Raqi Syed

Raqi Syed profile picture

Senior Lecturer and Programme Director - MDT School of Design Innovation


MA Victoria University of Wellington

MFA University of Southern Califorina

BA University of Southern Califiornia


Raqi Syed began her career in feature animation as a Lighting Artist for Disney Feature Animation on films such as Meet the Robinsons and Tangled. She then went on to work as a Senior Technical Director with Weta Digital on AvatarThe Planet of the Apes films, and The Hobbit Trilogy. A full list of her film credits can be found at IMDB.

In 2016 The Los Angeles Times pegged Raqi for its list of 100 Industry professionals who can help fix Hollywood’s Diversity Problem. She is actively involved in the Wellington VR community and has been profiled as a leading figure in New Zealand VR research by Radio New Zealand, The Moon Unit, ProjectR, and The Wellington ICT Graduate School. She has been selected as a 2018 Sundance New Frontier Story Lab Fellow and Turner Fellow. Her current XR research is supported by DevLab and the New Zealand Film Commission.


Currently, Raqi teaches CCDN 422: Design Professional Practice. The course seeks to engage students in the practices that will propel them in their transition from academic life to professional careers as artists. Students are encouraged to answer the central question, “What is my story as an artist?” and use this to construct an industry and research focused portfolio. They also investigate strategies for sustaining long-term engagement with their artistic practice.

Raqi also teaches MDDN 431: Lighting & Rendering. MDDN 431 looks at historic beauty lighting practices such as Renaissance portraiture and how these techniques can be traced through the history of art to classical Hollywood to contemporary Visual Effects practices. Students are encouraged to think like digital cinematographers and understand how lighting can be used as a storytelling tool.


Raqi's research is primarily focused on the relationship between digital technology and storytelling. Her work as a Visual Effects Artist informs her critical writing about cinema and how new technologies continue to shape our contemporary understanding of storytelling. Her research pivots around the idea that new mediums like virtual reality must draw upon and extend the tradition of established media such as literature, theater, and film. She also writes about film, film technology, and the business of visual effects. Her essays have appeared in Salon, TechCrunch, Vice: Motherboard, Quartz, and Avidly: A LA Review of Books Channel.

Raqi is also a Coordinator in the Virtual Worlds DRIL Stream. In 2016 she received a grant from Victoria University of Wellington’s Digital Futures initiative to investigate the relationship between cinema and virtual reality narrative strategies. The project, titled “Circle versus Square: VR as the Third Experience,” produced a short VR experience, The Girl Who Sat by the Door. The project incorporated spherical camera construction, 3D sound, constructing VR pipelines, and directing for performance in VR. “Circle versus Square” relied heavily on relationships between the Design, Film, and Music programs, encouraging a cross-disciplinary approach to research and exhibition.

Current Research Platforms

Expanded Storytelling

How does story structure unfold across mediums? And how can traditional principles such as “the hero’s journey” be adapted to new multi-pov or non-hero driven narratives? By investigating forms as varied as the personal essay, the novel, short stories, feature screenplays, and experimental short films, this research stream explores how written prose provide a flexible framework for understanding story world architecture.

Designing Narratives for Virtual Reality

Thousands of years of art history and image making have taught us how to tell a story in the format of the square. But what happens when the story world expands into a circle, how does the volume offer new design precedents and challenges? How can hybrid mediums such as cinematic games or interactive fiction shape the future of media? This research stream is an investigation of thematic and formal considerations via scriptwriting, pipelining, camera rig construction, production, and post-production practices in VR.

Media Archaeology of Visual Effects

This project examines the professional practices and technology developed in the late 1970s, the period when Visual Effects (VFX) transitioned from practical in-camera to digitally driven pipelines. The research will be conducted through archival material, interviews with practitioners, and textual analysis. It will investigate the following: 1. How did early VFX houses conduct R&D, build technology, engage with studios, and position VFX within the larger context of filmmaking? And 2. Can the collaborative nature VFX practice serve as a counter-point to the discourse of auteur studies?

Illuminated Worlds

Our understanding of beauty lighting principles for the human face dates back to the Renaissance period when Rembrandt van Rijn developed his signature portraiture style. This style was adapted during the classical Hollywood period for cinema close-ups and continues to function as the template for how characters are lit in computer generated worlds.

This research looks at additional precedents for contemporary lighting styles such as the traditions of landscape painting in the American Sublime and New Zealand portrait painters such as C.F. Goldie. It investigates the relationship between stylized direct lighting and image based lighting, how complex environments can be lit procedurally, and an evaluation of real-time rendering for both photorealistic and non-photorealistic styles.

Recent Publications

Senses of Cinema | March 2019
"Total Cinema: Or, ‘What is VR?’"

Scoundrel Time | April 2017 | Nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize
"My Mother’s Pilgrimage"

Salon | December 2016
"Sex And The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Movie Superheroes Are Being Scrubbed Of Desire"

Quartz | August 2016
"The Original Virtual Reality Pioneers Were 19th-CenturyFilmmakers"

Vice: Motherboard | May 2015
"Why VFX is Being Vilified: Backlash to the Future"

TechCrunch | February 2015
"Visual Effects: The Gender Bias Behind the Screen"

Selection of Conference Presentations and Public Lectures

Festival de Cannes XR | Marché du Film Marketplace | May 19, 2019
"Kaleidoscope’s AR/MR Focused Development Showcase”

Breaking the Glass Frame: Women in Animation | University of Southern California | October 7 2018
"Navigating the Cutting Edge of New Media

Human-Digital Content Interaction for Immersive 4D Home Entertainment | NZ–Korea Workshop | November 16 2017
"Cinematic 360 Production, A Case Study: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

VRARA | ProjectR, Wellington | September 2017
“Immersive Cinema & Explorations in VR Content Creation”

American New Wave: A Retrospective | Bangor University | June 4-6 2017
“Expanded Cinema ++: The French Avant-Garde, The New American Cinema, and Virtual Reality”

Future Realities | New Zealand Tech Week | May 10 2017
“Cinematic 360 VR Production Workshop”