Tribeca, Where Art and Virtual Reality Meet
Walking through most doors at the Tribeca Film Festival, holding this month in New York, means taking a seat in a theater full of chattering moviegoers. There are however, also darkened, cloth-wrapped chambers, more like old carnival booths promising never-before-seen wonders, that offer nothing but a headset, headphones and perhaps some advice, like: “Watch for the dragon.”
Virtual reality has steadily gained prominence at film festivals, particularly at Tribeca, and the buzz at this year’s Tribeca’s “virtual arcade” was one of the festival’s most vibrant hubs of frenzy, albeit one filled mostly with neck-craning people in goggles going “Whoa.”
Tribeca’s VR arcade which is an indoor bazaar of film-like tales, journalistic explorations and splendorous dream worlds ripe for immersion, captures a growing medium learning to walk. Most of the creators acknowledge that these are just the first, sometimes crude, sometimes dazzling, steps toward art. The belief is however strong, notwithstanding, that these are the early gestures of a new immersive and interactive art form with loads of evolution to come.
“We’re trying to build the airplane where we’re in flight,” says Eugene Chung, chief executive of Penrose Studios, a VR content maker founded by Chung after working at Oculus Rift and Pixar Animation.
Penrose’s Allumette is one of the standout films at the festival. Set in a Venice-like city in the clouds, the 20-minute narrative centers on a young girl and the magical matchsticks handed down to her by her mother. The viewer has the ability to walk around the city or dive inside a docked ship, but the power of Allumette is as much in its story as its novel technology.
“For us, it’s all about what is the authentic story that we want to tell,” says Chung. “For me, especially with Allumette, it was about thinking about the sacrifices that my own parents, especially my mom, made while growing up, working so hard to provide for us the kind of life she never had.”
Many of the shows on offer play like virtual reality demos providing experiences ranging from the chance to dive among the reefs off Italy or sit front row for a Grateful Dead concert. But the most interesting ones are predicated on applying the tools of virtual reality to traditional storytelling.
Invasion! is created by Eric Darnell and Maureen Fan of Baobab Studios. Darnell, a veteran feature film director (the Madagascar movies, Antz) was watching War of the Worlds when the idea of bumbling aliens coming down to Earth while a curious white bunny looks on occurred to him.
“They’re kind of buffoons. They didn’t think of, like, microbes? They should know that, right?” says Darnell, about the War of the Worlds invaders. “I thought: What if you took that to the nth degree? Not only did they not think about microbes, they also didn’t think of little white bunnies.”
Whilst Invasion! could probably work as an animated short, the viewer has more intimacy with the film’s furry protagonist in its VR form. The bunny looks the viewer straight in the eye, and when the aliens deplane, one can’t help but feel protective of the little one.
“There’s a lot to learn and there’s a long way to go,” Darnell says of VR. “But the holy grail for me to find that kind of emotional experience that we’re all used to getting from more traditional storytelling.”
“It was putting the headset on for the first time. It’s one of those things that’s hard to talk about to somebody who hasn’t worn a headset,” says Darnell. “I wanted to see what we could do with storytelling, and the kind of storytelling I’ve been doing for the last 15, 20 years.”
Questions however, remain to be answered, about the unique grammar of virtual reality, some kind of combination of film and video games.
How much should of the story can the viewer be a part of? How can you lay out a narrative whilst still giving the viewer freedom to explore the scenes? What should these creations, and the art form in general, be called, anyway?
“We’re trying to create this from scratch in many ways,” says Chung. “We’re trying to define this new language in the same way the early film pioneers basically needed to invent new things. We have all this expertise, but we’re not the boss here,” he adds. “It’s virtual reality that’s the boss. Every day she tells you what works and what doesn’t.”