“How can I bring it to life for you?”
This is the leading question for Mia Tramz, the two-time Emmy Award winning producer, who just can’t stop engaging people in stories.
“Where I am right now is quite different from where I was three years ago. My life changed drastically during the pandemic.” Today, Mia Tramz is pursuing personal projects. Projects that take a long time to develop. Right now, she is in the middle of “a big one”– researching somewhere out in Utah. Far away from her chosen home in New York.
She worked four years on her last two projects, and she is not sure how long her latest endeavour will take this time. But that does not seem to concern her – she is a storyteller, and she knows that stories need time to develop. And: She is not only interested in telling a particular story but strives to create complete and immersive storytelling experiences.
Mia left her hometown Los Angeles to study Visual Arts at Columbia University. One of her professors, who was a famous artist at the time, managed to showcase his classes‘ work at MoMa PS1 – a modern art museum. Back then, Mia created “a giant thing”, a sculpture in yellow and pink, a little space of its own, in which she would lie down, next to a visitor, a stranger. Only a little sign asked people to lie next to her and to hold her hand while a love song played over and over again. “It was experimental at best”, she declares today. But looking back, even then this installation already expressed her desire to create experiences for others, to connect with them in a certain way that goes deeper than any commonplace art installation.
“After that, I was absolutely hooked with working with immersive technology.”
Mia Tramz, producer
All her professional life she has been experimenting with different types of formats of storytelling. She is someone who wants to get to the bottom of everything. Mia started as breaking news photo editor at Time Magazine, but soon enough her curiosity led her to being Head of Photo and Multimedia for time.com. What kind of story do you want to tell? What is the best medium to deliver this story? Mia has a talent for asking the right questions. Once she got interested in immersive storytelling, she would make it her priority to learn from as many people as possible.
In 2015, Mia produced Time’s first 360-video – an underwater experience with Fabien Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s grandson. “At the time, this was challenging”, she remembers, as there was only one prototype of a pressurized 360-camera available. “After that, I was absolutely hooked with working with immersive technology.”
When you watch a movie or play a video game you sit in front of a screen. With VR the viewer is able to act as the main character of their own story. With the story told from the viewer’s perspective, this means they take part in the narrative. They physically experience the story and are not just passively taking part in it, but are able to make active choices that are going to affect the narrative – and these choices can’t necessarily be controlled by the developer.
Being part of the narrative as a user is what makes immersive storytelling special, says Mia, and when Time Inc. decided to launch a companywide initiative called Life VR they made her Executive Director to work cross-company with more than 30 of the Time brands.
Mia places users in the middle of historical events
Mia’s first VR project “Remembering Pearl Harbour” is both historical and educational. It takes users back to 7th December 1941. In order to really understand what happened on this day, she wanted to turn a piece of potentially dry history around and put users in the middle of it all. Instead of pointing to reading about the event in a textbook, Mia asks: “How can I bring it to life for you?” In order to develop engaging stories she collaborates with a large variety of different experts – from historians to museums and memory workers. “I want my projects to be historically accurate.”
She brought her Pearl Harbour VR experience to different schools and museums and witnessed first-hand how powerful VR can be as a teaching tool, since VR can give people a sense of presence in a way that simply feels very real, as it conveys an overwhelming emotional sensation. “This set me on the path to really focus on creating not just VR experiences, but museum exhibits.” Accordingly, Mia intertwined the analogue and digital world to create new forms of storytelling – and became successful with museums exhibits. In museums, even if she would only have a low-fi setup, people would queue to wear the VR headset.
More projects followed these first steps into VR storytelling. In 2020, she produced “The March”, an immersive exhibit that allows visitors to participate in the 1963 March on Washington and witness Dr King’s famous “Dream”-speech first hand.
Another ground-breaking project followed with “Capturing Everest”, the first ever bottom to top climb of Mount Everest filmed in 360 virtual reality. Mia is certain that people want to interact with this type of technology, but she is also aware of its risks: VR seems to create the possibility to jump from one reality to another, getting straight into very emotional situations. “When you come out of the headset, how and where do I give you a space to process what you saw?” For Mia an answer to this question has to be part of the experience as well, and the technology is quite new: “We’re still not VR literate, and maybe our brains can’t tell apart what is real and what not when using VR.”
VR storytelling needs to be brought to the people
Over the span of three years, Mia produced about 30 VR experiences at Time and won two Emmys, while being a one-woman-show most of the time – that means she would work on everything: story development, production, distribution, marketing and sales.
And one of the biggest issues would always be how to finance these projects, as VR is still very expensive, and media outlets like Time Inc. don’t have the possibility to finance them: „I never had a budget. I had to self-fund all my projects. I would have to go out and find a sponsor for it as soon as I had a good idea.“ Mia is convinced that for now, it is better to take VR stories to the people – to schools and museums. But then again you have to ask yourself as a production company: „How do you survive when you spend millions of Dollars when there is no possible way of returning the money right now?“
In 2020, Mia Tramz decided to leave Time Magazine. Now she works as an independent creator. With visual storytelling being the most important aspect of her work, she does not want to spend all her time looking for funding. But she knows that she will always find a way to tell her stories and get people engaged with it.