Face to face with VR artists: an interview with Sönke Kirchhof

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With this article, we start a journey through VR and its applications. What better way to find out more about them than talking with those who are working on them? Starting from Sönke Kirchhof, co-founder of INVR.SPACE GmbH

We all heard the expression “virtual reality” at least once in our life. Even though this concept has taken roots all over our popular culture – through movies, books, television and more – there is still a lot of confusion about what VR actually means.

The study days of the River College VR, held in Padua last March, were born out of the necessity to explain what we talk about, when we talk about VR.

agnesepietrobon river college vr
Moments from the River College VR study days in Padova, Eremitani Civic Museum

There, people not only had the chance to experience VR – some of them for the first time – but, more importantly, they had the chance to learn about it from some of the most interesting national and international minds that are currently working on it.

Sönke Kirchhof is one of them. Producer, stereographer and consultant, but also instructor for workshops and lectures at Universities and private academies, he is an expert in visual storytelling and VR related technologies, who co-founded INVR.SPACE GmbH in 2015.

During the weeks following his panel in Padua, I had the chance to interview him about his love for virtual reality and his future projects. Here’s what he told me.

Sönke Kirchhof & INVR: exploring a new medium and its potential

When did your passion for VR start and what do you like the most about it and its applications?

This is hard to say as it wasn’t like I woke up one morning and recognized a passion for VR.

I started my initial company reallifefilm international GmbH about 13 years ago. It focused on stereoscopic 3D filmmaking and VFX – so “immersive” image creation.

After a short while I also had the opportunity to create 360° Videos for dome projections, about 9 years ago. This went on more and more and about 5 or 6 years ago I bought a first VR HMD (virtual reality head-mounted display) as a viewer for these projects, when no dome was available……this is how it all started.

Sönke Kirchhof INVR vr rcvr
Sönke’s panel at the River College VR (March, 2019)

What’s the story behind INVR.SPACE? Is there a project that you are most fond of and, if so, for what reasons?

At INVR.SPACE we have four departments: Production & Postproduction, Research and Development as well as Rental. This said, we define ourselves as a Full-Service Studio (Production and Postproduction) as well as a Service Provider (rental) and, last but not least, as Innovation Driver (R&D Department). 

We don´t have one single project that we are most fond of, as we are working on approximately 200 projects per year and most of them are special, unique, something to be fond of in their field.

Since live broadcast from the field in 360° and resolutions of 8K and higher are challenging in regard to technology, we have co-productions that obviously give us emotional passion. These are projects we are producing all over the world: e.g. over the last two years we have worked in India, Brazil, USA, Canada, China and all over Europe.

Some awards won by INVR.SPACE listed on their official website

This is probably what we are most happy about: we keep a collaborative approach and try not to get too deep into the competitive game as others are doing because they are aiming at the goody points (and money, but not passion). We have friends and Partners everywhere and we can enlarge our vision with each project, wherever it is made.

A collaborative approach that is fundamental in any field but above all in virtual reality, a medium that is trying to find its place in the bigger entertainment industry and understand its relationship with other media that have been used till this point to tell stories.

About INVR.SPACE, I absolutely loved the quote you used in your website to summarize its mission: “We are out here to explore unique and unexpected ways of immersive storytelling in Virtual Reality”. How is this exploration going? What are you the most surprising things you are finding out in this journey?

Thanks for highlighting this quote! (a/n I did really love that quote. To me, it conveyed the whole “uncharted territory” vibes that VR brings with it and the incredible foresight that is required to those who are working on it)

This is what we state as “the DNA” of INVR: to always search for solutions and new creative ways – but not stick to the rules of cinema back in the days.

That doesn’t mean that we completely ignore them; we try to keep them in mind, but rethink some of them (depending on projects’ needs) since we are working with a new medium. That said: exploration is happening on a daily basis and that’s the fun of working in this field for everybody who is working here. No day or at least no project is like the other and it’s not becoming a routine at all.

INVR Cinema during EFM / Berlinale 2019. Original pic found on their FB page

There is a lot of talking about VR and its relation with cinema, and some people even wonder if movie festivals are the right place for VR productions. What is your opinion at this regard? Specifically, what do you think are the main problems that VR as a medium to tell stories could face in the future? What do you think people should concentrate on to solve them?

I think there is no good or bad in general, but I think if an existing festival wants to integrate VR it has to be done properly. So not like we often see: “VR seems to be a future topic; we don’t like it but we have to integrate, so we just create a rubbish 360 video section with some swivel chairs and that’s it…”

The hard work (brainwise), right now, is to let the established rules and dogmas go (without completely forgetting them) and reinvent the wheel, as if a professional filmmaker were a novice again.

Sönke Kirchhof

Either a festival recognizes this medium as a new medium with dedicated content or it should stay with the content it was initially created for. FIAPF registered film festivals in general did not integrate Radio or Podcasts, so if they integrate VR it should be done in consideration of the fact that A) they expect their audience to be interested in it and B) there is a proper curation of high level (and creative) content.

VR movie cinema at Cinemaxx 2019. Original pic from official INVR.SPACE website

Otherwise there are more and more festivals created during the last years that just focus on VR – and do a good job.

Regarding your last question: I think the important point is to recognize VR as a different medium that needs different storytelling as well as new genres. Right now we can see a lot of content that tries to copy / paste what filmmakers or gamers know from existing genres, wondering how they would transfer it into a 360° world. The hard work (brainwise), right now, is to let the established rules and dogmas go (without completely forgetting them) and reinvent the wheel, as if a professional filmmaker were a novice again. 

Finally, I’m curious: do you have a favourite VR installation/film/documentary? Something that somehow was significant to you? And is there a production that you would recommend to someone who has never tried VR before because it represents this medium at its best?

That’s really hard. I like so many experiences and what I would recommend really depends on the viewer. Some need interactive experiences, as they are not a lean back audience, some don’t like games/interactivity at all.

Of course there are classics (if you can say so for a new medium) like “Notes on Blindness” or “Carne y arena”, but it’s hard for me to say what to recommend to someone who has never tired VR.

I agree: it definitely is complicated. When I visited the Venice Film Festival on 2018 with some friends who had never tried VR before (here the article) the stories they ended up loving were very different: from The Horrifically Real Virtuality, to Crow: the Legend, from Buddy VR to X-Ray Fashion. VR brings with it such a wide world of possibilities, both on the narrative side of things and on the fields it can be used for, that it would be limiting to consider just one of them.

That is why in the upcoming weeks I will get back to VR to talk about some of its different applications and aspects. As for today, I’d like to thank Sönke Kirchhof for having shared this glimpse of his life and of his passion with all of us. 


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