After years of sidelining the international festival circuit, story-driven VR is finally emerging as an artform in its own right. On the occasion of its 74th edition, the Venice Mostra became the first “traditional” film festival to host a dedicated competition for immersive narrative pieces, providing a magnificent showcase for over 30 highly diverse international pieces that confirm the medium’s maturation. Here are our takeaways from Venice VR.
New grounds for a new medium
The Mostra’s VR section, with 22 pieces in competition, and 9 out of competition, is (so far) the biggest public presentation of narrative VR ever held. The Biennale has dedicated an impressive showcasing space for virtual reality on Lazzaretto Vecchio, a small, abandoned island across the Lido, which used to be a leper colony and a quarantine transit island between the 15th and 17th century.
Curated by director Michel Reilhac and Power to the Pixel’s Liz Rosenthal, the Mostra’s virtual reality section has done an outstanding job taking narrative VR showcasing to the next level, allowing installations, stand-up and seated pieces to benefit from a spacious, inspiring setup respectful both of the creations and the audience. For a full guided tour of the Venice VR island, watch the video below, courtesy of our friends at Small Bang.
This is not cinema
While the seated “VR cinema” still made up for a substantial part of the selection, the stand-up experiences and installations were taking up the largest part of the exhibit, confirming that storytelling in VR takes on a wide variety of forms, with references from film, videogames, theatre and contemporary art – while writing its own language as the technology and the craft keep evolving (fast).
“VR is its own thing. We are rapidly reaching the point where the old comparisons lose their meaning.”
According to Michel Reilhac, VR is more likely to become an artform in its own right, where stories evolve and revolve around the audience with various degrees of interactivity. In an interview with the Guardian, Antoine Cardon, producer of Alice, one of the most impressive pieces shown in Venice, adds “VR can mean a lot of different things. It’s not exactly cinema, it’s not games or theatre. It’s its own thing. We are rapidly reaching the point where the old comparisons lose their meaning.”
The emergence of VR filmmakers and directorial choices
When we launched this blog two years ago, the cinematic VR landscape was barely burgeoning, with an obvious shortage of quality content, aside from a few exceptions. In 2017, the medium has started showing signs of maturity, with works such as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stunning Carne y Arena shown at Cannes. It was becoming clear that applying traditional techniques inherited from a century of filmmaking would never work, and neither would handing over full control to the audience.
So what makes a “VR director”? A better choice might be the French word for stage director, metteur en scène. Virtual reality is all about space, and how characters (including yourself) fit into the storyworld. Camera placement and movement, sound cues and fades are key to crafting an immersive story that gives the audience this incomparable sense of presence.
True to the role of a festival, Venice has lined up some of today’s most talented and experimented VR storytellers, such as Eugene Chung (Arden’s Wake), Gabo Arora (The Last Goodbye), Nonny de la Peña (Greenland Melting) or Nicolás Alcalá (Melita), along some truly inspired first-time VR directors such as Gina Kim (Bloodless) or screenwriter Edward Robles (Dispatch). As for the selection, it proved as eclectic as the medium itself.
Stunning animation, larger-than-life installations and gripping stories
The 22 VR pieces in competition had very little in common, running from 5 minutes to 55 (Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai-Ming Liang’s The Deserted), blending seated, “linear” 360° stories shown on GearVRs and stand-up room-scale pieces and installations (Oculus or Vive). The selection was also extremely diverse in genre, with pieces ranging from arthouse drama to immersive documentary, sci-fi, explorable animation, interactive theatre and more. Judging the selection and giving out awards must have given the jury some serious headaches.
Produced by French veteran innovation studio DVMobile and directed by Mathias Chelebourg & Marie Jourdren, Alice is a one-of-a-kind interactive experience that puts you in the shoes of Alice, shortly after tumbling down the rabbithole. You’re late, you’re late, for a very important date… your own crowning! Will you catch your crown before the clock strikes?
Along your visual, auditory and tactile journey, you get to follow the Rabbit, rescue Humpty Dumpty and philosophise with the Caterpillar — and yes, your destiny also involves eating a delicious mushroom to unlock the final scene.
The secret ingredient? Actors who interact with you in real time, merging your time in VR with a real, custom-tailored acting performance. Blending beautiful real-time CGI environments and live acting, Alice is a delightfully trippy sensory VR piece which – if you surrender and engage with the characters – immediately summons your inner child. After 20 minutes of bliss, all I could think of is how much I wanted to dive back in.
Animated VR pieces seem to have reached new heights. Cinematic VR wunderkind Eugene Chung’s latest opus, Arden’s Wake (Oculus Rift), which premiered last spring at Tribeca, confirms Penrose Studios’s unique craft when it comes to storytelling. Using their very own collaborative creation platform called Maestro, the Penrose team have again pushed animated VR filmmaking to a stellar level, winning Eugene Chung Venice’s first Best VR Award.
No distracting interactivity here — focus is on the story, and on the incredibly detailed storyworld, which you can explore and revolve around. This 15-minute prologue will soon be available on a variety of VR platforms. The creative team at Penrose is already at work on a second chapter, set to be released later this year.
Another impressive piece was the 24 minute Melita (Oculus Rift), produced by Madrid & L.A.-based Future Lighthouse studio. The brainchild of Nicolás Alcalá, director of El Cosmonauta and VR festival favorite Tomorrow, Melita is the first part of a highly ambitious animated trilogy in the making.
In 2026, our world is collapsing due to climate change. Anaaya, an Inuit scientist and her AI companion Melita are appointed to find a new planet for humans to inhabit, while embarking on a personal journey exploring the meaning of life.
A true visual feat, Melita also stands out thanks to strong directorial choices. Smart camera placement and movement serve the story, and while a more interactive version is currently in the making, this first episode confirms Nicolás Alcalá as one of the most inspired filmmakers in this new medium. The first episode of Melita will soon be available for Oculus Rift.
On the installations side, La Camera Insabbiata (HTC Vive) is multi-disciplinary artist Laurie Anderson’s latest creation, and third collaboration with Taiwanese new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang. While this isn’t Anderson’s first foray into VR, it is certainly the most impressive.
Using the HTC Vive’s controllers, you are invited to explore a dozen rooms scattered across a black and white world of chalk-covered walls. In one of them, you can even create your own 3-dimensional soundwaves.
But the piece’s most exciting feature is the freedom to fly around this gigantic landscape, uncovering bits and pieces of the story, lighting up words and drawings as you go, dancing around shadow and obscurity. A groundbreaking pioneer in the use of technology in the arts, Laurie Anderson has produced a highly sensorial VR trip to fool your senses, which you’ll more likely be able to experience on the contemporary art circuit.
Produced by VR pioneers Here Be Dragons (formerly VRSE.works), who were also showing Gabo Arora’s The Last Goodbye in competition at Venice VR, Dispatch (Oculus Rift) is a 4-episode miniseries that puts you in the shoes of a small-town police dispatcher, as he faces one of the biggest challenges of his career during an all-night crime spree.
Written and directed by Edward Robles (co-writer of Catatonic and Clouds Over Sidra), Dispatch makes clever use of CGI to turn the gritty storyline into a thrilling experience, by immersing you in a digitally outlined environment that adds to the tension of the crime-in-progress scenes.
Finally, at the opposite end of the VR storytelling spectrum, is Bloodless, a minimal, dry and gripping 10-minute 360° piece directed by Gina Kim, that traces the last living moments of a real-life sex worker who was brutally murdered by a US soldier at the Dongducheon Camptown in South Korea in 1992.
The South Korean director, whose traditional films have enjoyed international festival exposure, has an interesting take on VR filmmaking. Speaking to industry site Kobiz, she believes immersion is strongest when the audience is passive, helpless. “Your vision is completely hidden and your action is also limited. Therefore, it is more appropriate for the victim’s position rather than the criminal’s. So, the most effective genre for VR would be horror. It would be the most fitting medium to express the horror, hardship and fear of the socially unempowered, such as women.” Mission accomplished, with style.
Learning to watch and experience
While virtual reality has often been said to break the fourth wall (something Alice achieves to near-perfection), the question of who you are when in VR still lingers, unanswered. From passive ghost viewer to living, breathing, talking character, there are no instructions — and there shouldn’t be. Perhaps we need, as viewers, to enjoy the rewards of letting go completely. Easier said than done, especially when your average VR venue is loud, crowded and lacks context to invite you into another reality. In that regard, the showcasing spaces at Venice VR were a blessing.
Some stories and storyworlds deserve our undivided attention or participation. As VR storytellers are proving more and more creative, crafting unique experiences and inventing new languages, we also need to learn to watch and experience them with a fresh perspective. Reviewing VR probably says more about us than about the piece itself. Late film critic Roger Ebert had already sensed the challenge, 25 years ago.
The exciting road ahead of us
For a first, Venice has indeed raised the bar for VR festivals, sending out a strong signal about the potential of this medium to tell stories in a novel way. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the festival’s artistic director Alberto Barbera confirms: “I don’t think VR is the future of cinema or even an extension of cinema, it will not kill cinema for sure, it’s another medium. I’m pretty sure it will stay, but it’s a completely different experience. We thought it was the moment and made a bet“. Let’s hope more international events will up the ante, to allow more audiences to experience this emerging artform.
And as Eugene Chung concluded his award acceptance speech, it’s going to be a really exciting journey, and we can’t wait to see how it goes.
Venice VR 2017: The Awards
The VR Jury of the 74th Venice International Film Festival, chaired by John Landis and composed of Cécile Sciamma and Ricky Tognazzi gave the following awards:
BEST VR: Arden’s Wake by Eugene YK Chung (USA)
BEST VR EXPERIENCE (interactive content): La Camera Insabbiata by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang (USA, Taiwan)
BEST VR STORY (linear content): Bloodless by Gina Kim (South Korea, USA)