Saturday night Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”) picked up yet another Oscar at the Academy’s Governors Awards. The recognition came for his virtual reality installation “Carne y Arena,” currently on exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The six-and-a-half-minute experience — a first-hand immersion into a Mexico-U.S. border crossing sequence — proves that VR “has the potential, like movies, to mutate into a major entertainment and popular art form,” Variety critic Owen Gleiberman wrote from the Cannes Film Festival in May. “It’s a trick, a ride, an adventure, a story, a nightmare, a lived-in diversion, a sensory experience touched with the compassion of art.”
For Inarritu, it was an opportunity to take a trip — quite literally — into the heart of a story. The director spoke to Variety ahead of receiving his special honor.
Congratulations on this special Oscar accolade. They don’t give those out too often.
Yeah, I feel very honored. It’s great that you don’t have to compete!
So how did “Carne y Arena” materialize? Did you want to work in virtual reality and that led you to exploring a migrant crossing narrative, or was it vice versa?
I think both. Form and substance were completely together. I would not have done it another way, and I would not have used VR for other reasons.
When I did it, I found I had an odd instinct. I didn’t react physically to the images as much, and I didn’t “participate” in the scene. I also missed the beating hearts digitally placed inside your characters. I found myself drifting back to sort of take it all in, and then mingling among the elements to observe fleeting things. I imagine everyone experiences it in their own way?
It’s very interesting. In the beginning, when I was choreographing the whole thing, I was trying to learn how people would react to certain things. Even when you have complete freedom to go wherever you want, in a way I have tools to have people go this way or that, depending on the lighting or the blocking of the scene. I can manipulate — a little bit; not too much — ways to get people to go where I would like them to go. But I realized it was much more complex than that. One reason is the identity, who you are as a person. What are your interests? What is your emotional stake or perspective in life? There are people who stay behind the policemen the whole time. There are people who go down into the sand and shout and try to hold the kids. Or there are people like you who are trying to get everything from a more objective perspective. I probably would have done the same. And some people sometimes shift their identity. It’s also dependent on the emotional state you went into it with that day. That’s very interesting. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
In Milan there was an art critic who saw it two times. He told me something I truly believe. He said the second viewing is essential. There are so many things going on, and then your feet are touching the sand and the breeze — all of that combined with the illusion in your brain, you back up a little bit. The second time, it’s not as overwhelming. It’s a very different experience. And you’ll discover a lot of detail. There are a lot of secrets that I hide there, that nobody has seen. But I think in time people will discover a lot of things that are there.
Virtual reality feels like a total magic trick to me. I can’t wrap my head around it from a production standpoint. What was that discovery process like for you and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki?
I conceived this four years ago and there was one year of literally learning. We didn’t know how to do it and we had to go through different processes. It was a multimedia thing that I learned through trial and error, and trying to figure out the incredible limitations that still exist in VR, and obviously the challenges of the visual language of it, which is not cinema. For me that was fascinating, and the decision to work with real immigrants, to take from them their true experience that they share. I also always knew that having it set at night, it would help me enormously to compensate for the very limited quality of human skin and human figures. The “uncanny valley” still is huge. But I knew at night, the lights from the cars and the particles of dust and the clothes and the shadow and light ultimately would help me to hide that and be beyond that and have a more emotional experience. We did it with [Industrial Light and Magic], which did an amazing job, but there were still intense limitations. If I wanted 10 things, only four could be done. So to deal with the other six technical impossibilities we’d have to discover and use tricks or illusions so people won’t be distracted, and to keep that quality that we’re in a mural. But what I’m saying is it’s part theater, part documentary, and it’s part-physical installation, it’s a virtual installation — it’s many different arts combined. And the photography, it took us many, many months correcting every single shadow and every single detail. Chivo is a master. In the desert, when we shot with real film cameras, we learned how the textures and colors and light behave, and that was very useful for us. But it took a long time to get us there.
Do you think there is long-form storytelling potential in VR or do you think it will thrive more via installations like this?
I would say both. VR has the potential to change the landscape of museums and galleries, because you can go into the mind of an artist. Imagine if a sculptor like [James] Turrell did VR. I think great artists will be able to create amazing pieces where you will really walk into their brain, and that will be life-changing. The experience is huge. Narratively, I think it will require the new generation to bring a new way to approach it. We should not be contaminating this with old narrative arts of theater or cinema. I think this is its own beast. This requires a new way, and I don’t know if it’s anti-narrative, but it should be much more unexpected — a new way with a new language. That’s what I think is exciting about it. What I call it is a “narrative space.” There’s a narrative but it’s more of a spacial, atmospheric narrative than a traditional narrative. But honestly, this is like a little scratch, a little baby, a little DNA, a little sperm of what really will become a big monster, I think.
Do you have other VR ideas?
Yes, I have a couple of them, but it takes a lot of time. I would love to explore that. It’s really amazing. It challenges your conception of time and space in a way that nothing does. Suddenly the cinema screen is reduced, in a way, and I think the new generation will be challenged by that, because once they get into this and it’s really well-developed and we understand, I think it’s going to be hard to go back.
What’s the next hurdle for the technology?
The quality still has a ways to go, which I think is being developed. I think the lightness of the headsets, the fact that it should be maybe more collective, that you can join with more people — that is another advance that is coming, but it has a lot to stretch there. And then honestly, great ideas. The only thing that will really be sad about it is when this VR tool is reduced to promotional things for cinema or when it feels like video gaming or gadget kind of things. To reduce this incredibly powerful medium to that, it will happen. I think the ability to explore the human condition through this, it’s incredible. Hopefully it will be used for that. But more than anything, I think “Carne y Arena” has got people’s attention and has touched people because the subject matter is so truthful to an invisible society that has been here for years and has been depleted of dignity. Now we have access to a slice of their life and believing their truth. It’s the truth and the access to that truth that makes the piece very strong. So how many other things can be explored?
The installation is right next door to the Academy museum. What do you think of that ongoing project?
I think it’s beautiful. I always thought L.A. should have a cinema museum, but unfortunately there is no tradition of maintaining anything here! [Laughs.] Can you imagine if all the houses and all the sites where great films have shot here were still here? The city would be amazing! But there’s no tradition. So I think a space that will try to keep that is great, but it’s hard. Have you been to the museum of cinema in Turin?
It’s amazing. Cinema is very challenging for a museum. What is behind the cinema is very impermanent. It’s a lie, the tricks of an illusion. When you see it, it’s much more disappointing than exciting. But I think what they did in Turin, it’s very inspiring. I’m sure they will get that spirit here, to bring people into the conscience of what it takes to make a film and make people dream. It’s a very challenging project. I’m glad they’re doing it.