‘Step to the Line’ for an Intimate Look at the American Prison System

Step to the Line is now available on Within. Learn about its creators’ stories, production process, and inspiration below.

By Ricardo Laganaro, Director and Writer

What are the key points of interest about this project? In other words, why should someone watch it?

The first time I entered Solano State Prison, I realized everything I thought I knew about the prison system — and prisoners — was wrong. If you think you know what visiting a prison feels like, and what kind of people you’re going to find there, you might well be wrong, too. “Step to the Line” captures the reality of what it means to be incarcerated.

What was the inspiration behind creating this project?

When I sat down with Defy Ventures to discuss how best to showcase the work they do inside prisons, their founder Cat [Hoke, Founder & CEO] explained the emotional transformation that volunteers typically experience during their first day inside a facility. I realized that we had to create a piece that didn’t just discuss their work, but actually made the audience feel like they were there, having the same emotional experience as the on-site volunteers.

How does your project push the boundaries of storytelling?

I wanted to move past the voice-over and talking-heads format of VR documentaries. I tried to capture the actual situation and present authentic points of view, without interjecting any opinions; I wanted to break our preconceived stereotypes about inmates and the prison system. To me, this was far more powerful than writing a script and then looking for the right images to illustrate it — and watching the final result, I’m pretty sure I never would have been able to write the moments that ended up on film.

It’s often said that VR storytelling can connect viewers more closely with subjects that may otherwise seem distant or foreign.. How does your project accomplish this?

We hope that “Step to the Line” has the power to make people realize that they are not that different from someone who serves time.

What are some of the most challenging moments when creating this project?

In this case, visiting the location and interviewing prospective characters ahead of time was impossible. To make it even harder, we were only allowed to shoot a few days inside each facility, so we had to hit the ground running. That would be challenging on any film; it was even more difficult compounded with the need to understand prison dynamics and to overcome all the emotions and prejudices that can emerge when entering a maximum-security prison.

In your experience, how is directing a VR project different than directing a traditional film? What role does sound play in your project? How do you use sound to increase immersion into the story?

Directing a VR project is quite different than a traditional film. The audience is inside the scene, so as creators, we have the power to teleport the public into our story — and to make this teleportation work, sound is crucial. While filming, we spent a lot of time recording all the different environments in the prison to make each scene sound fully distinct. Each time we created a cut in post-production, we used strong sound elements to mark the space changing, so the audience could feel transported. Surprisingly, this can reinforce the feeling of presence.

Is there any precise moment in this experience that you find most impactful?

There is a moment when the protagonist tells a volunteer how he lost a son, and how that loss related to his time in prison. The straightforward and brave way he tells it, and the reaction of the volunteer, make this moment really impactful.

What made Within a good partner to distribute this experience?

To me, every piece on Within raises the bar of VR content in some way. Having my film included on Within serves as recognition that I’ve created a piece that brings something new and meaningful to the cinematic VR format.