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Venice VR Review - "Bonfire" by Eric Darnell and "Passenger" Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine

Passenger - Photo Courtesy of Film Camp

Aliens of a feather

by Anna Reeves

Two virtual realty experiences that are particularly well realised at Venice this year are "Bonfire" by Eric Darnell at Baobab Studios in the States and "Passenger" by Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine from Australia. They are polar opposites in that one utilises high-end animation with powerful A.I. and the other feels handmade from fingers and glue, yet both leave you with an overriding sense of  wonder that virtual reality can offer you such variety and fun. Both works ask what it means to be human and I did not want either experience to end- a surefire indication that the fictional worlds the creators have invited you into is worth exploring further.

Passenger - Photo Courtesy of Film Camp

In Passenger you find yourself as a bird in a taxi driven by a red-hooded plover- a migratory Australian bird that bobs its black head with its red eye ring and who sports a beguiling white nape above his collar. This driver talks to you in a chatty, personable way and the script was developed by speaking to real taxi drivers, asking them what advice they would give to new immigrants and describing their own experiences of arriving in Australia. The visual coup de theatre of Passenger is that you drive through this unnamed place and learn that it is making strange noises because the buildings are changing shape at whim, expanding as if organically triggered by some unseen nutrient in the air. This is the way memory is formed and the road feels like a neural pathway. The creators describe it as a work where you piece together your story- abstracted and dream-like- as you progress into the quiet shock of a new world. It is a thrilling idea to have buildings shapeshifting, and to have this constructed out of such childlike art materials as cardboard and fabric is the perfect choice. Sound design and music heighten the surreal, playful mood, as well as the lighting and set design which leave a lot of dark space around the edges of vision. This mirrors the psychological state you often find yourself in when you first arrive in a new place, particularly at night. You know that you will fill in the gaps with time but for now this is all rather strange. The work was created by moving a 360 camera frame by frame through 60m of sets to create the stop-motion environment. Sowerwine and Knowles have been making interactive artwork for about 15 years but this is their first VR film. It impressively conveys various emotional states with a palpable sense of dislocation and arrival. Sowerwine said that the experience of putting on VR headsets for the first time was a driver for the story because it made them feel as if they were transported into a world that was both familiar yet strange.

“We were also building this set in a warehouse that was slated for destruction and the gentrification of our inner cities is a feeling that fed into our working on this piece.”

The contrast between the analogue cardboard and the high-tech elements of it being VR was something that excited them, along with the possibilities of playing with a sense of scale with the sets.

The closed setting of an underpass counterpoints the sound effects with these mysterious noises which appear to be emanating from deep down, like the groans of the roots of some mad concrete jungle. Once in the suburbs, kit-set homes appear as if built in the middle of nowhere without any services or shops nearby; a town-planning nightmare common to many sprawling cities the world over. There is a visceral thrill to looking out the car window and seeing homes expanding before your very eyes, adding a top storey here or pushing out an extension there. The driver then takes you into an exotic jungle where strange birdlife swoops down which feels very much like stepping through the back of the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe into a magical set. The driver mentions that he was nervous the first time he came through this way and you believe him. When you arrive at your destination I wanted to continue inside the house and learn more about everything. Crucially, on the strength of the believability of the taxi-driver’s character alone, you sense that whatever is behind each front door would merit its own standalone drama. Passenger feels like a taster for a much bigger world while at the same time being a perfectly structured and complete work; charming, clever and profoundly touching all at once.

 

Bonfire - Official Still

Bonfire is a deceptively simple work that delivers a whoop of joy. Eric Darnell directed it and he is Co-Founder of 6-time Emmy Award-winning Baobab Studios in San Francisco. This latest work adds to their reputation as makers of endearing, immersive animated storytelling. You embody a scout sent to an alien planet to see if it is suitable for colonisation and there you meet an alien with a very large mouth and three tentacles that resemble telecommunications antennae. First up you have to crash-land your spacecraft and shelter around a bonfire with your A.I. companion, Debbie who guides you through the space. You put logs on the fire and take food capsules from Debbie to feed to this cute looking monster who appears from deep within the woods. It is entertaining to get this wobbly, brightly-coloured alien to play fetch with synthetic marshmallows and to realise that this creature is harmless. Audience participation is an essential ingredient in this work and you are asked to make a big choice at the end. It is endearing and would be great if Baobab could give us longer on this planet so that we could interact more with its locals and environment. I can not wait for part two.

 

 

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About Mostra Internazionale d Arte Cinematografica Venice


Oldest festival in the world, MOSTRA is Non-specialised competitive event for features and shorts. Two competing sections and three Prizes: the Golden Lion, the Lion of the Year and the Lion of the Future to best director`s debut film.

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