Exploring virtual worlds at Tribeca 2017


Along with its slate of features, shorts, panels and other series, this year's Tribeca Film Festival highlighted emerging filmmaking technologies with its Immersive program. Its Virtual Arcade offered 31 virtual reality (VR) and interactive projects, gathered together on the fifth floor of the Festival's Hub building. Twenty-two of the projects are world premieres.

VR has grown more sophisticated in its technologies, with a corresponding upgrade in the filmmakers it attracts. Some of the creative personnel featured this year include Kathryn Bigelow, who worked on National Geographic's The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger's Shoes; Eric Darnell (Antz, Penguins of Madagascar), director of Rainbow Crow; David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), who directed The Possible: Hoverboard; musician John Legend, who sings and voices a character in Rainbow Crow; and Emily Mortimer, who performs in Broken Night.

Along with expected industry players like Eko, Oculus VR for Good, HTC, ECCO VR, Radeon Technologies Group and Baobab Studios, a wider range of companies introduced VR projects in the arcade. Both The New York Times (Under a Cracked Sky, produced by its NYT VR team) and the National Film Board of Canada (Draw Me Close, created by playwright Jordan Tannahill) are represented. So is Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab (Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience).

And in an example of future marketing strategies, director S.S. Rajamoulie screened a short teaser for The Sword of Baahubali, a VR piece tied to his blockbuster Indian series Baahubali. In a challenging (and costly) move, the VR project features performers from the two motion pictures. (Baahubali 2: The Conclusion opens in theaters worldwide today.)

Chief Immersive curator Loren Hammonds anticipates some 4,500 viewers will have visited the arcade. This is the first year the Festival has combined its Virtual Arcade with its Storyscapes (curated by Ingrid Kopp) program. "We were able to put up every single viewing experience we had at once, and increase their duration so they could play the length of the Festival," he said.

It's also the first year the Festival accepted VR submissions, another sign of the format's growing importance. Hammonds and his team received about 250 entries, and scouted out some 50 more by visiting festivals and studios.

"Creators are approaching storytelling and VR in remarkable new ways, through advances in technology but also by becoming more comfortable with the medium," Hammonds said. "For 360 degree live-action projects and for room-scale CG pieces, people are thinking about it in a more fully formed fashion. In the past, projects could look like demos, a possibility of what VR could do. But now people are really understanding that there are new ways to tell stories."

Hammonds notes that 360-degree cameras have gotten less expensive just as computers and processors have gotten more powerful, opening up the format for more filmmakers. He contrasted Auto, presented in a traditional cinematic style, with Draw Me Close, "which has a live motion-capture actress you interact with in a virtual environment, a brand new way of looking at storytelling in VR."

The narrative for Broken Night, produced by Eko, Hidden Content and Realmotion, splits into separate storylines depending on which way the viewer looks. Focus on Emily Mortimer, and you follow her experiences as she fights with her husband (Alessandro Nivola) and then discovers an intruder in their house. Or follow Nivola and experience a different version of the same events.

Michael Nathanson from the television series "The Knick" appears as a police detective in Broken Night. He describes acting for VR as similar to motion capture. Action proceeds uninterrupted from start to finish of a scene, stopping only when cinematographers change the data cards in the camera. Nathanson had to play out all of the narrative's potential storylines one after the other, a "mind-numbing" exercise in adjusting reactions on the fly.

"There's very little room, and you have to work within a virtual frame in front of you, because any extraneous movement, any extraneous anything, can throw the viewer off as they are watching it," he explained. "It was challenging. Especially since I just finished five months on 'The Punisher' for Netflix, which was all action and running around."

As with computer games, many of the VR pieces unfold in dystopian, post-apocalyptic settings. Arden's Wake from Penrose Studios resembles the Kevin Costner sci-fi Waterworld. Apex by musician Arjan van Meerten features fire, giants and ghost animals.

With Rainbow Crow from Baobab Studios, director Eric Darnell took an entirely different approach. As he explained, "In our first piece, Invasion!, you're a little white bunny out on a frozen lake, and another little bunny sees you and comes over to say hello, and then these aliens show up. It's basically a cartoon."

The director admitted that "Samsung and HTC didn't really have a lot of faith in Invasion! They thought, as many other producers did, that early adaptors, hard-core gamers and tech enthusiasts would be the VR demographic, and that demographic wanted sci fi and shoot-'em-ups and that sort of thing. But when Invasion! came out, it shot up to number one, had more downloads than any of the gaming content, more than any pieces coming from the studios. That meant for us there is a real interest in storytelling content that isn't necessarily targeting a niche market."

Based on a Native American folk tale about the origin of the crow, Rainbow Crow is being released in chapters that will eventually stretch to about 30 minutes. It features an all-minority cast, including Diego Luna, Constance Wu and the 83-year-old Randy Emmons, a Kiowa-Caddo and respected elder among Native American tribes, as narrator and technical advisor. John Legend, one of the project's executive producers, plays the lead role and also contributes to the soundtrack.

Others VR projects have a documentary realism. In The People's House, Barack and Michelle Obama take viewers on a tour of the White House. Under a Cracked Sky uses submersible cameras to explore marine life underneath Antarctic ice. And The Last Goodbye brings viewers inside the Majdanek Concentration Camp, where they hear and see testimony from Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter.

Judging from lines, the crowd favorites focused more on interactive features than narratives. Treehugger: Wawona from Marshmallow Laser Feast uses a redwood tree as a jumping-off point for an examination of nature and time. Equipped with hand controls, viewers can penetrate the tree's bark to see the life within.

Tree, a collaboration between Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, turns viewers into a tree in a rainforest. Viewers use hand controllers and don a SubPac, a wearable physical sound system that vibrates. During the screening they are exposed to three scents—soil and moss, rainforest, and fire—that were developed by IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances).

Tree is the second in a trilogy, following Giant by Zec, which screened at Sundance and Cannes and centered on a family in an active conflict zone. The third part is an augmented reality piece, "a meditation on hope and collective life together," according to Gabby Brown, a studio manager and social-media outreach liaison for New Reality, one of the executive-producing partners for Tree. Rather than the home market, Brown thinks the installation could be used in schools and museums. It had previously been seen at Sundance, and will be installed at "TED 2017: The Future You" in Vancouver.

Moviegoers may find VR projects isolating. Viewers are required to don heavy headsets that cut off all light from the outside world. Stereo headphones increase the feeling of sensory deprivation. Although many VR projects ask users to walk through landscapes, viewers are tethered by wires and cables, making movement difficult. The brain's inability to connect the VR environment with the actual world—a horizon that keeps shifting, for example—can leave viewers uncomfortably disoriented.

Many of the narrative devices developed by filmmakers over the last hundred years don't work yet in VR.  Lighting is difficult to control. Everything is in wide shot. "Close-ups" are achieved through scale, by having characters or objects appear to move closer to the user. Simple edits, let alone montages, often prove so jarring as to upset viewers.

And VR is expensive. The HTC Vive, the current "must have" headset, runs around $800. Virtual reality will continue to improve, but right now it's a format in search of an audience.