Virtual Reality at CFF

Toby Miller of Bums on Seats at Cambridge 105 spoke to Emma Hughes, coordinator for Limina Immersive, about the Virtual Reality (VR) experience available at the Cambridge Film Festival (CFF) this year.

Toby Miller: The current development of VR technology, and how it’s being used to tell stories, has been compared to the early days of cinema by some filmmakers. Do you think that’s what’s so exciting about it at the moment?

Emma Hughes: Definitely, because when cinema first started they were very much using theatre techniques. It wasn’t until they invented editing that Georges Méliès really made cinema what it is today, and it became a medium in its own right. I think that’s what we’re still discovering with VR: what it can do, the possibilities, the potential. Everyone’s experimenting. Nobody knows what they’re doing – the boundaries and rules haven’t been set yet. So I think we’re just waiting to see how it evolves as a medium.

TM: Would you be able to tell me a little about the four films you have screening at CFF, and why they were chosen?

EH: Catherine Allen curated it and she really wanted to demonstrate the versatility and the many facets that VR has to offer. The first film is WONDERFUL YOU, which is an incredible interactive piece that explores the development of the senses when we’re babies in the womb. Then we have on the next day a pairing called WORLD WAR 1: ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE, which comprise two different VR experiences shown back to back; and we see WWI from two very different points of view. The first one is EMPIRE SOLDIERS, the experience of Caribbean soldiers, and then EASTER RISING: VOICE OF A REBEL is based in Ireland.

TM: Are the documentaries based around interviews? They sound like a new way of presenting recollections of the period.

EH: Yes, they’re very much dramatised versions. EASTER RISING was based on the voice recordings from a man called Willie McNeive, and so they’re slanted in a way that tells the story from his perspective. With EMPIRE SOLDIERS it’s a collection of accounts from various articles and historical pieces. A lot of research went into it. Actually, one of the directors of Metro-Boulot-Dodo [the arts organisation who created this piece] is a dub and reggae music producer, and one of the guys who he partners with on his album did his masters on Caribbean WW1 soldiers. So he was the main researcher behind that! Finally we have SECOND DATE, created by Jennifer Lyon Bell, which looks at how VR can create intimacy and explore relationships and sensuality. I’m really excited to find out how people take them.

TM: SECOND DATE seems much more of a traditional short film, at 16 minutes long. Is the person wearing the VR headset an observer or a participant in the film?

EH: In this one you’re a fly on the wall observing two people on their second date and seeing where it goes. There are only a couple of cuts; other than that you’re in one place and you get to observe as things happen around you.

TM: So you’re a voyeur, in a way…

EH: Yes, you very much choose where you’d like to look, and watch the narrative unfold. I actually found myself looking around the set a lot – it’s a beautiful boat in Amsterdam, so I was just admiring the scenery for quite a lot of it! It’s a brilliant piece and Jennifer is a really amazing director.

TM: So if you are in a 360 degree environment you could watch 4 or 5 times and experience the same story in a different way, by where you choose to watch it?

EH: Yes, that’s the beauty of the art, because even though you can experience it at the same time as other people, you can come out having seen the same film but with a completely different experience. I think that’s really wonderful and unique about VR, and it does mean you can go back more than once, choosing to edit it in your own way!

TM: Could you tell me about WONDERFUL YOU, which is narrated by Samantha Morton. We’re watching the genesis of life, but the blurb seems to suggest it’s more than visual – there’s sight, sound, taste, touch. How is it interactive?

EH: This is one piece were you use a controller and get to choose which senses to explore, and when, and in what order. There are small short films that are shown that you choose, and then you can interact with the baby, and play around with the touch and the smell and taste to see how it reacts. So you guide your own experience.

TM: Looking forward, do you think we’ll move onto feature length films? Do you think there’s a time limit that a person can stay in a headset?

EH: I think there is a time limit, because it can get quite tiring, especially when you’re fully immersed in an environment like that. And so the format that we’ve been sticking to is 20 minutes maximum. You then have either breaks in between things, or the opportunity to discuss films afterwards, to add another element to the experience. I think at the moment I can’t see feature length films, or two-hour VR experiences. Maybe more of a cross medium experience, whether it involves theatrical elements or discussions afterwards, to make it a fully rounded slot.

TM: With any new technology , filmmakers always say, “Don’t forget about the story”. Do you think that’s good advice, as VR technology develops?

EH: I think there’s so much buzz around VR tech at the moment, and I think that the content can get lost in that. So it’s very important to keep in mind that you’re creating for an audience, not just creating for the sake of making something in VR. If you’re making something in VR you’ve got to have a purpose for using that medium, and you’ve got to use it effectively. That doesn’t always mean having to make everything so that the audiences have to look everywhere. I’ve seen really amazing VR experiences where everything is focussed in front of you even though it’s a 360 medium. So I think it’s really important to keep the story in mind, and make sure that’s what drives the work – but also make sure you’re using VR in an effective way and know why you’re using VR rather than film or theatre.

TM: At the Cambridge Film Festival, what’s the tech that’s making this possible?

EH: The format is five people can experience them at any one time. You come in, you have five Oculus Rift sets – they’re great in terms of their depth of field and image quality.

TM: A couple of years ago VR featured at Cannes and it was mostly animation based. This year at Cannes there was a VR film from Alejandro Inarritu about the refugee crisis. Do you think that really quick evolution, from animation to shorts from an Oscar winning filmmaker, shows how rapidly VR was moving into longer form story telling?

EH: Yes, VR is really kicking off in terms of platforms of story telling. There’s so much content out there and it’s growing every day. It’s really versatile: I’ve seen things that are based on 360 video, or mixes between CGI and live footage, and it really is such a platform for experimentation at the moment. Every month we’re seeing hundreds of new things come out. Both Raindance and Encounters film festivals have a VR strand, and now Cambridge is jumping on the bandwagon. So it definitely goes to show it’s working! People are coming, film festivals are picking up on it and we’d love to take advantage of that and bring it to other arts venues and make it more accessible. The trouble at the moment is that it’s hard to get everything shown because not many people own a headset. So events like the Cambridge Film Festival are a perfect opportunity for people to come and try it out!

The VR experience costs only £5 and is based at the Timmy Hele Room in Emmanuel College, every hour from 11.00 – 19.00

WONDERFUL YOU screenings are at CFF on 21 October;


and SECOND DATE on Monday 23 October.