SIFF’s VR Zone Offers a Glimpse of Virtual Reality’s Cinematic Future

Before stepping into SIFF’s VR Zone, staffers are quick to warn attendees that the festival’s virtual reality showcase is not an arcade arena à la Ready Player One, but rather, a peek at the future of interactive and immersive filmmaking. While cinema has had over 100 years to refine itself and create a general formula for success, VR is just now entering the scene and very much experimental. The techniques and elements included in the VR experiences vary incredibly as each filmmaker choses to integrate different ideas and levels of interactivity into their films. This diverse development is evident in how each film handles space, interplay, and style, and with each experience demonstrating something new.

Even though a trip to the VR Zone lasts 90 minutes, it is not nearly enough time to cover all the booths, even with two people. There are 28 experiences to be had, and they range from narrative based filmmaking to dance routines, avant-garde art collections to interactive games, and music videos to news segments. With that being said, we will give a run down of what we saw, our impressions, the highlights, and our takeaways.

To preface, this was our first experience with VR and both of us walked away impressed. At each booth, it is difficult not to get caught up in VR’s potential, but that is not to say that the works shown in the VR Zone don’t feel complete or artistically fulfilled. If you can look past the color fringing, screen door effect, occasional motion sickness, or scuba-goggle field of view, you find yourself in worlds unlike your own. The most impressive films featured high end headsets that have higher pixel densities for clarity and more processing power to render the worlds, but regardless of hardware, every station offered an experience that was unique and different from current cinema.

One of our favorite shorts was titled “Queerskins: A Love Story” created by Illya Szilak and Cyril Tsiboulski. The viewer rides in a Cadillac alongside the Missouri parents of a young man who has died of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s. Before entering the virtual reality space, there is a physical room curated with the man’s items and mementos, pictured below. The car ride is an opportunity to view his personal possessions, reflect on a life taken too young, and experience grief alongside a confused and challenged mom and dad. VR is aptly used as a tool to make the narrative more compelling and substantial.

The set of “Queerskins: A Love Story.”

Another fascinating narrative piece was “The Visigoths”, which through camera perspective and use of technology created sentimental nuance in an examination of a romantic relationship.  “Where Thoughts Go” was one of the most interesting interactive pieces. It uses the contributions of hundreds of prior viewers to bolster the experience of the viewer. In the real world, the viewer is placed  in a quiet, personal setting that creates a sense of serenity, much like your room or a place of comfort. In the virtual reality world, one hears the answers to five intimate questions from previous visitors, before being prompted to share their own responses as well. Responses are saved, and passed on for the next participant. “Where Thoughts Go” is a communal piece that candidly and naturally grows over time, effectively eliciting meaningful emotional reactions.

In terms of music, we experienced two music videos: The Posies’ “Unlikely Places” and Billy Corgan’s “Aeronauts”. The former was a stationary camera that had various band members overlaid at different opacities wandering about a game room. The viewer’s position doesn’t move, but is instead confined to a single stationary position that evokes Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Tango.  The later had Corgan playing on a piano as various digital sets flew by and transformed into various artistic locales. Both offered passive experiences for VR, but showcased how music videos could be made within the medium. They are simple concepts for a VR film, but make one curious about what a group like OKGO has been working on in the VR space.

Jamie interacting with thoughts inside of “Where Thoughts Go.”

In terms of effectiveness, Al Jazeera’s “7 Stories for 7 Years” news piece transports the viewer to a Syrian refugee camp and gives a glimpse of the hopes and dreams of seven young people living there. Films like this generate a sense of empathy when virtually transported into their world and give the viewer a sense of their lives, environment, and living situation. Al Jazeera’s melding of news and virtual reality has the potential to prompt viewers to be more understanding of conflicts and issues foreign to them.

We also enjoyed “Homecoming: Seduction” which explored addiction through dance, “Everything Flows” which created an enhanced artistic and abstract world, and “The Other Dakar” which used experimental film making and production design to depict Dakar community. VR has so far been most prominent in gaming, and “Mono: Blackwater” gave us a glimpse of VR gameplay with three interactive mini-games, while “Maiden Flight” gave us the feeling of vertigo as we took a ballon ride above a medieval village.

The variety on display is fascinating, and perhaps inspirational as one considers how VR and cinema may merge. SIFF staff are passionate about the amazing new ways ideas can be illustrated, and how that will empower a new generation of filmmakers from every background to create new stories. After just a short 90 minute visit and a handful of demos, it’s hard not to share their enthusiasm.

Over the course of the festival you can check out the VR Zone at AMC Pacific Place. Each session last 90 minutes and costs $20 for members ($25 for non members). Use code UWVR18 at checkout and your ticket will be reduced to $15.