Shaun Gladwell on ‘Storm Riders’ and the power of VR

12 June, 2018 by Jackie Keast

Farhana Hussain, Chadnee Shah and Shaun Gladwell in ‘Storm Riders’. 

Director Shaun Gladwell and producer/writer Leo Faber’s Storm Riders is billed as the “world’s first anti-Islamophobic skateboarding 360 documentary.”


The work is the fifth virtual reality collaboration between the pair. In 2016, they formed Badfaith, an experimental content collective whose other members include Daniel Crooks, Natasha Pincus, Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Luci Schroder and Tony Albert.

The collective’s first project was Orbital Vanitas, a CGI work that placed the viewer in the Earth’s orbit, selected as part of Sundance’s New Frontier 2017 program and by the New York Times’ Op-Docs platform.

As a documentary, Storm Riders is quite a different use of VR and marks Gladwell’s first foray into the space.

It follows two female Muslim skateboarders from East London, Chadnee Shah and Farhana Hussain, who travel to Sydney with Gladwell to help him recreate his 2000 video artwork ‘Storm Sequence’ on Bondi Beach. While they were filming, the 2017 UK terrorist attacks occurred and the work also captures the women’s responses.

Commissioned by SBS, Storm Riders was the first virtual reality project to receive funding under Screen Australia’s documentary arm. As well as being available on SBS’s VR app, it is currently screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival’s VR line-up, which Gladwell and Faber curated.

Using a VR headset, IF meets Gladwell (based in the UK) in a virtual “metaverse”  – an animated, futuristic downtown hub in the program High Fidelity – to talk about work and the festival program. His avatar is that of a smiling artist’s manikin. I’m not entirely sure what I look like, but my arms are covered in what looks like black armour. Where we meet is a public space where anybody can drop in; our interview is observed by a stranger that has an avatar like the pink Power Ranger.

Virtual reality is really an umbrella term, says Gladwell, and social/interactive VR – like what we are doing in the metaverse – is a growth area, which creators like Chris Milk are keen to explore. On the other hand, Gladwell says he’s excited by the fact that VR may also be a “really solitary, isolated experience that can be very beautiful.”

Gladwell was initially drawn to VR as a storytelling medium due to its immersive nature: the fact that it completely anchors you in the world the filmmaker has captured. While he admits that the story depicted in Storm Riders could have been told through a more traditional format, he feels VR was the best possible medium at the time for it to be an engaging experience.

Shaun Gladwell’s avatar in the metaverse.

Gladwell, an ex-pro skater, first met Shah in London after she approached him while he was training. She’d just started skateboarding herself, along with Hussain, and told him they were looking for a coach. The trio soon became friends, and Gladwell wanted to help tell their story.

“I don’t naturally come to documentary as a form,” he says. “It’s not something that I’m very experienced with. But I certainly knew that I had to make a documentary about these two friends of mine because I was so inspired by them.”

Gladwell says he was keen to experiment with camera techniques not commonly used in VR, but common in documentary. Storm Riders sees Shah and Hussain uses 360 diary cam and small discrete cameras to capture their experiences. “It was all produced within the spirit of experimentation.”

When it came to programming the Sydney Film Festival’s VR strand, Gladwell says both he and Faber are typically drawn to projects that are risky, heartfelt and try something new, as well as those that put you in an “extreme space” you may not be able to experience in other mediums.

The SFF VR line-up consists of several programs: Home Grown, which features local works Carriberrie, Parragirls, Rone and Summation of Force; Asia Immersed, which includes works from creators from China, Taiwan and South Korea, and includes Everything Flows, The Whale, In The Pictures, and Your Spiritual Temple Sucks; and Planet Immersive – Coral and I, and Greenland Melting.

There’s also an interactive work from UTS/Animal Logic students Terrachi, and Milk and Damian Kulash’s Lambchild Superstar, which allows the viewer to make music with animals.

Next up for a Badfaith is a group work that will involve all members of the collective.

Sydney Film Festival continues until June 17. Storm Riders is also available via the SBS VR app, and will be at ACMI in Melbourne from June 14 until October 28.