Whether theyre letting you walk on Star Wars planet Jakku; or experience what its like to be bombed, film-makers are embracing immersive technology
Its been heralded as the future of film and journalism. It has been avidly welcomed by the advertising, art, fundraising and gaming worlds and has just as enthusiastically been written off as a passing fad, which makes you feel sick and isnt really film-making.
At Sundance 2016 virtual reality, in all its guises, has been embedded or should that be seamlessly immersed into this years programming. Opportunities to experiment with the technology abound: whether thats watching Funny or Dies new VR comedy Interrogation; walking on the surface of Star Wars planet Jakku; or watching an immersive short about a family trying to cope as bombs drop overhead. Shari Frilot, chief curator of Sundances New Frontiers section, which has a special focus on VR in 2016, says the technology is advancing quickly and there are major changes happening often which make it hard to keep up.
I try to lock it [the final lineup] around September. But every year thats more and more difficult especially because with VR, it leaps every three months, says Frilot.
Even though theres a lot of hype and a lot of excitement its still pretty new in terms of how storytellers are being able to engage it in different ways, she says. The medium itself is so compelling.
This year the New Frontiers has the installation work of Heather Cassils (her self-immolation work), and a two-screen piece focusing on LA by Kahlil Joseph (with music by Kendrick Lamar). People mill around surveying the work but in the corner theres a group of people ogling goggles and trying not to fall over tables that dont really exists. The bleeding edge of this stuff is found in the media labs, says Frilot and thats where people are having so much trouble with virtual furniture.
This year the bleeding edge is represented by the Leviathan Project, an installation that mixes AR and VR which was put together by Alex McDowell; Real Virtuality, a fully immersive video game-like experience; and ILMxLAB, the company that worked on the latest Star Wars movie.
Theres C3P0 talking to you and BB-8 rolling around, says Rob Bredow of ILMxLAB, as I stand in the middle of what appears to be Jakku. With some rather clunky Augmented Reality (AR) glasses on, it does appear as if C3P0 wants to chat, while BB-8 is rolling around by my feet making funny noises.
For Star Wars fans, the labs presentation at Sundance will probably be a dream come true; for film-makers its a practical opportunity to visualise and alter virtual worlds that eventually make up their film. We actually got Gareth Edwards, who is directing the next piece, in to a version of this Holo-Cinema to pre-visualise some of the sets for his upcoming film Rogue One, he says.
Questions over whether VR will become a viable mainstream commercial product in the next 12 months still need to be answered, but as a film-making tool it seems fully fledged. Frilot has heard misgivings about the fact VR is an individual experience, but for her its far from isolating.
I know theres a lot of anxiety about VR being an individual experience, and number one: thats not a bad thing. Part of the VR experience, the power of it, is that its fully immersive around your individual body, she says.
I dont think that its isolating. Ive been watching VR at the festival since 2012, and Ive seen people getting excited about watching their friends go through it, talking about it, wanting to share it. Its an intensely social experience.
One of the films that is social is Giant. Made by Serbian director Milica Zec, its a bracing VR short inspired by real events that happen to her during the bombing of Belgrade. You watch it in groups of three and for Zec VR is a tool to imbue her film-making with more potency.
VR is called an empathy machine so we were hoping that people can feel something, says Milica. While writing the script then you have to think in a different space. In a 360 space. That different way of working meant using new cameras and buying VR props from an online store. The result is a work that puts you a few feet in front of a family who are trying to get through a bombing raid, the interactive elements (which include the floor physically shaking) left audiences stunned.
Its not all so serious, though. Reggie Watts presented Waves, which was a mind-melting tour of outer space where the comedian and singer appears as a floating head that shoots lasers out of his mouth. There was also Click Effect, an immersive dive into the depths to see how dolphins and whales communicate. These films were among 30 that were shown via headsets using mobile phones as the screen. Its this cheap, shareable tech that seems to be the future for VR films, but Bredow is quick to remind me that no one is sure whats next.
If anybody tells you that they know, theyre probably selling you something, he says.
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