It seems contradictory that a festival where filmmakers are seeking a wide audience for their works would also be the best place to experience films made for an audience of one. But that's what you'll find at the Tribeca Film Festival's Immersive program, running this weekend, which takes attendees through interactive film experiences with the help of tools like mood-setting booths and VR headsets.
The program, housed within exhibits known as Virtual Arcade and Storyscapes, shouldn't be thought of as separate from the larger film festival but as an extension of it, as more filmmakers experiment with ways to expand their work beyond theaters or streaming services.
Loren Hammonds, the programmer for film and immersive at Tribeca, said his focus this year is the evolution of story. The festival has had an interactive component since 2013, but filmmakers have embraced it this year more than ever, Hammonds says. Creators are now collaborating with developers as they would a cinematographer or lighting designer. Last year, for example, Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman, Children of Men) visited the program, and later this year he and Alejandro Inarritu will premiere their own short VR film.
"I hope we had something to do with it," Hammonds says. "I think [Lubezki] was very interested in the medium and in working with it, and they had been talking about what they were going to do, so seeing what others do—just like any other film festival—can give inspiration."
This year, Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, contributed The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger's Shoes. It leads participants through a harrowing day in the life of a Garamba National Park ranger, who has to contend with the poachers who are so prevalent in Africa. While most of the experience takes place in VR, the booth is made to subtlety mimic the Congo with natural grasses and ground cover.
Walking through the Virtual Arcade and Storyscapes is a bit surreal. People wearing VR headsets wander and stumble, reach out to touch empty air, or—in some cases—hold on to objects creators have provided as VR props. Inside the experience, a large velveteen column appears to be a tree you are encouraged to hug; a sawed-off pipe doubles as a virtual subway pole.
It's easy to fear a future in which people disappear into these virtual realities - until you put on a headset yourself and expand your understanding of humankind. The creators have turned technology into the ultimate empathy engine. Being colorblind is just a concept until you step into Sanne De Wilde's installation The Island of the Colorblind and attempt to paint a landscape. Lights flash and turn the watercolor set in front of you into meaningless shades of gray. In your headphones, a narrator tells the story of a colorblind population inhabiting a lonely atoll in the Pacific, and with each stroke of the brush you identify with them more.
Even an animated world can leave you with a vivid understanding of someone else. The space that houses Talking With Ghosts is curtained and tent-like, with a large oriental rug, twinkle lights, and small votive candles; you'd be forgiven if you thought you were there to have your fortune read. And while you then disappear underneath an Oculus Rift$499.99 at Amazon headset, the setup is evocative of the shadowy mental space you're about to explore. Creator Ric Carrasquillo used Oculus's creation tool Quill to animate a couple's afternoon on a miniature golf course. But it soon devolves into a psychodrama that will have you pondering how your own anxieties and projections have sabotaged real-life relationships.
The most disconcerting projects are the ones that hew so closely to your normal experience of the world, like Blackout, which takes place on a NYC subway car. Director Alexander Porter designed a white fluorescent-lit space that looks like the ghost version of a subway car. He took pains to make it as realistic as possible, measuring a real subway car while other riders ignored him in true New York fashion. The effort paid off since participants can navigate this world even when their view is obscured by an HTC Vive$799.99 at Amazon.
"The VR scene corresponds with the physical world such that if you sit down in the virtual world, you're sitting on a bench, if you reach out to grab a pole, you're grabbing a pole," Porter said.
Blackout's biggest accomplishment, though, is that after you don your headset, and hear the familiar "Stand clear of the closing doors" announcement, the experience plunges you into the thoughts of real New Yorkers following an imaginary blackout. In a real blackout, you might see looks of exasperation or fear, but not hear your fellow passengers' thoughts. So the connection is not just more than you'd feel on film, it's more than you'd feel in real life.