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Published on May 5th, 2017 | by Mark Miller


Tribeca Film Festival: Virtual Arts

Virtual reality has been poised to take over the world since, well, the Stereoscope. My personal introduction came while working at Sega Of America in the early 90′s. Back then, a few hundred thousands of dollars worth of equipment allowed you to don a Jules Verne looking rig with a tangled tether of wires, enter an empty black world and toss a virtual green ball into nothingness. Deeply moving, I know. And so I put VR (and flying cars) into ‘the future of tomorrow, today’ category and occupied my time with more pressing matters.

While we still do not have commercially available flying cars, six hours at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade, part of the Tribeca Immersive program, made it very clear to me that VR is here now. Ignore it at your sociological and economic peril! With one notable exception (“The Island Of The Colorblind” which used colored lighting and watercolor paints to simulate the experience of ‘discovering’ colors), the Arcade’s nearly 30 experiences ranged from 360 degree films where visitors sit on a chair and spin to view a linear narrative filmed in 3D space to  ’room-scale’ installations. These are fully immersive, where the audience can move within a purpose-built physical environment while the visual and auditory stimuli are ‘painted on’ by a closed headset/screen, earphones, and in some cases hand held controllers/trackers and rumble vests. While VR’s storytelling syntax is still a work in progress, we were blown away by the degree of immersion and suspension of disbelief experienced.

In “Apex“, a visually stunning, room-scale animated EDM music video by Arjan van Meerten, you find yourself standing on top of a building with a front row seat to the end of the world. Beautifully rendered with skeletal wildlife and a truly terrifying smiley faced giant, the armies of the apocalypse run, tumble and roll past in a sea of flames, bouncing in time to the pulse-pounding soundtrack. It’s hard not to feel alienated and isolated, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the beauty and the devastation. Looking over the edge of the roof, we were overcome by vertigo.

In Ari Palitz and Gabo Arora’s “The Last Goodbye“, Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter guides you through the Majdanek Concentration Camp. The environment is beautifully filmed and lit- maybe too beautifully for the subject matter. The experience unfolds in a series of cinematic cuts and dissolves, which are not always comfortable. When the camera moves but your body doesn’t, the disconnect between what you see and feel makes for some queasiness. When a hard cut leaves your point of view two feet higher relative to the narrator, we looked down to find ourselves standing suddenly and unexpectedly on a stone wall, and reflexively put hands out to try and steady ourselves. As I mentioned, the storytelling syntax of VR is still a work in progress. In each new scene/space (the cattle car, the gas chamber), you’re encouraged to move around, while Mr. Gutter stands and tells his story. He is not aware of our presence and does not respond to our movements, yet, when he’s talking and you turn your back on him to explore, you’ll probably feel a bit disrespectful.

The Tribeca Film Festival, now in it’s 16th year, is best associated with feature films, and especially their often-gripping documentary slate. Moving that strength into a new world, the 360-degree film, “Auto” puts you in the passenger seat of a self-navigating car while an obnoxious yuppie couple bickers and berates an older man as he struggles existentially with his new role of ‘non-driver’. It’s clear that they are actors and that the experience is designed to manipulate emotions, but… damn, it’s genuinely uncomfortable. You might just want to jump out of a moving car.

The big ‘ah ha’ moment comes in Jordan Tannahill’s “Draw Me Close“. Picture a white world with pencil-drawn scenery and a door. There’s a knob, which is actually really there, and in the next room is Mom. She’s been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, making the best of it and trying to make us feel better. Unlike characters in other VR experiences, Mom seems weirdly aware of our presence. Her dialog feels responsive and well timed, lips moving appropriately, head tracking our own. While the rendering is a little herky-jerky, the artificial intelligence behind this is pretty impressive. She asks me to put my arms up so she can give me a hug. And, suddenly, I am being hugged by a warm body. I almost start crying. I utter some non-words, overwhelmed by the intimacy and humanity of the moment. We kneel down on the floor and she hands me a ‘magic marker’. Together, we draw in bright, virtual colors on some paper.

Of course, Mom is an actress in a motion capture suit. But knowing this absolutely does not stop a single tear from escaping when she tucks me into a pencil drawn bed and walks out of the room.

When it is over, I sit on the floor in the real world for a while, digesting. Going back and forth is jarring- and at some point realize that I don’t have my coat or my keys anymore. I left them somewhere; it’s hard to track your possessions moving between the real and virtual worlds. After a few minutes, I’m able to get them back safely from the lost and found. Which is fitting, as this year’s experiences certainly lived up to the idea of immersion, leaving me feeling more than a little lost and found.

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