In our series of interviews with women in STEM, we’ve talked to Jannicke Mikkelsen FNF (Norwegian Society of Cinematographers), a freelance Virtual Reality (VR) film Director and Cinematographer based in London, United Kingdom. She is internationally known for her work with the British Rock band Queen and lead singer Adam Lambert on their Virtual Reality film “VR The Champions” (2017).
Her path is incredible, featuring a National Championship at speed skating, working for Paramount Pictures, building a Virtual Reality installation for the Apollo Celebration Gala hosted at NASA Kennedy Space Center, recovering from a horrific injury and being a VR Film Director. Mikkelsen’s groundbreaking VR work awarded her the 2017 IMAGO Award for Extraordinary Technical Achievement (European Society of Cinematographers), and recognition as one of Norway’s most influential women in tech of 2017.
What do you like about your job?
“My name is Jannicke Mikkelsen and I am a VR Film Director.”
Wait… What exactly is a VR Film Director? I’m not surprised I frequently get asked this question, because my job didn’t even exist 3-4 years ago. It was only as we saw an influx of virtual reality products hit the market that film creators like myself started investigating what type of stories we could tell within the realm of VR. What I like best about my job is exactly this, the fact that it is a completely new job that perfectly marries the tech world with the film and entertainment world.
Virtual reality gives me the tools to engage with my audience on a completely new level where the impact is far greater when the viewer experiences the film in the first person, as if they were there themselves. The gift of giving someone the opportunity to experience a place or story they would otherwise never be able to see is incredibly rewarding as a filmmaker.
Why have you decided to pursue a career in this field? What was your inspiration?
I didn’t choose VR, I’d say VR chose me.
Life never pans out exactly the way you plan it. As a young teenager I was fascinated by taking 3D photography, something I had learned from a NASA website following the STS-99 mission; a rather obscure hobby, yes, probably.
However, like most other young girls in Norway, I also had an obsession with horse riding and I took riding lessons at a local stable. Unfortunately, horse riding is a high-risk sport and I came crashing off my horse and landed so that my skull sustained multiple fractures, and thereafter started a five-year-long recovery battle to get back to regular life. For reasons I can’t even explain myself, I started speed skating and loved every second I could spend on the ice going as fast as I could. Eight years after my accident I won bronze at the Norwegian National championships and I went on to train with the Olympic development team in Utah, USA. Unfortunately, my skating career was short lived as I sustained an injury I simply couldn’t recover from. That is when I re-sparked my interest in 3D.
James Cameron’s film Avatar had just hit the cinemas all over the World and I said to myself that 3D films are what I wanted to make. I already knew something that very few understood. I started working for Paramount Pictures on a 3D feature film called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. I never had more fun on a job as when this slasher-blood and gore film was made.
So I decided to go to film school to get a masters in cinematography to further my career towards becoming a 3D filmmaker. When I graduated from the National Film and Television School in England I got a call to work on another 3D film. However, the producer had mixed up the terminology 3D and 360, and it turned out I was working on a VR film. And that’s how I got stuck into VR! This summer I built a Virtual Reality installation for the Apollo Celebration Gala hosted at NASA Kennedy Space Center. The installation is called the Lunar Window where you can take a selfie on the moon! To make matters even more geektastic, the Lunar Window was situated under the belly of the ginormous Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon and next to the Lunar Window was the real-life Lunar Module.
Somehow it turns out life does create a full circle no matter how bizarre the road of life gets. For this reason alone I love working with virtual reality films and immersive technology and couldn’t be happier of the producer’s terminology blunder that got me on the path I am now.
Did you have a turning point in your career?
I have done many amazing things so far in my career, although my experience from sustaining a serious brain injury that cut all function of my own body from my neck and down probably made me strive to have a driven purpose in life. No matter how bad turn my work life may seem to take, trust me it’s not all a dance on roses, I just think “well, it’s been far worse”. Oh, and I love completion, so I’m sure this is also a driving force to get through those tough times where you feel you are giving everything and achieving nothing. Then one day you just break through and you wonder what all the fuss was about.
What do you think is one example of one way you have enjoyed your human rights, in learning or at work?
Ah, this is an interesting question. The more I travel the World making films it becomes obvious to me that growing up in Norway, which is a country that gives all children equal rights to education and the chance to develop as an independent individual, are rights I probably have taken for granted. The more I travel I see groups of people who are not given these same basic rights I had.
I am happy to work in VR because it gives me the opportunity to let others experience situations I have filmed where they experience first hand what it is like not to have basic human rights such as access to water, a place to live, they also face discrimination.
When we understand each other we are much more equipped to stand together to make a change. Yet another reason why I love creating VR films is forcing people to witness a story first hand. Can you imagine the relief you feel when all you have to do to get out of that situation is to take off your VR headset. It’s a terrible guilty feeling realizing the people you met in the VR film are still living their lives unable to change without help.
Are there any challenges facing women in your educational or work settings, and if so, what do you see as one possible solution?
The film and tech world is extremely male-dominated. It can be a challenge to be accepted into a group. From my experience, it can be a challenge being taken seriously as a fresh-faced newcomer. The established industry seems to have certain glass ceilings in place, however, new-tech does not. In the field of disruptive technology, I see a rapid growth of females taking over the market on research and product development.
As a Director, I am responsible for putting together teams to complete the film production. Even I myself struggle from time to time to find girls to complete my team. I prefer a balanced team of 50/50 split between the sexes. In my opinion, it is the recipe for a successful production without personal egos getting in the way of effective work. I have noticed that it is not a typical female trait to say: “Hi this is me, this is what I can do, and I want to work with you.” I would love to see more females with this attitude because tech and film are extremely competitive and this is the attitude that is needed to shine for someone looking to select a team consisting of strong individual members.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone just starting in your field?Know what you want to do, but don’t worry too much about where you will end up. I hate the stereotypical interview question: “So, where do you see yourself in 10 years?” Honestly, if you had seen where I was 10 years ago you could never have predicted where I am now and what I do now. I’d also say, don’t get too down when the going gets tough.
If you believe in what you do and you have put in a great deal of effort you will make a breakthrough at some stage.
If you get upset about setbacks it actually means your heart and soul is invested in what you do and that means you are doing the right thing that you should be doing. If you didn’t care so much about the setback, you probably aren’t doing what you are passionate about.