2018 Seattle International Film Festival: SIFF VR Zone

Seattle International Film Festival 2018 - VR Zone

At the 44th Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF debuted a brand new venue: The SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place, produced by Seattle’s WonderTek Labs. Participants are invited into a first-floor storefront at Pacific Place Mall in Downtown Seattle. They are free to choose their own VR content for the next 90 minutes, wandering through an array of 28 films and interactive VR installations. Some were 360-degree films, primarily on Samsung Gear VR, and others were interactive experiences using either HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, with handheld controllers.

It was quite impossible to view all of the VR content in 90 minutes, so a selection is reviewed below. I’d like to offer a special thanks to both WonderTek Labs and SIFF staff and volunteers for making this press visit possible – it is one of the most complex festival installations I’ve seen, and it was a well-oiled machine.

The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.


Space Explorers: A New Dawn

Poster for

Directed by Felix Lajeunesse & Paul Raphaël
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
19 min, Canada

Space is as appropriate a subject for VR as it has long been for IMAX, and I sense this won’t be the only subject matter overlap between these two venues. I’m told this one even has some narration by an Academy Award-winning actor (Brie Larson), but I’d be lying if I said I noticed it. This was the first VR film I watched at this venue, and I spent most of it simultaneously taking in the closeness of having a one-on-one conversation with its subjects (current and prospective astronauts all), and feeling a bit rude for ignoring their speech and staring around at the surroundings instead. The surroundings were, of course, as much the point as what the astronauts had to say about them. There was the simulator, as well as some barren landscape with spacesuited astronauts and a gargantuan test rover. There was even some stunning footage of areas not generally available to the public – although when I looked behind me as the tour guides spoke, I could see some public crowds accompanying me into NASA’s neutral buoyancy training facility – essentially a vast, deep pool with spaceship mockups either floating or submerged, for the astronauts to rehearse various procedures in the closest thing to null gravity that we can simulate on Earth. But all of those real tourists had to stand behind the yellow line. I know that experience, because I toured NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center last year – and it’s still awesome. Being there is still best, and probably will remain so, pending some Matrix tech.

But this was something different – this was plunking a 360-degree camera into the most interesting spot in the room. And then into the tank. And then into space. Looming closer and closer to the ISS docking port as telemetry is spoken into your ear, trying to keep your eye on the target with the vast Earth above your head, stretching to…well, the horizon, filling the entire upward view, reminding the viewer that our planet, tiny as it is, is several orders of magnitude larger than our human perspective. And in a flash, ISS and Earth are gone, and I’m suddenly watching one of the new astronauts that I “spoke with” earlier, and she’s wearing a VR headset of her own, working a controller, and rehearsing the ISS docking procedure. And that’s perhaps the greatest endorsement of this film: the pros are using something very much like it to learn their trade.

I’ll make a hardware note here: The Samsung Gear VR is heavy. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which I read afterward are a mere 50 grams lighter, didn’t tax my neck muscles quite so much. But this will definitely be a moving target if the technology sticks around.

Available for purchase in the Oculus Store here. More info here.

Homecoming: Seduction

Still from

Directed by Lance McDaniel
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
5 min, USA

An elaborate choreographed dance between a man and woman, seemingly in a romantic relationship, but occasionally strained and violent. The bulk of the dance takes place in an Oklahoma junkyard. The description for the film says it’s a metaphor for the allure and disappointment of drug addiction, and to be honest, I doubt I would have picked up on that without the artist’s statement. The dance is sensual, bordering on obscene at times – and turns angry and isolated before the end as the venue shifts to a flat landscape with a straight line of fenceposts stretching to the horizon. This is not the first dance performance I’ve seen in VR (that was this one, from the Dutch National Ballet), and my reaction was largely the same: this feels bit odd. I enjoy dance, and I can see the appeal of feeling like an interloper or impossible spectator, and experience art in a several-on-one format that is impractical for anyone but a wealthy patron in real life. I enjoyed this film – but this experience still feels fundamentally bizarre and isolated to me.

More info here.

Queerskins: A Love Story

Still from

Created by Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
15 min, USA

Of all of the VR experiences here, this was the one in which I felt the most like a real participant. My real body was sitting in a cushy chair, next to a table full of mementos – knick-knacks, papers, a diary – I didn’t look at them too closely, although I did ask the volunteer if handling them during the VR experience was a part of it. Of course, I realized how silly a question this was after asking it. The objects were disorganized, strewn across the table. And the idea that virtual versions of those objects could move in the simulation as I handled their physical counterparts would seem to strain the current state of the technology. Nonetheless, this was the first experience I tried that had controllers, and I was excited for something halfway between a film, a video game, and an interactive art installation. And I was not disappointed.

As the film began, I was in the backseat of an old car, driving down a country road. An older couple sits in the front seat, quietly discussing something dire, which is gradually revealed to be their dead adult son, Sebastian. The particulars: Sebastian was gay, and the couple – who appear to be Catholic from the iconography – had disowned him, and he had moved to Los Angeles. After the move, he had a hard life, and eventually died of an unspecified illness (the film’s synopsis reveals this to be AIDS).

My best guess at what I was seeing here was real-life driving footage outside, a 3D CGI environment for the car’s interior (likely taken from a scan of a real vehicle), and…wait, are those people real, or CGI? I leaned over to get a better look at the mom…my mom? And I realized the viewing angle of her changed slightly as I moved my head in space. Whatever this was (I would later read the term “volumetric video”), it was real footage of real people, rendered as three-dimensional objects that I could view from multiple angles. As they discussed…my death, apparently. I presumed I was meant to be Sebastian, and as a character, I’m not really there – the couple never acknowledges me. The man, Ed (Drew Moore) asks the woman, Mary-Helen (Hadley Boyd) what’s in the box in the backseat. To my left is a more obviously CGI banker’s box. I pick up the lid. I must emphasize, the ability to “pick up”, turn over, and view objects from any angle was crucial to the immersiveness of this scene. The weights didn’t feel right, of course, but watching my pale blue hands grasp each object, turn it over, throw it into the front seat… I felt like a real, live poltergeist. Inside the box was a variety of religious and personal items – a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a diary (whose pages didn’t move), several books (one of whose pages did move, at least initially).

The two former parents drive on to their son’s funeral, sadly discussing their cruel treatment of the man in his life. They argue over which of them treated him better. Ed projects onto Mary-Helen that she must have disapproved of his lifestyle, as she hadn’t talked to him in years. Mary-Helen protests that she went out to visit him “after the attack”, and Ed never did that. This is some borderline maudlin material, and it’s delivered with some haste due to the constraints of the VR experience – but the couple’s acting really sells it, particularly as the scene intensifies at the end. The scene also changes as the couple continues driving (it feels as if hours pass – the weather outside seems to change as well), and with each scene change, a new set of objects appears in the box. I’m straining to remember more than a handful of them, although their real-life counterparts were available on the table for me to examine after I had completed the VR portion.

One of the items that stuck with me was a cartoonish Frankenstein mask. I lifted it up to examine it, its eye-holes looking toward me. Then I decided – initially as a technological curiosity – to see if I could rotate it into a position where I could “wear” it. The Oculus controls are quite precise – I did so easily. As I moved it up to “my” face – it began to vanish from a point at its center, expanding outward as it passed through my virtual avatar’s face or field of view. And without even planning to immerse myself so fully, I took on the role of the frightened child. It felt performative at the time, and yet I found “my” parents’ argument so distressing that I kept the fake mask on my face for a full ten seconds, imagining what it would be like to hide from these people in life. That moment was the sense of “being there” that I had been seeking from each of these experiences. As a technological demo, this was cutting edge. But as a film, it was one of the most immersive emotional journeys I’ve ever experienced from VR. This was a hint of what Star Trek characters (starting from the ’90s, when VR was little more than a punchline until The Matrix) said about the allure of participatory storytelling in “holo-novels”. I’m a nerd in the tech industry who reviews movies. I am not the most objective source when it comes to whether or not VR will ever be anything more than a niche fascination. But this experience was the closest I’ve ever come to viewing VR as a true art form.

More info here.

Let This Be a Warning

Still from

Directed by Jim ChuChu
Created and Produced by The Nest Collective
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
11 min, Kenya

You – either a robot or an astronaut or both – land on another planet, in a barren desert. A heads-up display warns that your motor and speech functions are non-functional (a handy storytelling mechanic for VR), and that multiple subjects are approaching. A cadre of (human) soldiers appear – all dark-skinned, and all with futuristic weapons, and they take you into custody. The scene shifts, and you awaken in a warehouse. A representative of this government appears – also black, as every person so far has been – to inform you that you will be sent home to your planet, and you are to inform your people that this world does not wish to hear from you again. They desire no relations with your planet, and they will consider any further incursion to be an act of war. The man informs you that you’ll be held until a ship is available to take you back to your planet. He walks out, and the armed guards remain. The scene shifts, and another representative (Marrianne Nungo) appears. Your heads-up display informs you that she’s unarmed, but cryptically warns you of “extreme danger”. You, or it, recognize her – and view her as a critical threat. And then her speech begins. She paces around you with unwavering cheer and menace as you sit, powerless to interrupt her in any way. She never raises her voice, even as she casually discusses dissecting you, as “your kind did to us, many centuries ago,” she reveals with a smile. This woman holds your fate and has no sympathy for you. Curiously, she notes that no one living has ever seen “one of you”. Even amid the confusion of who and what the protagonist might be, this is some solid exposition. She finally reveals your fate. The plan is still to send you home to your planet. But how that will occur is, like this film, an act of provocation.

Fundamentally, even as the nameless, faceless protagonists sits, devoid of identity or defining characteristics, unwelcome and judged, I’m okay with taking the bait and saying that this film is trolling white fragility in a major way. The protagonist isn’t white, of course – it may not even be human. But it represents an unwelcome other on a powerful colony of black-skinned separatists, and the question that the film asks on-screen should only offend people that have a good reason to believe they’d be treated badly in such a place. The film essentially asks: Whoever you are, how would you be treated on a planet where black people hold all the power? What sort of treatment have you earned? Does this even seem like a fair question? And for that matter, where would the outrage be if someone wanted to make a sci-fi movie about “white worlds”? Shut the fuck up with that, Tucker Carlson, and yes, I would be addressing his impotent bowtie directly if I thought there was a chance he’d don a VR headset and watch a movie from Kenya on purpose.

Further, it feels as if this film is trolling anyone who pretends they haven’t witnessed “white worlds” in sci/fi and fantasy already. Throwing a bit of American racial politics into the mix (which I doubt were intended – not everything is about us), it also felt like a barb for anyone who pretends that racial segregation is some sort of novel and shocking concept, or a mere historical curiosity that’s long dead. The reality, of course, is that it’s as much the stuff of everyday housing and education policy as it is the fodder of tiki-torch-clad Nazi rallies. It’s the sort of reality that is dismissed as a historical artifact by people who vote up a local education levy before asking on Nextdoor if it’s dangerous that so many kids at the elementary across town are on free and reduced lunch, then posit that it won’t matter for too much longer, as the neighborhood is rapidly become unaffordable for their parents. None of this is in the film, but a VR experience like this really does feel like traveling to another planet: you only have what you brought with you. As the film asks whether you be welcome in a black world, the implication is surely to question how welcome black people are in this one. And whether or not it’s a fair question, it has stayed with me. This world is where I’ve remained whether it wants me there or not.

More info here.

Epic Snowday Adventure

Created by Verge of Brilliance LLC
Hardware: HTC Vive w/controllers
USA

As a film critic, I’m a little embarrassed that I succumbed to the temptation here. I asked if this booth was free, or how long the experience lasts for, and the volunteer immediately booted a lad of eight or so out of the booth – he had apparently been playing the game for 20 minutes or so, but I still felt a bit sad taking away a toy from a child.  I was prepared to go watch the seven short films from a Jordanian refugee camp instead, but…I just couldn’t resist the call of the silly snowball fight game. And that’s what this is. You’re a kid in the middle of the street (as Colonel Rhodes would say, the killbox). Various spritely (and by that, I mean simplistically animated) children peek out from the driveways and houses around you, and attempt to gather up snowballs to pelt you. I’ll grant this was the first level and this was a game for children, but the little bastards didn’t stand a chance. I demolished them. A few of the kids wore armor in the form of cardboard boxes. As a game mechanic, this meant that I not only had to bend over to pick up a much larger snowball than the tiny ones I was effortlessly headshotting them with before, but also make it much bigger by frantically wiggling my wrist until it became the size of a basketball. And this is where they would’ve had me – where my thirtysomething knees and a flare-up of carpal tunnel would’ve let them do me in. Naturally, I abandoned the game before suffering such humiliation.

What I saw of this game was pretty basic, but it teased more elaborate mechanics (I received two large cardboard boxes to hide behind, making the killbox marginally safer). I never felt the nebulous sense of “being there” that I was seeking out with the other VR experiences, but I briefly felt like a Calvin and Hobbes drawing? And that’s not nothing.

Available for purchase on Steam here.

Mono: Blackwater

Still from

Directed by Ben Wolstenholme
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
USA

Mono: Blackwater is a slightly better movie than a game, but it’s a pretty underwhelming example of either. Before I go further, I should mention that this Oculus setup suffered some intermittent technical issues – a previous patron had apparently bumped the sensor that was meant to keep an eye on my position in space, so the entire perspective would occasionally tilt – it gives me a headache just thinking about it. The volunteers made it clear that we could ask for help if we noticed any issues like this, so this is on me, but it certainly didn’t help the film’s chances.

An older man paces around his study, and a beastly (but nonetheless humanoid) mutant jumps through the window, ready to fight, before the older man gestures to a foggy yellow 3-D image projected above his table, and informs him he has a daughter. There’s some alright acting on display here, but this is fundamentally just a simplistic, button-mashing “rescue the princess” brawler. The most interesting thing about it is the “AR-within-VR” mechanic. You’re in a simulation, wherein you play a guy standing in front of a table – and overlaid on that table is a virtual model of the castle that the mutant man is invading to rescue his daughter. And you’re controlling him, somehow? First you steer him through a HALO jump as surface-to-air missiles hurtle at you (this took several attempts, owing to both the technical glitch and the awkward motion controls, instructions for which only briefly flash in your field of view). Once he reaches the ground, you’re maneuvering him through the castle and brawling with other dudes. Since you’re viewing all of this through the fuzzy yellow hologram model, it felt like an excuse to only have to design two detailed character models – and the combat is uninteresting. Just a joystick and a single button for punching and kicking. It never really feels like you’re controlling what’s going on – just mashing a fast-forward button while the game plays itself. I found myself moving around in space just to view the action from different angles, in an attempt to make it more interesting. Then I gave up.

More info here and here.

Aeronaut

Still from

Directed by David Liu & Rob Ruffler
Hardware: HTC Vive
4 min, USA

This is a  swirl of mixed reality (Microsoft’s phrase for whatever HoloLens is shaping up to be), in the form of a music video. As Billy Corgan (from The Smashing Pumpkins) plays and sings his heart out at the piano, an array of animated colors and leaves and textures swirl all around and overhead. You can get a sense of the visuals from the 2D version below – just imagine that happening all around you. As the player, you’re a sort of colorful mummy figure that can swirl its hand-bandages together in order to create lotus flowers, Chinese lanterns, and sparks of light and color. It’s a fun ride and a decent song.

The non-VR version of this music video is available on YouTube, here. More info here.


The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.

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