Venice Film Festival: Venice Virtual Reality

Venice Virtual Reality

by Richard Hamer

This year, Venice Film Festival brings us a competition exclusively for films made in Virtual Reality. Approaching it with the question ‘what can VR bring to cinema that is truly unique and inspiring?’ brings mixed answers, and begs larger questions.

What’s clear is that the VR-literacy of its creators is hugely varied. VR is no longer a truly ‘young’ medium. In the last few years, much has been explored by the videogame industry, and site-specific art and design. In that context, much of the work at Venice feels somewhat naive:

Chuang (In the Pictures)

Mathieu Pradat’s Proxima follows a naked man, awoken from a nap in the tub by a glowing ball of light. He proceeds to chase it, finding it always out of reach. Sometimes the viewer is the light, the man’s hand stretching out to grab them. Sometimes, they are a bystander. It’s a spirited piece, but one that feels like a ‘VR demo’ – objects you track 360 degrees around you, hands reaching close to your face: very much the ‘wow moments’ of VR three years ago, now lacking punch. The content itself isn’t sufficiently imaginative to stand on its own merits. Same too for Qing Shao’s Chaung (In the Pictures), an animated journey through abstract worlds that relies too much on VR gimmicks: big objects near you! Sound effects all around you! If that fails to impress, its simple message of how VR gives a disabled child the chance to travel to distant places is mawkish in the extreme.

Snatch: VR Heist Experience

Where the works themselves aren’t naive, the odd experience suggests that perhaps the festival organisers are: Rafael Pavon and Nicolas Alcala’s Snatch VR Heist Experience comes across as a cheaply produced and amateurishly performed marketing tool for the upcoming Crackle TV series, unconvincingly juxtaposing flat 2D cut-outs of the actors (including Rupert Grint) with a 3D space. Basic interactions with a PlayStation controller add little to the immersion. Honestly, one wonders how such a thing came to be included in an internationally renowned film festival.

And among the lesser work, technological issues abound: the VR headsets provided don’t offer sufficient resolution or depth of colour to handle true darkness, spoiling much of the strong lighting work in Proxima under a mess of jagged pixels. VR comfort is an occasional issue, too, with some experiences accelerating the camera up slopes, in a move bound to make the more sensitive viewer somewhat queasy. Lessons learned from the bountiful research into VR development clearly not always being shared.

My Name is Peter Stillman

But at the other end of the spectrum, a number of well-produced experiences offer potential answers to our question: Lysander Ashton’s My Name is Peter Stillman places the viewer at a desk facing a window, their VR reflection moving as their real-life body moves, the facial features swimming and changing as a dark story of identity unfolds. It’s an impressive combo of hand-drawn animation and VR-smarts, proposing that if VR can bring something unique to cinema, it involves blurring the lines between the physical body, and the virtual.

Greenland Melting

The three strongest experiences suggest another answer, similar but different: if VR cinema’s power is its ability to embody us in another place, then that place should not be fantastical, but rather fully, terrifyingly real. Greenland Melting by Julia Cort, a documentary on the rapid death of the glacier, combines startling videogrammetry technology (where an actor is filmed from multiple directions, and then ‘stitched together’ into a 3D character) with a strong use of scale and place. From the decks of ice breakers to the cockpit of a plane, we witness the decline of our natural world in a new way; one that makes vast and unfathomable disasters seem real, urgent, and all the sadder for remaining unresolved.

The Last Goodbye

Gabo Arora’s The Last Goodbye, and Gina Kim’s Bloodless are the competition stand-outs. The former records the return of an 80-year old Holocaust survivor to the Concentration Camp where his family were killed, the other with the fate of South Korean sex-workers in the towns where US Army soldiers are based. Arora’s work allows the viewer to explore the ruins of the Majdanek Concentration Camp as they appear now. Survivor Pinchas Gutter narrates as we wander the grounds, the gas chambers, and the ovens. The experience invites us to imagine, to stand in those places and try to transport ourselves back. While one cannot say this could not be achieved without VR, one also can’t deny the extra layer of empathy that it has afforded.


Bloodless achieves similar effects with different techniques: here the viewer is distant, a voyeur, watching the comings and goings of this small, Korean ‘camptown’ from behind lamposts, and down dark alleys. As night falls we track a female sex worker as she passes along the boarded-up streets, the click of her high heels echoing all around. The feeling of empathy, of powerlessness, is just as strong here, but more immediate, more instinctive. It’s all the more impressive, perhaps, because it depicts a particular daily horror that I was not aware of five minutes beforehand, in a part of the world I scarcely consider.

So, there is optimism for VR cinema; a suggestion of a bright future, with old emotions drawn out in a powerful new way. There is work to be done, though: a levelling of the playing field, and a sharing of technology and craft so that as the medium comes up, it comes up together. One doesn’t want to see it disowned too soon, just as Venice gives it its first shot at the mainstream.

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