After having visited the Tribeca Film Festival already, I will also be travelling to the International Film Festival in Venice this year. Yay! As the oldest of its kind worldwide, the Venice Film Festival is just as venerable as it sounds; and even though virtual reality only joined the festivities last year, it is regarded as one of the best VR-centric exhibits. I took a closer look at this year’s Venice VR program to compile a brief and unashamedly personal foretaste.
The location: extravagant – the little island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, just outside of Venice, accessible only by boat. I am already dreading to see how easy (or rather: difficult) it will be to garner a seat. In any case, I think it quite fascinating of the La Biennale organization to place such a novel and innovative medium like VR on such an ancient island, of all places. In medieval times, victims of the plague came here to (more or less) wait for their demise. I am quite the chicken when it comes to horror in VR – even under ordinary circumstances. This place might be creepy enough without any goggles…
Venice VR: A Cocktail of Installations, Roomscale VR and 360-Degree Film
Venice VR’s program appears pretty mixed. To handle the breadth of experiences on offer, all VR projects are being split into two groups: interactive and linear VR experiences. The contest sees the projects compete for their respective category’s prize, that is: the award for the best interactive VR experience (11 nominations) and for the best linear VR experience (19 nominations). A category-spanning prize for the best immersive story will be awarded too.
Alongside the dramaturgical criterion of interactive or linear, the projects come in three presentation types, unrelated to the awards: VR theater, stand-up and installations. In the VR Theater, multiple (seated) spectators can view 360-degree film simultaneously through more basic goggles. The festival in Tribeca used a similar setup. The installations require the highest level of complexity. According to the announcements, these will both feature physical objects as well as experiment with live actors. These installations are sure to additionally include multiplayer experiences.
Enough theorizing. Precisely which works will be shown? Below, a brief and personal selection of VR experiences I look forward to most:
Seeing as Jack: Part One already stole my heart, I am most eager to see The Horrifically Real Virtuality. According to curators Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac, this is the most elaborate and largest of this year’s installations. It is especially intriguing too, as the director, Marie Jourdren, already exhibited in Venice last year, with Alice: a collaboration with Mathias Chelebourg – it was a theater installation with real actors, not unlike Jack. Even though I have not seen Alice, I expect similar magnificence from this year’s installation (see also this behind-the-scenes teaser). According to the program, the experience will run for an impressive 40 minutes. On their website, the production company DVgroup reveals a little more: the plot is based on film director Ed Wood’s life story (star of the VR experience: his ghost!). It revolves around a film currently in production that finds itself on the brink of collapse. The VR experience’s participants will be led through the 70 sqm big installation and will be able to take part in the film’s shooting. I hope this will play out exactly as planned during the Venice VR festival. I beg of you, dear god of festivals: keep the waiting list short!
Appearing just as promising as The Horrifically Real Virtuality, and also made in France, is Eclipse, described as a multiplayer-escape-room-space-adventure (exactly…wow!). And as though those hyphens weren’t enough, the whole thing is supposed to be experienceable in “4D.” 4D – something I’ve experienced once before in a cinema in New York. During an immersive short film, I was blown at, punched in the back, or sprayed with water as the action required. I shall look forward to the surprised screams (myself included), should Eclipse dare something of the sort.
Definitely worth a mention is the premiere of the Spheres series’ newest episode – in reverse order. Episode 1 will celebrate its debut in Venice; while I’ve already seen the third episode, featuring Patti Smith as the announcer, at Tribeca’s festival. While it was no doubt pretty cool (space’n’stuff!) – I was not blown away. I might just be a total philistine, though: after all, the series was sold for a seven-figure sum earlier this year! In any case, what’s nice about its appearance at Venice VR is that all three episodes will for the first time be viewable in order.
Yet another promising title comes with A Discovery of Witches – Hiding in Plain Sight, a fictional VR film in which the viewer can experience the entire story through the eyes of both main characters. I’ve always loved a change of perspective in VR and am keen to find out whether the VR experience can set new impulses regarding storytelling. The experience is part of the eponymous Sky-Fantasy series set to start soon and looking like mix of Harry Potter and True Blood.
Of course, one project among the interactive VR projects cannot go unmentioned. Exactly – I’m talking about Kobold by Berlin-based company AnotherWorld VR. I have already reported on this beautiful project in an earlier article (in German) and I could not imagine a better place for its premiere!
A couple of question crop up when thinking of Awawena. This is a VR documentary about a shaman in the Amazon – one of the first women of this vocation – and directed by Lynette Wallforth, who last year was awarded an Emmy for her 360-degree film Collisions. Admittedly, I was not impressed by Collisions in a filmic sense (though I really loved the animations – you can make up your own mind on JAUNT). However, Awawena takes on an intriguing topic and should certainly be worth a closer a look anyhow. I was not able to discern just how Awawena offers interactivity from the information published in advance. I just know it revolves around 3D scans in the jungle and spiritual journeys – I’ll tell you more soon!
I can already see myself jumping around in a puddle barefoot like a child. I am not exaggerating, this could actually happen in the project X-Ray Fashion. The film takes a look at fashion in the 21st century: ranging from exploitation in the production to our inconsiderate throwaway mentality and resulting piles of discarded clothes. The audience will be led over various materials barefoot to feel like they are actually there. On another note, this project aptly demonstrates the individual presentations’ freedom from dramaturgic categories at Venice VR. By all means, linearly told installations also find their way into the mix.
Two projects in the Venice VR contest turn their eye towards the world of dance: Half Life VR and Ballavita. Half Life VR only runs in its shortened cut and might not sound all that enticing upon first glance: a ballet production filmed in 360 degrees. However, the dancers performed it solely for the camera, placing the viewers right in the center of the action. Besides, the announcement promises more camera angles and movements than ever before for a VR production. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
Meanwhile, Ballavita by Amilux Film is a feature film interspersed with dance scenes and running a quite astonishing length of 30 minutes. A tinge of fantasy also mingles its way into the mix, as the story revolves around Maria, a young dancer, who is lured into a strange world by an evil old man. I had the pleasure of watching a handful of sample scenes during various events in Berlin that made me look forward even more to finally experiencing the story in its entirety.
Mindplace VR also takes us on a trip into a strange world of thought, to be more accurate: the thoughts of a loved one. Things usually unspoken come to light, dark secrets and wild sentiments betray themselves. I was unable to find out much more, but the computer generated VR film is Dominik Stockhausen’s new project (co-directed with Carl Krause) – an artist already known for his impressive 360-degree debut Sonar in 2016. Reason enough to be compelled to watch the film. Apropos, the whole thing is made in Baden-Wuerttemberg, southern Germany.
The ever well-represented group of animated short films features a number of big names at this year’s Venice VR. For one, Baobab Studio’s new film will celebrate the world premiere of its final version. Baobab Studios are known for their wonderful films Asteroids! and Invasion!. In their new work, Crow: The Legend, Oprah Winfrey voices none lesser than God (or something similar?), while musician John Legend voices the main character, a small bird. Likewise, Google presents a new addition to their Spotlight Stories. According to Google, Age of Sail is the longest film of the Spotlight series thus far, clocking in at 12 minutes. The film shows the story of a girl that is rescued from drowning by an old fisherman, who she henceforth lives with.
Among the animation films, one should certainly not gloss over The Great C, a short story by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick, which has been adapted for Roomscale VR*. I recently wrote about it for VR World (in German). Lacking a big name, but nevertheless intriguing: Fresh Out, a film made in China. I have no idea what it’s about exactly, other than the fact that animated – and thus, talking – carrots make an appearance in it. Apparently, the viewer him- or herself turns into one and must fend off the carrot-eating “monsters” from above. How awesome is that?!
Documentary projects are yet another area I am eager to experience. Of course, there’s Home After War by Berliner company Now Here Media, on which I have already reported (in German, English version will come soon). The film was not yet finished at the time – I can hardly wait to experience the finished project for myself. Besides the impressive trailer, there’s a very touching making-of video that highlights the difficult and heartwarming moments during production. In short: it revolves around the bombs left behind by the IS during their retreat from the Iraqi city of Fallujah. These prove to be veritable deathtraps, costing people who have fled the conflict and are slowly returning home their houses and even their lives. What’s interesting about this project is that it was not “just” filmed in 360 degrees, but that the producers (with the help of the Berlin company realities.io) faithfully scanned the site for Roomscale VR. I will thus be able to step into the houses myself – quite the oppressive feeling.
The other two documentary projects integrate material originally not envisioned for VR. Made This Way: Redefining Masculinity depicts the life of transgender men. As far as I understand, the film combines normal, “flat” photography with volumetrically shot scenes. In another vein, 1943: Berlin Blitz by BBC VR Hub aims to revive archive audio material from the Second World War. At the time, BBC journalist Wynford Vaughan Thomas rode in one of the planes that was dropping bombs over Berlin while commentating the proceedings live.
Alongside the 30 projects of the contest, Venice VR will also show six projects that have been especially noteworthy or successful in the course of the last year. Or so they were in the eyes of the curators; though I find the selection truly remarkable. These include Battlescar and Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall, which I already saw at the Tribeca festival and found profoundly thrilling (find the in-depth report here). Another non-contestant is VR_I. Indeed, I haven’t seen this anywhere and am accordingly curious. VR_I is an installation by the Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin, in which multiple people enter a fantastical world together. There, they can talk with each other and even dance – if they so please. I doubt any kind of collaborative artwork can develop once anyone sees me dancing… nevertheless and despite any potential embarrassments, I will try my worst!
If you would like to make your own overview, you can find the complete Venice VR program on the Biennale’s website. Furthermore, I am delighted to have been granted a press accreditation with the help of the German online magazine VRODO. You will thus be able to read more about the Venice VR festival here in English and German and on VRODO, German only. The VR exhibit starts on the 30th of August and runs until the 8th of September.
Translated by Jan Mc Greal
*Update 25.8.18: I wrote in a previous version about The Great C that it has been filmed in 360 degrees. This is not correct, as it has been produced for Roomscale VR.