Film Festival’s Virtual Reality Component a Glimpse of Future of Filmmaking

Jun 14, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson

Gliding through a small Parisian café. Smoking and drinking with the legendary Vincent Van Gogh. Strolling through an ancient Japanese garden at the base of Mount Fuji. Free diving at the Great Barrier Reef, observing the effects of coral bleaching. Enjoying a psychedelic dance party followed by a trip to outer space, watching the planets of the solar system fly by.

This past weekend at the Lighthouse International Film Festival, nestled in a corner of the Long Beach Island Foundation property, was the only place in the universe to experience all of these things in one place. For the first time in the history of the festival, the LIFF followed in the steps of film festivals such as Cannes and Tribeca by bringing virtual reality films to Long Beach Island.

Although a fascinating concept, virtual reality filmmaking is still in its early stages and not many people understand the incredibly complex technology. Despite a growing trend of audiences wanting to participate in their media, there is still some pushback from audiences for a number of reasons, ranging from unwillingness to depart from traditional movie watching experiences to motion sickness. In virtual reality’s first year at the festival, VR directors Mark Sternberg and Kiira Benzing were hoping to dispel some of these trepidations and establish VR as a legitimate filmmaking experience.

“People have been loving all the experiences,” Sternberg said. “It’s been great being out here showing audiences the technology. Most people have never heard of virtual reality before and even less have actually tried it.”

Sternberg explained the technology. In one room four chairs were set up that would act as the theater for the Samsung Gear VR’s, which are the headsets available to the public. When paired with a more recent Samsung Galaxy, users have access to a rotational VR experience. This means the user can look around in all directions but can’t actively move through the space. The experiences featured in this area were “The Night Café,” created by Mac Cauley, where users are transported to a café where they can hang out with Vincent Van Gogh while admiring his most iconic works of art. The next, created by Nice Shoes Creative Studio, was called “Mio Garden,” in which users were taken on a calming walk through a Japanese garden surrounded by vibrant plants and tranquil ponds, all situated with a stunning image of Mount Fuji in the backdrop. The final experience with the Samsung Gear VR’s was a moving documentary called “Chasing Coral” by Jeff Orlowski that followed him and his team during their diving expeditions at the Great Barrier Reef in an attempt to document the climate change phenomenon known as coral bleaching that comes as a result of rapidly warming ocean temperatures.

The second VR experience was slightly more advanced, giving users an exclusive look into the future of virtual reality filmmaking. Contrasted with the rotational experience of the Samsung Gear VR, which sets users back anywhere from $50 to $100, the HTC VIVE can cost anywhere from $800 to $1,000 and offers a completely immersive virtual reality experience. The HTC VIVE experience requires a 15-by-15-foot space and can accurately track users in space so they can walk around and “explore.” At the LIFF, the two HTC VIVE experiences were “Old Friend” by Tyler Hurd, a psychedelic dance party to the tune of “Old Friend” by Future Islands, where the user let loose and danced along to the beat, and “The Rose and I,” which sent the user to outer space to watch a short film based on the French book The Little Prince.

“It’s been really cool showing audiences the technology and seeing their reactions to different types of virtual reality,” Sternberg said excitedly.

The future is uncharted territory in filmmaking. In an embryonic stage, virtual reality is constantly evolving and advancing. Earlier this year, Facebook announced it will release two new cameras that capture real 360-degree video with depth, allowing users to walk through volumetric environments with real people and real environments. Essentially, one minute users are sitting at home and the next they are in a live video VR experience, scaling the Great Wall of China.

“In ‘Chasing Coral,’ you can see the reef and look all around you, and it’s beautiful, it’s really well shot,” Sternberg said. “But now imagine actually being able to swim through the Great Barrier Reef as opposed to only being able to look around.”

Although to many the concept sounds remarkable, as it is taking the film industry by storm and companies are pouring tons of resources into research, some are far more reluctant to embrace it. According to Sternberg, like anything, there are problems with virtual reality that must be resolved before this becomes a legitimate filmmaking medium. Two of the most prominent are motion sickness and a fear of being blindfolded, unaware of surrounding hazards. According to Sternberg, companies are working hard to resolve these issues in their quest to bring virtual reality to the masses.

“We’ve talked mainly about virtual reality, but the other side of these developments is augmented reality which became big, thanks to things like Pokemon Go,” Sternberg said. “Virtual reality and augmented reality will come together to more or less ‘re-skin’ the world that you’re in. When you look at an office chair it will become a chair in a Mayan temple. You can sit in it, there is a chair there, but it’s not the chair that is in your real world. It’s less intimidating to people because they know they won’t trip and fall over anything.”

Anything new can be intimidating; changing the way people have watched films for over a century is by no means an insignificant feat. But Sternberg and the rest of the LIFF will surely be watching its development closely and hope to expand the virtual reality showcase for next year’s festival.

“It’s intimidating to think about this new medium,” Sternberg said. “We’re so used to being limited by this 16-by-9 frame. And when you say, ‘There’s no frame anymore, you’re in the space,’ what are the new rules? It’s so exciting because we’re in this early phase and we barely even know what works, and we’re rapidly developing it to make it its own medium and it’s such a cool thing to be a part of.”

— Zach Hoffman

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