Discover SXSW's VR Cinema Stunners

Discover SXSW's VR Cinema Stunners
17 Mars, 2019
My pick for SXSW 2019's best VR film, Metro Veinte, asked viewers to sit in wheelchairs while they watched the 18-minute film.


Sit in a punk-rock wheelchair, dote on cute zombies, dance with Reggie Watts, and more.


AUSTIN, Texas—You may love, hate, or shrug at the idea of virtual reality, but one niche is still unequivocally devoted to the format: film festivals. The reasons aren't all great.


Because VR usually requires one-at-a-time kiosks, it invites long lines (which film festivals love for photo-op reasons). These films also favor brief, 10-15 minute presentations, which are the bread-and-butter of the indie filmmaking world. And the concept reeks of exclusivity—of the sense that, if you wanna see experimental VR fare, you need to get to Sundance, Cannes, or SXSW to strap in and trip out.


But—seriously, hear me out—VR filmmaking at its best replicates the experience of live theater in a really accessible way. (I've been saying this for years.) You can't watch something like Hamilton on DVD and expect the same impact. And when a VR "film" is done right, with smart technical decisions at play, it really meets (or, sometimes, exceeds) Broadway's best without requiring a flight to New York or a ticket lottery.


This brings me to my favorite thing about this year's South by Southwest VR Cinema Competition: its best stuff nuked the whole "inaccessible" thing.


Sure, a couple of this year's features benefited from a "nicer" computer or headset. But filmmakers en masse are finally tuning in to a very cool reality about VR's immersive power: an artful eye and smart production is almost always more effective than an expensive, unwieldy rig to answer the question, "Why watch this in VR instead of a flat screen?"


Ars' Grand VR Prize, SXSW 2019: Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega

This year's best VR filmmakers have been delivering something surprising: 360-degree video.


I've been a frequent hater of this format because of how it wraps a flat-screen image around your head like a dome. Seeing this usually prompts me to ask, "Why can't I watch this on a flat screen instead?" The stretched images often force viewers to crane and turn their head, usually just to emphasize VR's gimmick of, "yowzers, there's something behind you!"

Enlarge / A still taken from the 360-degree film Metro Veinte.


Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega, an Argentinian film about a disabled woman's blind date, is the best 360-degree film I've ever seen, in part because its wrap-around images get VR's principles right. Crucially, its scenes limit their interesting content to a 140-degree focal range, thus requiring only a bit of peripheral glancing. The scenes organically show viewers that turning around won't pay off. Peek behind you, and you'll see the windowless corner of a bus seat, a blurry-focused field in a park, or the same bedroom background that has appeared a few times already.


Instead of being a distraction, this background content feels like an anchor. That's crucial, because each sequence takes long enough to establish a comfortable, intimate look at a wheelchair-bound life. Metro Veinte's opening sequence sets this tone in emphatic fashion by placing a camera mere feet from a bathtub, where we meet lead character Juana. She's having a silent soak while watching porn on her smartphone. (It's not until later that we find out about her wheelchair.)


This opening scene establishes a rare moment of comfort and quiet contentment, only to be interrupted by her meddling mother. The rest of the film doubles-down on her push-pull relationship with help and kindness, all emphasized with "feet from the camera" sequences where she either resists or dejectedly accepts someone else's attention.


Thankfully, this isn't a painfully slow film. Metro Veinte wisely punctuates its slow-moving scenes by having Juana send texts and audio messages to a good friend. (This is shown in Sherlock-like fashion in the VR field of view.) In one great example, Juana goes back and forth with her friend about a possible date, letting us get some sense of story and character while hanging out in a bus for a minute. Soon after, an elderly passenger says hello to Juana in pitying fashion—and there's a sense that we're meant to empathize with the feeling of sitting on a bus with someone in a wheelchair, maybe feeling awkward or wanting to say something.


But Juana could do without the "polite" banter. "Where are you going?" the older woman asks. "Oh, I'm going to fuck a guy," Juana responds. End of conversation. But not end of the moment.


I absolutely bought into this visceral experience, having shared that bus with Juana for so long. It's the same way I bought into having a front-row seat on her blind date, or examining all of the anti-establishment stickers on her wheelchair, or having her family members' faces so close to the camera when they reacted to Juana's sexuality.


In Metro Veinte, intimacy and struggle hover comfortably in a VR headset's lenses, though the film admittedly has two "ugh, I have to stretch my head to see something" moments. And these might be my favorites in the film, because in these, I caught myself saying, "gosh, this is inconveni—" then stopping myself. It's a rare case of a good 360-degree gimmick, and Metro Veinte's best storytelling beats earn the right to play that card.


Best of the rest: Reggie Watts, spooky-cute zombies, World War 1, and spiteful lovers

Gloomy, a zombie boy with good and evil sides.
Nina, a human girl with the power to generate light.


Gloomy Eyes: Colin Ferrell lends his voice as a narrator to this all-too-brief, all-too-incredible demonstration of VR theater done right.


Gloomy Eyes (Oculus Rift, SteamVR) introduces a universe where dangerous zombies roam freely and natural light has not shone in years. Via narration and short, cute scenes, the film introduces a few characters: Nina, a sad girl who keeps losing her puppy but also has mysterious access to a magical light source; her uncle, a grumpy overseer who seeks to establish order in the dark world and wipe out its zombies; and Gloomy, a young zombie boy who seethes with equal parts good and evil.


His duality hints at a potentially interesting conflict and story. But right when the video's narrative roots are set, they're immediately yanked out with a "to be continued" alert.


I look forward to the series' final two episodes, which the filmmakers say will each run 10 minutes and launch on commercial platforms (Oculus Rift, SteamVR) "this Halloween." In the meantime, every moment in the eight-minute short plays with shadow and light in incredible fashion. Its use of spotlights does well to direct your VR eyes to only one concentrated point at a time, not a bunch of background or behind-the-back scenery.


This focused attention does something dramatic in the short: it gives viewers mental permission to lean into each diorama, rendered in real time, to take in the tiny details of its immaculately animated characters and the depth and scope of each miniature stage. A flash of light or a wildly animated shadow will direct your eyes to follow characters to the next set piece, where, again, you can linger for long enough to soak up its details without craning your neck to look every which way.


The result is a number of moments I still clearly remember after stepping away from the demo, including a showdown between the overseer and his minion in front of a cathedral, bathed in red light; a spooky drive-in movie that sees the boy character unleash his demonic potential; and an in-your-face moment where the boy and girl finally share a moment of kindness, as he builds a bridge so that she and her cute pup can pass. The results reminded me of the VR dollhouse effect I got from playing the video game Moss, only this time with a focused story that let viewers get sucked into a "spooky-cute" universe without having to hold a game controller.


I watched this short more than any other at SXSW, because I found myself captivated by its unique world. The catch: because this film supports leaning in and admiring its smaller details, it requires a more powerful VR rig than Oculus Go or Google Cardboard. Even so, the limited details and focused lighting help this experience scale to weaker computers, so it still falls under the "accessible VR" umbrella that I mentioned earlier.

This gallery includes a sampling of how the hallway scene in Nothing to Be Written transforms over the course of the VR film. From a house back in the UK...


Nothing to Be Written: Oculus Go has never had such a handsome and beautifully framed short film. This 10-minute short is as impressive from an emotional level as it is from a sheer engineering one, as it sees a British production house, in collaboration with the BBC, tell a story of soldiers away from home during WW1.


The short takes place entirely within a single, narrow hallway, but over the film's runtime, the hallway transforms: from a variety of British homes to a ravaged bunker, from medical tents on the frontlines to war-torn trenches, then back again. These environments all have a "hallway" aspect in common—meaning, their walls direct your vision either directly forward or directly behind.


Rotating in a chair still affords viewers an opportunity to look around in full 3D, but the imagery is focused in one straight line in either direction. Instead of being packed with animation or activity, these scenes freeze for long enough for viewers to take the information in before their details all blend and morph together.


There's a point to this approach. British soldiers couldn't send descriptive letters to family members while out at war for fear that communiques might be picked up by enemies or spies and used against the British forces. The result was a multiple-choice-form postcard, and quite a cold one in terms of its frigid, barely descriptive details. What was a loved one to assume about their young boy out at war? These melting, dissolving hallways speak to that ambiguity and fear in dramatic fashion.


The above gallery may not make it clear, but much of the content is rendered in full, polygonal 3D, and this boosts the comfort level and fidelity when viewers move their heads around in real-life space. The film's producers confirmed to Ars that they leaned on some "pre-baked" effects to render so many polygons and details on the weaker, smartphone-SoC Oculus Go. But this film is a testament to how any VR project can scale to a weaker headset and still shine, thanks to optimization and careful placement. Engineering for the sake of art? That's our jam.

My favorite thing about the short VR film Incitement is how it toys with space. Here, we as VR viewers hover above a couple, post-coitus.


Incitement: Filming an intimate encounter with a 360-degree camera works quite differently than with a traditional one, filmmakers tell Ars, because of distance. How close do you place your characters near each other, and near the camera, so that a viewer can take everything in?


Incitement is a delightful, dark peek at two young lovers for many reasons, but the best one might be its impeccable answer to that VR filmmaking conundrum. Space between Incitement's lovers is visually budgeted in dramatic fashion, as is the framing of various shots. One slowly moving dolly camera introduces the film by having credits roll over a hastily abandoned dinner, then into an apartment full of moaning noises. Only when the moaning ends does the camera pass a corner, at which point the peripheral VR view reveals two people happily slumping over beneath covers.


It's as clever a use of "hey, turn your head" as I've ever seen in a 360-degree video, and the rest of the 10-minute short follows that lead with tasteful character framing and camera placement. What does a happy couple look like when cuddled in the same bed? A single camera, dangling from a ceiling, answers that question. How about when a fight breaks out, and the room gets cold? A camera that separates the film's stars with significant space uses the framing to tell a much better story than any glance or shout possibly could.

It's hard to convey a "VR dance party" in static image form, but here's a hint of how Runnin' looks. We start in an ordinary music shop... where Reggie Watts appears as a digital creation.


Runnin': You may recognize musician and stand-up comedian Reggie Watts thanks to his role as a late-night talk show bandleader, or his odd, improv-driven music experiments. Now, he's a virtual dance-party ravemaster.


Runnin', produced by Intel, is by no means the first "VR music video" out there; previous SXSW events have been dominated with three-minute virtual landscapes set to music. But Runnin' is easily my favorite of the form, primarily because it looks like a technicolor trip through Watts' mind. After a brief intro sequence inside a dimly lit record store, the video's scenery transforms and becomes a series of floating neon blocks in space, on which various 3D characters dance around (all rendered with a version of "photogammetry," a trick that has boosted some of my favorite VR films in the past). Watts is among those characters, scat-singing while dancing in an artistically rendered version of the real-life man, as if he were a high-tech pointillism piece.


The experience really opens up once a "teleport" function lets users warp onto walls and ceilings. Once this happens, every single surface in the virtual dance world explodes with synchronized, groovin' people, including one frenetic line-dance sequence where over a dozen people are rendered in such a way that their not-quite-synchronized moves explode. (The effect would be much worse if they were carbon copies who moved identically.) The director's attention to dance-worthy detail, and this delightful "warp to go crazy" system, make Runnin' a surprising delight to interact with.


Decent experiments: Interstellar opera, criss-crossing apocalypse, thoughtful temples

Die Fernweh Oper trailer.


Diorama No.4: Die Fernweh Oper: This eight-minute short isn't a particular stunner, but for something about an authentic opera experience, that's the point.


In Die Fernweh Oper, viewers sit at one end of a massive, virtual opera hall, where they see a tall, otherworldly opera singer stand on a stage and belt out an operatic piece. After a few minutes of her singing, the sequence unfurls its secret weapon. The ceiling and walls melt, revealing that viewers have been floating in outer space the entire time. Stars twinkle inches from your eyes; a massive planet floats above. Yet the scene keeps its opera singer in the same place, positioned on a "stage" of sorts as she belts a tale of woe and despair.


If you were to ask me what an authentic, emotional opera experience in VR might look like, I'd suggest something just like Die Fernweh Oper, which emphasizes subtlety and visual poetry over dramatic, cheesy images. "Authentic opera" isn't everyone's cup of tea, of course, but this production wins out for emphasizing the musicality and emotion over gimmicks or cheesy visuals.

SyFy's Eleven Eleven follows six main characters through the final 11 minutes of a future-dystopia world. One of the character's stories starts at this dock.


Eleven Eleven: SyFy's first official foray into VR programming lasts exactly 11 minutes, 11 seconds. The catch is, users can warp around and follow different characters in this virtual end-of-the-world sequence to see how an impending apocalypse pushes everyone, from impoverished hopefuls to corporate elites, to their most extreme.


Why this needs to be in VR, as opposed to a flat-screen experience, isn't necessarily clear. Its controls aren't the stuff of a smooth VR film experience but, rather, a twin-stick video game. Movement, camera manipulation, time manipulation, and more are mapped to every button on both Oculus Touch pads in your hands (the final film, releasing "this May," will also support SteamVR). You can tap a "follow" button on any of the game's "lead" characters if you'd like the film to take control and automatically warp your viewpoint, but each story includes hints for viewers to pause the action, take control, and follow apparent story threads off the beaten path.


While tastes may vary, I thought the plot relied too much on melodrama and archetypes (a mother and child's impassioned pleas; a soldier's sense of duty; an evil, hidden turncoat) as opposed to compelling characters, since they all have only 11 minutes to develop. But as a way to weave mysteries and surprises into a short-yet-dense narrative, Eleven Eleven feels just clever and compelling enough to stand out as an interactive narrative experience.

The Atomic Tree trailer.


The Atomic Tree: The same praise I gave to other 360-degree videos applies here, without necessarily breaking the mold. I snuck The Atomic Tree into this list for its ability to get into some very intimate locales in Japan and meditate with their soothing, surreal sights and sounds. In one moment, viewers sit in a garden and watch a caretaker snip away at a bonsai tree. In another, we sit inside of a dark, historic temple, where water is boiled for the sake of purification—and the crackle of flame, trickle of water, and lingering tone of a ringing bell seem otherworldly in spite of their organic qualities.


The 10-minute film tells the story of the Yamaki Pine, a gift to the United States from Japan in 1976, that was confirmed to have survived the Hiroshima bombings. Certain moments show trippy imagery inspired by rings inside of trees, but we never see the insides of the Yamaki, either real or simulated, in spite of the narrator suggesting that its rings "tell a story." Like, can't we see that story, or at least estimate it, while in VR? Still, the film's contemplative, peaceful scenes do something rare with a VR headset: they deliver a sensation of feeling free and calm, not cramped.


Eight is enough

I was delighted to come away from SXSW with a whopping eight VR films to praise—and that may seem like a lot to describe at length, but their breadth speaks to what I think is very good news for the format. Here were eight completely different perspectives on what kinds of stories VR can tell, and most of them skipped complicated things like expensive hardware or required controllers. Strap in, hit play, sit back, and enjoy.


On the other hand, I did leave 16 other films and experiences off the list.


One slew of films recreated real-life scenes using either 360-degree video or fuller, "room-scale" VR systems, yet these failed to engage in a clear and comfortable way. Some of them tried to recreate dramatic, real-life scenes, only to fill their virtual worlds with ugly, blurry geometry and an utter lack of emotion. Others filled their 360-degree videos with the kinds of sloppy, all-over-the-place cuts and edits that have plagued the form for years. Or maybe they dumped flat-screen images into a VR headset's "dome" view while failing to earn the inconvenience of strapping into a headset.


I won't single these films out, especially because some of them took risks in framing their stories around real-life tragedies and triumphs. Their human subjects don't deserve being told that they're not "interesting enough" for VR; that's the directors' fault, not theirs. But I will call out Oculus' "VR For Good" initiative, which came to SXSW with three films. These all failed to emphasize the format's potential, either on Oculus Go or Oculus Rift. It's a shame to see a major "first party" stakeholder misunderstand the power of VR filmmaking.


Meanwhile, other experiences revolved around the kinds of gear you'd never have at a typical home, including a rumbling, moving chair, a four-player VR "puzzle room" experience, or a real-life sculpture that "reacts" to how you move in VR. All of these failed because their basic content crashed headlong into the uncanny valley, suffering from glitches, uneven stories, and ugly art within their virtual worlds.


A few others Ars experienced were totally fine as short, trippy VR films, but they didn't top the listed fare. Hey, it happens. I didn't think I'd have that much nice stuff to say about six VR films at SXSW, let alone eight. But this year's crop of SXSW VR delights proves that a clever eye and great editing can accomplish way more than better pixels or fancier body tracking.

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