Jessica Kantor: Pioneer in Immersive Storytelling

Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series

Jessica Kantor, an LA-based director, producer, and interactive storyteller, came to Foxcroft February 5th as part of the Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series to talk about her artistic journey and share her work in 360 video and Virtual Reality (VR) film. She represents the “future” in this year’s Series theme, “Inspired by Storytelling: Past, Present & Future.” These emerging technologies are developing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up! Each new iteration provides more and better options and capabilities, which encourages experimentation, trial and error, and exploration, but also keeps everyone hopping.
It was evident in Jessica’s community presentation on Monday evening that telling stories in 360 video or VR film requires a unique skill set! It was interesting to learn that Jessica acquired many of these skills quite by accident. Having had to rethink her entire future after an injury her senior year in high school derailed her dreams of becoming a classical ballerina, Jessica enrolled at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. At Gallatin, students are encouraged to design their own course of study. . . the perfect choice for someone who is suddenly without a rudder. Eventually, she found her way, telling her advisor that she wanted to learn how to create websites — back in the early 2000’s this was a new endeavor — and her advisor recommended a C++ computer programming class. She was, she says, “not that happy in that class,” tediously handwriting source code into a blue book and learning how to build a computer operating system. Looking back, though, Jessica realized that it was definitely what she needed, saying, “It turned out to be a huge gift now going into immersive storytelling because I am able to add interaction into my videos because I had that experience.”

Jessica described VR as a new way to interact with technology, which will soon replace the computer screen and be embedded in our everyday world. “To me, it felt like there was something here. . . that this was not just a gimmick or going away,” she said. “This is a paradigm shift in how we connect. It’s going to change the way operating rooms work in hospitals. It’s going to change the way people learn in most schools. It can democratize education for people.” These things she thinks will change the way the world works.

Her interest, though, is in telling stories in this new meduim. “What does it mean to experience a story when there’s not a frame or a screen that we’re used to having? I was curious about what it means when the whole world is the story,” she said.

The girls in the “Lights, Camera, Action” Wintermission class taught by Alex Northrup and Stephanie Young spent an afternoon with Jessica viewing some of her finished pieces and learning the nuts and bolts of 360 video filming techniques and editing tricks. The class was tasked with creating a 360 video in just five days that the Admissions Office could use for recruitment. Teams of girls had already used 360 video recorders to capture different aspects of school life, and Jessica spent time with each team, reviewing their footage, making recommendations for reshooting using a different perspective, and showing them how to edit in the software.

While teams worked one at a time with Jessica, other students experienced one of Jessica’s finished VR pieces, either “Fall from Grace,” from her VR Dance Project, using a Gear VR Headset, or her Hunter Hayes 360 video music video, “Yesterday’s Song,” using Google Cardboard VR viewers. Her work illustrated the use of a variety of filming techniques, and provided real-life examples of effects and approaches to telling a story in VR that the girls could use in their own pieces.

After the workshop, Florence X. '20 interviewed Jessica for her website on inspired learning. She was able to delve deeply into Jessica’s motivations for her career choice, asking her, “How do you know that filmmaking is what you want to do in life?”

Jessica replied, “I think life is a very long time, and I don’t know if it’s the only thing I’m going to be doing. But I feel compelled to tell stories and share my perspective on different topics. As I started exploring what to do, I evaluated that I like to make things. I like to make things that actually say something in the world or at least help you feel something. And, I was really interested in the new medium and different ways of telling stories — Virtual Reality, 360 video, Augmented Reality — and I realized that I wanted to be in the role of maker.”

And as for what success means to Jessica, she says, “I don’t have an end goal. I’m really interested in how I live my day, every day. As long as I am constantly doing work that inspires me, and I’m challenged, and I can pay my bills, and I have room to live my life, then I guess that’s success.”

We’ll be watching this young filmmaker and we look forward to seeing her tell stories in new ways and explore the edges of this burgeoning media.

The Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series was established in 2007 by Austi Brown ’73 in honor of her mother. Over the years, the Series has brought all kinds of literary, performing, and fine artists to Foxcroft to share their work, stories, and perspective on the nature of the creative process. An important element of the Series is working with students in a smaller, workshop-type setting so that the artist can share their craft and hopefully inspire a student or two to follow their own artistic dreams.
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