Hillary Clinton had come to talk about elephants. But she reserved some enthusiasm for a brewing technological revolution too.
“This virtual reality experience you’re providing is so critical because it’s a portal — a portal you can go into,” she said.
Clinton was speaking on a panel at a Tribeca Film Festival event for “The Protectors,” a new VR piece about a group of elephant-guarding African park rangers that’s co-directed by “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Clinton was complimenting the director on her embrace of the technology.
The former secretary of State is not the only person who’s been enthused about all things 360 and headset-y at the New York confab over this last week. Tribeca has built a reputation in recent years as a clearinghouse for digital storytelling, becoming a place for exciting new content and the thinkers who engage with it.
For those of us who believe it’s the future, that makes it a great place to see where the trends are going. It’s also a place to put on a headset and tune out the world, and who doesn’t want to do that these days?
With that in mind, we decided to highlight five (of the many) worthy new VR projects that made their world premiere at Tribeca and will soon be coming to home systems for private consumption. From “The Protectors” to a spine-freezing visit to a World War II concentration camp, a choral rendition of “Hallelujah” to a mini-golf-themed breakup drama, here’s what they are and why they’re worth getting familiar with.
Creators: Alon Benari, Tal Zubalsky, Alex Vlack
The piece, produced by the interactive-storytelling firm Eko, tells of a husband and wife who return home one night and find an intruder has entered their house. They’re in the middle of an argument, so tensions run high, and those tensions climb even higher when a gun comes out. Alternating between the events of the evening and a police interrogation of the wife, “Broken Night” is noteworthy for several reasons.
1) The piece stars Emily Mortimer and real-life hubby Alessandro Nivola as the husband and wife, making it one of the first forward-moving narrative pieces to include known actors.
2) The piece has a forward-moving narrative.
3) “Broken Night” offers “choice points” — that is, places where the narrative literally splits, represented by a character multiplying and moving in a different direction. Depending on which person you follow, the story will branch in that direction. (It’s a little like that 1985 Clue movie, for you OG-ers.) I should say I was able to watch the film only once, but was assured of said branching.
Mortimer told The Times she was as intrigued — at at times overwhelmed — by VR as the rest of us. “There’s something about the intensity that’s both very exciting and also troubling,” she said. “It has a power that cinema doesn’t have.” (She became involved in this project because Nivola is a childhood friend of one of the producers.)
She also noted that acting in such a film was tricky (look for more actors to start highlighting this as they take on VR projects). As she explained: “The camera is a weird robot head with eyes on it and it sort of stands in the middle of the room by itself, and everyone else runs away and you’re left with this strange being.” She added, with equal candor, “It’s also very odd because there’s no close up or wide shot — what you see as a close-up is just you waking closer to the camera. It was odd and quite hard to calibrate my performance.”
While the piece doesn’t work in every way — or, more accurately, left me feeling like it was a first chapter more than a cohesive whole — the effort is highly promising. VR may not ultimately look like cinema, but it’s going to take some familiar detours (branches?) to get there. “Broken Night” highlights one entertaining path.
“Talking With Ghosts/Reservoir”
Creators: Ric Carrasquillo, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Roman Muradov, Maria Yi
Oculus Story Studio, the animated-content division of the Facebook-owned tech firm, has been on the cutting edge of VR for a while now. It was behind one of the first-ever narrative shorts in VR. And in September it became the first company to win an Emmy for an original piece.
Lately the division and its chief, Saschka Unseld, have been working on an emerging sub-genre called Illustrative VR, using an animation tool named Quill that paints pieces in rich brushstrokes. It yielded the dreamlike poignancy of “Dear Angelica” — for our money the most powerful narrative VR film yet — a few months back.
Now the studio is continuing its turn to the lyrical with a quartet of projects, titled “Talking With Ghosts,” that also involves Quill. (Essentially, it’s Microsoft Paintbrush meets “Harold and the Purple Crayon”). One of these fictional films, subtitled “Reservoir,” is a doozy, capturing the breakup/new relationship continuum in a way to make Spike Jonze and the “Her” crew jealous.
While we won’t give away the film’s many pleasures, we will say it involves the memory of a school trip (Quill is very suited to nostalgia pieces), a magical miniature golf course and an observed couple in the throes of a crisis. The story is rife with wordplay and pathos.
“Reservoir” is told in an interesting way, through a series of saturated still images with words written across them; it’s almost like a graphic novel you can live inside. While the head-swivel to read the panels is a bit of an adjustment, the price is a small one. What’s a few neck kinks if it comes with imagination and beautiful heartbreak?
Creators: Kathryn Bigelow, Imraan Ismail
Bigelow has been making cinematic images feel urgent for some time, as anyone who jumped out of their seat five times during “The Hurt Locker” can tell you. She shifts to VR here in as natural a segue as you can imagine, working with Ismail, a veteran of the form.
Telling the story of the rangers at Garamba National Park in the Congo (with the backing of National Geographic), the doc is eager to convey the dangers these men face. Said park stewards function much like soldiers, carrying guns, combing the park and waiting in the weeds for the illegal poachers, who are well funded and well armed. The work is grueling, going on for weeks at a time, and dangerous; the poachers are there to kill elephants and humans alike.
VR is dispatched to intimacy-creating effect as you the viewer ride on trucks with the rangers and sit in tense wait in a vast park. It’s also deployed for the possibilities of scope, as we rise over the park in a helicopter. As Bigelow put it in an interview, VR is “kind of the perfect medium to create the empathy the subject deserves.”
With “Protectors,” which she worked on in and around her upcoming urban drama, “Detroit,” the director continues her cause of protecting elephants. If “Last Days,” an animated short she made a few years back, was about trying to cut off the trade further down the supply chain, this focuses on getting the rangers’ resources by highlighting their plight.
Bigelow said she’d like to continue making VR films in addition to her traditional efforts and will decide largely based on what the story demands. “We’re trying to create the intersection between journalism, experimentalism and immersion,” Bigelow said when asked how she would characterize this VR piece. “How can I, in this case, get enough people to feel the danger so they’ll be encouraged to do something?”
“The Protectors” is another one of those pieces that only begins to hint at where character could go — 10 minutes is rarely enough, especially for a feature filmmaker. But a viewer wanting more is always a good sign.
Creators: Zach Richter, Bobby Halvorson, Eames Kolar
Live performance has been one of the big questions for VR. How can the medium capture it, how much access will a viewer get, how will it replace/augment/threaten/enhance the traditional live experience? This piece, a choral rendition of Leonard Cohen’s classic, doesn’t answer all of that.
But it demonstrates how a VR concert can offer a slice of the experience in ways that go beyond hanging out in the orchestra or backstage, as the medium has mostly done heretofore. And it does so by concentrating on a less thought-about factor: sound. Using technology from Lytro, one of the hot new companies that is seeking to brings more reality to VR, “Hallelujah” allows you to walk around a space and hear different choral parts of the song, all sung at the same time by the same actor.
Said actor is all around you. But depending on where you move or lean your head, you’ll hear a different song-part or vocal range more loudly. It sounds complicated but it’s rather intuitive, and it allows you an experience you wouldn’t get at an actual concert unless you were really restless and didn’t mind bothering five different people to give up their seats. There’s a neat payoff at the end too.
“Hallelujah” is one of several projects from the Chris Milk- and Aaron Koblin-led Within, the cutting-edge company that debuted the stunning “Life of Us” at Sundance.
I asked Milk at Tribeca how he sees this piece (and “Life,” which is about movement and vocal response). He had a perfect reply. “This is a medium,” he said, “that’s about using senses, not joysticks.”
“The Last Goodbye”
Creators: Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz
One of the great questions — in life, not just in VR — is how we’ll memorialize victims of mass tragedy. Technology offers myriad tools, but how to use them so that they’re effective and not exploitative?
Specifically, this has been a question involving the Shoah — how will the murder of 6 million people be marked when the day comes that anyone old enough to have lived through it will have died? As the youngest survivors approach 80, it’s more than a hypothetical.
Sure, there’s the Museum of Tolerance, and Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation at USC. But VR offers some tantalizing new possibilities. Unlike many of the more static video exhibitions, it can bring the testimony to you.
Maybe more important, it can bring you to the testimony. Which is exactly what this eye-popping documentary piece (made with the backing of the Shoah Foundation) does.
Yes, a full-scale virtual-reality visit to a concentration camp — viewed through the high-end HTC Vive — is here. And it’s game-changing. “Last Goodbye” is not for the faint of heart. But it has the potential to fundamentally shift how we record and remember history.
The story is of an 80-ish survivor, Pinchas Gutter, returning to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland where he was imprisoned and tortured as a child. It’s compelling stuff — he tells hauntingly, for instance, of how his parents and twin sister were killed, and how he remembers nothing but the young girl’s golden hair braid.
But it’s the experience of transporting you there that distinguishes this from many Holocaust testimonials that have come before. The installation at Tribeca was being run by an actress from the immersive theatrical production “Sleep No More,” and the hiring seemed more than coincidental. There’s something visceral and immediate about the piece, even as it transports you to a distant and nightmarish time and place.
“Last Goodbye” offers moments only a visit to the camp would achieve — and not even then because you won’t have the cinematic immediacy, and you won’t have a survivor at your side telling you what happened. The bone-chilling moments come often. When Pinchas recites the traditional Jewish prayer said before death in the very spot at the camp he thought he would die, or the piles of shoes in which he vainly searched for any trace of his sister, you don’t have to just hear him talk about it — you can practically reach out and feel these items yourself.
If Holocaust remembrances can feel important but remote, this breaks down those walls, transcending all the typical barriers of rectangular cinema.
Helping in this are some clever filmmaking tricks — editing, always so confounding in VR, is accomplished with fades to dark and slow baths of light, so that each new scene feels like a slow but dawning awakening to a new horror.
And the full-scale piece — which already allows a certain amount of moving around (you can walk right up to the ovens in the crematoria) places you in a kind of steadily immersive state. The filmmakers use cameras that move smoothly on a dolly and show the action from a first-person point-of-view, so that when Pinchas is talking about being herded onto cars you’re invisibly pushed there too, with no ability to stop it.
It’s horrifying, touching and unlike any traditional film about the subject you’ll ever see. Which is exactly the point.