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Visit to “Lazzaretto” Island (where the VR section is located)

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Articles by Anna Reeves

Venice Film Festival Venice Virtual Reality - An Overview


by Anna Reeves


Venice VR Section - Third Year  - Running August 28th - September 3rd

It is only the third edition of the Venice VR section and yet already it is establishing itself as unmissable. What makes the selection so world class is that is all about great storytelling and not simply displaying the latest tech. You can become so immerse in an alternate universe that you marvel like a child.

“It’s like making a film for people who’ve never seen a moving image,” says Gilles Jobin who brought the ground-breaking virtual reality experience  VR_1 to Venice last year and then toured it widely around the world to much acclaim. 1,200 people went through this experience at Venice alone. This is terrific for a work that has limitations as to how many can do it at one time and shows the demand for such experiences. There is a growing use of live performance within the interactive section and these works are being made with increasing sophistication.

Antonine Cayrol, the producer who has Gloomy Eyes, a Tim-Burtonesque animated film from directors Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado, says that these storytellers came to him “knowing exactly what and why they wanted to do it.” The result is a captivating story about a human girl who falls in love with a zombie boy and an ode to acceptance of otherness. Cavrol talked about how he found nine investors across many territories including Atlas V, Ryot, Vive, Arte, and how they were helped by having an IP that could go from VR to augmented reality to feature films. Time and again VR producers talk about building brand equity and about how excited they are by the near future of this emerging art form.

Baobab Studios from San Francisco who was at Venice last year with “The Story of the Crow” is back with “Bonfire” which integrates high-end animation with powerful A.I so that characters in the world feel like living, thinking beings that respond in believable ways to the viewer’s actions. Kane Lee from Baobab says that the studio has experimented a lot with the balance between reach and engagement. These makers are building up a new language through trial and error of how to break the fourth wall. The paradigm shift is moving fast in this section of the festival, often leaving the traditional feature films looking a little jaded in comparison. One thing that strikes a newcomer to the VR island where the section is housed bestde the Lido is just how young the makers are. The buzz is palpable in the conversations in the inner courtyards as practitioners and visitors meet one another and exchange ideas. This is not a gimmicky art form but a very real future. The tools and methodology is emerging in regards to how critics can write about virtual reality, just as we needed this for cinema. It is unhelpful to use the language of film to describe this unique storytelling form and for that reason VR is talked about as “works” or “experiences.” The viewer is in the heart of a story and can now impact the edit of their unique experience in a completely new spatial dimension. Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac as the VR co-ordinators/selectors for this year’s programme must be applauded for all their passion and insight in making this the most thrilling venue for VR in the world. It is fitting that Laurie Anderson is head of the jury this head for the Lion D’Or for VR as she is a highly respected practitioner and a sure sign that gradually juries are being formed with people who are not filmmakers but acclaimed VR makers in their own right.

The VR Island in the middle of Venice - where all the VR experiences take place

Yuko Kominami performing live on the island (she is the 'Sublimation' VR Experience by Karolina Markiewicz and Pascal Piron)


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.

An the winners are

The Venice VR Jury of the 76th Venice International Film Festival, chaired by Laurie Anderson and composed of Alysha Naples and Francesco Carrozzini, after viewing the 27 projects in competition has decided to award:
by Céline Tricart (USA)
by Ricardo Laganaro (Brazil)
by Joel Kachi Benson (Nigeria)


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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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