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Spheres, a VR experience reportedly worth $1.4 million, lands at Miami's FilmGate festival.
Spheres, a VR experience reportedly worth $1.4 million, lands at Miami's FilmGate festival.
Courtesy of FilmGate

At FilmGate Fest, Virtual Reality Experts Plan for a New Era in Entertainment

For its sixth edition, FilmGate is upping its annual interactive media festival to a new level. Last year, the fest premiered 12 virtual reality (VR) experiences. This year FilmGate Interactive Media Festival #06 will offer 50, thanks to a new partnership with the University of Miami, and the school’s mission to instruct students on VR. Among the most high profile of experiences at FilmGate this year is Spheres, directed by Eliza McNitt and executive produced by Darren Aronofsky.

On the third floor of the Huntington Building in downtown Miami, FilmGate Executive Director Diliana Alexander, VR producer Paul Bronstein and creative technologist Dom Narvaez have set up several VR experiences for critics to preview. Among them is Spheres, an interactive astrological experience for which CityLights, a new Los Angeles-based VR financing and distribution studio, reportedly paid $1.4 million.

At a PC station by a large window and shelves of green plants, an Oculus headset and two Oculus touch controllers — one for each hand — wait to be used. This is all you need to be immersed in an interactive journey of the cosmos. Jessica Chastain, Millie Bobby Brown and Patti Smith provide patiently paced, almost whispered narratives to accompany interstellar images that surround the viewer wearing the Oculus.

From the creation of earth to the quirks of our solar system to what it might be like to enter a black hole, Spheres looks at everything from creation to destruction in space and what lies between. Along with the soothing voices of the narrators, the images include a ride on Saturn’s rings and watching heavenly bodies warp and bend into oblivion as they spiral into a black hole. There are opportunities to reach out with the controllers to alter and interact with the images. You can nudge the planets into their orbits around the sun or even collapse and bend waves of light.

Alexander says she was able to book Spheres for FilmGate after helping to program an interactive media conference in Paris. “They showed me three of their projects: Spheres, Battlescar and Vestige, all very different,” she says noting two other projects at the festival. “All showed me the potential of telling powerful stories of the universe, of 1970s punks in New York from the perspective of a Puerto Rican girl [‘Battlescar: Episode 1’] and how we deal with the loss of a loved one [Vestige]. All show the potential of virtual storytelling that goes beyond a 2D screen.”

The trippy, immersive world of Awavena.
The trippy, immersive world of Awavena.
Courtesy of FilmGate

The other preview critics were granted was part of Awavena. This one only requires a headset, but what it does to trace the movement of your gaze is trippy to say the least. Described as “a digital ayahuasca experience in the Amazon Rainforest with Yawanawa shaman Hushahu,” the piece was created by Lynette Wallworth and produced by Coco Films, Madison Wells Media, and Technicolor Experience Center. Yes, Technicolor, pioneer of a now archaic film technology, is joining in exploring the possibilities of new media.

Awavena tells the story of a woman breaking the glass ceiling of the male-dominated Shamanism of her village. During that personal and social drama, there are moments where you find yourself looking at things like a river basin and seeing beyond the element of water. There is also a long moment where you can gaze into an ancient tree and see a rainbow of color. As your eyes trace the trunk, the globule of color follows your field of vision. It’s a trick of the eye, explains Narvaez, built into the fact that you are watching the images practically right on the bridge of your nose.

These VR experiences, many of which deal with heavy subject matter, also include video games like Fragile Equilibrium, a piece described as “an action game simulating depression and perception by Magic Spell Studios.” There’s also Bury Me, My Love, an interactive story focused on a Syrian refugee family by Florent Maurin.

“Most games are using playfulness to incite social change,” says Alexander. “This has always been a goal for our festival. Three years ago, we presented One Dark Night, a VR recreation of the Trayvon Martin shooting, where you experience the event through hearing the real 911 calls and a virtual recreation, and you decided if the shooting was warranted.”

With FilmGate, it’s never only about escaping into media no matter how fun it seems. The event has long been known for its panel workshops, which have drawn aspiring filmmakers from across North America. This year, representatives from the New York Times, the Washington Post and Magic Leap are among those participating on a panel on new media and how that new media will be used to tell stories that include the news.

“Magic Leap has created a revolution in AR, and they are in Florida,” notes Alexander. “The prediction is wearables capable of handling both VR and AR with powerful enough computers to eliminate PCs. Now, are we going to be able to edit CGI films with headsets? No. Yet, they will be powerful enough to handle most everyday needs. This is the tech and the transition to a new era.”

Things like video games have long been criticized as a form of escapism. But the same was said about movies and television in the early 20th century. “For me, personally, interactive stories are powerful because of the agency they give to the audience to participate creatively and also the deeper connection I can make with audiences,” declares Alexander. “They experience the stories, not metaphorically, they really do — eventually with full immersion of sight, sound, smell, pain even. It's been said before, no other medium can evoke such powerful feelings of empathy.”

FilmGate Interactive Media Festival #06. Friday, November 30 to Thursday, December 6 at various venues across Miami; filmgate.miami. Tickets cost $10-$200.

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