culture

W+K Film Series: Ayesha Nadarajah

W+K Film Series in partnership with On She Goes hosted Ayesha Nadarajah, co-director of the Emmy-nominated VR documentary, Traveling While Black.

+PDXAugust 8th 2019

Ayesha’s Q&A was moderated by Wieden+Kennedy producer, Serita Wesley.

Check out their conversation below.

Serita: How did the initial idea for this film come along? We know the subject matter is almost never ending, and there are so many people to interview and so many things to explore. What kicked this off?

Eight years ago at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C., situated directly next door to Ben’s Chili Bowl, our executive producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz produced the play The Green Book. The production featured civil rights leader Julian Bond and was the first time that the subject of the Green Book was explored in recent years. Upon release of The Green Book play, Bonnie realized that they needed to continue the conversation around this survival guide, and subsequently reached out to Roger Ross Williams.

Unlike today, no one was talking about the Green Book eight years ago. Few people remembered this important piece of history, so there was a sense of urgency to continue to share this story. Through years of financing and development hurdles, the project transformed into the project that it is today. Even though the last Green Books were published in 1966, this story carries so much importance and is still very relevant, so the urgency to make this project never went away.

__Serita: The decision to do this documentary in VR, how did that come to be? It’s so fascinating to have a documentary not be narrated, but come from the people who lived through it. __

Ayesha: Roger Ross Williams, the director of the film, and Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, our executive producer, have been working on this project for over seven years. I have been on the project for five years now. Traveling While Black went through many ideas and iterations—from a feature-length documentary to a game to a museum exhibit and finally a VR documentary.

A veteran in the documentary industry, Roger decided to try out something that, at the time, was being referred to as “new media” to find a new and innovative way to share this story. After experimenting with several VR styles, we were finally introduced to the work of Felix & Paul Studios—specifically, their VR film The People’s House, a tour of the White House hosted by the Obamas. We instantly knew that they were the right team to help us tell this story and that the experience of VR and its immersive quality had the potential to give the viewer a more intimate experience that a documentary is not able to do. Unlike traditional film, the subject can speak directly to the viewer and invite them into a shared experience without the distraction of a frame, whether that be a TV screen or a computer screen.

Serita: The interview with Tamir Rice's mom was so impactful. How was she originally feeling about sharing her story?

Ayesha: When I first contacted Ms. Rice, much to my surprise, she was interested in sharing her personal story with the world. I had not seen much about her online and very little press and interviews in recent years.

When I first spoke to her, she explained that we were one of the first groups to contact her about sharing her story. I was shocked. I then asked her who she would like to get a coffee with and spend an afternoon chatting with, and she requested that we invite her friend Amanda. Making our subjects feel comfortable and giving them a safe space to share their experiences was the most important thing for us. What you see in the final film is a small excerpt from a longer conversation between Ms. Rice and her friend Amanda.

__Serita: How different was it making a VR documentary versus your standard film doc? Was the process different starting from the beginning? __

Ayesha: Lucky for Roger and I, we had incredible collaborators in Felix & Paul Studios to guide us through the VR filmmaking process and give us the tools and guidebook necessary to succeed. There were two major differences that come to mind for me when thinking about the differences between VR and traditional documentary:

First, you are placing a camera in a place that will not only capture the frame in front of you, but will capture everything in the space. This forces you to be much more conscious of the bigger picture.

Second, with VR you are not able to use “sound bites”; you have to find continuous pieces of content, 1–2 minutes long, where your subjects are engaged, the background is compelling, and the conversation moves. This is something that we really discovered in the edit. This forced us to get creative with transitions and editing. Some of our favorite moments were born out of something that we initially viewed as a limitation.

MORE ABOUT W+K FILM SERIES

W+K Film Series was founded and is curated by Head of Production, Matt Hunnicutt. The series invites writers, directors, and others to share their stories through private, pre-release screenings at a local theater with the goal of enriching W+K’s creative culture and exploring future opportunities to collaborate on commercial projects.

The events are a collaboration between the W+K production department’s industry partners and the talent they’ve discovered. The goal is to expose these artists to the agency as a source of inspiration, as well as introduce more diverse directors into the branded content space.

The director Q&A’s immediately following each screening feature a unique, hand-picked moderator from within W+K’s walls.

Screening highlights have included exclusive, pre-release events and Q&A’s featuring a cross-section of directors and films including from year’s past: Birdman, The Rider, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, The Sentence, Half the Picture, Icarus, Gleason, The Big Sick, The Revenant, Lemon, LA92, and many more.