What it means to be a VR Producer: Q&A with Yelena Rachitsky

What it means to be a VR Producer: Q&A with Yelena Rachitsky

Yelena Rachitsky is a film producer who moved into VR media early on and is currently Executive Producer of Experiences at Meta. Here we look back at a conversation with her about how she got into the world of VR, the differences between traditional and VR production, and her personal tips.

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Updated 09/02/2022


Dedicating one’s career to a medium that is still in constant development and change requires dedication, flexibility and a willingness to be constantly learning. Yelena Rachitsky, Executive Producer of Experiences at Meta, embodies these qualities, which is why we wanted to speak with her about how she got into the world of VR, what she feels are the differences between traditional and VR production, and her personal tips for anyone entering this field. This interview took place in 2018, but despite the pace of change in this industry it remains highly relevant.

Meta: How did you start off your career as a producer?

Yelena Rachitsky: After graduating from UCLA in Art History, I, like many college grads studying liberal arts, was trying to figure out how to match a liberal arts degree with a job. I knew that I was insatiably curious, valued creativity and wanted to make a positive impact in the world.

My good friend's dad at that time was a cinematographer for documentaries, and I thought that if someone can make a living learning and creating, then that's the place for me. Luckily I found a company called Participant Media that did all of that. I was fortunate enough to work in the documentary division for about four years during the time of An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and Food Inc. These films changed the way people thought about climate change, the educational system and the way they ate food. It was a good time to be in documentaries.

M: How did you get into VR?

YR: Although I was lucky enough to witness how documentaries can create positive impacts, I was getting frustrated with its lack of innovation. The stories, distribution models, and experience stayed the same for the most part. At the same time, I was seeing how artists were embracing technology to create immersive and participatory stories. Stories where the audience plays a role. I loved the promise of that.

While working at Sundance New Frontier, I came across the kickstarter campaign for Oculus and soon after went to their first office in Irvine to try it out. We brought it to Sundance that next year, and I quickly saw how artists and filmmakers were responding to VR. That was when the potential of VR as a creative medium beyond gaming became clear to me, and I knew I had to be part of it.

M: What about VR was so compelling that it made you shift your career focus?

YR: If passive documentaries had the ability to change people's behaviors, the immersive and participatory quality of VR has the potential to create fully transformative experiences. To me, putting technology in the hands of artists and creative technologists is what has the potential of making this technology a meaningful part of our lives. The technology is not meant to stand out on its own, it's meant to disappear through the experience. If we can make the experience connect to humans, then the tech aspect disappears and we're left with a lasting memory. That's something I want to create, and keep creating.

M: What are some of the key differences between being a traditional film producer and a VR producer?

YR: Although producing in any capacity has similarities, in that you have to keep the ship from breaking apart and running on schedule, VR has its own curveballs that create extra challenges. I've outlined some below:

  • Technology continues to develop, making it challenging to master and understand the tech. Once you have mastered it, a new SDK, development software, or hardware is released and you'll need to tweak and update.
  • Most producers in film know what's possible in film from a creative standpoint, and how that affects the audience. However, so much about the creative choices in VR has to do with knowledge of its limitations and understanding how each choice affects the experience of the audience, both emotionally and physically.
  • The tech can be complicated for non-technical production teams, especially when it comes to understanding the limitations of live-rendered experiences and keeping to frame rate.
  • Tried and true workflows are still being worked out. For instance if you're working in a game engine, you need to allow ample time for prototyping and proving out risks. If you're working in live action, you need to pre-plan EVERYTHING so post production doesn't expand your budget.
  • Because post processing is so intensive, pre-planning and pre-testing is critical.
  • Creating teams for VR is different than for film. The technologists are equally important to the creatives. Film is used to a more hierarchical style, and VR teams should be weighted evenly between creatives and tech leads.
  • When creating interactive content, it's important to have game design experts or else you'll be creating mistakes that could easily have been prevented.
  • Most importantly, you have to think about how every aspect of your piece affects the audience!

M: What skills do you feel are most valuable when it comes to being a VR producer?

YR: Finding the right team with a diverse set of skills and experience. Also:

  • Thinking outside of the box
  • Planning, planning, planning.
  • Leaving room for testing/prototyping.
  • Understanding what it really costs to make something good.
  • Understanding the ins and outs of the technology.
  • Learning how to best communicate and articulate the limits and tools of VR to non-technical folks.
  • Knowing how to get attention for your project and a release plan.
  • Perseverance. Even when everything feels like it's falling apart.
  • And more perseverance.

M: What tips would you give to a producer or creator who wants to get started with VR content creation?

  • Ask the 'Why VR' question to pinpoint exactly why your story or experience needs to be told in VR.
  • Watch A LOT of VR, and figure out what you like about it.
  • Ask yourself what feeling you want to create for your audience and figure out how the tools of VR can make that happen.
  • Network, meet people, and find your fellow warriors.
  • Do your research on equipment. There is a lot of information out there and the community is willing and excited to share.
  • If you're making a 360 video, make sure you've tested, outlined and planned everything in great detail before shooting or your budget will increase in post-production. It’s important to test shoot in order to understand how the story will feel in a headset.

M: What was your favorite part about working at Oculus?

YR: Enabling talented creators to fulfill their vision and connect the potential of VR with audiences.

There seems to be extreme types of content: on one end of the spectrum there's high art that elicits wonderful articles and thought provoking questions but is not accessible to a general audience, and on the other end there's highly mainstream work that doesn't elevate the craft of VR but appeals to a mass audience. I'm looking to create that point in between — good, high quality work that is both meaningful and accessible.

Our team has been fortunate enough to produce dozens of VR projects over the past few years, projects that I'm personally very proud of. At Sundance we premiered five distinctly different projects. They ranged from being a star going through a black hole, to playing the part of an imaginary friend, to an interactive comic by Will.I.Am. Some were live action, others were CG, and the interactivity was varied. Yet each worked in its own way to prove the progression of VR as an art form and storytelling medium. It is exciting to witness the shift in VR, from tech demos to fully fleshed out works of art.

M: Where do you see the industry going?

YR: The industry will become more stabilized. We'll have a better understanding of what's working in VR, and what audiences want. VR will not just be made for entertainment, but will start becoming a more fluid experience where we can flow from entertainment to telecommunication and work. Content will continue to get more sophisticated, more intuitive and gestural, and the technology will have less friction, making it more accessible for a wider audience.