Q&A: Filmmaker Sam Dunn On His Virtual Reality Wacken Film

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Canadian filmmaker Sam Dunn has been making documentaries since the early 00s when his semi-autobiographical film Metal: A Headbangers Journey earned praise from both metal fans and casual viewers. He's since turned his studio Banger Films into a virtual content factory and helmed several films, including a well-received Iron Maiden tour documentary. Dunn's latest project might be his most ambitious: filming a documentary on the Wacken metal fest entirely in virtual reality so that viewers feel like they are at the event when they are just idling in a theater. Dunn talked to us about Welcome To Wacken, which had its world premiere in early May, and why he might be forever remembered for his interview with Gaahl. Repeat after me...Satan

When you say this is filmed in virtual reality what does that mean? What is the experience like?

We are still in the experimental phase of figuring out how to use this technology to tell great stories. Basically, this is a documentary shot on a tripod that has several cameras in a rig.  So you can shoot a complete 360-degree image. You put on a VR headset and headphones and you are immersed in the world of Wacken. Our documentary is intended to make you feel as close as you possibly can to being there without having your feet in the mud. You get to experience the eyes of Wacken through the metal fans, like a couple from New Zealand who have never been before and saved up for it. On the opposite site is a guy from Northern Germany who literally lives down the road from Wacken and has been there for eight or nine years. 

How is this different from certain things people are accustomed to like 3D or IMAX?

It feels like you are physically standing at Wacken. You are sitting in a swivel chair with the headphones and headset on and you are able to turn around 360 degrees and back again. It creates the sensation of being on the ground. So there’s a big difference from 3D and IMAX. Another cool element is the way you can use sound. We created a soundscape where you hear Slayer on a boom box in one direction and someone trudging through mud behind you. And off in the distance, you hear the rumble of the stage. You are able to use the sound to feel like you are there.

This is almost more like a virtual ride you would get at a place like Universal Studios than a film.

Well, we do tell four stories of four different fans. But the purpose of the stories is to make you feel like you are there.

Have you seen The Kentucky Fried Movie? Why am I thinking of the scene where they have the Feel–O-Rama and a guy is beating a person up in their movie seat?

(Laughs). I haven’t seen it. But our hope is that both metal fans and curious onlookers will check this out. What excited us about this film is that no one has done anything like this. No one has filmed a musical festival in virtual reality. When we set out to make a documentary there are decades of examples to draw on for inspiration. But when it comes to virtual reality it feels like starting from scratch. I don’t think we’re trying to replace documentaries. I think it’s just a different tool. We thought that since we have this opportunity what is the best way to do it? And it seemed that telling this story using fans and taking people on the ground was the best way to do it, not by talking to bands or ‘metal experts.’

It’s interesting you mentioned experts. There’s so much discussion about what metal means these days but you can’t understand the music unless you feel it.

I understand that completely. With A Headbanger’s Journey, the takeaway was sort of if you feel it, fantastic.  If not, we are doing fine without you. A smart person said once that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The film medium will never replace the visceral feeling you get from listening to music. And we’d never pretend to try. We do the best we can to relay the feeling of the music.

What kind of cost of equipment restrictions will there be to seeing the film? Will you be able to screen a version not on virtual reality?

It’s much more costly to film in VR. Any band member will tell you they want you to listen to their album on the best possible equipment. For us, obviously, the Oculus Rift is the top of the line viewing format. But it would be viewable on a flat screen on YouTube. You will toggle around and get a 360 view. There are definitely different ways to experience it and that will expand as we move on. Most people I know don’t own a VR headset. We hope as many people as possible will see it as intended.

Wacken has been a perennial in your life as a filmmaker dating back to A Headbanger's Journey. Why does it continue to inspire you?

That’s a good question. I’ve been to other great metal festivals like Hellfest. What sets Wacken apart is just the size and the history. It truly feels like you’ve transported to another planet. The way it’s set up with stages and everything else going on - it’s almost like you are there just as much to be in that environment as watch the music.  I think I’m fascinated by it because of my background in anthropology. It’s about far more than the bands on stage for three days. It’s a place where people go for togetherness that they don’t get in their daily lives.

Do you still hear from people about your infamous Gaahl ‘Satan’ interview?

(laughs). Almost daily.  That clip was from 2004 and it’s like nothing has happened since then.  People want to talk to me about that or the Necrobutcher interview. It was just being in the right place at the right time. I’m actually proud that we were able to bring some humor into the film but not disrespect any metalheads in the process.

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