Kirstin-Lee Grey: A journey into extended realities 

Kirstin Article

Kirstin-Lee Grey started her career in linear film, having worked and grown in the ranks of production since 2011 for both independent film and international studios. Since being introduced to virtual reality as a storytelling tool, she has helped to bring numerous immersive storytelling productions to life. This includes her first project under her own company, Different Immersive, which has been invited to VR Days in Amsterdam and the International Film Festival in Rotterdam.

She has played a role in growing the industry of immersive productions behind the scenes. She served as a cultural producer at Electric South, a position through which she made the 1st Electric Africa VR Festival possible and oversaw the 4th New Dimensions Lab. 

Having worked on projects for Amazon, Warner Bros, STARZ and more in her career, Grey worked as a production manager on Spinners – the 8-episode crime-drama about car-spinning culture set in the backdrop of Western Cape, now streaming on Showmax. She also produced Xabiso Vili’s Black Boi Meets Boogeyman – a 360° captured multiple choice poetic theatre performance and visual album. 

In August 2023, Grey spoke at IQOQO Sessions about her experiences in the creative sector, to share insights into what a profession in extended reality (XR) looks like and to inspire the next generation of storytellers and creators of immersive arts.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: The industry is in its infancy and, honestly, I don’t know if anyone locally has ever spoken candidly about this process, so I am sharing my journey in the hopes that it inspires you to get started on yours. 

It’s difficult to talk about XR in the creative context, especially in Africa where we face our own infrastructural and financial issues, and not feel like an absolute fraud. 

My journey starts in 2018 with an idea. 

I had been pondering an interesting way of telling an anthology of folk gore stories. A business partner at the time asked if I had heard of VR. I had not. But off I went to find the Wizard of Oz! 

I had, by some sheer luck, been at a film festival and had the honour of being introduced to a man I consider my brother to this day. Bryan Afande of Black Rhino Kenya is what one would call a VR evangelist. He not only validated my idea of using VR as a tool, he also convinced me that this was my new career path. He assured me that it was okay to leave my well-paying position in the film industry, led me to the cliff and said “jump!”

And boy did I jump! Right off the edge with no life jacket, kicking and screaming into the great unknown in the hopes that I would find a soft landing. Needless to say, the journey has been thrilling thus far. 

The XR industry is relatively young, globally, and is being shaped by those who are willing to play, experiment and take risks.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: Initially, the few of us in this space were cowboys and cowgirls charting undiscovered wilderness. It was like we were part of a secret society, not by choice really. I would get the most amazing blank stares from people not in the know. My mother’s favourite line was, “What do you do again?” 

In between the weirdness and uncertainty something amazing started happening, it was like I had opened the portal to another dimension. For the first time, I empathised with a blind man as I felt what it was like to be losing my eyesight, I free-fell down the Ponte Towers, I was delighted by a make-belief botanist in his underground garden, I travelled with locals along the Lake Victoria and learnt first hand about how the drought was devastating their livelihoods.

My heart broke as some of the mothers from Chibok whose daughters were kidnapped and never returned told me their stories. I peed myself with laughter escaping pesky wolves in the wall. I had been places I could only Imagine, or at least I think I had been?

This brings me to the first of my five key points. XR and, in this case, VR can never be fully comprehended in conversation, it has to be experienced first-hand. 

A burgeoning sector, but still underground, XR just needed a little nudge to make it into the mainstream.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: At that time, even though on the continent funding and resources were tighter than the top button on your jeans at Christmas, something else just did not feel quite right! People globally were finding their unique voice in this space every day, but African voices were a drop in the ocean. 

How could this be? I felt like this medium was made for us! Everyone knows that African stories often pull from oral tradition and this technology lends itself to this. The dots were connecting in our heads but not in practice. 

Fast forward a few years to 2021, we have managed to withstand what we thought was the worst of the pandemic – funding is trickling in for African stories to be told. Resources are being shared widely. We have been world-hopping the Metaverse religiously, to forget about pineapple beer, and BOOM – Facebook becomes Meta! Game changer! The stares dissipate and now it’s all eyes on XR. 

Thus began a new phase for XR creators, one that called on determination, doggedness and a little bit of grit.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: Amazing African stories are being told and sent to festivals all around the world and this brings me to my next point. 

With the technology at our fingertips, we are only bound by the depths of our imaginations. Our imaginations should be unbridled and whatever we can infer, times it by ten. 

I would equate this next phase as the best window shopping I’ve ever done. It’s like you can see what’s possible, but you can’t quite afford it. It was time to get scrappy! Many African creators, determined not to get left behind, started digging their heels in. The hard work was just beginning. 

I find that my community, my peers, and my fellow cowgirls and cowboys were all there helping to get each other to where we wanted to be.

And that brings me to point three: build your community, feed into your community, keep your community strong. 

As a filmmaker, being scrappy is not a foreign concept to me. 

New medium, same scrappy mentality! 

Each time I had been blessed to have an idea or be part of an idea would not be possible without the determination of the individuals running alongside me. For those of us who chose to stick it out, keeping the end in mind was crucial. 

What kind of voice were we creating? What kind of content did we want to put into the world? Did we want to continue to have ownership and agency over what we do? Did we want to do more than participate but instead carve out our own piece of the pie?

Kirstin-Lee Grey would go on to explore all of these questions further in the following year. 

Kirstin-Lee Grey: It’s now late 2022 and I have one project under the belt for the year, determined to get started on the next.  

But like a piece of potassium coming into contact with air and gravity, I marvellously crashed and burned. The road to any creation is arduous,  but in XR it is a rollercoaster not a road.

Fourth point: remember the headset may sometimes be tethered but you are not. Don’t be afraid to unplug. Go outside and breathe the fresh air. 

I breathed the air. I ate the food. I danced the dance. I drank the drinks. 

Feeling much more human afterwards and determined to get the ball rolling again, it was only natural that I circle back to the beginning. I had to revisit the initial idea and remember what the hell I was doing this for in the first place. 

Centred and with a renewed sense of purpose, Grey got back to work, and centred the consumer in the process.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: My fifth and final point: the audience is your co-creator, if you want to henceforth be in service of them, you have to appreciate their active participation. Active participants need access to participate. 

My vision for the African XR space is for it to be democratised here in South Africa and Africa as a whole, but also that we take our vision as African XR creators globally. 

Anyone who feels intrigued to engage with digital African art and stories should be able to walk off the street and into an XR touch point or all-purpose venue which houses the technology. 

The space should also be a playground where audiences can engage for a fraction of the price it would cost to own the hardware. 

A playground where our fine artists, storytellers, and anyone with valid ideas should be able to use the tools to create as well as bring it directly to audiences. In these venues, we combine all the elements of story, VR, AR, projection mapping, set design, sound, and sensory modes like touch, smell and temperature into one shared experience where the audience becomes part of the story. 

From one idea can spring an industry that not only provides ownership to its creators but that brings high skilled jobs to the economy and joy to consumers. It all starts with one idea.

But this is just my idea, what’s yours? What will you use this technology for? What will you will into existence?

Just like the tech itself, the possibilities of what one can do in the XR space are limitless.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: There are many different facets to it. I, myself, am a storyteller. So my entry point was through a producer, who had also used it as a tool. 

Other people are technologists and they’re highly specialised. My advice would be to seek people who are the opposite of you. If your intention is to tell stories then you’re a storyteller, seek technologists. We have to start communicating, and I think once people start getting comfortable with that, they will start bringing more ideas to life. 

I cannot do what I do without technologists. I would just be another producer with an idea Without my fellow creatives, I’m absolutely nothing. 

The way the collaboration comes about is either I am coming up with an idea on my own, fleshing that out and putting the team together. Or, I am working with somebody else who has their own ideas and I help them flesh it out and put it together and then build a team from there. Either way, I start with the idea and then I branch out to the people who actually do the work. 

Like so many tech-forward spaces, access is an issue for both creators and audiences. With headsets still quite expensive, audiences are limited.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: The audience space for XR is full but it is quite niche at the moment. I feel like XR storytelling is going to be like what television brought to cinema. It’s just a new medium. 

It’s small at the moment because the technologies are quite expensive. Once the technology becomes more democratised, it will become more widely available. 

That being said, audiences can look like anything and anyone. I feel like if you want to take it down to the skull and bones of it all, you can take your headset and set-up anywhere, and anybody can become an administrator. So you, as the creator, would just have to decide what it is that you’re saying and who you want to tell it to. 

At the moment the project that we’re currently busy with is going to local as well as international art and film festivals. 

Once we grow in capacity, our aim is to create spaces in which the general public can come and engage as well.

And it’s not only about storytelling or art for art’s sake – XR has implications in sectors such as health.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: There was an artist who, before he passed, was super invested in using the space for healing. 

I think that the technology really lends itself to that. 

Just in terms of the Metaverse, there was an interesting project called Mycelium, which was about mycelium [which is a root-like structure of a fungus consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae] and created this beautiful space in which the audience can engage with it. 

I think that we’ll start to see a lot more of that as people start to lean into it and as people start to learn the technology and how it can be beneficial in terms of healing. 

I think that at the moment, it’s sort of in little pockets. So I personally don’t know of any space that is dedicated to just that. 

For Grey, the future of XR is a positive and exciting space to be in.

Kirstin-Lee Grey: The same way mobile media became for Africans in that we consumed it because it made sense for us to do so, I believe that the space will eventually become that. We just need to create the avenues in which people can engage. 

For me, it’s pointless putting somebody in a cold cubicle. There’s no value in that. Where there is value is that we, as South Africans and as Africans, love events. We love shared experiences. We love doing things with our friends, family, colleagues, or whoever it is. 

If we take back to the story and say, “You can come into the space. We have safe design, we have actors, we have sensory touchpoints.” All of a sudden, it doesn’t become you just engaging with the technology, you’re now engaging with the story. The technology is part of that story. It enhances the story. It is one with the story. 

I find that when you do it that way, it’s not as intimidating to get into.

Get curious about the space. I think that as creatives it holds a plethora of opportunities for us, and we need to grab them. 

The XR community is small, but we are so open. We are so willing to collaborate. We are so keen to collaborate. We’re always making time for new ideas and new expressions.

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