Do Festivals Know What 'Immersion' Means?

Do Festivals Know What 'Immersion' Means?
November 11, 2019
Olivier de Sagazan performs in "O"


Tonight, the Geneva International Film Festival (GIFF) unveiled its full prize list of its 25th edition's screenings and digital experimentations. In the digital section, Qiu Yang's enthralling O was rewarded with the Reflet d'Or for Best Immersive Work while a distinction was awarded to Nico Casavecchia and Martin Allais' Battlescar – Punk was Invented by Girls.


The attribution of the Best Immersive Work award to "O" is an awkward choice, as it sends a confusing message to immersive works creators as well as to their audiences, in particular to the 'VR virgins' who constitute the majority of the young and growing market of immersive content.


"O" is a mesmerizing, gut-wrenching, jaw-dropping masterpiece. It is absolutely shocking for all the good reasons. Multifaceted artist Olivier de Sagazan delivers an incredible, otherworldly performance, powered by his stunningly magnetic acting; but does this 360 VR film deserve an immersive award?


Having watched "O" when it premiered in Venice two months ago, I'd recommend it to anyone with no hesitation - but the camera, respectful of the artist's performance and statically positioned slightly too far from the artist (about 16 feet away from the performance), fails to deliver the sensation of "presence" that is so crucial in an immersive experience.


Olivier de Sagazan's overwhelming charisma has little to do with the film's direction as it entirely relies on the magic of his artistic performance, and in spite of the artist's fascinating power, the spectators always feel like they are just facing a stage, passively watching the action instead of being part of it. Olivier de Sagazan truly deserves an award for Best Performance, yet it ends up with "O" taking all the credit.


So the question is, what is the definition of immersion according to the GIFF and why did the jury reward "O" with this coveted prize? What does it mean for the audiences, as when they will discover "O", they surely will trust the festival to know better what a 'best immersive work' is? And what message does it send to XR artists who masterfully push the sense of presence and immersion in XR storytelling to its limits?


The GIFF is not the only festival raising questions about the very concept of immersion. A few weeks ago, the popular location-based video mapping venue Atelier des Lumières launched its first Immersive Art Festival in Paris. A dozen short creations of international studios were showcased, the press was dithyrambic, the tickets were sold out weeks in advance, and the audience was thrilled.


The reality is, the festival was projecting duplicated flat images on the many walls, ceilings, and floors; half of the short films were showing abstract, Matrix-like visuals while the other half graced the audience with future cities' skylines or deep space allegories. Electronic music was reverberating in the immense rehabilitated warehouse space. A few creations were narrative attempts that failed to make any sense.


It looks like "immersion", according to l'Atelier des Lumières, means projecting a video on the six faces of a huge concrete cube and putting the audience in the middle of that cube.


In this crucial stage of public evangelization and education, isn't it time for the festivals to clearly set definitions, standards, and communicate about their requirements? It has been long overdue, and these definitions and rules should not only apply to the content creators, but also to the juries who select and reward them.

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