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Venice Virtual Reality: the new shape of cinema at the 74° International Film Festival

We went to the 74° International Venice Film Festival and discover what the new shape of cinema looks like in their Virtual Reality strand.

What does it feel like to board a NASA plane and fly over Greenland’s glaciers? If given a chance, would you be able to defeat the Red Queen and save Wonderland? Can you really enter a movie instead of watching from a distance? We went to the 74° International Venice Film Festival and found out.

The 74° Venice International Film Festival had just begun when I reached the Lazzaretto island at Venezia Lido to assist to my very first of what would be a long series of Virtual Reality screenings. I had done my homework and studied plots and timetables on the flyers, but, as I got out of the vaporetto on the morning of August 31st, little did I know that I was about to witness – or, better, take part in – one of the most memorable experiences of this year’s Festival.

venice film festival virtual reality lazzaretto
The walls by the entrance of the Virtual Reality Hub at the 74° International Venice Film Festival

Before putting the headset on and trying it first hand, I walked around the Lazzaretto Vecchio – which used to be a leper colony – and took in the atmosphere, as it became clear that the building itself was also part of the experience: its haunting history and fascinating location (on a tiny island right in front of the Lido) added that extra dose of excitement and intimacy we needed. As I focused on how and where the screenings were going to take place, I also realised each and every one of us was going to experience the very same film in a completely unique way, which was and still is, to me, one of the most fascinating traits of Virtual Reality.

venice film festival virtual reality nothing happens
The setup for Nothing Happens: An Animated VR Experience (Michelle & Uri Kranot)

It’s hard to describe the experience of watching a movie in Virtual Reality for the first time. Whether you’re sitting down on a rotating chair at the VR Theatre or standing up at an Installation (like Nothing Happens, above) or even walking around and interacting with the movie itself –  in all these scenarios, what people see from the outside couldn’t be more different to what you’re actually experiencing at that very same moment. What they see is a person with funny-looking glasses, headphones and cables, who is perhaps doing something silly like holding a rock or wearing a winter coat in the warmest month of the year. Perhaps this person will also bump into the screen by mistake, try to touch objects that don’t even exist or crouch down on the floor to get a better view of whatever it is that got their attention.

The Lazzaretto Island was a whole new world in itself, but no matter how confusing Virtual Reality might look from the outside, it will all suddenly make sense as soon as you put on the glasses.

venice film festival virtual reality greenland melting
Greenland Melting (Frontline)

It only takes a few seconds. You say hello to the person in charge of the screening, you put on the headphones and make sure the headset is properly adjusted. And then you realise that the friendly Biennale people are not there anymore. Or, better, of course they are, but they certainly aren’t there, with you, where you are right in that moment. Because you aren’t at the Island anymore: you are on a tree, surrounded by crows, looking at the snow and feeling it in your bones (Nothing Happens). And then you are inside a plane, looking at Greenland melting outside the window. You move a little bit and the plane disappears. You look down and all you see is water and ice. Your mind tries to convince you you that it’s not real, but you run out of breath as you take in just how high in the sky you are. And, of course, you suddenly acknowledge that you can fly.

Which is not the only extraordinary thing you can do: as it were, you can also breathe underwater. You interact with all sorts of animals swimming around you, as you fall in love with pretty much everything about Arden’s Wake, from the Pixar-like animation to the range of emotions this story is making you feel. From the outstanding quality of its graphics to the delicate way in which it allows you to explore the setting and interact with the characters’ lives. And, most of all, to the intimate way in which you are allowed to be a part of this family’s life – first observing from a distance and then getting closer and closer until the end. Arden’s Wake fully deserved its victory as Best Virtual Reality Film at the 74° Venice Film Festival, and I can’t wait to see what thrilling adventure Penrose Studios will bring us next.

Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall – Trailer (Penrose Studios)

Arden’s Wake was a clear favourite of mine, but it was not the only Virtual Reality screening that stood out from the others. As an Alice in Wonderland fan, I was intrigued to find out that there was an installation called Alice: The Virtual Reality Play, and of course it didn’t disappoint. It was Virtual Reality at its best, but it was also a play. I entered Wonderland, interacted with the White Rabbit, ended up making a fool of myself in front of the Caterpillar and came out feeling like a kid, in the best possible way. I’m not going to add anything else for fear of spoilers, but I hope I’ve confused you enough as to make you want to find out more about it, until you (hopefully!) get to “live it” for yourself.

venice film festival virtual reality alice in wonderland virtual reality play dv group
The White Rabbit in Alice: The Virtual Reality Play (DV Group)

Virtual Reality certainly isn’t for everyone, but it did grab my full attention, and is definitely a device that we should keep an eye on in the next years. John Landis was this year’s President of the VR Jury, and he described his experience, and Virtual Reality in general, as “fascinating”.

“What I learned is… It’s brand new, and they’re still inventing the language.
I learned a lot, ’cause I was kind of skeptical, but I learned a lot about it and I realised… Will it replace the movies? No. It’s a different kind of motion picture, but as a storytelling tool that is an artwork, it’s pretty amazing”.

John Landis

To use Mr Landis’ words, let’s keep an eye out for more artworks, as we explore this fascinating storytelling tool.

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