“Zero Days VR” is multimedia artist Yasmin Elayat’s companion piece to Alex Gibney’s 2016 feature documentary of the same name, which investigates the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus discovered in 2010 that disrupted Iranian nuclear facilities and examines the looming front of global cyberwarfare. In the VR film, the viewer learns about the history and path of the virus, takes the form of the malware itself as it winds its way through cyberspace and computer systems, interviews an NSA whistleblower and imagines the future dangers of cyberwarfare.
Open Doc Lab Research Assistant Sara Rafsky spoke with Elayat and Elie Zananiri, Zero Days’ technology director, on occasion of the project’s debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Sara: Could you two briefly introduce yourselves, your backgrounds and how you got involved in the project?
Elie: My name is Elie Zananiri. I’ve been working mostly in interactive installation. I’m a software developer and an interaction designer. And before getting into virtual reality, I did a lot of large screen installations, but also mobile applications for cultural institutions, for commercial clients, and also for artistic purposes. I got involved in the project because I worked with most members of Scatter’s team on some of these projects before this and we all got together to work on “Zero Days.”
Yasmin: I’m Yasmin Elayat and my background also is in experience design and creative technology. I’m a computer scientist and I went to art school and ever since I have been working at the intersection of storytelling and technology and how to design storytelling experiences. And, like Ellie, my background started in physical space, so interactive installations for cultural spaces.
My first filmmaking project was a participatory documentary called “Eighteen Days in Egypt.” It was when the Egyptian Revolution started in 2011 and the idea was, what if a country provided its own history? And so we built a platform that really would empower a community to tell their own story and circumvent the victor’s voice, and how history is documented.
So ever since, I’ve been working in that space, mostly focused on participatory and audience engagement and interactive work. I joined Scatter as of about eight months ago. We’re all very similar, like-minded people that come from the same intersection: hybrid backgrounds in film and tech and story, and so it was just a wonderful partnership. “Zero Days” is my first directorial debut in VR.
Sara: I’m curious about the genesis of the project. There were a few films at Sundance this year that had linear films and then also VR components in the New Frontier section, but the timing on “Zero Days VR” wasn’t simultaneous. I’m curious how this project came about in tandem with the Alex Gibney 2016 doc and what that process was like.
Yasmin: It wasn’t meant to be a companion piece. It was kind of more an afterthought if we’re pretty candid about it. The performance [of the NSA whistleblower] that is in our piece is also from the film. It’s the same photo shoot, actually, the same shoot using the same interview. Alex Gibney, when he was working on the feature, was looking for a way to anonymize the informant character but one that really felt native to the story he was telling. Something that felt of the digital world.
He approached Scatter, our studio, and our partners, James George and Alexander Porter. They’re inventors of Depth Kit, which is our sister company, and it’s a volumetric capture tool. It was the tool used to do the digital sets in the feature. What it enables us to do is capture the movement in this wonderful digital way, but is also a way to capture volumetrically in 3D, and so we had this footage that was made for VR. It was already in 3D.
While the film was about to do its theatrical release, we did a little mini hackathon and created a small VR experience on the gear VR and showed this to Alex Gibney, with this informant included in the VR piece. He was hooked. He was like, “Of course, this makes sense. We should definitely have a version of this film that is native to this type of format.” So he signed up as the EP and trusted us to translate the story for virtual reality.
Sara: The feature film is in some ways several films in one. You have the first part of the film which is sort of the whodunit: what is this Stuxnet and who’s behind it? And then you have the final chapter of the film, which is really about the moral implications of cyber warfare going forward. How did you choose what story you wanted to tell in this particular VR film and how you were going to go about it?
Yasmin: The main goal, is how do we tell this insider story? Alex Gibney has all these wonderful interviews. You had the CIA and all these intelligence operators and officials who spoke to him. From our perspective, obviously this was two or three different stories itself, so we just let it focus on the emergence of Stuxnet and how it got out of control and then was discovered.
We’re computer scientists and I think there was something really enchanting and awe-inspiring about Stuxnet as we learned about it as technologists. The cyber experts and cyber specialist sector really spoke to me, honestly. Watching them using the tools they have, finding clues in code, and piecing it together into this completely crazy political thriller. For me, that’s the most compelling aspect, following and seeing it through their eyes and seeing how they were enchanted and thought it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen, even if it was the most dangerous thing they’d ever seen.
So we focused on that and the moment Stuxnet became very noisy and too aggressive. We thought that would be a nice entry point to the story. Also we didn’t want to lose the thread about the lack of transparency. No one wanted to talk about Stuxnet. No one wanted to acknowledge it. None of our heads of state can acknowledge or talk about it.
Sara: Can you explain what choices you made from a design perspective to render all this visually as well as from a technical perspective?
Yasmin: From the beginning, we wanted to make sure this is a sophisticated approach to digital. We really, and Elie can speak to this, we kept saying, “No boots, no circuit boards and PCPs just floating around.” I’m being a bit facetious but what we really wanted to make sure is that we wanted it to be translating a world that is completely invisible but really do it in a visceral way. And to do that, we kind of felt like you really had to understand or embody and have a persona for these different worlds and these different characters. So Stuxnet became a character. Stuxnet became obviously our interpretation of what a cyber weapon or soldier, a very targeted precise weapon would look like. What could a virus and an autonomous worm look like and how could it move through the world and what would that world look like?
We worked with a wonderful design director and a couple of artists and they’ve been wonderful in helping us take these concepts, visually, to the next level. Obviously we took a lot of creative liberty to our designs and our ideas and I’ll let Elie take it from there.
Elie: We wanted to really have you embody the experience and bring the viewer places where they can’t normally go. So we were trying to create a beautiful environment but also to clearly explain the topic. That is what this movie is all about. We wanted to show Stuxnet as a precision weapon that seems to move through the environment in a defined and predictable way. That when you are inside the centrifuges it was really important that not only is this a beautiful world, but also that we can clearly explain how the virus effects the centrifuges, how it affects emotion and what the result is.
Yasmin: Also, I think it would be helpful to talk a little bit about Scatter’s hybrid approach to VR and world-building. We’re not purely in one camp, either the game engine VR or the live action VR camp. We are somewhere in between where we combine the visually fidelity of photography with live captures of real people and real stories, so our informant is a real person and a real capture. Then we do our biometric world-building, which is obviously a mix of different techniques like photogrammetry and other techniques.
But, it’s really about translating the real world into our immersive environment. So, that’s what we call our hybrid approach at Scatter. We really believe that, it shouldn’t be CGI game engine on one side and live action on the other. We just believe there’s a whole new design and visual aesthetic range that isn’t explored and that’s what we’re very interested in. That’s how we approach this project, that’s how we approach our projects at Scatter, in general.
Sara: Yes, the film has a very moody feel and interesting aesthetic. You had a lot of leeway to decide what this very abstract space would look like and feel like, so what was that design process like?
Yasmin: We had a lot of iterations. I think that where we started in each of our chapters was, “what is the main story that we’re trying to tell, why are we telling it this way and how do we want you to feel?” Thinking about heart, mind and body. What do we want to communicate? It was really important for us from a mood and perspective to [be faithful to] how serious this [subject matter] is. It’s very serious for all of us. The more research we did the more I was flabbergasted that this is not a bigger story. We’re getting our banks hit. Sundance was under attack. The government is under cyber-attack. The fact that, you know, Russia has been tampering in our elections. This is actually very serious. It can affect our lives and it’s a very dangerous type of warfare that no one is acknowledging and no one’s talking about it.
We wanted to at least instill this level of seriousness and have a little bit of an ominous feeling throughout. It’s important not to have people scared and then like, that’s it. Leave and be scared without any kind of call to action. No. I wanted it to feel like, just the moment before you’re completely terrified, it’s a border you don’t want to cross.
And also a lot of this is just original interviews and original archival footage. So, all of this is real. A lot of the mood is carried out by the story and interviews itself. I think we just help fill in the other emotional, visceral and intangible parts that maybe you couldn’t do in the [feature] film. We just tried to complement the actual story in the way we best knew how.
Elie: We wanted it be mesmerizing but also, coming from the computer sense, we wanted to express ourselves programmatically in the way we built some these systems and the way they look.
For example, Stuxnet is a regenerative system. And what that means is the way it’s built is all done programmatically and every time you watch the movie, the geometry of Stuxnet and the colors of Stuxnet are all being built on the fly. And they follow specific rules that we assign to the whole system and then Stuxnet as a form emerges using those rules. So it was kind of our way of expressing ourselves programmatically. It’s also kind of an ode to a piece of code that’s supposed to be very elegant. That’s our own attempt at having an elegant code to represent this form.
We did something similar also with this type of army which was not in the Sundance version, but will be in the final release. Where we have a swarm of entities which represent the Iranian army but that also follow rules and float around targets and attack them depending on their proximity. It’s saying this is a degenerative system that, kind of, has a life of its own. And every time you run it, it’ll be a different fleet depending on just the different factors in the computer at that point.
Yasmin: We also played with things that other people told us not to play with. You know, like the rule book of VR that Elie and I decided, “We don’t care” about. And one of them was how we sometimes used the camera. We made some certain aggressive camera moves on purpose to help communicate some of these concepts we’re talking about.
For example, when you’re entering the Stuxnet world. You’re hearing the cyber experts talk about how beautiful this piece of code is. And you’re travelling through this code rainfall and it’s beautiful because you’re falling in love with Stuxnet like the cyber experts are falling in love with this piece of code. And then right when you learn about how dangerous the zero day exploits of the virus are all of a sudden you are slammed a bit into this terrain that comes out of nowhere and the form of Stuxnet surrounds you.
That’s one of our very aggressive, purposeful camera moves because we want you to feel this world is actually not welcoming. This is actually an aggressive world, and you’re about to enter something that is now enemy terrain. You’re Stuxnet now and you’re going to have to figure out a way to exploit the vulnerability and get in. And so we use even just the camera moves in VR to communicate some of these ideas.
Sara: Towards the end of the film, how did you grapple with how to render the possible destruction that this thing could cause? How did you choose to convey the seriousness of the stakes without it being too ‘end-of-days’?
Yasmin: We don’t want it to feel like we’re talking about just bombs and explosions. We are trying to use more metaphorical experience tropes without doing apocalypse type of approach to the experience.
Cyber warfare is supposed to be an invisible thing. It’s an effective weapon when you don’t know it’s happening. How can we tell this story when it is completely clandestine and invisible, but still communicate exactly what is at stake? So, that’s kind of the balance and the tension you’re going to see.
Sara: So the plan is to add two more chapters to the film and then what kind of distribution do you hope to have?
Elie: So what you saw at Sundance was three and a half chapters and we’re adding another one and a half chapters. One is ‘Iran Attacks Back’, which is how Iran retaliated on the soil and performed actual attacks that affected people in America. And the other one is really looking at how this new type of warfare is going to be more prevalent in the future. The way it works is that you don’t know it’s happening while it’s happening to you. But this type of warfare, although it happens in the digital world, it has real life consequences on critical infrastructure. So, cyber warfare can destroy power lines, affect your bank account, can affect actual things that we interact with. So although it’s invisible, it hits much closer to home. And then for distribution, we will be distributing on all the main Oculus platforms. So on the higher end there’s the Oculus Rift on a PC. In the middle there’s the Gear VR on a Samsung phone. And then also a trailer for Facebook 360.
Sara: The feature film was created during the Obama era. We’re obviously in new days right now and the real story about cyberwarfare becomes even more complex after the narrative told in the feature film ends. How do you keep up with all this? Will you update the film for the Trump era?
Yasmin: I think our goal is not to poke specifically at one administration or another. I think it’s more about, at least from my perspective, if I can at least communicate to someone what is at stake and how dangerous cyber warfare can be. And the fact that we are not allowed to even question it or talk about it or acknowledge it as a country. As long as we can communicate these key points and raise awareness and have people at least understand what’s at stake then I think that we did our job and I think it can transcend whatever year it is. Hopefully, when there is another occurrence of election tampering or another type of attack then at least people have the tools now, a deeper understanding of how these weapons can be made and what they can do and their potential.
Elie: I think we have a similar theme as that of the feature film, which is that because nobody is talking about this that there are no rules to this type of war. Any government can go as far as they want to. The more people are aware of it, the more people will start asking for some type of a protocol or some type of rules to keep each other in check, which is not the case right now.
Sara: There’s a long tradition of looking at documentary film within the context of journalism and investigative journalism. There’s certainly an emerging body of scholarship doing the same in terms of VR. There’s a lot been written about VR as immersive journalism, as a tool of empathy, etc. Your film is sort of an interesting hybrid because obviously the feature film is very journalistic and you retain some of those elements. You have these interviews. You have archival footage. At the same time the VR piece feels much more impressionistic. Do you think of your film as journalistic? How do you see it falling within those territories?
Yasmin: That’s a very good question. I think that the question is just not answered in general for VR documentary, especially when we’re not doing live action. A lot of the VR live action films for documentary is scripted, heavily, heavily scripted.
From my perspective with this piece, we had to make sure at least that the story was sticking to the general integrity of the original film, Gibney’s original intention, protecting his sources and not making allegations that were not made in the original film. We originally had this concept that you could learn about different pieces of the story and act as a kind of cyber detective, piecing parts of this mystery together, figuring out how this all unfolded, closing the holes in the story. That approach we had to actually scratch early on as it would compromise the general integrity of the story. How and in what order the viewer experienced the piece would allow them to make allegations that were untrue [to what happened]. So we actually had to completely scratch that and have all that [interactivity] take a backseat for journalistic integrity of this documentary.
I think visually and experientially we were taking a lot of creative liberty. But our solution to your question was to restrict each activity level and the audience agency, unfortunately, to make sure that we’re not making allegations and ensuring we’re still an accurate story from a journalistic perspective.
Sara You hear a lot about how people want to push VR to be more interactive so that’s a really interesting tension in the context of documentary. I am very curious to see how that conflict plays out.