Tribeca Immersive Filmmaking Showcase

May 15, 2018

Of all the film festivals across the world, few have embraced the new immersive video and mixed-reality paradigm than the Tribeca Film Fest in New York. The founders started the festival in 2002 as a way to revitalize lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks of the previous year and have had an eye on innovative filmmaking since. Tribeca’s “Immersive Storytelling” experiences premiered in 2015, but their true adoption of VR and AR began in 2017 with 29 exhibitions.

2018 saw 26 exhibitions in the Virtual Arcade in addition to Cinema 360, a slightly more traditional film-watching experience in 360 with four films ongoing throughout the festival.

I attended an evening showcase of the Arcade, where experiences were lined up along the walls for the viewer to examine and sign up for, if interested. As a result of this system, it was impossible to catch all of it in the three-hour timeslot, however, it did allow enough time to get a survey of where creators are innovating in this space. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers.

Dinner Party

Dinner Party is a non-interactive experience that occurs over the course of a few minutes, but it managed to be one of the more interesting offerings. Without giving much away, you learn the true story of a married couple over the course of a harrowing night told through the actual interview recordings.

There is a physical table setting at which you and three others sit as you experience the narrative, adding a tangibility that was lacking in some of the other experiences. Abstraction and representation mix to tell the fullness of the tale, utilizing the immersive space well with excellent digital artistry. Going into it not knowing the original story was an unforeseen delight.

Campfire Creepers: Midnight March

Campfire Creepers is a 4D horror experience. It tells a familiar tale of kids at a summer camp with an unfamiliar twist. Though ambitious, Creepers doesn’t quite take advantage of the medium. It attempts to use old video tricks in ways that just don’t work in the new format, such as clunky transitions and 2D sound. Horror fans may enjoy the uniqueness of the format and the performances, but I’d wished I spent my time elsewhere.

1000 Cut Journey

The reason the Virtual Arcade showed up my radar in the first place was a “VR for Change” talk two months previous. Columbia Professor Courtney Cogburn developed 1000 Cut Journey for the purposes of broadening the potential for empathy between people of different racial backgrounds. It was funded in part by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and felt the most culturally relevant of the experiences on display.

At that talk, Cogburn discussed the benefit of knowing one’s audience. “We’re not trying to change everyone’s minds,” she said. “We’re focusing on people who we can move the needle on.”

1000 Cut Journey turns the user into Michael Sterling, an African-American student in the city, as he grows through each phase of life. It starts the user sitting on the floor as Mike in grade school. Immediately your agency feels limited; the building blocks in front of you can’t be stacked like those of your peers. One of the classmates says an offhand negative comment about blackness, and the user, as Mike, feels the only possible response is aggression.

These scenarios continue, forcing the user to assume uncomfortable or even humiliating positions over the course of Mike’s life. In the beginning, Professor Cogburn’s voice comes through and asks the user to set aside knee-jerk explanations for these scenarios or inadequacies in the game’s design and examine the experience for how it makes the user feel. On these fronts, it succeeds. 1000 Cut is honest, simple, and experimental in the best way, and it is up to each user to digest its significance long after the goggles are off.

Objects in Mirror AR Closer Than They Appear

Objects in Mirror AR are Closer Than They Appear was the only true AR experience and maintained a playfulness to it that was refreshing among the other options. Set up with AR goggles, one was free to roam around and see “through” the everyday objects laid about. The various triggers around the space initiated videos overlaid onto one’s vision. The videos were self-made as well as sourced, giving one the feeling of rummaging through the physicality of the internet.

Surprise and delight are hard things to nail down in AR, and Objects does a good job. You can feel the sense of exploration built by the team, and having old internet videos strewn amongst the discarded material adds to the tangibility of the experience.

Where Thoughts Go

Where Thoughts Go is the creation of VR wunderkind Lucas Rizzotto, a Bay-area based creator working within the Unity framework. This experience was my favorite of the ones I tried, due to the overall presentation and clever mechanics.

The physical room was set up with soft pillows and curtains and felt very calm and quiet. Putting on the headset, the viewer gets the feeling of being in an ethereal space. The game almost never pushes the user to do anything; there are no time limits of any kind. Tiny glowing orbs float around the user, and it is up to whether you want to move through them, activate them, or toss them aside. When activated, the orbs glow softly and play back a recording of another user that had been in the same place, answering a thoughtful question posed by the game. This invites the user into the general confessional mood and relaxed pace of the experience.

When finished listening to others, the user is given the option of answering the question themselves. It’s amusing and a credit to the creator how easily this setting invites frank collaboration. In any other game, I could easily see the orbs being populated by fake troll confessionals, but this design somehow invites sincerity.

It’s exciting to see an organization like Tribeca reaching toward the future and taking risks on immersive video and VR/AR experiences. Not many festivals welcome creators that work at the frontier of tech, and I can see Tribeca angling itself to be one of the more robust platforms that welcome such work. Subsequent years will prove whether they choose to lean toward showcasing more studio work or leaving the door open for the edgier innovators.