Raqi Syed: “Don’t be precious about your ideas”

In terms of the content of Minimum Mass, I believe we need more dialogue and open discussion about infertility and we need to include all genders in that discussion. Moreover, we should consider health, politics, and reproductive justice as part of the conversation around fertility. Access to affordable health care, mental health care, and fertility […]

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In terms of the content of Minimum Mass, I believe we need more dialogue and open discussion about infertility and we need to include all genders in that discussion. Moreover, we should consider health, politics, and reproductive justice as part of the conversation around fertility. Access to affordable health care, mental health care, and fertility treatments remains limited or inaccessible for many women. We must address these barriers if we are to have an honest discussion about fertility

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Raqi Syed.

Raqi Syed began her career in feature animation as a Lighting Artist for Disney Feature Animation on films such as Meet the Robinsons and Tangled. She then went on to work as a Senior Technical Director with Weta Digital on Avatar, The Planet of the Apes films, and The Hobbit Trilogy. In 2016 The Los Angeles Times pegged Raqi for its list of 100 Industry professionals who can help fix Hollywood’s Diversity Problem. She has been selected as a 2018 Sundance New Frontier Story Lab Fellow and Turner Fellow, and a 2020 Ucross Fellow. Her XR research is supported by the New Zealand Film Commission, CNC France, and an Epic Megagrant.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I started making animated films when I was 12 and then went on to study film theory and animation in university. After that I worked as a visual effects artist on big budget feature films before leaving the studio system to focus on my own research and art. Because I had these computer graphics art skills, and because film school inceptioned the idea into me that I should really be telling my own stories, virtual reality felt like a natural medium to push further into in terms of how three dimensional applications can explore immersion and storytelling.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

On Minimum Mass we captured our performers using motion capture technology that is that common to feature filmmaking. In this way the performances are quite traditional — we worked with and relied on our actors to bring depth and emotion to our characters. However, we had the added layer of the miniature diorama scale of our sets in virtual reality, which allowed us to approach individual scenes like theatre. The edge of each environment functions like a proscenium, allowing our actors to achieve an intimate relationship with the VR participant through proximity and scale.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

We just finished Minimum Mass, a VR film about a couple who experience a series of miscarriages and come to believe their children are being born in another dimension. It was Co-Written and Directed with Areito Echevarria and comes out of our own personal experiences.

I believe interesting things happen through unexpected collision and juxtaposition. Minimum Mass is of course a very personal story grounded in realism, but we wanted to open it up to a wider audience by introducing the speculative sci-fi element of black holes.

[In terms of my role at Victoria University of Wellington], it’s about the next generation of filmmakers who will be addressing the convergence of technologies and industries. So while some of our students will work in the feature film visual effects studio system that created films like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, many will also go to game and immersive studios. Others will choose to work as independent artists and use the same tools and skills to tell their own stories. What’s great is that the Technical Artist skills set that we teach can be used across industries and art applications in the service of all kinds of mediums and storytelling experiences.

My next project focuses more closely on digital humans. With the current state-of-play with technology, digital humans are expensive and very bespoke. Think, Paul Walker in FAST AND FURIOUS 7 or Doug Roble’s DIGI DOUG TED Talk. One of the questions that comes up a lot around the use of digital humans in cinematic, immersive, and even enterprise applications is, what are digital humans good for? I really believe the question we should be asking is, who gets to be a digital human? What kind of privilege is embedded into the technology at the level of the pixel? And what would it mean for an unknown person of color to give voice to a high resolution photorealistic digital human?

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

When I was in film school the history of cinema that most deeply resonated with me was the French New Wave. It wasn’t just because the French New Wave films have come to stand for an almost untouchable level of cool that Hollywood cinema has been chasing since the 1960s, but because of who the French New Wave filmmakers were. They were film theorists and historians who loved classical cinema but knew that something new, both in form and content, needed to happen in order to speak to their zeitgeist. So they became filmmakers but at heart they were theorists and conceptual thinkers. They were critics. This was and still is a radical idea.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I believe cinema has the capacity to address social change. But cinema is most powerful when it delivers the message through narrative and unique collisions of genre. For example, a film like Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele) addresses race and the horror of America’s inability to reckon with its past by interpreting suspense, the uncanny, and horror in new ways.

In some ways I consider this “skin in the game.” You have to make yourself vulnerable and expose your emotional core in order to tell a personal and authentic story. But I do think caution and self-care is important. Living with the dark matter of personal stories and then sharing those experiences with collaborators, partners, and audiences day in and out for the duration of a long form project can be very taxing. It’s worth finding ways to stay resilient and weaving these strategies into the production schedule and shelf life of the project.

In terms of the content of Minimum Mass, I believe we need more dialogue and open discussion about infertility and we need to include all genders in that discussion. Moreover, we should consider health, politics, and reproductive justice as part of the conversation around fertility. Access to affordable health care, mental health care, and fertility treatments remains limited or inaccessible for many women. We must address these barriers if we are to have an honest discussion about fertility.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Ithink the aha moment was more of a slow burn than a singular realization. A lot of my favorite sci-fi and horror films revolve around body horror moments. But these moments are usually led by the male gaze. Like Brian De Palma’s Carrie or Sisters, David Cronenberg’s The Fly Ridley Scott’s Alien. I wondered, what would body horror explored from a woman’s perspective look like? That thought, along with the experience of miscarriage finally allowed me to address this question.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Since Minimum Mass has only started it’s exhibition rollout, I can’t really answer this question. In fact, part of the difficulty of virtual festivals is that we aren’t on the ground, we aren’t having conversations with our audience.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

The process of making Minimum Mass has made me realize first hand, the value of funding both public and private, for independent art. It’s been really encouraging to see the number of institutions that have gotten behind this project because they believe a story of miscarriage will find an audience. Given resources and time, artists are really good at building the communities that tap into diverse audiences. Three things I’d like to see those in a position to do so do more of is 1: actively reach out to BIPOC artists for funding opportunities, 2: create pipelines that keep those artists employed and able to advance, and 3: open up exhibition and distribution avenues for independent and experimental narratives.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Maintain a sustained personal art practice: Someone did tell me this. In fact, it was the first piece of advice one of my professors gave me as I was leaving art school. And it’s not so much that I willfully didn’t heed this advice, I just didn’t know how to balance a personal art practice with a professional studio career. But I wish I had. By the time it became obvious to me that that’s what I should be doing, I had been in the industry almost 10 years and I had to start from scratch. Of course many of the things I learned in art school came back to me, but there were a couple years of dread and fear that could have been avoided if I found ways to maintain an art practice earlier.
  2. Don’t be precious about your ideas: No one told me this directly, but this one does float around. It’s kind of a cliché, but the sooner I was able to accept that most of my ideas are bad and I should quickly abandon them, the freer I became to get to the good stuff. I think this is related to the above point because if you’re regularly working on stuff you have a large catalogue and one little idea no longer feels that consequential or important.
  3. Learn about the business side of art: One of the best and most privileged aspects of art school is that you’re just there to make art. It’s indulgent in a way that is necessary to become good. But the reality is that artists need to get funding and distribution and that requires a certain business mindset.
  4. Networking is peer-to-peer: Whenever I go to festival or art events I get that sense that I’m supposed to be setting up meetings with important people and organizations who can help me make my art. There’s a lot of anxiety around this because it feels like a hustle. But what also happens is that at these same events the most enjoyable moments are when I meet other artists and we casually talk about our work and exchange ideas. These are usually the moments that lead in unexpected and roundabout ways to funding and partnerships.
  5. The personal is political: Again, a lot of people told me this. I read about this a lot as well, but I never understood how I could make use of it until I realized that it requires taking a risk. You have to essentially expose yourself in order to speak meaningfully in a political way.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would ask them to read bell hooks and consider the idea that “the personal is political.” If we begin with our own personal experiences, and are willing to be vulnerable by sharing the emotions of those experiences then that forms an authentic core for storytelling. Often we want to tell big mythical stories that we believe are universal — but myth and universality are actually the secondary component to stories that resonate with us on an emotional level. It’s usually characters who are driven by really specific sometimes even idiosyncratic concerns that most appeal to us. And that specificity arises out of the artist’s unique personal experience.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

When I was in grad school, the album Moon Safari by the French electronic duo, Air was the soundtrack to my life. It was also heavily on rotation almost everywhere I went from downtown Los Angeles to Joshua Tree to Big Sur — it sort of haunted me. Air’s albums have always had beautiful, playful graphic design, but I’ve always felt the accompanying visuals could be computer generated animations. It would be cool to figure out what the amorphous languid VFX equivalent of their particular sound might be.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are a lot of different ways of looking at the making of personal art. It’s skill building, it’s generating intellectual property, and most importantly, it satisfies the need most artists have of putting effort into creating something that you actually own and have control over. I’m paraphrasing here, but I once heard Dolly Parton say, my songs are my children and they will take care of me. This has always stayed with me because it’s another way of saying that art and storytelling is a long-term investment that pays off in unexpected and important ways.

How can our readers follow you online?

Minimum Mass:
Victoria University of Wellington:

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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