March 18, 2020

Article at Gizmodo UK

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How the Hell Does a VR Film Festival Work?

Cannes, Toronto, Venice… Mitcham?

Despite being a happy resident of three years, I can’t pretend that Mitcham is a fashionable part of London. And its film scene is minimal unless you count the screens dedicated to horse racing in its many local bookies.

A 25-minute walk south from Colliers Wood Station, itself further down the Northern Line than most people venture unless they fall asleep at Clapham North, not much goes on here. And yet, not ten minutes from my house, Digital Drama is hosting a virtual reality film festival in a building I’ve walked past hundreds of times and never once been inside.

Said building is not a cinema. It’s a long-standing social club where, according to Facebook, the most common aspects appraised in reviews are its boogie nights, open mic night and Sunday meat raffle. I’ve never been to the Cannes Film Festival, but if they have a meat raffle there, they must keep it on the downlow.

It’s the start of March, so concerns about Coronavirus are beginning to surface, and despite the 14 Oculus Go headsets I count as I enter, the combined cost probably pales in comparison to the liquid gold stashed in hand sanitiser bottles around the room.

Introductions to VR

On the menu today are nine films and experiences. They are, as curator Maria Rakusanova tells me, “lightweight introductions to 360 VR,” aimed at those who are used to experiencing film on a flat screen, where the only time you need to turn around is to hunt for the remote control.

Rakusanova, a former Samsung employee tasked with bringing Gear VR to market, has previously handled VR for the Raindance Film Festival, and here the challenge is a little different.

At Raindance “the focus is on independent artists and showcasing what is the best of that year,” she explains. For Mitcham, it’s “a combination of fitting into that brief of family-friendly experiences that are definitely easy for an audience that's new to VR to engage with.” Stories that “make you feel good” or “will inspire you.”

Is the need to keep things simple frustrating? “No! Not at all - it's an opportunity. Every limitation I look at is a way to guide myself,” she says.

One obvious limitation is that, here at least, every experience is for one person at a time, and each new person requires a quick tutorial and some finetuning to the user’s eyes. Another is that many of these headsets are battery powered, and not intended for a full day’s use. The one game on display – The Curious Tale of the Stolen Pets – is pretty troublesome in this regard as, unlike films, length of session will vary from person to person so charging is hard to plan for. One child finds this out the hard way. “Yeah, it ran out of battery,” an assistant says apologetically, taking the headset away to plug in. “You had a good run while it lasted.”

This is a regular issue, and in a room where most people aren’t familiar with the medium, it leads to some confusion. “Charge? I thought this was free,” one woman says to a staff member, before he patiently explains that the headset is currently topping up its battery and cannot be used.

An introduction to VR cinema

Fortunately, there are attractions that aren’t tethered to fickle battery packs. In another room, photos from the UK’s first ever fairground in Mitcham come to life with the help of iPad augmented reality, while four 2D films from local creators play on a loop on a TV in another dedicated area. The highlight of this is the story of AFC Wimbledon told entirely in Lego – something that made me feel an inordinate amount of local pride, despite being a Derby County fan of 25 years.

As for the VR movies, for me the films I get to see function more as tech demos than anything I feel truly blown away by in a cinematic art sense. Star appeal is on hand as Judy Dench narrates a piece about a tree in her garden, where you’re absorbed into the roots and see the oak from a whole new angle. It’s impressive enough, but as one reviewer put it on the Oculus website – where the five-minute short sells for £2.99 – “I love this lady… but, at the end of the day, this app is still just an old woman talking about a tree.” Tough, but fair.

Kinch and the Double World – a family-friendly story about a street urchin being plucked from the streets of Victorian London to a world of magic – is entertaining enough in a bubblegum kind of way. But it’s let down by slightly cringey overacting – something not helped by the lack of camera direction, which allows you to absentmindedly watch a lineless extra overreacting to what’s being said.

Animated comedy series Bro Bots also misses the mark, despite being a technical wonder which really shows the potential of the medium with swooping cameras taking in a wonderfully detailed New York. Sadly, every joke falls flat for grown ups, and while children may enjoy the slapstick, a couple of adult-tinged asides (a gag about getting viruses from a robot date, for example) could lead to some awkward questions.

Samantha Kingston’s Anonymous, however, is suitably hard hitting. It’s the personal story told by the daughter of an alcoholic in a monologue directed at the parent in question. It’s all the more effective for being in 360 degrees, and it’s hard to imagine it working as well as it does on a flat screen where the words would feel less poignant somehow.

The highlight, for me, though is Crackle Pop, which really does take advantage of the medium. It’s a musical experience where two people with sound-to-colour synesthesia describe what they see when they hear music, and the whole thing is reproduced around you as a band plays. It’s quite a light show.

Bold creators

All good tech demos, as I say, but VR cinema is still a long way from having its Citizen Kane as far as I can tell – unless such experiences do exist, but are too complex for non enthusiasts.

Still, Rakusanova is optimistic that the medium has plenty more to offer in the long term. “I've been in the industry since 2014 and it's almost like every two to three months, somebody comes up with something new - platform companies come up with a new headset, a new advancement to their platform. Eye tracking, hand tracking, lip tracking, you know. There will be a lot more in the years to come.

“There are a lot of bold creators, a lot of brave creators who embrace this. They innovate using these various new tools, and through that experimentation amazing things happen.” The magic really happens, she says, when those used to working in the medium of games team up with film directors and script writers.

For some, the magic has clearly already arrived, and the feedback from those I talk to is extremely positive. “I’ve not experienced anything like this,” one visitor called Ian tells me. “When you put the headset on it's a bit disorientating, but once your eyes get used to it, it's amazing. You think 'it can't be that great, surely' but the 3D aspect of everything really immerses you into the process."

Another, called Paddy, was equally impressed. Not just by the technology – though he does call it “amazing” – but the fact it’s on display locally at all. “What I loved about it was the fact that it's here, it's on and it's a different, interesting thing to have in a community that you wouldn't normally expect to see in the middle of Mitcham,” he says. “It's great that it's on and free, and I think it's a great thing to get everyone together.”

Perhaps that’s the main thing to take away from this. I’ve been a tech reporter for so long that VR is pretty familiar to me – but away from central London launch parties, the vast majority of people simply haven’t had the pleasure, and they’re unlikely to take a punt on headsets that are still prohibitively expensive.

That’s a pity. Because a week later, self isolating against Coronavirus, rewatching Bro Bots on a Gear VR for this piece is more of a joy than it was the first time around. Seeing the animated inside of a New York Subway come to life around me reminds me of last week when taking the Tube into London wasn’t gambling on the health of your neighbours.

VR really can take you out of yourself. It’s just a pity that more people won’t be able to virtually leave the house in the months ahead.