SIFF 2018 Edition: Get in the (VR) Zone — Anniversary Post

My last anniversary post is, ironically, about the future. While I’m of the opinion that VR isn’t the future of film, I also believe that we’re just beginning to discover its applications and its potential. Note: there was no VR at SIFF this year, so if it’s the future, the future will have to wait.

SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place

In 2016, SIFF dedicated a part of its festival to emerging virtual reality work. Held at Seattle Center, the event was a mini-festival-within-the-festival dubbed SIFFX. Last year, it transformed into 360 Storytelling, which was offered by WonderTek labs every weekend of the festival, and a “PlayTank” at the Film Center the last day of fest. This year, the virtual reality experience was rebranded as the SIFF VR Zone and was housed on the ground floor of Pacific Place. On the last day of SIFF 2018, I decided to investigate this emerging medium and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for the future of film in particular and visual media in general.

The VR Zone was open for 90 minutes at a time, followed by 30 minutes where the exhibit was closed. During those 30 minutes, people lined up in the waiting room. Once the exhibit was ready for ticket holders and passholders, a staff member came out and explained what’s about to happen. Basically, the room we were about to go into would be filled with individual stations. Each station would be equipped with a Samsung Gear VR headset. Some exhibits would sport interactive controllers, as well. Swivel chairs would be provided for the features so as to fully experience the 360 degree visuals and sound. The features would involve sitting, while some of the interactive exhibits would involve standing. We were also warned to take breaks, as people prone to motion-sickness might be affected by the VR (I was warned in advance about one called Uplift VR: Maiden Flight, which takes place in a hot air balloon, but I didn’t have time to try it). Each exhibit would have the name of the exhibit and its run time written near the exhibit, usually on the wall.

With that, the blacks curtains were opened and we were let loose on a long, black-lined room that narrowed near the back (and shifted a bit to the right). Near the walls rested several swivel chairs with headsets and headphones (in other exhibits, the headsets and headphones were combined). Toward the middle of the space was a balloon basket (for Maiden Flight). Past it were more interactive exhibits, then a hallway perpendicular to the rest of the room. If you took a right, the hallway led past two exhibits into Where Thoughts Go. To the left were two more exhibits on the way to the restrooms.

The Zone included different VR experiences. Interactive VR involved more of the viewer, 360 Out of Africa and 360 Out of Space are what they sound like in their respective focuses, while 360 Experimental jettisoned narrative for different uses of the medium. Youth 360 were projects created by youth, while 360 Narrative, 360 Documentary, and 360 Art & Music are self-explanatory. In all, there were 28 exhibits of varying length, with most exhibits lasting under 15 minutes in length.

Since I had limited time, I went on my coworkers’ recommendations, with one exception. My first VR experience was Rone, an 8-9 minute documentary about the street artist by Lester Francois. This man paints huge portraits of women in buildings and other spaces designated for destruction. I used the swivel chair to good effect on this one.

The next exhibit was not recommended to me, nor would I recommend it to others. That was the experimental The Cabiri: Anubis by Bogdan Darev and Fred Beahm. Taking the shape of a play and coming after the true 360 world of Rone, this 180 staged work didn’t utilize all that VR could offer. Plus, it was boring in its telling of a man in ancient Egypt traveling to the Underworld to await judgement. Much of that had to do with the choreography, which wasn’t that impressive. Titles over the visuals were the only dialog included; music and gestures told the rest.

Then came the calming and wonderful Where Thoughts Go by Lucas Rizzotto, the first of two interactive exhibits I was able to experience. The exhibit, complete with a gauzy entrance and cushions to sit on, utilized controllers that allowed me to manipulate tiny spheres of light. In each “level”, you’d be asked a personal question, usually having to do with love, loss, or memories. You could manipulate the spheres to hear how other people answered, but the only way to move to the next question was to record an answer, then send your “answer sphere” to join the other spheres. It says something when an employee had to come in and tell me to wrap it up (due to people waiting for the exhibit outside), but I answered at least three of the questions and heard multiple answers to them. If it’s back next year, I may just spend all my time there.

The final exhibit (and final interactive exhibit) I experienced, I had to wait for. Called Queerskins: A Love Story (by Illya Szilac and Cyril Tsiboulski), the exhibit space was filled with mementos and testimonials of gay people who’d been rejected by their parents. The exhibit also had controllers that allowed me to manipulate items in a box as I sat in the back seat of a car. In the front were parents of a son who has died of AIDS. The box contained items that belonged to their son. The items changed every so often, depending on what was happening in the story at the time. While the narrative was powerful, I wondered if the VR Experience was necessary. Sure, you see the son as a person through interacting with the items in the back seat, but you aren’t holding physical items, which would create more of an impact. Also, the story is meant to make a point (which it does), but a short film could delve deeper into the subject with more complexity.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the exhibit. Just like 3D, however, the forced perspective gave me a headache, even after just one exhibit. Imagine if the exhibits were feature-length! If anyone figures out how to make the holodeck a reality, I’m there, but for now, virtual reality will remain a novelty, or one confined to the shortest of run-times.