Walking with Reality

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Michelle Rebaleati

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Mark Gandolfo and Daniel Fergus


What motivated you to make your impact video?

Watching Evan’s physical and emotional reaction to VR, I realized that virtual reality has powerful potential beyond the simple ‘wow’ factor and entertainment value. My primary intention was to make sure that people watching “Walking With Reality” would feel empathy over pity for Evan. Empathy is the shared emotion of walking in another person’s shoes, so to speak. Virtual reality is the shared experience of seeing with the same eyes. I wanted to tell a story that illustrates that parallel.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

The short documentary was filmed primarily with the RED Epic Dragon. We also used the HPX250 for the filming of Evan at his performance to create a “home movie” effect. The GoPro Omni and Nikon Keymission were used for the 360 video shots.

Some other equipment used was a Microdolly curved track for the filming of Evan’s reaction around the HTC Vive set up. A Steadicam Zephyr was used to film Evan moving throughout the Knowledge Center and a One Man Crew Motorized Slider was used to record Evan’s interview. The HTC Vive and a PC computer were also used to capture what Evan was viewing in the headset.We also used dual sound recording with the Sound Devices recording device.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.

While we were filming, we had to move Evan’s chair for him in order to fully experience the virtual reality experience. In post, we used PIP to show viewers what Evan was seeing in the headset and to accurately tell Evan’s story, we had to include captioning for Evan. We also used an ending quote to bring the film into perspective.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

I met Evan in the atrium of our library when I was showcasing a short 360 video I produced of the Burning Man festival. He was elated. He had always dreamed of attending Burning Man, but the playa dust would be tough on his asthma and on his wheelchair. We left those aspects out of our virtual experience.

Evan watched that video five times in a row. His joy of being able to experience the festival echoed through the library, and that sparked an idea. If this one VR experience could bring him this much happiness, could we give him a whole day to experiment? I planned a day with my team to bring Evan back to the virtual playa and beyond. We thought it was a good idea to film his joyous reaction and some b-roll. That’s how this documentary began.

Initially, the idea was simply to capture the event, likely destined as a short post for social media and promotional content for our library. But when Evan’s reaction was so emotive, we realized we could take the film to another level. I set up an interview with a VR researcher on our campus. I also thought it was important to include a guiding voice from Harry Thomas, manager of the @One Digital Media Technologies, who has a great relationship with Evan over the years helping him with his studies in the library.

During the editing and post production process, Evan informed us he was the star of an upcoming dance performance. He’s a theater major at the University of Nevada, so being able to show Evan in his natural environment was a treat, even if that segment was a late addition to our film.

With all of the footage gathered, interviews transcribed, storyboards arranged and rearranged, we realized we had a beautiful short film on our hands, one with much more depth than we had anticipated.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

I always hoped that I would be able to help people and make the world a more positive place to live in. When I met Evan, I wanted to give him a way to experience Burning Man from his chair. I wanted to share virtual reality with him as I saw it, but what I didn’t expect was that Evan saw so much more value in VR than I ever could. I was able to share a virtual version of walking with him, an ability I take for granted every single day. It made me realize that the little things in life are what really matter. By helping Evan “walk,” I learned so much about what he has to deal with in his life. I will cherish that moment for the rest of my life.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

When you’re given the chance to share a person’s story in a meaningful and impactful way, the motivation comes from your heart. But to do it the right way, it’s important to join your heartfelt passion and your logical mind. Staying organized is important. So is careful planning. However, being open to adding to or changing your story as it unfolds is important, too.

No matter what, focus on what you are trying to convey, and realize that your life will be forever changed by the journey.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

I love watching the magic happen on filming days. Being out in the field for either scouting or for the actual filming is where I start to really see where the project is going. It’s where I am really able to get into the story and how I develop my inspiration for the rest of the project. On any filming day, I find that I get nervous because I want all aspects to go well. Good footage and audio are so crucial to creating great content, and it’s always a challenge to complete these tasks accurately. It’s also wonderful to be present while capturing that moment in time.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

I always take much more sound equipment than I need. As a previous audio engineer, I believe capturing good quality sound is just as important as the quality of the video. Sound is often overlooked in productions, and it has so much importance to the entirety of the video.


Please provide a brief description of the work or organization featured in your video:

The University of Nevada, Reno is a public research university located in Reno, Nevada. “Walking With Reality” was a production of the University of Libraries. The University Libraries aspire to be partners in the scholarly and creative achievements of students, faculty, and staff, leaders in the academic library community, and contributors in the University’s efforts to become nationally known for academic excellence and positive community impacts.


What have you learned about the value and impact of the project?

I have learned that people who have a disability are some of the bravest people in this world. Not only must they face their disability on a never-ending basis, but they also must function in our society that isn’t always capable of empathy. I’ve watched people speak slowly to Evan, or loudly, or dumbly, because of their misperception of his abilities. He’s really smart. He’s a graduate student, for goodness sake.

With the help of virtual reality, I believe that many people with disabilities will have the potential to be able to take back more control back into their lives. Their mobility can be changed. Their sense of adventure can be untethered.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this impact video.

When I was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno I always saw Evan wheeling around campus, but we had never interacted more than a shared smile in passing. I hesitated to approach him because I was cautious not to offend him. I was so afraid of offending him that I never made a point to ask him how he was doing or how his day was. After graduating and becoming a full time faculty member at the university, I finally grew in my own communication skills, and soon I was having meaningful interactions with the man in the wheelchair.

Asking Evan if he was interested in participating with the idea I had has changed my life in such an incredible way. It felt great to know I was helping Evan virtually walk and ski again. But that wasn’t the only reward I received. We’ve now become very close friends. I now sit with him for hours talking about life, musical theatre, and anything else that comes to mind. I’ve attended a few performances of his. He has a way of reminding me of the beauty in everyday life. The friendship between us is invaluable to me. Working on “Walking With Reality” has change my perspective and career as virtual reality producer and a filmmaker, but the most amazing part of this experience has been finding an incredible friend along the way.


What do you want audiences to take away from this video?

I would like for people to remember that the simple things we may take for granted are so important. Evan has never let his disability get in the way of his goals and aspirations, but some things, like going to Burning Man or skiing, are outside the bounds of his control. VR expands his opportunities for experiences. We are promoting these progressive innovations in technology, and hopefully also spread a sense of empathy when interacting with people with disabilities.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

The Impact of Virtual Reality

Empathy vs Sympathy

Impact of technology for people with disabilities


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the video. How have things changed or not changed?

Since this video was released, many wonderful things have come about. On the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, a new virtual reality lab, @Reality, has been opened as part of the University Libraries. All students on campus have access to four virtual reality stations. Students and faculty from all disciplines can reserve time at the stations like any other study room on campus. Since opening in November 2017, the stations in @Reality have been booked 700 times.

“Walking With Reality” has inspired people from around the nation to reach out to our team. Libraries, primary care facilities and teachers have contacted us not only to thank us for helping Evan, but to ask how they can implement virtual reality in their facilities. One noteworthy example is Beth Ammons story from Indiana. Her student, Katherine, suffers from Loeys Dietz Syndrome making it impossible for her to go skiing. Mrs. Ammons reached out to us about “Walking With Reality” and if she could give Katherine a similar VR experience as Evan. We were able to get her a copy of Shawn Sariti’s skiing video, the same one Evan saw, and Katherine was able to experience skiing in a virtual environment. We were proud to share that experience with her.

Things have changed for Evan as well. He, too, has become inspired by virtual reality and is attending a computer science virtual reality class this semester that is taught by Eelke Folmer (who was also interviewed in the film). He has been spreading the word to other people with disability on campus to put aside their fears and try virtual reality for themselves. Evan and I have reached out to the Disability Resource Center on campus, and hope to organize a virtual reality day with the students involved with this organization.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

Opportunities are continuously developing for accessibility in virtual reality. With smartphones and Google Cardboard, people can experience 360-degree videos with ease. Additionally, new interactive VR headsets are being developed quickly and affordably. It seems that virtual reality is creeping into our everyday setting. I hope people will continue to find pragmatic and innovative ways to use the technology beyond pure entertainment.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.) relevant to the context of the issue discussed in your video:



TetraSki is a training video and application helping people with disabilities to the slopes



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