The Ashe ’68 VR Experience
Launched at the 2018 US OPEN, The Ashe ’68 Virtual Reality Experience brings viewers into the intimate moments right before Arthur Ashe’s historic 1968 US Open win, weaving together 360° video re-creations, archival material and evocative, never-before-seen 360° stop-motion sand animation to tell the story. From his walk through the halls of the West Side Tennis Club, to his historic pre-match press conference to his winning match point, the viewer is right there, all presented in Virtual Reality. From the internal pressures he felt during the tumultuous cultural shift of '68 while walking down the halls of the West Side Tennis Club, to his historic pre-match press conference to his winning match point, the viewer is right there, immersed in Arthur’s historic day, witnessing his defining moment as an athlete and his emergence as an activist on the world stage.
Distribution and Impact
The 8-minute Ashe ‘68 VR Experience is perfect for festivals, exhibitions, events, museums and educational settings. Having been a huge hit at the 2018 US Open as part of the 50th Anniversary of the US Open and Arthur’s historic win, it will travel to more top-tier international tennis events, as well as schools (from lower school through university), conferences and other gatherings. It will be shared with audiences attending screenings of the forthcoming Arthur Ashe feature documentary. And it will be featured as part of a traveling photography exhibition. Everywhere, it will engage audiences with a story that blends sports and social justice into an experience as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.
Sports Illustrated Onboard!
September, 2018: Sports Illustrated is now the official distributor of the VR film. They are building a “hub" for the Ashe VR project on the SI site, similar to what they did for their groundbreaking Capturing Everest project. Press release here.
Ashe ‘68 at the 2018 US Open
We had a tremendously successful run at the Open. The outdoor photo exhibit was viewed by several hundred thousand people. The indoor exhibition and Virtual Reality piece were experienced by 3000-5000 people per day. Reactions were simply tremendous. Some folks cried, some relived memories and shared impressions about Arthur, and others learned about him for the very first time. It was a very fitting tribute to Arthur for the 50th anniversary.
Here are a few anecdotes from our colleague Brad Lichtenstein, the Ashe 68 VR Director.
A tennis coach came through the exhibit. After watching the VR I spotted him by the podium weeping. I asked him what impacted him but he was too choked up and, with an apology, left our space. I decided to go find him and let him know that I was the maker of the VR film. I found him in the courtyard. When I introduced myself as the filmmaker he embraced me. After he let go he told me that the film meant so much to him because he's fought hard to recruit and coach black girls for his team (a top-10 Division 1 program). After years of just one or none, he finally has 4 on the team and his inspiration, always, was Arthur Ashe. He has his portrait above his desk and he knew him a little. He then told me that if Arthur were alive he would have loved the film.
Other moments: the woman from Haiti who said she wanted to go on the road with the film. The woman from a fortune 500 company who said she wanted to bring the film to her company's diversity and inclusion training. The young black woman (maybe 14) who said she always thought Arthur Ashe was a rich white guy who got his name on the stadium for donating money.
So many but these are the stories I've been telling.
VR Director's Statement - Brad Lichtenstein:
Rex Miller and Beth Hubbard, the project producers, met my team on a sub-zero day in Milwaukee to discuss how the story of Arthur Ashe's coming of age in 1968 could work in VR. For me, this was a dream come true. My life and career in documentary has been focused on civil rights and the struggle for justice. What I wanted to do for this piece was to immerse our audience both in Ashe's extraordinary victory and in his experience of rising to the fore in 1968 where the focus of the world was less on his athleticism and more on his being black. I wanted to help the audience understand that beneath his cool personality was an inner life that wrestled with the pressures of that time.
To do this, I combined live action with sand animation, a fluid other worldly style that's never been tried in VR. Together with his actual voice culled from hundreds of hours of footage and interviews, we created an experience that takes you inside a moment when Arthur Ashe the rising start became Arthur the champion both for tennis and human rights. The live action takes you right there, on the court for his victory. The sand animation takes you into his Ashe's backstory and state of mind. We accomplished this by assembling a very talented team. At CRS my colleague, Maddy Power, produced a shoot with over 50 people on set at the actual location for the 1968 US Open, West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, NY. My colleague, Jeff Fitzsimmons solved crazy problems like how to create an insanely large light table to animate in sand for VR. My long time music collaborator, Vernon Reid, brought 1968 to life with a psychedelic acid jazz and sax forward soundtrack. Our sound designer created a world to go with our animation. I can't imagine this project without the ridiculously talented animation team of Masha Vasilkovsky and Ruah Edelstein who created over 4000 frames of "sand paintings" for this piece. And we were beyond fortunate to work with artist Matt Kemper and an incredible team at Legend 3D to create visual effects throughout the experience. We aimed to take full advantage of the 360 world for this story and hope the audience finds themselves immersed, learning not just about Arthur Ashe's moment in history, but what it was like to be a black man coming of political age at a time not so dissimilar from today.
Chris Eubanks, ATP tour player (top 200), who portrays Arthur Ashe in the "Match Point" section of the film.
Animation Team Statement - Masha Vasilkovsky & Ruah Edelstein/ Lumen Animae on Shooting 360° Animation:
It was our honor to be approached with Arthur Ashe project, as we deeply appreciate the contribution this world champion athlete did for the human rights movement. Besides the subject itself, the use of sand animation technique for Virtual Reality is an exciting event in the world of Animation. Being fluid and malleable material, sand provides a strong graphic style and great morphing capabilities. Supported by a superb tech team, which set up our VR shooting station, we proceeded by studying historical references. We worked closely with the project directors on developing the animated sequences and likeness of the characters featured.