Virtual reality has been appearing at the Tribeca Film Festival since 2014. However, this is the year that virtual reality is taking off as an artistic / cinematic medium. See our top pics below.
April 22, 2016
Virtual reality has been appearing at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival for a while now — remember Robert de Niro in a prototype Oculus Rift back in 2014? But it wasn’t until this year’s show that it felt like a truly integral element, instead of a nice extra. Like the Sundance Film Festival in January, Tribeca had dozens of VR selections, ranging from 360-degree Gear VR films to fully interactive Vive experiences. (There were even a few Rift prototypes still hanging around.)
Unlike Sundance, however, Tribeca spread its VR experiences out over several different mini-shows, including the Storyscapes exhibit and a “Virtual Arcade.”After spending the last couple of weeks going through over 30 entries, the other biggest difference I’ve seen is the number of projects that included some kind of interactive element, whether that meant tapping to navigate a landscape or using motion controllers to play rhythm games. That’s partly because the HTC Vive has become much more available in the past months, but it doesn’t hurt that Tribeca has generally stronger ties to the gaming and digital art worlds than other film festivals. In order to showcase a fuller spectrum of work, I’ve put my favorite cinematic experiences — VR based purely on looking around — in one category, and my favorite interactive ones — those that give participants even a little control — in another.
Best cinematic VR: Pearl
Google’s Spotlight Stories format didn’t start as virtual reality, but as a smartphone-based window into another world. Still, the short films were a natural fit for the medium, and Pearlis a particularly good one. It’s a poignant animated story about growing up, settling down, aging, and passing on the things you love to a new generation, all set in a boxy ‘80s car named Pearl. Less abstractly, it’s also a simple but kinetically animated music video for a wistful folk-pop song by songwriter Alexis Hart, written specifically for the experience. Though Pearl’s director compares it to The Giving Tree, there’s little of that book’s bitterness and ambiguity. It might be the closest I got to crying at Tribeca, but only in a good way.
Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart
There are any number of VR space games and experiences, but Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart is one of the best I’ve ever seen at capturing our solar system’s lonely, awe-inspiring vastness. It’s a New York Times visualization based on data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which passed by Pluto in mid-2015. There’s something strangely moving about not just being exposed to the dwarf planet’s alienness — a roiling nitrogen sea, towering peaks topped with methane ice — but seeing the whole thing recede into the distance at the end, as New Horizons soars out to its next destination.
We don’t even have a language for virtual reality film yet, let alone a language of VR kitsch. This hasn’t stopped Sharknado director Anthony Ferrante from fairly successfully importing the conventions of gimmicky 3D movies. The roughly 10-minute Killer Deal has a few jump scares, but it’s primarily a piece of winkingly goofy splatter-film schlock. It’s about a salesman attending a machete convention to hawk a particularly high-end knife (“with Bluetooth!”), facing off against a sinister figure lurking in his cheap hotel room. VR just makes it even more startling when the fake blood flies in your face.
We checked out a little of Allumette at Sundance, but the full 20-minute animated short didn’t premiere until this month at Tribeca. With headsets like the Vive and Rift currently letting people play games for hours, it still feels like an experience that could have been expanded with more content and detail. But its unique and utterly fantastic art design wins it a lot of points: it perfectly captures the feeling of a miniature world, with architecture and inhabitants that look so solid you want to reach out and touch them.Allumette studio Penrose promises that there’s more on the way, and we’re looking forward to seeing it.
Grateful Dead: Truckin’
(See previous article: http://www.iamvr.co/grateful-deads-truckin-virtual-reality-experience/)
While I understand the appeal of concert VR, it’s usually not one of my favorite things, especially because watching a sea of constantly moving bodies is a great way to catch every single stitching error in a 360-degree film. So I’m not totally sure why I liked Jaunt’s recording of a band I feel no real connection to, playing a song from a 2015 tour that I don’t even remember happening. Maybe it’s the long, wandering nature of “Truckin’”, which all but lulled me into a pleasant trance at the hectic Virtual Arcade. Or maybe it’s that having nothing else to focus on made it easier to connect with the vast enthusiasm millions have for the Grateful Dead. Either way, it works.
Best Interactive VR: Old Friend
If Pearl had me a little close to tearing up, former Double Fine artist Tyler Hurd’s Old Friend was the exact opposite, an exuberant piece of animation set to Future Islands’ infectiously joyful song of the same name. Originally meant for a flat screen, and then for mobile headsets, it ended up on the HTC Vive, where motion controllers and space tracking create a set of stretchy, wiggling arms and legs. It turns viewers into participants in a surreal and slightly Muppets-esque dance party — although if you get too close to your fellow puppets, they’ll bat their hands around in mock annoyance, dancing away from your touch. The experience is produced by VR studio Wevr, which also worked on the frenetic Reggie Watts experience Waves — and like Waves, Old Friend is pure silliness. But where the former felt like an over-the-top science fiction parody, the latter is a carefree, totally self-contained little piece of modern pop culture.
I like to think that the Vive experience Playthings was conceived when creator George Michael Brower spilled a bunch of gummy hamburgers on a table, started drumming on them absently with his fingers, and thought Wait, I should make this in VR! It’s part rhythm game, part excuse to bang percussive instruments around a pastel world made of candy, donuts, and hot dogs, all set to music that managed to still be catchy after three hours of hearing it play on speakers at the Interactive Playground.
As an experience, Sens suffered by being stuck on the Gear VR, whose lack of positional tracking tends to make me a little dizzy. But even on limited hardware, its nearly featureless grayscale landscape is an interesting contrast to most VR experiences. Sens(based on a French graphic novel I’ve never read) drops players in the middle of a huge, empty world with nothing but the odd arrow to indicate which direction they ought to go. Who created the arrows? Where are they going? Maybe a later episode of Sens, which will be wrapped up this year, answers this question. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.
At a festival that generally shies away from anything too stereotypically game-y,Dragonflight is like a sword-and-sorcery novel that somehow snuck onto a bookstore’s literary fiction shelf. A stripped-down adaptation of an aerial combat game by Abbot’s Book creators Blackthorn Media, Dragonflight is exactly what it sounds like. You put on a Vive headset and get on the back of a freaking giant dragon and shoot fireballs at castles. It’s both pretty audacious and pretty fun.
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is actually something I saw first at Sundance, but never found an opportunity to write about. It’s a VR companion to the fascinating and chilling documentary film Notes on Blindness, based on the detailed audio diaries of blind writer and theologian John Hull. In the darkness of a headset, viewers watch and occasionally interact with environments that appear as a series of vague, stippled shapes, a visual suggestion of how Hull learned to experience the world through sound. While it’s still narrated by Hull, it’s otherwise completely separate from the film, both narratively and aesthetically — and it’s all the better for it.