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Run by Emily Carr University of Art and Design and IM4 Lab, the Indigenous Virtual Production program lets students explore new visual styles as they learn to use cutting-edge technology

Nine weeks after beginning a class in virtual film production tools, two dozen Indigenous students gathered in a studio in the Emily Carr University of Art and Design to tell two dozen unique stories.

With the actors Renae Morriseau and Nathaniel Arcand, plus a professional director of photography at their disposal, each student had an hour to shoot a brief video reflective of their background and their relationship with their Indigeneity.

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Filmmaker and artist of Cree/Métis and European ancestry, Loretta Todd, was the visionary behind the IM4 Lab. 'All I can do is give back,' Todd said during the production day’s closing circle.

Using cutting-edge technology – including an LED wall displaying graphics that would later be rendered into a virtual environment – students plunged Morriseau and Arcand into scenes they’d spent the summer developing in a course run by Cree-Métis filmmaker Loretta Todd’s IM4 Lab and Emily Carr U.

IM4′s Indigenous Virtual Production program is the first of its kind in the world expressly aimed at seeding cutting-edge VR production skills – the kind used on shows such as The Mandalorian – into First Nations communities in Canada and abroad.

“We wanted to be sure that all these people can now say, when they go looking for support, jobs or funding, Yeah, I’ve worked in virtual production – I worked with the best,’ ” Todd says.

She created the IM4 Lab in 2018 with fellow Indigenous matriarchs Doreen Manuel, Cease Wyss and Tracey Kim Bonneau. It’s trained about 300 people so far.

The IM4 Lab team places Arcand and Morriseau in front of an LED wall as they prepare to light the set. Unreal’s in-camera VFX technology allows technicians to add effects and adjust images in real time, cutting down on travel, postproduction effort and resulting in a more seamless final product.
Cinematographer Rose Stiffarm writes on a film slate for the next Emily Carr student to direct a scene. Sue-Anne Banks, whose name appears on the slate, translated her poem, Mother of the Earth, into a film project for the IM4 Lab.
Students Bee Bird and Carl Jr. Kodakin-Yakeleya prepare to film their project, Lost n’Deadly. “When I first started learning the program, it was like learning a new language,” says Kodakin-Yakeleya, who hopes to use filmmaking as an extension of the Indigenous storytelling tradition.
Daniel Langhjelm, an Unreal technical artist working alongside the Indigenous-led IM4 Virtual Production storytelling team, works to set up a virtual scene with camera tracking and LED wall technology. The IM4 program enlisted the instruction and assistance of a number of working industry professionals, like Langhjelm, giving students a postgraduation leg up.

Todd, the prolific award-winning filmmaker behind more than 100 projects, whose work has been screened at Sundance Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, has been studying advances in virtual reality since the nineties, when she saw it playing an increased role in pop culture.

“Just like when the sewing machine came into our communities, just like when television came into our communities, we just didn’t passively accept it,” she said, referring to Indigenous adoption of new technologies. “When these influences come into our communities, we have a role to play and in how it’s developed.”

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Ben Kicknosway and Samantha Loney swap lenses on a camera rig during filming. Actors at the IM4 Lab are filmed in front of a photorealistic 3-D environment – created in advance by IM4 students – rather than a green screen. This allows for greater precision with the final product.

The inaugural Indigenous Virtual Production program, credentialed by Emily Carr, brought on its first cohort this summer to study a new gaming and production software suite, Epic Games’s Unreal Engine. Unreal lets filmmakers design extensively detailed 3-D environments to display on massive LED walls for actors to perform in front of.

“Over the months of their training it was inspiring to see how they each quickly honed their creative approach to tell engaging stories with an Indigenous lens,” says Shenaz Baksh, the project lead and the founder of Screen Industry Training Inc. “It was evident that these inclusive training opportunities ... provide an opportunity for Indigenous artists to explore a different form of expression and play with visual styles to tell their own stories.”

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Sue-Anne Banks got stuck on a mountain pass with no cell service for nine hours on her way to the IM4 Labs production week from the interior of B.C. Banks says that on top of her other obligations and the continuing stresses in her life, she feels grateful to be surrounded by other amazing Indigenous creatives.

The students spent eight weeks learning remotely before travelling to Vancouver in August to shoot and present their projects. The program’s organizers hope not just that these new skills will further their careers, but that the students will share those skills with their communities.

“We’re excited to see where the students take this, because they’ve gained so much in these past months,” says Sussan Yáñez, the IM4 Lab’s operations manager, who is of Mapuche, Andean, German and Spanish ancestry. “They’ll continue to learn and work with these technologies, and continue to make that space for Indigenous stories to be told and do things differently.”

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