Interrogation … a VR encounter in Asad J Malik’s Terminal 3. Photograph: Sheffield Doc/Fest
Experience life after a horrific accident, play a customs officer or swim with sea otters. A new breed of VR film-making is making viewers engage in a deeper way with the issues they confront.
Sitting on a stool opposite me is Ayesha, a young American I’ve been asked to interrogate about her recent trip to Pakistan. “Did you visit any areas controlled by the Taliban?” I ask. “No, I did not,” she responds.
Ayesha is a hologram, and I’m “playing” a US customs officer in an augmented reality experience called Terminal 3. I spend 15 minutes in my fictional airport, asking her questions based on choices that appear in writing in my field of vision. My voice triggers her responses – which start off clipped and defensive but become increasingly intimate – to the point where I feel like I’d really like to hang out with her.
Ayesha is one of six participants of Muslim descent that were filmed with Depthkit technology to enable a surprisingly lifelike encounter that challenges stereotypes. It puts me in the position of authority – do I choose the tough questions or the softer ones? At the end I’m asked to decide whether to let her in to the country or detain her further. There’s a lot of hype around augmented reality at the moment but this piece – which came about after the director, Asad J Malik, had a bad experience with a customs officer in Abu Dhabi – had a narrative thrust that felt different to what’s gone before. You could imagine this sort of encounter happening in your own home in the not too distant future.
It was one of many immersive installations at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities programme, which featured 27 interactive and immersive projects including films, games and web projects. Experiences ranged from Gabo Arora and Saschka Unseld’s The Day the World Changed, a room-scale experience that bears witness to Hiroshima survivors and makes a powerful case for nuclear disarmament, to Martin Hertig’s playful Sensible Data / Mixed Emotions installation, in which three machines translate a selfie into a real-time drawing of your face accompanied by an email revealing your age, gender, “beauty levels” and mood – a witty comment on personal data collection.
Dan Tucker, programmer for Alternate Realities, divided offerings into two strands: The World Unknown to You – installations with impact that take you to places that are hard to access or imagine – and Better Known Truths – 360-degree films experienced in a headset. Housed this year in Trafalgar Warehouse, a suitably grungy industrial building, the exhibition was free. I chatted to a lady in her 70s who’d returned over several days and was amazed that this sort of storytelling existed.
A participant watches a film at Sheffields Trafalgar Warehouse. Photograph: Ryan Blackwood/Butterfly Wedding/Sheffield Doc/Fest
Many of the 360 films I saw seemed to have finally dispensed with the idea of “taking you into someone else’s world” by simply placing a static camera in a location. Grenfell: Our Home, made by the indie production company Parable, filmed and interviewed a group of survivors in stereoscopic 360. Rather than dwell on the well-trodden news lines, the piece is about their homes in the tower, with their plants, artefacts and hand-drawn murals sensitively reimagined through animation.
Benoît Felici’s The Real Thing is a charming film set in the Chinese towns of Suzhou and Tianducheng, where replicas of famous European landmarks – including Venice’s canals, Tower Bridge and the Eiffel Tower – exist. The surreal 360 journeys through these towns are complemented by first-hand stories from people who live there, such as the photographer who muses on what it might be like to live in the “real” European city while photographing Chinese couples in their wedding attire.
Extraordinary … Michelle Fox, who wears a facial prosthetic after a near fatal gun injury, plays with her daughter. Photograph: Michelle Gabel
Face to Face, commissioned by the festival and winner of the alternate realities virtual reality award, was an extraordinary three-room experience involving the shocking story of Michelle Fox who, in 2009, was injured in a near-fatal gun accident caused by her ex-husband. She lost her eyes, nose and upper palate and now wears a silicone facial prosthetic made specially for her. The photojournalist Michelle Gabel had been documenting her life since 2014 and was then introduced to Michaela Holland, an immersive storyteller who collaborated with them on this piece.
Each room in the installation is based on spaces from Fox’s home. The first is a living room, where I’m invited to spend 15 minutes absorbing her world. The walls are lined with family photographs, kids’ drawings and cuddly toys. The TV streams old home movies of her: dancing with her toddler, at a birthday party, playing dress-up with her daughter – all pre-accident. But in a drawer is a police witness statement from her friend Rebecca, describing what happened on the day of the accident. It’s gut-wrenching, visceral and heartbreaking.
Michelle Fox prepares to put on her prosthetic face. Photograph: Michelle Gabel
In the second room, a blue bathroom, I’m told to choose a facial “prosthetic”. These are in fact bespoke 3D-printed VR headsets with faces of different skin tones – there are seven or eight to choose from, and I duly reach for one that matches mine. When I don the headset, I see Michelle standing at her bathroom mirror, a bandana around her upper face, preparing to put her prosthetic on. The 360 film voiced by her shows moments of her daily life interwoven with animation and photographs. We glimpse what being blind has been like for her – like the fact that her daughter will forever remain as a five-year-old in her mind’s eye.
What happens in the final room (a dining space) catches me off guard – although I won’t give the surprise away since Face to Face will hopefully be shown in other venues.
Traumatic events and memories was a theme in the exhibition - just as it often is in documentary filmmaking. Mind at War was made by Australian comic book illustrator Sutu who tells the story of Scott England’s experience of PTSD after he enlisted in the US military and was posted to Iraq.
Drawn with Google’s Tiltbrush, the most powerful scenes are the moments in Iraq when he’s desperately hoping not to shoot anyone and when he witnesses a father setting himself on fire after his son was run over by the US military. The experience is going to be used by NGO’s such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) to raise awareness of PTSD and the ambition is to distribute it for free as widely as possible.
Vestige is a beautiful room scale VR piece which explores the memories of Lisa Elin in the aftermath of her husband Eric’s death in 2016. Director Aaron Bradbury had over 15 hours of audio interview with Lisa recorded over the phone. This became the backbone to scenes that visualise some of the stories she tells with the use of two actors playing Lisa and Eric who were volumetrically motion captured. It’s a bit like stepping into someone’s fragmented mind – the memories come thick and fast, brought to life by her effervescent, passionate voice.
Life in VR: California Coast offered welcome relief from such intense affairs. A stunning CGI interactive experience from BBC Studios, it explored underwater ecosystems from microscopic creatures to sea otters and the humpback whale – a virtual Blue Planet that enabled you to swim with these creatures. This is VR that encapsulates the BBC’s core mission to inform, educate and entertain. As with many of the works showing at Sheffield Doc/Fest, it suggests that virtual reality is becoming ever more complex, rich and thought-provoking.