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Tribeca 2016: Exploring the Virtual Arcade

Dragonflight

Tribeca is still a young festival — its fifteenth edition just wrapped last week — and though originally traditional films constituted its entire focus, soon transmedia, interactive work, and then virtual reality gained enough prominence that by 2016 they were as integral a part of the proceedings as the film screenings. This year more VR was on view than ever before at Storyscapes, the Interactive Playground, and the Virtual Arcade that together ran the length of the entire festival. By and large, the breadth and quality of the projects testify to the burgeoning craft of VR artists as the medium continues to mature and to Tribeca’s place as a premiere platform to discover the best new VR work.

There are some drawbacks to showing VR in a film festival setting, foremost among them the inevitable long lines that form as people wait to watch popular pieces one viewer after another. Director Kel O’Neill told me that on its second day at Storyscapes his project The Ark had a six-hour wait list, which apparently prompted organizers the next day to only fill up a few hours’ worth of slots at a time. At the Virtual Arcade I still waited almost an hour for some pieces, and I saw other people saving places and leaving in frustration. In three different visits I still wasn’t able to see all the projects, but it’s hard to envision a system which would eliminate this bottleneck. Also, some projects were unavailable during various times, apparently due to insufficient staffing. While these problems were perhaps inevitable, one that was completely unnecessary was the background music that filled the Virtual Arcade space. A constant stream of pop music was meant to keep up the energy in the room, but its unfortunate side effect was that during many quiet moments in a VR piece — when a Palestinian mother was contemplating the bombing death of two of her children, for instance — I could still hear Adele wailing her way through my headphones, making complete immersion unnecessarily elusive.

These technical problems with the pieces’ presentation, which was otherwise excellent, pale in comparison with the quality of work on display. There was something for everyone, including slasher horror, interactive video games/music videos, science-based educational pieces, animation, a bevy of socially conscious documentaries, a Grateful Dead concert segment, and even an exquisitely executed dance piece. And if the live-action narrative films sometimes felt like they were unable to utilize VR’s capabilities as well as the documentaries and more experimental projects, the entire line-up was still full of highlights.

Foremost among these was the feeling of increasing confluence between the film and gaming industries. We’ve seen this at Tribeca before, as in their screening of the game Beyond Two Souls in 2013, though this year’s two main entries relied less on narrative depth and more on the sheer joy of movement. Old Friend by Tyler Hurd took this to its greatest extreme, placing the viewer in the middle of an exuberant ring of dancing cartoon people copying your movements as you dance to a song by the indie band Future Islands. The swirling forms, the rubber-hose style animation of the cartoon figures, and the relentless beat of the music all conspire to make viewers cut loose and bust a move, despite how silly they will inevitably appear to anyone watching them watching the piece. A consistent problem with viewing VR is wondering if you’re looking in the right direction or if you’re missing something important behind you, and Old Friends solves this by surrounding you with interesting visuals no matter where you turn. Indeed, the best pieces at the Virtual Arcade all addressed this issue in different ways.

A bit more restrained but no less adrenaline-inducing was Dragonflight by Blackthorn Media, pictured above. The premise is simple: hop on the back of a huge black dragon and fly around a mountain-top garrison, battling enemy ground troops and other aerial dragons as you swoop and soar through the air. Viewers/players cannot steer the dragon itself, but a pair of handheld controllers let you aim and blast fire in nearly any direction. Dragonflight also uses the 360-degree space to full advantage as you twist and turn in your seat to check if any enemy dragons are flying in from behind, and the huge flapping wings on either side of you add great dimensionality in what turns out to usually be your peripheral vision. The concept may seem a little derivative of the DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon — indeed, though less cartoonish, the back of your dragon’s head is strikingly similar to the character Toothless — but it obviously goes back further than this by hundreds of years. In fact, halfway through I found myself recalling the 1982 Atari video game Joust from my childhood, in which players spar on giant flying birds, and hoping for a virtual reality remake of that title soon. Indeed, at just four minutes Dragonflight, like a few other pieces in the Virtual Arcade, felt less like a finished product and more like a proof-of-concept for a much larger piece, and viewers/players may hope for more iterations from Blackthorn Media; it is already available on Steam for $16, with single-player and multiplayer options.

I was also gratified to see VR pushing boundaries in the realm of educational material. VR has the ability to show us things that we’ve never been able to see before, and this works best when creators adhere to the old show-don’t-tell maxim: the piece Kanju, for instance, about cultural resurgence across Africa, felt like a trailer for a longer film, too full of talk without enough silence to immerse us in situations of African life and creativity (although one outdoor dance sequence stood out). Similarly, the otherwise excellent The Crystal Reef, about ocean acidification and coral bleaching, seemed to spend much of its time talking in voice-over about virtual reality itself and the uses it could be put to, including in odd locations such as a waterside parking lot and a small conference room. I found myself wanting to just plunge under the waves and see the coral, and when this happened The Crystal Reef proved amazing and informative; the VR images of dead coral was some of the most sobering in the entire festival. A companion interactive piece, allowing viewers to move freely and search for small lifeforms along both a healthy and a dead (animated) reef proved technically difficult to navigate but could potentially present the reality of coral bleaching in classrooms far from the ocean. Lastly, Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart utilized information from the New Horizons spacecraft’s passing of Pluto last July to present the dwarf planet in greater detail than it’s ever been seen before. This material, though animated, was based on NASA’s data and images of Pluto, and though I found myself wishing that a VR array had been included on the spacecraft for a live-action experience doing it in this way allowed the creators to touch down on the surface and permit viewers to look around. I’m accustomed to viewing interplanetary nonfiction films in domed planetariums, and I expect images of Pluto to be included in such pieces soon, but I can’t imagine how a surface visit, for instance, could be properly conveyed in such a space. Using VR allowed Seeking Pluto’s Frozen Heart to show the dwarf planet in an intimate personal way impossible on a large screen.

Among the best of the narrative films presented in the Virtual Arcade were two animated pieces: Invasion, by veteran animation director Eric Darnell (AntzMadagascar), and the French film Allumette, created by Eugene Chung and Jimmy Maidens. Invasion is comical and kid-friendly as well as deceptively simple: it plays out in three shots: two bookending views of an alien ship in its descent toward and, at the end, escape from Earth, with the main action taking place on a frozen lake as an incredibly cute and fluffy rabbit defeats the aliens and sends them fleeing from their would-be planetary conquest. This is a static shot, allowing the viewer to turn 360 degrees to observe the action but avoiding the potential disorientation caused by traditional camera movement or editing (Pearl, another VR piece shown at this year’s festival, also used a static observation point for this exact reason, showing that many VR filmmakers are coming to similar conclusions about how to integrate classical film technique into the new medium). Ostensibly the viewer is in the role of a second bunny, but this is neither clear when viewing it nor, really, necessary. Just being in the middle of the comic action is fun enough, and children as young as preschool will particularly enjoy Invasion as a way to begin exploring VR.

Allumette is geared towards a slightly older audience, including adults but probably going no younger than the six-to-nine-year-old demographic. It adapts Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” to a friendly steampunk world of a cloud city and wooden aerial ships. The story is presented in a static diorama of a floating island city and as the viewer walks around the space — I only bumped into the wall once — they can reveal new angles on the action. The story revolves around a little homeless girl at night, lighting her glowing sticks and remembering better days with her mother aboard their flying ship. In tune with the pathos of the original story, the narrative turns tragic but takes a step towards redemption at its conclusion, with us learning compassion from Allumette rather than just feeling compassion for her. Overall Allumette featured the most vividly created visual world at the Virtual Arcade and was one of the best pieces I saw at the entire festival.

But as with 3D films, it is with documentary that VR often feels most germane, and there was a slate of interesting titles on view: The Artist of Skid Row, about a homeless L.A. man who rediscovered value in his life through painting; My Mother’s Wing, about the human toll of the 2014 war in Gaza; Collisions, about the fallout from nuclear testing in the Australian outback; several pieces on nomadic cultures; and others. Of these Collisions, created by Lynette Wallworth, was perhaps the most striking. It used VR’s 360-degree visual range to great effect during its interviews and observational footage, observing great interest in the dogs, cars, and human faces that populate the dusty Aboriginal town; cinematographer Patrick Meegan deserves much of the credit for the film’s success. Thrust into the middle of this is an animated sequence in which a nuclear bomb is detonated nearby: black silhouetted kangaroos flee all around the viewer before crumpling to the earth, while a cloud of dust and a rain of ash slowly envelope you. The audio at the end of this sequence is chilling: in voice-over recalling his youth, the main character remembers that, seeing the explosion as a gift from the gods, the local people simply ate the contaminated kangaroos. The current issue at hand in western Australia is over uranium mining, but Wallworth’s film doesn’t have to spend much time on this given the power of the images and audio in recalling the area’s nuclear past: with what has come before, the choice for the future seems clear.

One of the most unusual “nonfiction” pieces was Jessica Kantor’s dance film Ashes. Created in the tradition of Pina Bausch — known to most movie audiences through Wim Wenders’ 2011 film Pina — Ashes features, once again, a static shot on a beach, but Kantor takes advantage of the array of cameras necessary to film VR by dividing a single story into a triptych: on one side of the viewer a couple dance together to express their love, in the center where the waves hit the sand the woman tries to revive the man who has apparently just drowned, and on the other side the woman, alone, mourns his loss. All three segments play simultaneously, and if this distortion of temporal reality (reminding me a bit of a fourth quantum dimension) weren’t enough, after a few minutes it becomes apparent that the center section is actually playing in reverse motion: eventually the woman walks away, backwards, unaware of the impending tragedy, the man washes back into the surf, returns to life, and enjoys his swim. Eventually he rejoins the first couple on the viewer’s left-hand side, erasing his footprints as he goes, and we are left with just the woman on the right, scattering the man’s ashes to the wind. Virtual reality is generally thought of as a visual experiment, and using it in this way to manipulate time rather than space is a brilliant exploration of new directions for the medium.

Overall, the best pieces took advantage of VR’s capabilities in similar ways. Just facing forward to watch a traditional story or a static tableau seems insufficient given the possibilities. Mostly, I came to appreciate those pieces that used not only the 360-degree horizontal axis of VR, but the vertical plane as well. As mentioned, Dragonflight did this to great effect, as did Allumette when action on a floating island beneath the main set (in other words, down by your feet) is drawn into the story. The most striking shots in Collisions were filmed from an aerial camera: the simple image of a car driving along a dirt road into a small Aboriginal town is made breathtaking by the sensation of truly being up in the air observing it; similarly, the effect of the closing shot of a controlled brush fire would be unattainable on a two-dimensional screen. There was a moment in My Mother’s Wing when children are playing in the rubble of a bombed-out building and I thought to look up: seeing several stories of the destroyed structure rising above me powerfully brought home the destruction visited on these Palestinian families.

Some of the greatest use of full spherical cinematography came in a piece I haven’t mentioned yet, The Click Effect, which, with Allumette, was probably the best VR piece at the festival. Filmed underwater with the simple purpose of explaining how dolphins and sperm whales use echolocation to navigate, The Click Effect quickly becomes much more than that, a truly immersive experience. Exploring a sunken ship, looking at the divers moving around you, and angling your gaze up toward the sun and the shadow of the boat on the surface all make you feel like you are truly underwater, experiencing this first hand. But when the dolphins enter your view it transcends that into an entirely magical experience: they swim above, below, and around you, coming from behind, surrounding you. The stereophonic sound is no less impressive than the visuals, with their clicks and chirps panning through your headphones depending which way you’re facing (a remarkable effect, with other sounds, in several of the projects). Combined with just how remarkable some of this footage isThe Click Effect, which is available for download from The New York Times or in the App Store, truly made virtual reality feel real.

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