Virtual reality and fandom: a match made in heaven?

Fans, key players in participatory culture, can find in VR exactly what they look for, as an audience, in cinema. Let’s see why and how these two realities connect.

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Virtual reality: many of you have been using it for years in video games; some even use it for table games (what a discovery, Chronicles of Crime). Few, in comparison, have had the chance to experience it in a cinematic context.

On fanheart3 we talked about VR to present the line-up of Venezia75 (part 1 | part 2), to share live our impressions on some of the best installations at Lazzaretto Vecchio (video 1 | video 2 | video 3) and to retell on youtube the whole experience of VeniceVR 2018 (part 1 | part 2).

venice virtual reality fandom

I often wondered why, in a cultural association dedicated to fans and to fan activities, we felt the need to talk so much about something that most fans have not even had the chance to try out yet. But I guess we simply wanted them to know what opportunities VR could offer to them and for cinema.

In fact, although many believe Netflix’s Bandersnatch (here you can find my not very enthusiastic review) to be the realization of something that, as fans, we have dreamed for all our lives, finding out what virtual reality was about made me realize that this media can give life to our “fandom dreams” far more than anything like Bandersnatch will ever do.

Also, while VR for videogames has certainly done a lot, here I am talking about a VR used to share immersive stories that we become an integral part of, even when we are there just to witness events that are happening to the characters.

Virtual reality and fandom, the origins: participatory culture

Did you know that fans are a fundamental element of what we call “participatory culture”?

First concept: corporations and production companies do not create movies or tv-shows for an audience who will simply accept them as they are.

Of course, we all heard urban legends about people who forgot what the latest Marvel film was about the minute they left the theater. But fans, oh no, something like that could never happen to them. They leave the cinema and spend the ride home discussing theories about the future of the saga with their friends. Then, when they are finally seated in front of their PC, they begin to search for metafanarts and fanfictions. Sometimes they find themselves looking at that incredible new outfit of the character they adore and think. wow, this is the perfect cosplay for my next Comic-Con.

Fans are not impassive. Fans do not accept everything they see on the screen just because “the director said so”.

No. Fans have to express their own opinions about the things they like and sometimes their voices are so strong that the products they are talking about can not but be influenced by them.

Sherlock BBC: a scene picturing fans of the detective during The Empty Hearse (S03E01) that follows what happened in “real life” with the #SherlockLives campaign on socials
Supernatural episode Fan Fiction (S10E05) written to celebrate fans of the show and their creations
40 years of Star Wars. A long history the fan communities must be thanked for (img source)

Participatory culture is this… and much more. A way of understanding culture in which consumers step beyond the line that separates creation from fruition, becoming prosumers (consumers+producers): people who actively shape the products they care about through artistic creation (fanarts, fanfictions, gifsets, …), through discussions on social media and even through campaigns in which they ask for something specific from the original authors and production companies – such as the campaign to give a closure to Sense8.

Summing up and simplifying the concept a lot: fans do all this because they are emotionally and intellectually invested in the things they like. If, for example, a film does not stimulate a person’s mind and heart, this person will never become a fan of this film. But if it does, and does it well, the emotional and intellectual activation these people begin to feel towards the movie is so powerful that watching it is no longer enough. They need ways to extend the viewing experience beyond the movie theater and to convince other fans to join them.

Films have become cult phenomena in this way. Series have left a mark in the history of television. And this process could potentially determine the success of a technology, that of virtual reality, on whose future some have raised doubts.

Virtual reality: an answer to fans’ needs?

Without being too specific, scientifically, it is easy to imagine what fans need from the film, book, series they love: to get closer to it, to make it somehow “theirs”; to empathyze with the characters and their motivations (because in some ways fans feel that they know these characters better than the authors who created them); to get in touch with actors and actresses who interpret them (and not even because of the actors; mostly because they really liked who they interpreted).

The one between fans and the product they are a fan of is a love story that will last forever.

When I tried VR at the Venice Film Festival, I found myself experiencing works that made me feel sensations that I automatically associate with my being a fan: enthusiasm, psychological involvement, curiosity.

And, above all, the feeling – that is already considered the most important in virtual reality – of having lived something, and not just having watched something.

Which, in my opinion, is exactly what distinguishes the experience that the average viewer makes of a film or a TV-show from the one that the fan makes.

Virtual reality and types of fans

There are many types of fans, even though similar dynamics characterize them all.Some fans dedicate facebook posts to Thanos’ skin tones; some write fanfictions whose quality would make Victor Hugo proud; some dress up as hobbits to celebrate their passion for the saga written by Tolkien. And so on.

On the other hand, there are different types of experiences in virtual reality. In some of them you are only an observer; in others, you can learn something or try something you’ve never experienced before. Then there are works where you can interact with what you have around you and others in which you perform as if you were an actor. And so on.

During Venezia75 we had the chance to try different experiences and it became clear to us that some of them were exactly what a certain type of fan might have dreamed to go through. This does not mean that a specific fan would not like other types of VR, but it is certainly nice to know where to start if you have never had to deal with VR as a medium to tell stories before.

So, the following are my recs about which VR works could meet more effectively those needs that influence the passion fans feel for certain products and, consequently, their commitment to make them “cult”. A commitment that should definitely be taken into consideration by those who create VR contents.

For cosplayers: “Alice the Virtual Reality Play”

Cosplay pic on the right from here

They dress up like their favourite characters and they pose and move in similar ways because… wouldn’t it be nice to be a bit like them, somehow?

Alice the Virtual Reality Play, directed by Mathias Chelebourg (author and creative director: Marie Jourdren – production: DV Group) takes people on a trip to Wonderland and turns the user into Alice herself.

During the installation, which is accessed by “mentally” descending into a dreamlike atmosphere, it is possible to play with cards, taste magic mushrooms (…), cause accidental deaths of virtual characters (I tried my best, didn’t I?) and talk to the White Rabbit and the Caterpillar. But not avatars: characters in flesh and blood, played by real people who jut look like the White Rabbit and Caterpillar, because of the headset we are wearing.

Our minds are not used to something like that: you are a spectator, an actor and a character all at the same time. A mix of theatrical performance and cinema that leaves you enraptured. It’s love for everyone, but for a cosplayer it is literally a dream that becomes reality.

For fanartists: “Arden’s Wake”

Image on the right: “When winter comes to Main Street” from the Internet Archive Book Images

Virtual reality can allow you to shape the story you are in and what you see: something that certainly calls to fanartists and fanwriters. So it looks kinda strange to recommend them a story where you are “just” a witness of what is happening to the main characters. However, Arden’s Wake, directed by Eugene YK Chung, produced by Penrose Studios and winner of Best VR at Venezia74, is one of the most beautiful and poetic VR works you can experience: a complex story, deeply touching, with a great plot twist and characters you emphatize with since moment one. Also, an aesthetic you can’t but fall in love with. Which, for a fan, is definitely a pro. Those who like stories and to look at them so closely that they feel part of them will definitely adore Arden’s Wake.

PS: if you recognized the voice in the trailer, you and me probably belong to the same fandoms.

For nerds: “Eclipse”

You love computers, science fictions, you know everything about physics / chemistry / astronomy / biology and you share post for the the science fandom on Tumblr? Then Eclipse, directed by Johnathan Astruc and Aymeric Favre and produced by Back Light, is the perfect installation for you. Mixing a videogame style and a theatrical experience and set in a malfunctioning spaceship, Eclipse is an experience you can live in four users divided into two teams. Task of the first team: to explore; task of the second team: to give indications to Team 1 on how to move inside the ship.

Eclipse is a surprising installation both on the narrative side – a classic sci-fi movie where we are the ones who need to make choices to save our own lives – and on the way it “tricks” your mind into doing things and see people (not all them alive…). Beam me up, Scotty.

For geeks who live for cinema: “The Horrifically Real Virtuality”

Fans of cinema in the world, come and join us, because The Horrifically Real Virtuality, an experience by DV Group directed by Marie Jourdren and produced by Antoine Cardon, is everything you’ve ever wanted to try at least once. It allows you:

  • To find out how a film is built (special effects included)
  • To help in building the aforementioned film (cameraman? music effects? There’s a choice for everyone)
  • To be in a film (and, if you are among the lucky ones, even to be in its trailer – it actually happened to a couple of us fanheartists)

Real actors take us on the set of an Ed Wood’s movie to see how it’s going to be created and, from there, in a cinema to see the results: few minutes and the smell of marshmallows after, you find yourself inside the screen, Bela Lugosi next to you. The mesmerizing black and white atmosphere, an audience that is part of the scene, the Inception-effect of a story inside a story inside a story takes the user into a world where letting yourself go is the priority and having fun is inevitable.

For social justice warriors: “Make noise”

Modified image of Black Panther originally from BrickinNick. Creative Commons License: here

They fight for human rights, environment rights, racial and gender equality; they are part of the movement that “brought” Black Panther to the Oscars and they joined Me Too.

The social justice warriors, a peculiar type of fans who adds civic involvement to their passion for stories, live to fight injustices: that is why Make Noise, directed by May Abdalla and produced by BBC and Anagram, would work perfectly for them. An interactive installation where you join the movement for the right to vote for women and the voices of the suffragettes who made it possible. The experience, with its very squared and linear aesthetics, asks the users to express their participation aloud, shouting, talking, whispering and, in this way, shaping the way images will manifest and change all around us.

An installation you should try with other women, because sharing with them something so relevant to our common past will be a moving experience: and when it ends, you will feel as if you have actually thanked out loud those incredible people who fought for us all those years ago.

These are just examples of VR productions that fans would love. I could have mentioned half of the things I experienced in Venice, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.

Hopefully the Venice Film Festival will once again open its doors to daily accreditations for VR, thus giving the opportunity to those who have never considered the idea of visiting a festival to understand what this fuss around VR is all about. On fanheart3 we will share more news about it in the coming months, so stay tuned and try VR. There is no doubt that, if there is even the potential, in you, to be one of those aforementioned fans, you will not regret it.