Blacclites uses virtual reality to create immersive depiction of culture and oppression

Utilizing dancers with white body paint and face makeup dancing against a rainbow background and warriors dancing against curtains and murals, Blacclites is an experimental project that combines practical and aesthetic elements to portray racism and oppression.

The six-minute film was created as a project for the USC Jaunt Cinematic Virtual Reality Lab that revolves around the journey of the neo-native party, a fictional revolutionary group/political party with the goals of combating racism and prejudice.  

Blacclites is directed by senior film production major Aaron Ashby, produced by senior film and television production major Kevin Ramlal, with art direction by senior art major Michael Chang. The three graduated in May.

The project, which first screened in May as a part of Visions and Voices, encompasses some of the best artists at USC from a variety of disciplines, including Kaufman School of Dance, USC School of Dramatic Arts, USC School of Cinematic Arts, Thornton of School of Music and Roski School of Design. It is set to run again in August and will be available for viewing online.

Ashby and Chang wanted to bring people of color together from different disciplines to get USC to be more open-minded and inclusive about the South L.A. community.

The virtual reality film starts off with an all-black, 360-degree view, slowly dissolving into a flat image of a purple crystal lamp seated atop a black monolith, glowing in a cloud of fog.

Blacclites is built off of Re: Manifest Destiny, Chang’s senior art thesis that focuses on Los Angeles and the various conflicts in the city in context of race and space to the extremes.

“The fiction allowed me to work in the gap between reality and imagination. I didn’t want to be restricted to the role of a documentarian because I wanted my positions and opinions fully invested,” Chang said.

The first big project that Chang and Ashby collaborated on was Jukebox in 2014, when the pair developed the concept of neo-native, which is the central theme and aesthetic of Blacclites.

“Both of us just make a ton of work on our own, and then when one of us has a project big enough to fit both of our skill sets/visions, then we dive in,” Ashby said. “Usually it’s a very immersive/multimedia experience for the audience. Any time we do something together, there’s a central concept we can unite our work under.”

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Blacclites is broken into five parts, each representing oppressive states visualized. The set is a hexagonal shape and takes the form of a dance floor, with dancers expressing the mood of the group through interpretive movement.

Parts one and two are in the black room, which introduces the story of the neo-native party, a diverse group of people who fight against racism and help the marginalized. They are shot with the Jaunt VR camera using black lights — a concept that Chang idealized but has never been experimented with before.

“The rainbow room does not use the black lights and highlights the false harmony and universalization of social equality pushed forwards by America,” Chang said.

Chang made the decision to make the rainbow out of sharp, slanted lines rather than curves.

“The progression from the room leads from that false harmony to violent conflict through the vandalizing of the perfect sleek lines,” Chang said.

The fourth room, the red room, depicts anger and frustration toward the racial conflict. With solid red walls and intense masked breathing, the viewer is taken into an emotional lair with strong conflict and passion.

The last room is the throne room, similar to the first in terms of disparate aesthetic. Each creative lead of the film embodies its own separate styles.

Ashby always knew that he wanted to create commercial films over artistic, abstract films, but felt that this film is a perfect combination of both.

Ashby said that receiving an education at USC made him realize that students at USC engage in issues differently than most people back in his home state of North Carolina.

“At USC, people emphasize the psychology behind the issues and its larger global history,” Ashby said. “I would say I was pretty woke in terms of religion and race but I didn’t know as much about gender and sexuality [before I came to USC].”

He owes much of his heart for social justice to his mother, who was always “dropping knowledge” about issues in race, gender and sexuality. He said he feels lucky that he grew up in a household and environment where he could talk about these issues.

 While his film was entirely made in virtual reality, he actually had no knowledge of this cutting-edge technology before coming to USC.

“I was intimidated when I first came to USC. Like I was good at editing software and design but because I wasn’t a genius coder, I told myself that I was inferior but I took some classes and got a really good sense of the history and what’s behind the technology,” Ashby said

When explaining how creating virtual reality works, Ashby described the intricate process that many USC classes taught him.

“Basically, [virtual reality] means you have six cameras and they’re all shooting at once and you need them to be combined into one continuous image,” Ashby said. “There’s also stitching software that allows you to do that.”

In terms of the future, nothing is off limits.  Ashby hopes to create more interdisciplinary content that works in many formats.

“I’m open to creating anything whether it’s graphic novels, regular novels, plays, comic books, art gallery, fashion line or a dope hip-hop album — that’s how you experience the world.”

Blacclites will hold its final screening on Aug. 24 at Jaunt Studios in Santa Monica. The performance will be available for viewing after on the Jaunt VR website for desktop, iOs and web.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kevin Ramlal was an art major. He was a film and television production major.

The Daily Trojan regrets this error.