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August 30th, 2020 | by Mathieu Gayet

"A completely new way of experiencing a festival" - Liz Rosenthal & Michel Reilhac (Venice VR Expanded)

In one of its most precious homes, immersive creation is reinvented online with a special Venice VR Expanded program, bringing together 44 projects as it does every year. A special edition which we discussed with both programmers Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac.

Venice VR Expanded, an online response to an unprecedented situation

Liz Rosenthal - When we started Venice VR, we wanted to show a wide representation of the best example of how our medium can be used across different genres and formats. Everything ranging from 360 video to a complex real-time, mo-capped performance for multi-users. We've always been doing that from the simple content online to complex installations with actors and sets. From that our curation is all about trying to create excellence in all the different types of genres and experiences that you can use, all the varying technology that means virtual reality or all interactive media. Where you get into a virtual space, obviously we’re interested.

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MEET MORTAZA VR (Joséphine Derobe, France & Belgium)

Michel Reilhac - We are in an unprecedented situation, complex for VR studios with bankruptcies, company closures, especially in the LBE sector. The lockdown pushed viewers towards headsets and 360 content, but also social platforms. And that’s very encouraging! Both at the creative level and in the diversity of exchanges, there is a wealth to be exploited and a desire for innovation which is not slowing down among authors and producers.

L. R. - Obviously, it’s a terrible global situation. But for people who are working in VR, there's been a sudden acceleration of things that I think wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the pandemic. And often the crises create invention, things that come from really strong needs to push things very fast. Creatively, it's really interesting because we're starting to see completely new potential for VR in many fields. Of course, it's very hard for a lot of businesses around (LBE, live events and festivals…). But at the same time, I've seen amazing inventions by creators who are suddenly changing their projects to match new audiences. Or for us, a completely new way of experiencing a festival. And I think this year it's probably going to be bigger than anything.

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THE BOOK OF DISTANCE (Randall Okita, Canada)

M. R. - There is arguably a shrinking of the VR landscape. However, financing, production and distribution structures are still there and strong enough to be able to complete the full financing of a project. We are starting to see the effects of networks of international co-productions and international montages which allow truly fascinating authors to express themselves. And, with great diversity.

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GRAVIDADE VR (Fabito Rychter, Amir Admoni, Brazil & Peru)

L. R. - What's amazing about VR is to see people coming together from every creative and media sector. It has such different skills involved. Companies that make them create compelling, dynamic game dynamics that bring people back and make them want to play things again. And now I'm starting to see these incredible designs, some really good writing with good characterization, etc. And I'm from the other side, the world of flat screens, traditional media. Then you get these incredible new performance projects that are a mixture, everything of life performance with incredibly complex technology. And this year, we're starting to see audiences around the world who are coming to virtual events, whether they've got a headset or they're on a PC. This is a super interesting choice, which gathered a lot of audience - like the virtual MayDay concert in Helsinki last May (700000+ people). VR is a set of technologies where you can make infinite types of experiences and we don't want to just go into one direction. We want to sort of represent it fully.

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GOODBYE MR. OCTOPUS (Amaury Campion, France & USA)

M. R. - We were constrained this year by by the impossibility of selecting any room-scale installation, which in previous years was one of Venice VR's strengths - that is, to stage the works in physical spaces designed to provide a real-life experience as much as a virtual one. It's a terrible frustration to have to redefine everything last minute for an online platform only, but an opportunity for a creative challenge in spite of the context. Many authors have reformatted their project, which was entirely designed for a location, into a virtual installation. What is very interesting is to see the new way of thinking that this has generated among producers and authors for their distribution model. All of a sudden, they realized that switching to an entirely virtual model for their works made their distribution considerably easier. And they realized the somewhat “haute couture and very expensive luxury” side of the room-scale.

M. R. - What does the installation format represent? Unless it is completely made for LBE - and therefore with precise technical standards - online distribution makes it possible to reflect on commercial opportunities and accessibility to a very large audience. And that gives hope, on the contrary, that the network of VR rooms can rise from its ashes! 2 or 3 projects had no choice, and could not show up at Venice VR Expanded. Their principle was very ambitious, and it seemed inconceivable to review everything in a month or two. We hope to see them again in 2021 for our next edition.

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TERRAIN (Lily Baldwin, Saschka Unseld, Kumar Atre, USA & Germany & Switzerland)

XR Trends at Venice VR - 2020 edition

M. R. - With Liz, we especially noticed the emergence of social platforms, that is to say, platforms where experiences can be shared as a group - the advent of VR as a platform for community experimentation - in which interactivity can also be developed in groups and in live streaming. That was something we showed as a prototype last year at Venice VR (LOVESEAT). And this year, we have 4 pieces which are based on that same principle and which have fully blossomed as truly new performance-based experiences.

L. R. - We start to see things happening in the music business which are really amazing - with these platforms like WAVE XR and MELODY VR hosting part of Glastonbury, and so many other examples in the performing arts venues.

THE HANGMAN AT HOME (Michelle Kranot, Uri Kranot, Denmark & France & Canada)

M. R. - There are names that we are beginning to recognize and which with each work refines, improves or explores new things with a maturity and an experience which is the benefit of lessons learned through previous works. But we also start seeing people that we did not know at all appear. Notably, and again, with people from the cinema, like Jon Favreau (GNOMES & GOBLINS) who is used to new technologies but is presenting his first 100% VR film here. And that's really interesting too because it's a completely different approach of animation with a real interactivity. That’s why we love video games: we cultivate a mix of genres. We would have loved to have featured in the Best Of VR section the title of the year, HALF LIFE: ALYX. Unfortunately, this is not possible for technical reasons, but we have other similar games equally sophisticated and which, for us, are a strong indication of what interactive and narrative storytelling can work together. Games which require spectators to interact and participate must allow the narration to advance according to a game logic, but entirely based on a process of narrative evolution. This is really something new which we are witnessing and which is very interesting.

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GNOMES AND GOBLINS (Jon Favreau, Jake Rowell, USA)

L. R. - In terms of contents and program, it's really wide and we've got so many great projects (see the official website). 6Dof, 3Dof, mostly single users… We’re taking a real look into performance projects with 4 of them into our selection. They are set in virtual worlds where people book a time to come into a fantastical world that you couldn't have in real life. It’s amazing to see them fully embody their avatar from different places in the world, to be in an immersive theatre-type environment with actors, into an immersive journey you’re part of. And it's extraordinary. We have Gilles Jobin coming back into Competition with LA COMEDIE VIRTUELLE, a very peaceful recreation of this venue in Geneva - It's also one of our satellite partners. Gilles was commissioned to do a piece that was kind of a pre-recorded project at the Comédie. During the lockdown we discussed showing it as a special performance. Gilles already did it many times, and he actually immediately turned around his piece in 2 months! But I'm so excited to show what he worked on. It's so wonderful, and will allow to show a venue that closed due to the pandemic. FINDING PANDORA X by Kiira Benzing, it's a super fun piece set in the real world. Kiira is experimenting with hybrid forms of virtual and real world. I don't want to give too much away because it's something really fun to discover. Then you have THE METAMOVIE PRESENTS: ALIEN RESCUE by Jason Moore. You can create really huge worlds within. It's a sci-fi fantasy again, and a massive project, with a robot that follows characters on a quest. You can play one of the main roles of the story. Jason created a special version for us. We’re really close to a READY PLAYER ONE piece in terms of scale and ideas.

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ALIEN RESCUE (Jason Moore, USA)

M. R. - For Liz & me, it is very clear through everything we see, that the world of games and the world of cinema or cinematographic storytelling are currently merging and we have to represent this trend. We also have a work that we presented in the group present in the PlayStore section, which is a work based entirely on sound (DOUBLE), which is in fact a web application and which is a work of horror and fantasy. And we chose to select it because we must not fall into the trap of a definition that immersive art is only with a headset - we are interested in extending the definition a bit. We're called Venice VR, but at the same time, we like to use the term immersive more and more as a broader definition of these experiences.

L. R. - It's interesting that a significant part of our program is about video games: GNOMES AND GOBLINS - which took 4 years of development - DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, BLIND SPOT… We started to see very sophisticated gaming stories that are a mix between interactive and narrative, and they're getting more and more sophisticated. DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE is a beautifully animated story. Even a puzzle game like GNOMES AND GOBLINS has great characters, great script, amazing scenes. I actually spent quite a lot of time going into these projects during the lockdown because it is so well designed.

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KINSHASA NOW (Marc-Henri Wajnberg, Belgium & Congo)

College Biennale x Venice VR

M. R. - The projects that we are developing in the heart of the College Biennale are not intended to be in competition at the Mostra. It could be if we had a truly exceptional project that we didn’t fund. We are constantly looking for funding to allow us to help more projects: to date, we are supporting 12 projects in development through the College Biennale, and we are helping to fund one project specifically (this last project cannot be in Competition). We can still offer it in a dedicated section. This year VAJONT by Iolanda Di Bonaventura (Italy) as well as 3 other projects from the College are proposed in the BIENNALE COLLEGE CINEMA VR - OUT OF COMPETITION section, and will illustrate our development work.

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VAJONT (Iolanda Di Bonaventura, Italy)

M. R. - The work of the College Biennale is recent, and revolves around the 1st and 2nd film, with writers from all over the world (see article) from very different disciplines. The objective is to participate in the culture of an ecosystem and to help bring out talent exactly like what we do in cinema films. This is the case for a second film, BEAT, by Keisuke Itoh, which will be presented in Competition. It is an example of perfect incubation logic, to help build a work and an author, and in particular, give it international exposure. VAJONT is also an excellent example, which allowed us to discover an extraordinary Italian team near Venice. They are about ten kilometers from Venice, with an exceptional level of competence, talent and know-how. So much so that the producer will be on our VR expert panel at the College Biennale next year.

Working with the Satellite program

M. R. - In view of the circumstances, we realized that we could not have a physical place in Venice. But if the audience couldn’t come to Venice VR, maybe the festival could come to them? We kept the idea that, even in virtual form, the festival could have a physical location, and we end up with 16 places in the world. The responses were almost all immediate, and well beyond our expectations. 25 cities were interested, and there are 16 that are confirmed (see the press release), which I find really remarkable because it is a real creative risk with us, and a financial and technical investment for each of these institutions.

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MIRROR: THE SIGNAL (Pierre Zandrowicz, France)

L. R. - Our main goal here is accessibility. And we know that few people have headsets. It's complicated. First of all, this is a really great opportunity to get new audiences to be online. But we really wanted to have a real-life presence. That’s why we thought of partnering with institutions and venues around the world. This is a real network to build. We have what is called the Satellite network partnerships. And we wanted to make sure that people in our Oculus Quest could access some of the program.We obviously wanted to make sure people with different headsets could access different parts of the program. Accessibility is a key thing. A lot of this is free online! We're also very happy to get these partnerships with FIFA, Oculus, VR Chat and VRrOOm - helping us build a “real virtual world”. It's a patchwork of physical venues held together in the middle by our virtual world.

L. R. - The whole idea is that we're treating this in a festival time window. It is sort of rethinking what is a premiere. We've taken a few projects that actually supposedly did have a global premiere, but we're treating it under the banner of the Venice VR festival. For example, KINSHASA NOW (by Marc-Henri Wajnberg) hasn’t been released in France yet. It is really important for filmmakers to get a premiere. With Venice VR Expanded, we’ll help them keep the next window open: we're asking people to see that as an Italian premiere in Venice. The world has changed and we have to rethink what all of these things mean. And we feel it's really in the interest of the filmmakers and artists and the festivals themselves to start collaborating on this.

As a pioneer in the showcasing of new ways of creation, PHI has been around the XR community for many years. Our close relationships with our industry peers allow us to offer the public high-quality international works. We are pleased to be the only place in Canada to host the full Venice VR Expanded program and to transport Montrealers to the experience of this iconic event.
- Myriam Achard, Centre Phi

L. R. - We're praying we can do this in real life next year because we love our island. We did have the idea of doing a mixed event before the pandemic and we worked on that - a hybrid physical and virtual space. So who knows? We would love it. And it's a wonderful thing to have more access to people in different places. But we can't predict what's going to happen next year.

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