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Creative Forces in VR at Venice Festival Learn From the Past

Director eliza McNitt’s first virtual reality (VR) experience back in 2013 was not particularly pleasant. The simulated roller coaster ride, viewed through a development kit version of Oculus Rift, made her feel sick and disconnected. But she saw the glimmer of possibility.

“I thought, give this a few years and people are really going to be embracing this as a new medium for storytelling,” recalls McNitt.

Five years later, many filmmakers have tried their hand at VR, from big name directors such as Doug Liman (“American Made”), who released the five-part VR series “Invisible” in 2016, to relative unknowns like McNitt, whose VR docuseries “Spheres” will be among the more than two dozen works presented as part of the Venice Film Festival’s virtual reality section. But they’re still working out the bugs, both technological and narrative.

When writer-director Eric Darnell first took the plunge into VR with his Emmy-winning short “Invasion!” (2016), he already had more than three decades of animation under his belt, including DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” and its sequels. But he found that many of his time-tested techniques did not work in the new medium.

“I didn’t know how different virtual reality was when I started,” admits Darnell, co-founder of Baobab Studios. “I naively thought, this is just a 3D movie, so I made a lot of mistakes.”

One such misstep was his first pass at a scene in which the spaceship invasion massed in the distance, hidden by a stand of aspen trees. He tried to ratchet up the tension with a blockbuster-style slow build of music and sound effects, but he discovered that viewers looked away from the trees after only a few seconds.

“I had to take several seconds out of that so-called dramatic moment so I could capture 95% of the viewers’ eyeballs,” says Darnell, who will be presenting his new VR short “Crow: The Legend,” featuring the voices of John Legend, Oprah Winfrey and Constance Wu, at Venice.

Part of the problem is the audience’s lack of familiarity with the medium. “Anybody who’s more than 6 years old can walk into a movie theater and know exactly what’s expected of them,” says Darnell. “But there are times that people put a headset on and they’re just staring straight ahead. I say, ‘You know, you can move your head,’ and they turn their head twenty degrees and say, ‘Oh, my God!’”

It’s hard to get a handle on what does and doesn’t work in immersive storytelling because few rules have been defined, and many of last year’s rules (e.g., no jump cuts) have been discarded. The challenges aren’t dissimilar to those faced by silent film pioneers.

“In the earliest days of the movie business, everybody had to cook their own recipes,” says Ben Grossmann, CEO of Magnopus, producer of the Emmy-nominated VR experiences “Coco VR” and “Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab.” “They were making their own cameras and their own projectors and their own standards. It’s exactly like that with VR.”

The rapid evolution of VR technology, from camera rigs to software tools, can be maddening, but it worked to the advantage of director Lynette Wallworth with her new VR experience “Awavena,” which takes viewers into Amazon forest with Hushahu, the first woman shaman of the Yawanawa tribe.

When Wallworth premiered “Awavena” at Sundance in January, viewers were “just sitting in a chair,” she says. But for Venice she has reworked it with new codec that enables people to virtually walk through the forest and have it respond to their voice, gaze and gestures (via hand sensors). Thanks to next generation headsets that were released in the interim, she was also able to bookend the experience with augmented reality to VR transitions that have Hushahu guiding viewers from their real-world surroundings to the virtual forest and back again.

In spite of all its challenges, VR has one key feature that makes it irresistible to many filmmakers: its ability to engender empathy in the viewer.

“When I began writing ‘Spheres,’ the first question [exec producer] Darren Aronofsky asked me was, ‘What is the hero’s journey?’” recalls McNitt. “My first response was, ‘There is no hero’s journey in VR.’ But I realized I was wrong. The hero is you.”

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