Image credit: UKSG

A short while ago, I gave Catherine Allen the honour of being the Hero of VR in 2016 for some of the big projects she has led the creation of for the BBC, including No Small Talk and Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel. Among her other projects, Catherine is now advising others on how to pursue their career with the Edinburgh TV Festival’s Talent Schemes.

Recently she’s been mentoring in various ways for quite a few years now, either formally (like at conference, a hackathon or as part of a scheme) or informally, with people she has line managed. I had the opportunity to speak to her about her life, work, and what she has been up to recently.

What has happened since you were named a Hero of VR in 2016?

It’s been a fantastic few months. The VR industry has evolved rapidly over the last year or so, and as it’s grown, I’ve been asking myself which part of it I can offer the most value to. The answer now seems really clear: I want to help VR go mainstream by getting to it diverse audiences who wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘early adopters’. Emerging technology, like VR, is currently way too exclusive; it is predominantly white men making products for white men. VR is such a new medium that we can shape it significantly for future generations.

Don’t be afraid to state your ambitions publicly

An industry that is diverse in terms of its workforce and customers is obviously a healthier industry. Since 2016, I have decided to dedicate myself to reaching broad audiences. I’ve been running workshops with young people, writing for various publications about the public response to VR, speaking at conferences about VR’s ethical dimension, and getting stuck into some exciting consultancy projects.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently curating a season of VR in June at one of the UK’s leading arts cinemas – Watershed in Bristol. We want to show audiences what VR is really good at, and learn about an effective way to format the participant’s viewing experience. The programme isn’t announced yet, but to be kept up-to-date on VR Sessions at Watershed you can register for updates here.

How do the Talent Schemes help those who want to get in to VR?

VR is such a new industry that it can be hard for people to know how it is structured, what’s opportunities are available and how to progress a career within it. There aren’t many go-to industry bodies to go to for information and guidance, in the same way there are for other parts of the media. This is why at this early stage, sharing experience is vital. It is fantastic that EITF are running their talent schemes and including VR, as providing forums to share expertise are crucial right now.

It is also specifically important that VR grows to be the most diverse and healthy industry it can be. Mentoring schemes like the one I am involved with an can address this by fostering talent from a broader range of backgrounds.

What’s your top tip to stand out from the crowd in such a competitive industry?

Don’t be afraid to state your ambitions publicly. That way others know how best to direct their support towards you. And ignore imposter syndrome – most people feel it at some stage; it’s just a sign that you’re comfort zone is expanding and that you’re growing as an individual.

What are the most common barriers to progressing in the industry?

The most common barrier people face in VR is lack of knowledge about how things work on an industry wide level. The reason why is simple; the structure is still being formed (and you can help form it!). There isn’t an established industry body yet. Job titles haven’t even been established yet, let alone career routes!

Who was your inspiration when you first entered the industry?

I remember having a wave of motivation to get into VR when Richard Nockles, of Surround Vision and Sky VR delivered his presentation at Sheffield Doc Fest in 2015. He made the industry feel so welcoming and innovative I realised that my skills could be quite a good fit. Almost instantly I realised that VR was something that I could contribute to, and from then on my excitement about the space grew.

There aren’t many go-to industry bodies to go to for information and guidance, in the same way there are for other parts of the media. This is why at this early stage, sharing experience is vital.

From a long term perspective, my grandma Joan Levitt MBE has been a huge inspiration to me. She was passionate about innovation in theatre and very influential in the development of ‘theatre in the round’ (where the audience watch the show from all sides), where she chaired the fundraising for the famous New Vic Theatre in Stoke. There are many parallels between virtual reality and theatre as a whole, however there’s even more connection between theatre in the round and VR; as a creator, you have to think about everything from every angle!

What are some of the biggest misconceptions held by people trying to get into the industry?

That VR is super techy and only for gamers, geeks or people who love coding. Yes, there is the hands-on technical side, and that’s really important, but there are so many other skills needed in the VR industry, from events management to user testing to theatre directing. It’s all just as relevant. A whole industry is forming.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was a student, my drama teacher stressed to us that with life you always get out what you put in. Our careers often end up being a reflection of ourselves, so make sure that reflection shows off your best side.

Sounds wonderful. Great to speak to you!

And you too!

There isn’t an established industry body yet. Job titles haven’t even been established yet, let alone career routes

Submissions for the Edinburgh TV Festival’s Talent Schemes are open until April 28.

Tom Ffiske


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