Biennale College Cinema VR: a new, promising edition (part 1)

Presentation of the 12 projects selected for the first 2019 workshop of Biennale College Cinema VR (part 1)

Have you ever felt like you were witnessing something that was going to change the world?

I remember having this feeling the first time I saw a cell phone on a table, the first time someone told me about the Internet, the first time I realized Marvel had movies planned till 2019 (what a day). But, more recently, I remember feeling it the first time I set foot into a virtual reality installation in a cinematographic environment.

Altough VR’s history goes way back, to me it is a relatively recent discovery and every time I think about it I feel like the kid from The Greatest Showman, singing A million dreamsand imagining those “brightest colors” in our heads actually shaping the reality around us. 

Complete gifset by spontaneousellipsis

That’s why, when La Biennale announced an event to present the 12 projects selected for the first 2019 workshop of Biennale College Cinema VR (event that took place on January, 15 at Ca’ Giustinian, Venice), I just had to be there.

While there is certainly a lot of talking about VR around, it’s nothing compared to how much we talk about movies, or Netflix productions, or social networks; so, any opportunity to find yourself at the center of it all and share that space with those who are concretely working on this incredible media to make it great, is an opportunity you cannot let yourself miss. 

The Magnificent 7

It’s common knowledge among those who have tried VR that telling a story in virtual reality is not the same as telling it with other media. Elements that allow VR viewers to feel inside the installation and part of the story have been studied (1), experimented on (2) and, for me, discussed among friends on multiple occasions (3).

What I liked about the Biennale College Cinema VR event is that it started from these elements to analyze them more closely through the projects presented. This gave me the chance to get closer to a topic which, as a psychologist, I can’t help being incredibly curious about: why did I feel the way I felt when trying VR? And what should VR experiences have to make other people live them in the same way?

Michel Reilhac (story architect, producer and co-curator of the Venice VR section at the Venice Film Festival) presented the Biennale College event in collaboration with Stefano Tealdi (director and producer) and they introduced the seven criteria that were identified during the first workshop. Criteria that make VR something very different from movies.

Specifically the seven criteria were:

Each criterion is a challenge for those who create VR installations. Mentors and tutors of the training course were asked to express their views of each specific challenge and afterwards the director and/or the producer of one or two of the 12 proposals shared with the audience how they dealt with that challenge in their project.

I have to say I was not expecting such an educational meeting. When the first tutor, Gino Ventriglia (story developer) started talking about Presence Design and the change in audiences’ needs, I found myself crying internally for not being able to join this workshop in its entirety and listen to those incredible tutors for days on end.

Criteria: 1 – Presence Design

Gino Ventriglia, in his introduction to the concept of presence design, emphasized how viewers, now, want more than just to watch a story: they want to be there and feel part of the world they like. VR can be considered the perfect solution because it unifies technology and viewers’ needs and it “enables on the viewers’ side a full perceptive experience of the story world”.

However, a new language needs to be developed in order for VR to be effective in the creation of immersive worlds. Ways to school (Dir: Zohar Kfir – Prod: Katayoun Dibamehr) and Frontera (Dir: Emiliana Ammirata – Prod: Helena Carpio) (4), the two projects the event moved from,show two different sides of this language, both clearly effective: while the first project, in fact, worked on the choice of specific point of views and on the acknowledging the character does of the viewer, the second project concentrates on the concept of embodiment and of having the viewer themselves become the main character of the story.

Why I loved them: 

Ways to school  and Frontera are two projects that could make us witness and live situations that too often drown in a sea of prejudices and ignorance. The possibilities offered by these two installations, humanly speaking, are definitely worth exploring.

Criteria: 2 – Interactivity

Next came interactivity, introduced by Carl Guyenette (creative technologist), who highlighted the “intriguing new ways of interactivity and interactive design” and the possibilities offered by the interactions with multiple objects and characters (a concept that took me back to Alice the Virtual Reality Play by DV Group, which I always end up mentioning to anyone who asks me about VR because I’m obsessive that way).

When full body tracking and immersion is adequate, we can subconsciously take exactly what we do in virtual reality as if it had happened to us in real life“. And that is exactly what could happen in the two projects that talked about this second criteria.

Feather and Sublimation

In Feather (Dir: Ito Keisuke – Prod: Katsutoshi Machiba – Ass Prod: Tetsuya Oohashi, picture above) the interaction revolves around the relationship between the user and the main character. The user can communicate with the girl the story is about, physically encouraging her to follow her path, and later on, the girl, now grown up, recognizes the role the user had in her “life”.

Sublimation (Dir: Karolina Markiewicz, Pascal Piron – Prod: Astrid Kahmke – Tech Director: Fabrizio Palmas) “is a virtual piece about how through a very simple and a very slow dance you interact with your environment […] Your movements trigger what you visualize in the virtual environment by lines, colors, shapes, lights and even sounds“. So, an individual interaction with art and with the environment, certainly different from the one presented in Feather but equally interesting.

Why I loved them: 

Feather looks – for lack of a better world – absolutely adorable, not only because of its so-very-cute aesthetic, but in relation to the story it tells (yes, I did mumble “awwwwww” when the ending was revealed).

Sublimation  promises to be a completely different experience, but one that strongly calls to all the imaginative and artistic minds out there: the idea of creating your world through a dance, see the colors, see new shapes… it does feel a bit like magic.

Criteria: 3 – Liberty of Action

The beautiful moment when you are showing the most amazing thing on the left side of your installation and your viewer is looking right at the opposite wall where absolutely nothing is happening.

From what I’ve heard, this is one of the main challenges in VR, and certainly one of its main differences from cinema, because in VR you – the user – are one of the factors, and you can actively choose how you want to play it, with all the consequences that it implies.

Amaury La Burthe (Creative Technologist), who introduced this third criterium, emphasized this idea of “choice” that indeed makes VR a new medium, something that it is not cinema nor wants to be like cinema: “It’s not that it’s better or worse; it’s different. When I watch a movie, I watch. When I am in VR, I am […] I can move wherever I want, I can go wherever I want, I can engage, I can choose. It’s true that technology sometimes make it a bit clumsy or complex, but still, I am. I am here, I can grab, I can touch, I can feel, I can walk… and this is making it very different“.

The two works presented in relation toliberty of action were Queerskins Ark (Dir: Illya Szilak, Cyril Tsiboulski – Prod: Kathleen Fox, pic above) and Doubts of a genious (Dir: Matteo Lonardi – Prod: Francesco Lonardi, pic below).

Both very deep and psychological stories, one reflecting on loss and changes, the other on shame and self doubt, they work on liberty of action in different ways: the first let the users shape the scene by varying their spatial relationship to it (a metaphor for intimacy, as said by its authors). The second asks the users to adopt a first person perspective, and to activate objects of their choice, but at the same time the different choices lead to similar outcomes.

Why I loved them: 

Queerskins Ark is a moving story, which touched me deeply from just listening its authors talk about it: it gives a relevant message through an experience of despair but in a poetic and, to me, hopeful way. 

Doubts of a genious looks at a feeling that we all go through at times but allows us, through it, to feel a connection with someone who is remembered for having changed the world. The final scene, with the change made by sounds and music, got stuck in my head and I wonder what it could feel like to experience it.

Four criteria to go, and I will get back to them in the upcoming days. (EDIT: second part here!)

In the meantime, let me ask those among you who create VR installations: do you agree with the seven criteria identified during this first workshop of the Biennale College Cinema VR? And what is the most difficult challenge you had to face when creating your own story?

(cross-posted on linkedin)


(1) i.e. Gaggioli, Micalizzi (2018), Il senso di realtà del virtuale e i “principi di presenza”

(2) See, for example, those conducted by the VHL Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University

(3) “Newbies go to VeniceVR… but will they return next year? (part 1 | part 2)

(4) Synopses of proposals available here