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Venice Film Festival’s VR Programme Demonstrates That The Medium Is Coming Of Age

Catherine Allen headed to Italy to check out the film festival – and was impressed by what she saw.

The prestigious Venice Film Festival drew to a close on Sunday. Using Venice’s virtual reality (VR) highlights as case studies, Catherine Allen explores how the incorporation of VR into the world’s most established film festivals tells us something about VR’s longer term potential.

This year the fledgling VR industry has had some tough questions asked of it. Commentators have asked, ‘just when is it going to become normal in people’s living rooms?’. When will investors be able to reap the rewards of the seeds they’ve sown – will it take years for VR to live up to its potential?

The established creative industries, however, are taking a completely different approach to that potential. Many of the world’s most significant film festivals have decided to invest heavily in VR. Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Venice – to name but a few – are all taking it seriously and incorporating it into their glitzy programmes. Their activities, however, are not focussed not on finding VR’s killer app or a game that will achieve hockey stick growth. The buzz they are generating and sustaining is solely focussed on developing VR as an art form.

Venice Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world, and a key date on the film establishment calendar. It is notorious for both its art and its glamour; red carpets, paparazzi, prosecco and speedboats are standard elements of the festival experience. Venice’s VR island housed over thirty different VR experiences that were mostly premieres.

A short boat journey bookended VR island trips – and Venice’s unpredictable, stormy weather made for a pretty exhilarating and romantic experience. Once on the island we were met with an industrial warehouse space, that had been artfully refashioned into a group VR cinema and a set of installations.

Here are my highlights:

Greenland Melting

Directed by Catherine Upin, Julia Cort, Nonny de la Peña and Raney Aronson-Rath

After the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, Greenland Melting uses high resolution photogrammetry technology to provide an up-close view of icy Arctic locations that are disappearing faster than predicted. Audiences can stand in the water in front of a glacier, dive beneath the ocean’s surface and fly above the land at low altitude. My favourite element was observing these locations with NASA scientists by my side, explaining to me how climate change is affecting these spaces and how these changes will impact the rest of the world. There was a real juxtaposition here between experiencing the sheer beauty of these sublime spaces whilst simultaneously feeling a burgeoning sense of peril at our uncertain future.

Greenland MeltingDraw Me Close: A Memoir

Directed by Jordan Tannahill

This real-time animated piece is a vivid memoir about the relationship between a mother and her son in the wake of her terminal-cancer diagnosis. A partnership between the UK’s National Theatre and the National Film Board of Canada, it involves real, live acting in an installation space, where you embody Jordan, the son (and the playwright himself).

The seamless mixture of live acting and line drawn animation makes it a first of its kind. Creating it this way means you really get the best out of both worlds from both VR and performance: the immediacy that comes from the liveness of theatre with the myriad of stylistic creative opportunity that VR brings.

Draw Me Close: A MemoirThe Last Goodbye

Directed by Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz

The Last Goodbye was created with USC’s Shoah Foundation, whose mission is to preserve the testimonies of living Holocaust survivors. The piece introduces audiences to Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter and takes you with him to the concentration camp he was held in, on a visit he has vowed to be his last. When speaking of his experiences and reflections, Pinchas addresses the viewer directly.

Throughout the piece I felt a bond developing with Pinchas; a sort of pseudo relationship. This is something high fidelity VR is very good at: people and intimacy. Feeling present in the concentration camp and spending time with Pinchas left me feeling a real sense of urgency: it is up to us, today’s society to preserve the memories of Holocaust survivors – we need to be using tomorrow’s technology, now, to futureproof the past.

The Last GoodbyeAlice – The Virtual Reality Play

Directed by Mathias Chelebourg and Marie Jourdren

As a little girl, I couldn’t help but place myself as Alice when reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Fast forward a few decades and here I am – I am Alice, and I am late for my coronation as Queen! Quick!

This VR play, like Draw Me Close, fuses motion-captured actors and real-time rendered advanced CG to place each audience member into their own interactive wonderland. I got to meet characters including Humpty Dumpty and the white rabbit whilst being invited to talk with them and take on their challenges. The story world expands with each new audience member; meaning that this piece will evolve over time.

Alice demonstrates not only that theatre and VR can be seamless bedfellows, but that there is heaps of potential for the live entertainment industry to adopt this technique.

Alice: The Virtual Reality PlayThe island itself, Lazzaretto Vecchio, has its own remarkable history. It was in fact a quarantine and mass grave in the 15th and 16th centuries for plague victims and people with leprosy. Knowing that we were literally standing on centuries of human history gave a certain texture to my time spent in each VR piece. VR’s public reputation verges on trivial, futuristic and slightly silly. The VR work I saw, and the island’s history was the antithesis of that. This grounded and meaningful approach is a sign of how VR should be handled; as something that has the potential to create deep, powerful audience experiences.

With VR coming of age creatively, the next challenge will soon creep up on us: how can we get this work to mass audiences?


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