Still from 'The Real Thing VR'MATHIAS CHELEBOURG
Documentary reveals how the affordances of VR allow filmmakers to tell novel kinds of stories by using space and setting as a living character.
Alongside the rise of high-quality 360 cameras, the past half-decade has brought with it a number of innovative immersive films. One category that has especially evolved during that time is the VR documentary, taking audiences into stories across the globe in unprecedented ways.
Even among the crowded space, The Real Thing VR is a vital contribution to evolution of the immersive documentary. Directed by Mathias Chelebourg and Benoit Filici in conjunction with a 2D film of the same name, The Real Thing VR is a journey through China's "copycat city," located outside of Shanghai, which recreates iconic architecture from around the world. It's an ambient, fluid piece -- avoiding what would have been the easy pitfall of forcing biased conclusions or audience attention on the renowned monuments. Instead, it flows through spaces that allow them to come to life in the minutia of daily life there. The result is a piece that lets us develop a relationship not just with an individual person or building, but with the broader reality of place.
The experience was on display last month in Montreal at The New Storytellers 5, an event curated by Phi Centre and Future of StoryTelling, where I sat down with Chelebourg to discuss physical "virtual" realities, using space to drive story, and honestly portraying other people's lives without editorializing:
"The Real Thing is actually is part of a bigger project, which is a documentary approach that Benoit Filici started for [the French television network] Arte, which was a reflection around the global phenomenon of global copycat architecture," Chelebourg said. "These very intriguing spaces where you can have a real eye-hand Eiffel tower almost the size of the real one, you have a Taj Mahal sitting in the middle of Africa, and you have plenty of interesting facade architecture all around the world."
"Ask any architect or interior designer: every space tells a story. When you walk into a typical classroom, what’s communicated to you? Orderly rows of desks indicate that a group of people will all focus in one direction, rather than talk as a group. Fluorescent lighting and bookshelves imply a space intended for focus and scholarship. These embedded details drive us to make automatic assumptions about what to expect, how we act and ultimately become our “story” of that space in time."
To that end, The Real Thing is a vital document in the progression of VR as a storytelling medium -- using the immersive format to let a story unfold around audiences.
"The Real Thing was very interesting for me because it's about [humans] inside architecture," Chelebourg said. "So, in a way, this story was perfect for VR, because VR is so great to get a feeling of scale and to get a feeling of actually being there. You can have an interesting and powerful testimony of the life of people there."
For me, one of the most notable moments in the documentary was the when I finally realized I was looking at the Eiffel Tower replica, which I'd been seeing from other angles throughout the piece -- and thereby absorbing these details as a first-timer, rather than coded with my existing associations of the monument. This is a powerful example of how creators can use space to tell story -- guiding audiences without directing coercively, allowing them to discover the story through the careful unveiling of architectural and spatial details.
"We all have a vision of the city for the European audience, even for the global audience, because we all know the city and that architecture," Chelebourg said. "When we first started writing the project, the idea was the the full thing would be some kind of wandering around those spaces. We wanted the film to look like we are going through these spaces as a poetic wanderer, so that you can actually play with revealing the stuff, you can actually play with how much of the real thing actually is there compared to how much is the actual Chinese vision of the architecture."
View of the Eiffel Tower replica in 'The Real Thing'MATHIAS CHELEBOURG
This particular point is where The Real Thing becomes an important cross-cultural document, revealing both the overlap and differences between East and West as manifested in the virtual city.
"China doesn't want to be the center of the world, it wants to be the center that holds and contains the world," Chelebourg said.
Given the medium of The Real Thing, the subject sparks a relevant discussion around what constitutes a "virtual" space.
"These places kind of are virtual worlds -- tangible, physical, virtual places," Chelebourg said. "For me, as a an artist...it was very interesting to see how much people are willing to live in these virtual spaces -- and how much of the original thing they want to feel that they are living there, and how much they are bringing to the places that are virtual copycats of the original. This is even a meta-reflection about what is actually VR and what is a virtual [space]."
Be sure to check out my review of Vestige, which was also featured at The New Storytellers 5, here. For more insight from the XR artists featured at the event, see the panel discussion below: