SxSW 2022 Interview – MINIMUM MASS directors Raqi Syed & Areito Echevarria

“MINIMUM MASS is about a couple who experience a series of miscarriages and come to believe their children are being born in another dimension. It’s based on our true life experience of conceiving our child, but explores that grief, sadness, and joy through the lens of speculative fiction. We wanted to make a virtual reality experience in the tradition of indie cinema, where we explore something interesting and true and then open up that experience to a wider audience through the use of genre.” Directors Raqi Syed & Areito Echevarria on MINIMUM MASS which is screening at SxSW 2022.

Welcome to SxSW and congratulations! Is this your first SxSW experience?

Raqi: This is my first SXSW, the first time I have travelled outside of New Zealand since 2020 and the first international exhibition for Minimum Mass. I grew up in California but strangely I have never been to Texas. This trip is many exciting firsts for me.

How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send your project into the festival?

Raqi and Areito: We have watched the SXSW keynote talks for many years, but the one that really stuck with us and has become a kind of mantra for us is Mark Duplass’ 2015 movie THE CAVALRY ISN’T COMING. It’s a funny, serious, and tough love talk filled with great advice. As filmmakers it’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that if you get the right person’s attention or make a good business move doors will suddenly open. If we can instead remember that what matters most is the work and the relationships we have with our peers and community, then we don’t need a cavalry or anyone to save us and we have the momentum of our crew.

Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!

Raqi and Areito: We started thinking about making MINIMUM MASS in 2018. At that time a lot of exciting things were happening in VR and we were only starting to grapple with what the medium is capable of. But we noticed very quickly that many VR experiences were visually stylized and focused on whimsical or fairy tale-like stories. From a thematic perspective we wondered if we could tell a dark and gritty story in this medium. And as visual effects artists we also wondered if we could create a world that had a cinematic or photographic quality. So those were our early design pillars which ended up being shaped by lots of technical forces once we learned more about working in Unreal Engine and developing an experience that is optimized for the framerates and stereo rendering demands of VR. Ultimately it’s very challenging to do anything that approaches photorealism in VR, but we feel we made some progress by pushing at the boundaries of realism on this project.

Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this project?

Raqi and Areito: We love the films of Stanley Kubrick and return to them often for visual, emotional, and story inspiration. We’re paraphrasing here, but Stanley Kubrick once said that a good film must be interesting and feel true. This is advice we take to heart. It helps us eliminate a lot of our ideas that might be interesting but don’t come from a place of truth or are true but not that interesting for a wide audience. That sweet spot in the middle is where all the stories we love live and where we constantly write towards.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?

Raqi and Areito: Once we decided to make the virtual reality experience 6DoF and real-time—which means every frame is based on the participant’s perspective and is rendered on the fly—the first thing we had to accept is that there is no camera! So as directors in VR, we exist in a kind of tension with the participant where we want to curate the experience but the participant needs agency in order to feel good in this space that urges them to move around and make their own choices. One of the cool things we figured out is that scale becomes the visual language that is unique to the medium of VR. By using both room scale and miniature scale in Minimum Mass we developed a way to move between moments of awe, immersion, and intimacy that in many ways makes up for the lack of a traditional camera.

What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

Raqi and Areito: Over the last few years we’ve been lucky enough to attend many virtual exhibitions for XR experiences. The barrier for XR is not so much the hardware, which tech companies are really focused on improving, but distribution platforms. We need platforms that will capture the amazing work that is shown at festivals and bring them to audiences outside of the festival space. Right now we can use tech platforms like Oculus, Viveport, or Steam, but these platforms are mostly focused on games or mainstream content. If festivals could create storefronts on these platforms that allows their curated XR content to live beyond the festival then audiences could have the brand recognition of their favorite festival and seamless delivery as a combined experience. Mostly importantly, filmmakers would reach wider audiences.

If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?

Raqi: A piece of advice one of my animation professor’s gave me was to always keep my personal art practice alive, regardless of my day job. Studio work in particular is demanding. The skill and creativity required to perform a day job often leaves little bandwidth for personal projects. If you want to be a filmmaker then you gotta have a plan to keep the work and craft going but also to keep your artistic soul alive. I don’t have any great answers on how to do this, I only know that this is what we must do if we’re going to tell our own stories.

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

Raqi: This is such a hard question because animation, especially experimental animation, excels in the short form. From a classic perspective I will say Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog. When I was in grad school in Los Angeles, Yuri came to speak to us and he described his painstaking process of painting on glass. For Yuri, the movement of oil paint was a technology. This film in particular is so enigmatic—it is sweet, melancholy, and existential in a uniquely fairy tale kind of way.  Areito and Raqi: More recently a film that we loved is Alberto Mieglo’s Witness. It’s a masterful interplay of realism and experimentation. The first time we watched it we were convinced it was live-action that had been painted over. But then we understood that it’s all straight ahead animation painted frame by frame. Mieglo was an art director on the Spider Verse and you can see the movement from highly experimental to something more streamlined for big budget feature. More broadly, this is what we love about animation. It allows for an interplay between highly experimental and big budget mainstream filmmaking. Right now in particular is such an exciting time for the medium of animation.

This film and many others like it will be showing at South By Southwest taking place March 11-20. For more information point your browser to!

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