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British immersive talent wows at Tribeca Film Festival

Posted 20 May 2019

Nicole Stewart-Rushworth and Maddalena Crosti from Digital Catapult’s immersive team explored the VR Arcade at Tribeca.

In 2002 Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff founded Tribeca Film Festival in response to the 9/11 attacks as a way of revitalizing Lower Manhattan. 17 years later, innovation and exploration of wildest imagination are apparent around every corner. With the advent of Storyscapes in 2017, the immersive community was finally recognised by the New York film industry.

With this year’s VR Arcade and 360 cinema in full swing, it was hard to escape the wonderful madness and creativity on offer for XR connoisseurs. The VR Arcade housed 22 interactive pieces of storytelling that ranged from bouncing around in a giant jellyfish in order to raise awareness of plastic in our oceans in ‘A Drop In The Ocean’, to exploring the entire Tribeca Festival Hub through an AR artwork installation to the sound of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor,” in ‘Into the Light’ by Jessica Brillhart.

Three of the 22 pieces in the VR Arcade were part of Digital Catapult and Art Council England’s ‘CreativeXR’ programme; ‘Common Ground’ by VR City, ‘The Collider’ by Anagram, and ‘Traitor’ by Pilot Theatre. Three diverse and stand out pieces of the festival, all receiving rave reviews from press and attendees alike. ‘Common Ground’ which is a documentary about the Aylesbury estate in South London, that blends 360 video, photogrammetry and other cutting edge production techniques to allow the user experience life on one of the UK’s most notorious estates, ‘Traitor’, a two-person VR heist that puts the players in the middle of a government cover-up as they race to save a missing agent , and ‘The Collider’, which explores the dynamics of power and submission with one person in the headset and the other controlling the experience – a powerful piece that prompts reflection personal experiences of power and control. These pieces encapsulate the amazing diversity of what the industry can offer.

‘Common Ground’ was definitely a festival favourite; we heard viewers describe it as the best example of a VR documentary so far. ‘The Collider’ left an equally provocative impression on the audience and was probably the experience that had the most thought-out onboarding process, leaving participants to think about deeply personal experiences involving power dynamics. It was impressive to see how the CreativeXR projects stood up on the world stage against their multimillion dollar, years in the making counterparts such as Fable’s ‘Wolves in the Walls’ and Baobab’s ‘Bonfire’.

Curating better audience experiences

It is unsurprising as the immersive industry grows that the limits of the technology will be pushed with content that’s limited only by imagination. A stand out piece for me was the fantastic ‘War Remains’ by Dan Carlin, directed by Brandon Oldenburg. Mapping a physical set to a virtual world, ‘War Remains’ takes the audience on a walking tour of the World War One trenches, avoiding disembodied limbs and stepping over the charred remains of soldiers who died. Harrowing and incredibly emotional it left many viewers visibly shaken. However, the experience was curated carefully with consent forms prior to the experience and an almost action movie voice over which allowed me to take a step back from the horrific visuals and process it as a piece of VR, reminding myself it wasn’t my reality.

Another stand out experience for me, and many at the festival, was ‘The Key’ created by Celine Tricart in association with Oculus VR for Good. Upon entering a room full of keys and several screens an actress dressed in white communicates through a wearable speaker system making it sound as if her voice is inside one’s head. Moving through the experience the audience joins a highly stylised world embodying a humanoid character that has three orbs as friends. As the story progresses, loss and devastation are experienced alongside other nameless characters.

Uncovering the meaning of the memories experienced places the audience at the heart of a refugee experience. It left me utterly devastated and uncontrollably sobbing for some time afterwards, and as I left the experience I was greeted by a lady from a refugee charity which gave room to discuss and talk about how I had reacted to the piece.

The growing importance of audience agency

This kind of complete immersion in an experience demonstrates both the power of the technology but how sophisticated it is becoming as a medium for storytelling. In both the ‘The Key’ and ‘War Remains’ and other pieces I felt like the duty of care towards the audience member was incredibly important to the success of the overall experience and it mattered to them how I would feel walking away. In one or two other experiences this was not the case; I was put in situations that did not make me feel comfortable nor did they give me ample warning around graphic and disturbing content that could seriously affect many viewers. From suicide to abuse and gun violence there was a level of irresponsibility on display. The industry is working towards addressing this but in a festival setting, with a huge number and variety of people going through the experiences, care needs to be taken with the audience.

In saying this, putting the audience at the forefront of the experience and the agency they had in the experience seemed to be a common theme throughout the festival. In the panel talk ‘Building the New Storytellers’, the content creators gave the art of storytelling over to what was formerly known as the audience and stressed the role of the person in the headset’s reason for being in the story.

Playing with audience agency was apparent in the piece ‘2nd Civil War’ by Kevin Cornish and two of the CreativeXR pieces, ‘The Collider’ by Anagram and ‘Traitor’ by Pilot Theatre. ‘2nd Civil War’ was a highly divisive piece where the creators utilised voice recognition to put the viewer in the role of a journalist interviewing people living through a dystopian near-future rebellion during the imagined siege of Baltimore.

What I took away from this experience is how flimsy the facade of giving the audience agency can be. The piece opens with a 10-minute dialogue with a live actor who is playing someone in the US military. If the actor is outmanoeuvred the actor pushes forward regardless because experiencing the VR portion of the piece is reliant on achieving pre-set objectives when the piece begins.

Pilot Theatre’s ‘Traitor’ handles the agency within their piece with perhaps more deft and consideration. When given the choice to become a ‘traitor’ or hand over the information discovered, the story diverges with a simple-enough branching narrative. The audience feels it has achieved something during the piece regardless of the way the experience ends. ‘Traitor’ gives the opportunity to say “no” and to actually influence the story experience.

Funding and diversity of artistic ideas

The sheer variety on offer at Tribeca was a testament to the incredible immersive community and the imagination of creators. It was buzzing the entire way through – from the blue lights of the Storyscapes floor to the happy hour talks and evening events, all filled with people from the XR community.

But one of the main things we came away with from all these discussions is that funding for this type of content is becoming more scarce. What’s more, there seems to be a real lack of thought about where future funding will come from.

In this respect, the CreativeXR accelerator funding model was incredibly well received because it is, arguably, more focused on the development and support of a sector as a whole, and its responsive nature (i.e. to the ideas of creators) than some of the other international models which tend to focus on one piece. This can generate something of real quality, but does it deliver a diversity of artistic ideas?

It’s clear that Tribeca is now firmly cemented as one of the core events on the international XR calendar, showing some of the best, most innovative virtual reality content on offer. It’s pushing at the boundaries and showing us what’s possible. We’re already looking forward to 2020.