Tribeca just ended a few weeks ago and its virtual reality exhibition was as robust as ever. After a festival ends its important to reflect and dissect what was seen, learned, and generally, why festivals matter when it comes to VR.
In this blog I’ll go over what I saw at Tribeca, especially new, stand out approaches to VR creation that are turning into trends. I’ll also dig into the benefits and challenges of festival exhibition. Ask any creator who has exhibited, and they’ll agree that it takes a lot of work. Festivals are worth it, but only if you’re targeted and go about it smartly, which I’ll break down below.
Yelena Rachitsky, Executive Producer at Oculus, experiences objects in mirror AR closer than they appear at Tribeca Film Festival 2018.
Tribeca continues to be an important festival for premiering VR work, alongside the Sundance Film Festival which happens just a few months earlier.
When Tribeca first started showing interactive work, Oculus was not yet purchased by Facebook and VR was a somewhat foreign term. In a very short period of time VR has largely taken over the interactive part of the festival. I’ve seen the exhibition go from what felt like half-done demos to fleshed out masterpieces within just a few short years. What I love the most is that it still leaves room for experimental work. Experimentation and trying out new innovations, even if not perfectly executed, is important. It helps the field expand and develop in new and unexpected ways.
Oculus was fortunate enough to have six projects premiere at the festival this year, but that was just a handful of the 33 incredible works the curatorial team at Tribeca selected.
The VR projects ranged widely, which was a clear sign that the VR creative community is maturing and VR creators are finding their voice. A few of the innovative themes I saw forming are:
I also saw some unique pieces that don’t fit into these three categories but deserve a shout out, so I also mention those below.
Live Actor Integrations
A festival is the perfect place for exhibiting work that requires a physical location. When creators use the physical and live space effectively the results have powerful effects on a VR experience. While location based entertainment (LBE) like the VOID know this well, I’ve loved seeing independent creators take this on.
There were a couple projects at Tribeca that uniquely incorporated live actors into the VR experience. In these cases, the actor is live motion captured in the same location as you are, and interacts with you. Their physical presence can be changed into any form one can imagine. What makes immersive theater so powerful is the stakes that come along with having real people guide and connect with other people. There’s an inherent challenge to pre-made characters, you can have a meaningful interaction but ultimately you know that your actions don’t really matter and the pre-recorded responses are limited. We still have a long way to go with artificial intelligence to make it feel real, but in the meantime these live actor integrations are pretty great. There were two projects that incorporated live actor integrations:
One of the standout pieces at Tribeca was a piece called Jack, based on Jack and the Beanstalk, by Mathias Cherinbourg and Baobab. It was a follow up to Mathias’ project Alice that came out of the Venice Film festival. Mathias brings fairy tales to life in a fun and energetic style. The team cornered off a fairly large portion of Spring Studios for the exhibition. You’re fitted with a headset that has a Leap Motion tracker, allowing your hands to be used freely without the need of physical controllers. You carry a backpack equipped with a computer, freeing you from being tethered to anything. Shortly after the experience starts, a character in the form of a frog joins you and begins to interact with you. Your facial expressions are tracked and you quickly pick up there’s a real person in the VR world with you egging you on to interact and participate. When VR talks about feeling present, it’s hard to think of an experience that can bring you to greater presence than being forced to improvise on the spot. There’s a high element of stakes and engagement. In addition, the actor is able to change forms and characters, allowing one actor to play multiple parts. It’s difficult to leave the experience without a huge smile on your face. I was lucky enough to see the inner workings, and watching the behind the scenes is almost as fun as being in the experience itself.
I see this as a continuing trend because the effect is powerful, though it is a challenge because of the limitations in scalability.
Hero is an emotionally powerful piece, you can read more about the story in the description. Similar to Jack, in Hero the virtual world is mapped to the physical world. You feel the walls, objects and explosions. In contrast, Jack is meant to be light and fun while Hero shows us that incorporating tangible objects and a live actor is highly effective for a social impact approach as well. For many, Hero was transformational and memorable. It brought an important issue closer to home because the experience forced you to live it. I don’t want to give spoilers so won’t go into how the live actor component was used, except that it was unexpected and left a lasting impression. For those of you lucky enough to have experienced Carne y Arena, Hero took it a step beyond. It’s no secret that VR has the potential to be transformative around important topics, adding more physicality and a human element only elevates that potential.
Similar to Jack, the scalability is challenging but the reward is worth it. I look forward to seeing this type of work expand.
Most people have experienced VR alone, where it’s just them and a created world of unlimited possibilities. Some experiences are better off alone, but there's a big trend happening now, and very much so at Oculus and Facebook, that aims to create experiences meant to be shared with others. When we've created socially co-present VR experiences in the past we realized how special it was to be able to go on an adventure with your friends. You lose your inhibitions, you make memories, and you feel like you’ve traveled together. Almost anyone who’s been in a VR piece with another person while defying physical distance can attest to how effective it is. We’re going to see a lot more of these take shape over the next few years, including at festivals. Tribeca had a couple pieces worth mentioning that took advantage of social co-presence.
Lambchild Superstar and the Musical Menagerie of the Holy Cow is the brainchild of Chris Milk (Within) and Damian Kulash (OkGo). The title gives a hint around the silly nature of the piece. At its heart, Lambchild Superstar is a musical creation experience that allows you and your friend to make a song together in an animal themed universe, both embodied as, well, Lambchild Superstars. Needless to say, this is a lot of fun. Standing outside of the experience you can hear people giggling, showing each other what they’ve been able to discover. This is Within’s third social piece, starting with Life of Us and then Chorus. All different, but each piece special in its own way.
The Day the World Changed also incorporates social co-presence, but similar to Hero it explores a socially impactful topic. It proves that being co-present around a difficult topic can help you feel more connected.
Overall, social co-presence is a powerful tool in VR, but does come with its own challenges. Telling a good linear story is hard, adding interactivity makes it harder, topping that off by putting more people into the space adds a level of complexity few people have tackled, but I don’t question that it’ll continue to get better.
360 Video Innovations
Many of the early creators showing VR work at film festivals did so with 360 videos, as it’s what traditional filmmakers felt most comfortable with. Over the years we’ve seen these videos get better in both quality and story, the pieces at Tribeca were no exception. Here are a few that stood out:
Dinner Party is a piece of narrative filmmaking that is based on a true story of one couple’s experience with abduction. What made Dinner Party unique was their use of fluid movement to help tell the story and get the audience in a specific state of mind. When 360 video first made its appearance in this latest wave of VR filmmaking, camera movement was a big no-no. Since then, creators have experimented with movement in various ways, but Dinner Party stood out for me. It also mixed live action and CG effectively to take you along the complicated journey.
Into the Now was an exploration into the depths of the ocean, following Michael Meuller as he brought the ocean to life and gave a taste of his passions. There have been underwater 360 videos before, quite a few actually, but I haven’t seen any at this scale or quality before. Mainly because it’s been too risky to take good camera equipment underwater and so most underwater shoots have been done with GoPros. I swam with humpback whales, great whites and sting rays. Michael’s hope is that he can bring the wonder of deep sea life to larger audiences and gain more attention and care for ocean life. Most of us will not be diving hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface to hang out with sharks. So far, this has been the closest I’ve felt to doing just that.
Why Festivals Matter
Over the past few years, we’ve seen many festivals embrace VR with open arms and through this, we've learned what a VR exhibition can be. Exhibiting at festivals is complicated for various reasons. It’s difficult to figure out ticketing for experiences that are mainly one person at a time and putting together a physical installation is both timely and costly. So why do festivals matter? Are they worth your effort, money, and time? After being a part of almost two dozen festival exhibitions, I’ve broken down the opportunities and challenges into four categories:
You have to also take into account that having your project at a prestigious festival can be costly and time consuming. You have to weigh this out with your budget and make sure you’re not spending the rest of your production budget on a festival premiere. With that said, festivals can be a good place to fundraise for the remainder of your production budget, however you need to be targeted in your approach. When it comes to festivals you need to be clear about your goals to make sure you’re getting the most out of the experience. Fundraising for finishing funds or getting press for your upcoming launch are two very different goals, and your approach should be different.
Many well-known festivals attract press. Having your project selected to be an official part of the festival gives you a higher chance of grabbing press attention. Press can create buzz for your project and give you chances of reaching a broader audience. The festivals that attract the most press are Sundance, Tribeca, Venice, Cannes and SXSW.
One lesson we’ve learned is that in all cases, even at the most prestigious festivals, you cannot rely on the festival to get press attention for you. As with most things in life, effort in equals reward back. I highly recommend hiring a publicist, especially one that has VR experience, because they have relationships with the right journalists and can help guide your messaging approach.
One important thing to keep in mind is that press rarely write a story about the same project twice. The challenge with this is that if you’re premiering a project at a festival, but launching it much later, you run the risk of using up your press cycles early. We try as much as possible to align festival premieres with project launches, that way the press story has a call to action that directly benefits you — downloads.
Another benefit of prestigious festivals is that they attract many high profile attendees in addition to large audiences. Having a celebrity or big investor get excited about your project can do wonders for your piece. If you’re looking for voice over talent, someone to act in or direct your next project, or an investor to back your project, there is potential of that happening at a festival. Carne y Arena was premiered at Cannes, which began its journey to the Oscars. Yes, it was also directed by Alejandro Innaritu, but Academy members oftentimes start their journey of discovering works through these festivals. Along with talent, we’ve also recently seen VR works get acquired out of festivals, which is a great sign for the industry.
In addition, festivals are a great way to generate word of mouth buzz on your piece. Press can help get attention for your piece but word of mouth from general audiences should not be taken lightly. VR is still foreign to many people and having friends tell them why they need to try a particular VR piece is one of the most important factors in someone’s decision to get into VR.
With festival selection also comes a certain prestige. You get to use the official laurel from the festival in your marketing assets. Audiences generally give a higher weight to work that has been part of well-known festivals. VR takes effort to watch and having previous accolades alongside your launch can help your piece get in the front of the line. It also proves that your work is valued which helps you gain support for your next project.
One of my favorite parts of bringing a project to a festival is getting audience reactions. If you have some time before your launch, this can be a crucial step in helping to further shape your experience from the feedback you receive from your festival exhibition. It’s a chance for general audiences to experience your work, and if you’re open to feedback you will learn what is and isn’t working. I highly suggest being open to feedback, even if it hurts. If you felt strongly about a path, but realize audiences are missing it, you still have time to change course. On another note, if audiences are loving your work then you know you’re on the right path. Getting live feedback is crucial. As projects are becoming more interactive and complex it will be increasingly important for creators to test their work. Hopefully there was testing done before a festival launch, as you don’t want to create negative word of mouth if your piece wasn’t quite ready. However if there are small adjustments to be made, the festival is a place to figure that out.