue that many product designers would disregard as an edge case. Everyone deviates from the norm, one way or another, and this should be the consensus.

Access is another issue I’m concerned about: high-speed connection, room-scale equipment, just to name a few, are expensive and hard to access for many around the globe.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

There are tremendous opportunities in education as well! Learning by doing. Flight simulators are ancestors of virtual reality, after all. VR and MR are also used in the healthcare sector to train new surgeons and practice performing critical procedures.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

Oh the possibilities are endless! I’m staying focused on entertainment and storytelling, both being my passions.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Pay women. Plain and simple. Plenty of STEM companies plaster their flyers with pretty women smiling and do not put their money where their mouths are. For instance, they create mentorship programs with no intention to hire women, BIPOC or LGBTQ folks in positions of leadership. Frankly, this is insulting as it perpetuates the idea that women need to constantly better themselves to reach professional levels.

To quote Cindy Gallop: “don’t use words for women like ‘empower’ and ‘celebrate’. Use words like ‘hire’, ‘promote’, ‘pay’, ‘raise’, ‘bonus’, ‘invest’, ‘fund’, ‘enrich’ — and DO IT. Leaders, ask for that employee pay spreadsheet, find the women, raise their pay to the same as men’s”.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

It’s a myth that you need a prestigious degree or studying a field for 4 years to get a decent job. This industry evolves so quickly that, by the time you graduate, your classes will be outdated. The right curriculum may not exist yet. Hands-on experimentation is the key to sky-rocket in your career.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Let me preface that I rarely know what to say when I’m asked something “as a woman”. I never lived as a man. Instead, here are five leadership lessons I learned as Adriana Vecchioli.

First, speak up! You know what’s more painful than expressing an uncomfortable truth? Silently putting up with it. This one is a hard one for me still as I tend to avoid conflicts, which I mitigate in doing what I can today that my future self would thank me later for.

Second, learn to set boundaries and enforce them. What you say no to, defines what you can say yes to and make room for it. For instance, accepting “just okay” projects, for fear of not getting work, does not leave any bandwidth to jump into “hell yeah” dream projects.

Third, don’t avoid the hard things. The only way is through. This is how we learn and level up for bigger things.

Fourth, take responsibility. Mistakes happen all the time, some yield more consequences that others but they can become teachable moments. Sometimes it isn’t fair. It doesn’t matter: own it. I felt restless in my life a few years ago ; some unpleasant events seemed to keep repeating themselves. Then I realized I was stuck in a state of victimhood, waiting for an external rescue, which didn’t allow me to take ownership of the situation and change it. Now I remember that the wound may not be my fault, but healing is always my responsibility.

And finally, have fun! Fun is your heart’s way of telling you something’s right for you. Doing what lights you up ensures you stay inspired and passionate. This is how you find what medicine you were destined to bring to the world and inspire others in turn. And that’s how you do your finest work — so having fun is actually a killer productivity tip!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Thank you for your kind words. A close friend once said they saw me as “an artist who creates art that creates artists”. It touched me, and that would be my movement: all of us have a spark that can brighten up the world and deserve to express it.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Céline Sciamma, the writer and director of the movie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. I’m extremely inspired by the uniqueness of Céline Sciamma’s voice in her art, her sensitivity and the subtlety of her work. Every single frame and detail feel intentional.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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