This Reenactment of a Violent Shootout Feels Like a Game—and That's the Point

The film is an emotional, tragic response to the GoPro-covered world.

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Jul 3 2014, 4:10pm
Image: JP Castel

On January 12, 1998, a dashcam mounted on a Laurens County, Georgia Sheriff's Dept. police car captured an altercation between Deputy Kyle Dinkheller and Andrew Howard Brannan. Their encounter quickly escalated from a routine traffic stop to Brannan's execution-style murder of Dinkheller

This tragic event is recreated in Random Stop, a point-of-view short film directed by UCLA graduate film student Benjamin Afrmann. 

Shot as an MFA thesis project, Arfmann's film premiered at South by Southwest 2014, and was student finalist for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). More recently, Random Stop racked up quite a number of views as one of Vimeo's Staff Picks. Arfmann said the short had an intense emotional impact on festival audiences, and it's easy to see why: the film really fries the nerves.

In creating the short, Arfmann, along with producer and visual effects artist JP Castel, took dialogue verbatim from the squad car's dashcam footage. To maintain tension, Arfmann shot the film in a single seven-minute take, which blurs and fades to black as Deputy Dinkheller dies. 

"The film was designed in response to the current POV/GoPro craze," he said in an email to Motherboard. "Most POV shorts I've seen, like Bad Motherfucker (which I love), have been adolescent hero fantasies. The hero picks up a gun, kills a ton of people, and saves the day."

"When our team decided to make a POV short, we emphatically wanted to do something more grounded and real—something that showed the actual consequences of gunplay, the danger, and the very real potential for tragedy that it can represent," he added. 

Arfmann also noted that he was inspired by gaming culture, and the immersive POV experiences offered by the Oculus Rift. As opposed to creating imaginary virtual worlds, he wanted to ground the film in reality. 

"I'm a gamer myself, and as excited as anyone about the promise that new tech like the Oculus holds for immersive fantasies," he said. "Our short aims to stay anchored in reality, however, and present the world as it is, not as we might like it to be. As technology progresses, I believe that both will be important: flights of fancy and sober reflection."  

There is no doubt that the film is sobering. In lesser hands it would simply deliver a large dose of unearned pathos; an easy manipulation of emotion. But, like United 93, which documented the doomed airplane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, Random Stop wields tragic suspense as a means of illuminating the way our various methods of viewing the world all have distinct effects on how we perceive it. 

Arfmann answerd some questions I had about the film by email. 

Motherboard: Why did you decide on this event for a POV Short?
Benjamin Afrmann: I had wanted to do a POV short for a while, but didn't want to do something like the GoPro stuff I had been seeing - hero fantasies where the protagonist picks up a gun, kills a ton of people, and saves the day. It was important to my team and I that we portray gun violence the way it actually is—messy, upsetting, and the cause of problems rather than a solution. When I encountered the story of Kyle's murder, it shook me deeply, and inspired a number of discussions about any number of issues: police procedure, gun control, and the basic ways we interact with one another day-to-day.

My hope is that in dramatizing Kyle's story, giving an audience the opportunity to really walk in his shoes, we've created something that will inspire the same kinds of deep conversations. There are no easy answers in Kyle's story, and it was important to me that our representation of his story reflect that.

What equipment did you use? A GoPro or other equipment?
We did 4.5 months of tests getting ready for this film, starting with a 5D bolted to a motorcycle helmet, working up to a GoPro, and ending up with a custom rig that mounted an SI-2K Nano onto a skydiving helmet with a backpack frame holding a Cinedeck, wireless follow focus and wireless video tap. Radiant Images in LA was essential in arriving at this solution—they were incredibly patient with a team of poor students who had a crazy idea and a lot of creativity, but not a lot of cash.

Immersive storytelling is at the stage cinema in general was at in the early 20th century. We're all just trying out a bunch of crazy experiments, testing the limits and discovering the grammar.

You'd like this type of sober, reality-based POV filmmaking to be used with Oculus Rift. Do you think it can produce empathy or reflection the way that something virtual, like the Conductar app can produce wonder with the Rift?
Some of my friends think I'm crazy, but I really do think that this is the future—it seems to be the direction we're headed in, like it or not. I had the opportunity to see Felix and Paul's demo of Strangers a few weeks ago, and I was just completely blown away with the complex, rich emotional experience that such a simple set up could create. Right now, I feel like immersive storytelling is at the stage cinema in general was at in the early 20th century—the technology is full of promise, and we're all just trying out a bunch of crazy experiments, testing the limits and discovering the grammar. When we were in pre-pro, I always called Random Stop "our little experiment." It seems to have been, at least in some ways, a successful one.

Have you run it through a Rift?
Not yet! My producer, JP Castel, and I are still on a wait list for a kit. But we've been talking with REMAP at UCLA and they've been gracious enough to invite us in to mess around with their hardware. We're also teaming back up with Radiant to investigate a few of the 360/globe camera capture solutions that are starting to crop up, looking forward toward true "live action VR." It's an exciting time to be telling stories.

Was it inspired at all by by POV films like Strange Days or Enter the Void? Perhaps not aesthetically, but formally?
100%. We consistently referenced both those films, along with the short film work of Jeff Chan, and numerous found footage films (which are different, but also weirdly similar to POV). The opening to Enter the Void was maybe what planted the seed in my head that POV could produce emotions very different than normal cinema—the sequence leading up to the moment in the bathroom is incredibly tense, and convinced me that POV would be the perfect way to "trap" an audience in a life or death experience, provoking a real sympathetic response that's worlds away from something more traditional like watching Harrison Ford outrun Tommy Lee Jones (though I will never get tired of The Fugitive, either).

Any final thoughts on POV, GoPro filmmaking, or Rift as a vehicle for real reflection, and not just escape?
I think the potential that all this new tech presents to share experiences and build empathy is undeniable. As JP is fond of saying, the Rift may not be the "thing" but it's the thing that gets us to the thing, if that makes sense. Eventually Strange Days will be upon us, and instead of listening to me tell you how my day was, you'll literally just live it. That's where we're headed, and I think we have an obligation as artists and makers to find ways to embrace this new tech in a humane, reflective way. Paul and Felix's work, and wild indie game projects like Gone Home, have all convinced me that it isn't just possible to share complex, intimate experiences in this new way, it's necessary.

Updated at 3:10 pm to include interview.