On The Eve of the Future
Eduardo Williams on The Human Surge 3 (2023)
The Argentine filmmaker Eduardo Williams’s works have continuously pushed the film-grammar envelope. From Could See a Puma (2011) to A Very Long Gif (2022), his exploratory spirit constantly searches for innovative ways in which the digital texture, the cinematic artifact, and the moving image apparatus themselves can be investigated and tinkered with. The aim? Taking the plunge into the uncertain future of cinema through new sensory experiences.
In the playful “sequel” to his 2017 festival breakthrough, The Human Surge, Williams tackles the erratic mechanisms of virtual-reality technology through the lucid hyper-reality of a group of characters ranging from different latitudes in the so-called Global South. Captured entirely with a 360-degree lens that’s normally reserved for VR but projected on a traditional cinema screen, the film follows three groups of friends from Taiwan, Peru and Sri Lanka who meet, converse and traverse through space and time as the film helps transport them across borders through the magic of cinema.
Alonso Aguilar Candanedo, Arta Barzanji and Abraham Villa Figueroa spoke to Eduardo Williams for Sabzian about his relationship to an online existence, reframing new technologies through cinematic sensibilities and low-fidelity aesthetics.
Alonso Aguilar Candanedo: Like an ever-changing digital landscape, the online experience is constantly reinventing itself. Does that constant flux inspire you in any way?
Eduardo Williams: I don’t think about this so consciously while working. It’s more like I’m a part of the “ever-changing digital landscape” you mention. I don’t like researching locations, I prefer to get to know each place in a very physical way, with my own body, during the shoot, depending on who I meet or where my body takes me. In the virtual landscape, on the other hand, it’s as if my body doesn’t exist; it’s only my mind traveling through the screen and receiving different stimuli. It’s like jumping from one place to another, and that’s the feeling I aim to capture in the film, particularly in how the dialogues are structured and how many conversations happen simultaneously.
I think, as in the previous Human Surge film, there’s something that comes from the internet in the way of imagining how to traverse spaces. It’s in direct opposition to how the real-world works, with its visas and economic limits. The real world tells us that “some people” are not supposed to be traveling. States try to force people to stay in their countries. And then, when they have a visa, a person in the airport can tell you they don’t believe your papers, which happened to one of our Sri Lankan actors. There’s definitely an important component of, let’s say, the fantasy of moving within the film. It’s easier for some of us in the real world than others, but everything flows freely in this virtual ecosystem.
Arta Barzanji: This idea of movement is also emphasized by the fact that they’re all young people from the so-called Global South exploring these different landscapes together. Almost magically, through cinema, they get transported to these places. And despite being shot mostly using VR, you still decided to project the film in cinemas instead of an art space.
Williams: As someone from the margins, I’m trying to avoid the countries central to Western culture. I’m consciously trying to avoid those places but framing these other locations beyond the veneer of marginalization. I’m trying to connect places and people I don’t often see associated. I think my films are for everyone, in the sense that you don’t need to know anything to see them. Many films are created behind ideas or preconceptions built from the expectation of a cinephile audience, and that simply isn’t the case with my works or my practice.
Abraham Villa Figueroa: Your work seems very informed by new media, as it deals with new approximations of how to relate to images, but it has never drifted away from cinema. You’ve worked with other formats, like art installations, so what drew you towards the feature film format?
Williams: I make films because I went to the cinema while growing up. I still feel like the cinema environment is what I’m the most attracted to. I don’t know. It feels unlike the other screens in my life. The computer, the phone, etc., all feel somewhat common, but this special screen maintains a ritual within it.
Aguilar Candanedo: Despite still being drawn to cinema, the images you show are perhaps not usually the ones associated with a traditional idea of “quality cinema”. You embrace the pixels, the rawness of the image, which is very distinctive. How would you describe your relationship with this “less polished” digital imagery?
Williams: I’m not against “good quality” images, but it’s always the same. My curiosity guides me toward generating different types of images, and I don’t care very much if they’re seen as high or low quality. I think low-quality images give this sense of documentary in some way, not due to the tradition of documentary cinema but associated with the virtues of being direct reflections of the images we see on the internet. We associate with and relate to these textures, and then I like subverting that sense of reality via strange situations. And I simply don’t relate to high-quality images anymore.
But beyond any description of how the image looks, I was more curious about what would happen by using this very specific Virtual Reality 360-degree camera: its robotic movements, how I could change the lens digitally, the possibility of flying like an insect and zooming in on things. The last short film I made, Parsi, was also recorded in 360 degrees. I shot it with a GoPro by myself. I lost some frames, and the image quality was low, which I really liked for that film. I didn’t want the same for The Human Surge 3. So, in some sense, I tried to get, let’s say, higher-quality images. But it was because I was trying to make a film in which sometimes you were conscious about the image and its texture, and sometimes you weren’t. So you could also just follow people around, be with them. If you have a better image quality than the GoPro can offer, you forget about the camera a little more. If the texture of the image is so crazy and the movement is so intense all the time, you can’t stop thinking about the camera and the image. And that can distance you from the characters in some moments.
Barzanji: How do you feel about the contemporary obsession with high-quality images? Some assume higher resolutions, like 4K or 8K, are the most desirable format. But this relinquishes the responsibility of framing, of paying attention to what you are doing, especially as these qualities let you reframe much more easily in post-production. Maybe your images are not very high quality, but you can tell there’s a lot of care and attention going into them. Many films recorded in very high resolutions lack such attention.
Williams: Yes, things become more automatic. For me, the important thing is care, not only for the image but for what’s happening. I really don’t think so much about the high or low quality of the image. I think about what I was saying, how much the texture makes you think about the image or not.
High or low quality is related to what the film says or how you use the tools, right? For me, high quality is trying to be conscious about what or who is being framed and everything that framing means in cinema and its possibilities. Also, I play with and think of new ideas. For example, what happens if I frame my body through my point of view? Or if I frame in a different moment or capture a film from the first scene to the last in one shot?
I am also very much into this virtual way of exploring life and the world on the computer. I go through a very physical process in the shooting, and then I go back to this mixture of virtual reality when I revisit the images on the computer.
Villa Figueroa: I would like to know more about the making of The Human Surge 3. As you recorded your gaze roaming through the VR landscape, did you find yourself paying attention to unexpected parts of the video, or did you plan to look at specific parts? Did your expectations about what would be interesting for you to look at change during the recording? If that was the case, did you, while making this film, also discover something about yourself and about your desires and fascinations as a filmmaker?
Williams: I think I’m discovering myself all the time. My themes are very personal in many ways, but I always try to avoid making films just about myself and my thoughts. My ideal is to be like the opener and the closer of the film. I propose things, then people take them in their own way, we work together, and then in the end, I’m the one who closes many of those things. That gives me a different position, and maybe the film is more about me than about each of the other collaborators, but I really wouldn’t like the film to be about me and my ideas. That’s one reason why I shoot in different places. Not because it’s the only way to make films but because it helps me to be more in contact with things that are unrelated to me.
I discovered a lot of things working with VR. It was more complicated than what I had thought. I had done it before and thought I could do it again easily. I wasn’t worried about the process but discovered I couldn’t do it. Mainly because of this aspect of quality we were talking about. To see the images in the VR headset, you need to get them to a very low quality. I had a lot of scenes that were very dark and that I loved, but if you lower their quality, it’s impossible to see anything at all. I needed to record my movement but in high-quality images. That turned out quite complicated. We finally succeeded with the help of a post-production house in New Delhi. They designed software that allowed me to record my movements and capture key frames to get high-quality images. So that’s what I did. I went there, we talked briefly, and they made the software. When it was completed, I left, and I used it on my own. First, I had the idea of using all the VR recordings we made, but it wasn’t possible because I needed to edit between each shooting to know what had happened and what I would do in the next shooting. I didn’t want to go to the second and third shooting without having seen the recorded images.
Finally, I recorded myself seeing the two hours of the VR film. Some scenes of Parsi took only one try; it was intuitive. I just kept what I initially looked at in the film when recording the material. And for other scenes [in Parsi], I practiced a lot. For example, I said to myself, “I want to see this hand, then go to the tree, then go to the face.” Everything was very measured, and I would have all my movements practiced, but I was very stressed for The Human Surge 3. I don’t remember very well. I remember seeing the film maybe four or five times, not more than that. It’s very tiring to use the VR headset for two hours.
I remember that many things I didn’t care about when I saw them on the computer attracted my attention while watching them in VR. For example, in VR, I started looking at the plants much more because it was a more organic way of looking at them. In VR, I had a closer state of mind to a natural way of walking in the street. I discovered that I wanted to look more at what was happening behind the main scene. Even if the 360-degree camera was there, it was obvious that the scene was happening in one place, where the actors were. So, it was easy to look the other way when I was in VR. I liked to see what other team members were doing or the actors preparing to come into the scene, for example. What I like the most about this is that you can see different ways of moving. Someone in front of the camera moves differently. With this camera, I could move more, abandon the scene, look at the city landscape, and then come back. These possibilities were given by the process of using and revisiting the 360-degree VR footage. I don’t think these things I really like would have come another way.
Sometimes, we had errors that I liked, like keyframe errors. There’s a moment when the camera doesn’t move fast enough just because of the keyframe [used to produce smoother motion in VR]. I don’t know exactly what happened. I left some of those errors. Some camera movements were made before I revisited the footage with the VR headset because I like the mixture of styles. I discovered I didn’t want only natural headset camera movements but also the robotic ones, made automatically, that go from one point to another. Using the computer before the VR headset, I discovered that I liked some of the computer movements and left them.
Aguilar Candanedo: How’s your relationship with video games? Framing with the VR headset seems closer to the perspective of video games than what is usually experienced in cinema.
Williams: When I was young, I played many video games. Now I don’t play so much because I have to work and I’m not very good at stopping if I play. I wish I could play only one hour daily, but it’s difficult to control. I think there’s a lot that relates video games to cinema for me. When you play a lot and go out, you see the streets as if they were in a video game. The same happens when I see a great film. I come out of the cinema and see everything in the code of that film in some way.
In the last scene in the mountain, when we see a small lake in Taiwan, one of the actors from Peru is saying: “Ah, this is like a video game.” The line is in the film, but he said it before the shoot. I told him he could use it in the film, but the idea came naturally. Some landscapes seem natural to us but simultaneously make us feel like a video game. We feel a sense of recognition towards this place, but it isn’t real, just something we experienced digitally. I really like this ambivalence between a video game and an actual perception of a landscape. I think this is related to characters changing places magically, with no explanation, which happens a lot in my films. Maybe this is inspired by the internet and video games, but there’s probably much more to it than what I’m conscious about.
Barzanji: In your films, characters are constantly on the move: walking, driving a car, continually moving from one place to another. It makes me think of how you’re always walking between different objectives in most video games. Also, in Puma and The Human Surge 3, the characters suddenly collapse for no apparent reason, almost like a video game character getting killed.
Williams: I’ve been asked about this a lot before, but now that you mention it, it’s true that the video games I like the most are the ones with an “open world”, where you’re free to walk around. Also, these games with “blue eggs” or other objectives that the characters have to look for in order for you to level up. Maybe in my mind, it was just trying to have objectives that are not like working and earning money, which is sadly an objective we’re all forced to have.
Aside from video games, I also like how space changes as we advance through it, and you see the city changing and unfolding as we follow someone, how sound changes as we move. And that is the beauty of cinema: you’re sitting down, but your brain is moving because you follow the movement of a character.
In Puma, the characters say I am out of battery, and they fall. Falling suddenly changes everything, as if gravity suddenly takes power. Or the system fails, you know, something like that. This idea is very common, right? Cell phones, computers, etc., are a part of our everyday life. I just put it in a bit of a different way in the film. It’s this idea of all the systems that keep us up. I like the feeling that the system can fail at any time. That’s something that can happen to anything in life, but it’s especially obvious in computers.
Barzanji: Do you think there’s an element of performance in how you approach editing? You look through the VR headset and make the “edits” in real-time as you turn your head. You even used the word “improvisational” to describe it before.
Williams: Some people ask me why I don’t film myself while doing this. I didn’t, so if I was performing, then no one saw it. But maybe it is a kind of performance because you see the result of the movement, even if you don’t see me moving. It’s about mixing the fictional and the documentary. We see people doing whatever they want in the streets, improvising, and moving in a certain way. Suddenly, we see them changing their dialogue to say something they have to say. We see how their attitude changes. And even if we are not conscious of this, especially if you don’t speak their language, I think there’s something interesting about the performances.
As far as the performative aspect of me being in the frame, I was thinking more about how we can prepare for the scene rather than being conscious about being in the scene. It was more about how I can think about the frame differently. It’s observing people in a slightly different way. And as I said, I made the film for people who have no idea about cinema and how it’s done. I mean, also for people who have, but I hope that if you don’t know what VR even is, you can still feel this.
This film has a specific way of taking you through the places of observing the people within. How do people feel as part of a location, how do they relate to it, and how do they spend time in it? All these things changed because of the tools I used. But the most important thing in the end is what this type of observation conveys to an audience. How does it link with their own possibilities or ideas of different types of images? Some people think more about Google Maps. Some others think more about video games. But also, some people don’t think about the virtual or the technological part at all. A woman at a screening told me much more about being in nature. And I really like that. I tried to make the film available in many different ways.
Aguilar Candanedo: I wanted to ask you about the casting and actors’ performance. Can you talk about this group of friends that, going back to the idea of video games, are the avatars we see this world through? And also, doubling down on the idea of putting yourself on screen, which technically does happen in this film at the very last frame, how was that decision made?
Williams: As for the actors, I choose people who make me feel like something is happening when we talk, sometimes at a casting session, sometimes just meeting in the street by chance, sometimes friends of friends, etc. I’m never looking for something very specific. It’s more about when I feel something interesting about them. Sometimes, I work with groups of friends. It’s very much in the moment, about what I feel has to happen. I always try to have a middle ground between people who know each other and other people from different places. Sometimes, it’s also more practical. Some people are interested at first but then realize this is not what they want to do.
For example, in Sri Lanka, I was looking to have more LGBT people acting in the film than before. When you’re LGBT in a place where it’s a bit complicated, you tend to go to the bigger cities, so you can’t find many people in the smaller towns. We had to bring people from other places, but we also worked with people from there and mixed them. I really like mixing people from different places. Especially when we see a film set in one country, some people generalize and think this is what all citizens of this country look like.
I like to have different parts of society as much as possible. Even when I shot in Buenos Aires, I tried to go to very different neighbourhoods and have a mix of characters in terms of where they come from. This could generate different things in the improvisations. I always try to spend as much time as possible with them. Then it depends, of course. They have their lives, so that has an impact on their availability. In this film, I had more of a structure than before, and we had a larger technical team. In my other films, it was me, one other person in production, and then the actors. It was easier to be with the actors all the time.
I didn’t want to see myself in the film. I hate watching myself, and it’s not something that was in my mind. During the shoot, I always tried to hide and not be visible. But then, in doing the camera movements, I discovered that sometimes I was visible and then, in the end, I didn’t care. Most people won’t realize this is the director because they don’t know me. I thought the most important thing was how to move the camera rather than whether I was there.
Villa Figueroa: How did all the new things that came out during the process of making the film shape your current artistic interests? What are you interested in now after having made this film?
Williams: In general, when I finish a film, there are things I like more about the film and things I like less. I keep the things I like more for the next one, and the things I like less, I try to see how I can change or improve them. Then also, I want to change. For example, I don’t think the next film I will do is 360 degrees or VR.
Now is the moment where I start thinking about these things you’re asking me. I’m still a bit curious about showing the film a bit more. And then, there’s a moment where it gets a bit repetitive, so I want to stop and think about the next film.
Images from El auge del humano 3 [The Human Surge 3] (Eduardo Williams, 2023)