Tribeca Immersive 2019 – juxtapositions of style and content

i-Docs research fellow Julia Scott-Stevenson recently returned from Tribeca Film Festival, New York, where she checked out some of the offerings in the Immersive Arcade and 360 Cinema.

Most striking about Tribeca Immersive, in New York earlier this month, was the sheer diversity of media styles on display. Across 22 projects showing in the Immersive Arcade, there was VR, realtime motion capture, phone-based AR, immersive theatre-style intros and interactions involving actors, AI and facial recognition, and physical sets with mapped structures, before you even get to the 360 Cinema. Oh, and a jam biscuit (a real one).

Thematically, it was just as diverse – war and conflict, refugee narratives, plastic pollution, family history and memory, indigenous storytelling, surveillance and privacy, classical music, gun control, psychedelic trips and creepy possessed dolls, to cover just some of what I saw.

Despite this seeming cornucopia, some of the pieces that stayed with me most did have a common thread – they tended to be about, for or even by young people. Future Dreaming (see main image) was a joyful, wide-ranging VR piece, for which producer Sutu worked with four Australian indigenous teenagers to imagine what their future worlds look like. Motion captured animations of the youth set against flourescent pink and purple backdrops that they helped illustrate greet the viewer; for instance Ali imagines her Hollywood apartment after a concert she has performed with popstar Rihanna, and Nelson hurtles through the outback on a train, before it later becomes a space train in a futuristic world.

Wolves in the Walls was a technically impressive and genuinely immersive animated VR experience based on a Neil Gaiman story of the same name. I played the role of imaginary friend to Lucy, the young protagonist who is convinced she can hear wolves in the walls of her house. She looked straight at me, her eyeline following me as I moved around and knelt on the floor, and chivvied me along when I was too slow in labelling jam jars using the VR controller. (A neat link to the jam biscuit I was presented with at the end of the experience). The piece presented chapters one and two – I eagerly await chapter three!

Wolves in the Walls

Children Do Not Play War is a 360 degree doc, funded by the Oculus VR for Good project. At first I was slightly alarmed at the becoming-standard trope of a young girl leading us through the story of deprivation, but it soon becomes clear that the narrator has agency in her story. Terrible things have happened, and these are represented simply and artfully in recreations of a burning hut, for instance. However, there is a note of hope, and a sense of taking control of the story – it feels a very long way from a request for empathy or pity from a white saviour audience, somehow.

Also in the 360 cinema, I saw 12 Seconds of Gunfire, an animated piece about a school shooting in the US. It’s so heartbreaking I almost couldn’t watch it, but I quashed the desire to tear off the headset and stayed. The animation and voice over is beautiful, as a child’s world is illuminated and first-grader Ava remembers her best friend, Jacob, who was shot and killed in the playground at school. I may not be the target market, but I can’t imagine even the most steadfast gun rights supporter not being moved at least a tiny bit by this piece.

Children Do Not Play War

Perhaps my favourite piece, made for a youth audience, used actor interaction to great effect – in Traitor, two participants are ‘recruited’ to MI5 and ushered into a small room. Tasked with uncovering what happened to a missing agent, they must work together using one VR headset and an external control board as well as other analogue set clues, while deciding what information to give back to the two actors playing agents. I had loads of fun – while noting the underlying message about government surveillance – and I could imagine my 16-year-old self loving it and playing more than once.

Less convincing were two pieces on different forms of war – War Remains, a bombastic attempt to emulate the experience of the trenches in WWI, involved wearing a VR headset and walking around a set, complete with vibrating floor and rough walls and objects to reach out and touch. There were printed warnings in place outside the experience recommending that those with conflict-related PTSD may want to avoid the project, and I don’t doubt that the sounds, vision and sensation of bombs landing nearby and the enclosed spaces of the trenches could seriously trigger an overwhelming response.
However, for those without PTSD, such as myself, I’m less certain of the potential outcome. I’m clearly not really in a trench, I’m in a festival hall. And that’s not really a bomb, no matter how hard I imagine it might be. I’m simply not in mortal danger, and as long as we agree it would be ridiculous to try and place me in actual mortal danger to engender a full understanding of the horrors of war, then what are we trying to achieve here? Specifically, what are we trying to achieve here that wasn’t already achieved in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old? Or, for that matter, in Apocalypse Now, or even Saving Private Ryan? A recognition that war is bad?

When I removed the headset at the end, I was greeted by a smiling attendant, asking what I thought and suggesting, “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” And you know what? It was cool – from the standpoint of what was achieved technologically. But I’m pretty sure that war ain’t.

War Remains

Second Civil War also explored conflict, but imagined a near-future American civil war in which rebels are fighting the government. To enter, I had to play the role of a journalist and convince an actor playing an army lieutenant to give me an access pass. Traitor (described above) notwithstanding, I generally find actor interactions of this sort fun but stressful – I’m continually asking myself, ‘Am I saying the right thing?’, ‘Does it even matter or will I get through the door regardless?’, ‘Am I trying to retrieve vital information, or is this window-dressing and I should just relax and play along?’. Inside the VR piece, text on screen displayed options for me to speak, and voice recognition would lead the story based on my responses. There was an interesting approach at the nub of this piece, but some tech bumps meant my response was more often recognised as the opposite of what I’d said, and the discussions with each character probably extended beyond the necessary time.

A few pieces explored refugee narratives – sadly I couldn’t get in to see The Key which went on to win the Tribeca Storyscapes Award, but I did manage to catch the lovely Another Dream. The animated VR documentary tells the story of an Egyptian lesbian couple and the sacrifices they must make to be together, and the viewer is occasionally called on to help write the story chapter headings – tracing Arabic letters with the hand controller.

Another Dream

The only environmental narrative I experienced (there were some I missed in the 360 Cinema) was Drop in the Ocean, a glowing set installation evoking fluorescent undersea creatures, in which two people enter, don headsets and stand on a soft floor. Inside VR, we feel shrunk down to two-inches tall and stand atop a jellyfish (hence the soft floor), and live motion capture means we can see our bodies and each other. The motion capture and unstable floor combine to offer a strong sense of presence, and it is awe inspiring to see the ocean at this scale – I reach out to ‘touch’ krill, observe a giant whale swim past, and then am promptly swallowed by shark (fun, but no real sense of jeopardy). The discovery that the pretty dots floating past are actually micro plastics is a powerful message, intensified when the image shifts to turtles struggling to swim above me amongst piles of plastic trash.

Drop in the Ocean

However, what perhaps highlights the sheer scale of the problem the most is exiting the experience, walking upstairs to the festival lounge and seeing a marketing stall handing out free bottles of flavoured ‘antioxidant water’. This stall was present throughout the festival, and the empty plastic bottles were starkly visible in rubbish bins around the space. The sponsored coffee lounge was also operating entirely with disposable cups. I know festivals require sponsorship to survive, but I hope this juxtaposition is an irony not lost on the organisers.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the sheer range of technology types and applications was huge – so much so that I feel we are getting to a stage in immersive festival display beyond which we may need to see further segmentation of exhibits. After a three-hour ticketed session spent running around trying to get into the various works on show, I felt a sense of hierarchy emerge – the bigger, set-based pieces commanding the waiting lists and queues, and the smaller, headset-only pieces touting for viewers. Mozilla’s Stealing Ur Feelings was an excellent facial recognition and AI-based piece, but using only a camera and small screen it was lost amidst the hidden doors and large sets. This arcade-style setup of ‘all in’ is necessary while we’re still convincing audiences of the value of this work, and indeed while we’re observing how they respond, but down the track I envisage fewer pieces, more space, and, in particular, time in-between and afterwards to discuss and consider. Less trade show and more gallery or cinema visit, with more time to focus on makers and craft.