This Way Up 2016: Personal ‘Realities’ and the Communal Experience

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Speakers: Tom Grater (Screen International – chair), Melanie Iredale (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Johanna Koljonen (Nostradamus Project), Jörg Tittel (Oiffy)

“The consensus” suggests Tom Grater, “is most VR is shit”. Indeed, it seems to be the one thing everyone on the panel is happy to agree on. One other is that it’s an embryonic art form, with huge and wide-reaching implications. And anyway, as Jörg Tittel, co-director of the upcoming The White King (in cinemas January 2017!), counters “Most cinema is shit as well.”

In a lively discussion, the cutting edge of virtual and augmented reality work is discussed, and the implications for the communal cinema experience and, by extension, cinema venues. Tom Grater, chairing, sets the scene with reference to VR’s major presence at festivals like Sundance and Cannes, serious directors and big Hollywood productions (The Martian, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) embracing VR, the burgeoning market for affordable consumer headsets, the first dedicated VR cinema in Amsterdam and IMAX’s commitment to opening dedicated cinemas in the next few years. Perhaps the highest profile recent use of the medium, and also demonstrated for TWU attendees just previously to the panel, is Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness.

Melanie Iredale of Sheffield Doc/Fest explains that while the market is currently dominated by “advertising, not-necessarily-innovative gaming and pornography”, everyone is experimenting. Doc/Fest in particular are interested in “the opportunity it affords to tell stories that need to be told,” of which Notes on Blindness is a prime example. However, as she explained, although the novelty of trying on the goggles for the (standalone) VR experience led to an avowed intention to see the film, that didn’t translate reliably into ticket sales. The caveat there being that while projects like the one tied to the release of The Martian are designed to drive sales, NoB: Into Darkness is a work of art in its own right. Johanna Koljonen suggests its success is because it’s one of the relatively few projects where the viewer’s perspective is relevant to the work.

Jorg, however, takes a dim view of the future of the cinematic VR experience in general. “Right now, we’re at the novelty stage… Ultimately, putting on a headset with 1,000 other people is probably going to put people off. I’m not a germaphobe, but…” Discussion turns to the presentation of these works in existing cinema spaces, which are not optimised for many VR experiences (which themselves are still varied in terms of form) with different demands of geography and processing power and which may require rotating chairs, or better, wholly bespoke environments. Add to which, Johanna points out, there’s no consistency across platforms.

And yet, the more people do it, Jorg maintains, the more quality they will expect. NoB fits the current restrictions of the format, but the longer, the more expensive and budget and investment are currently more restrictive than comfort. The future is more likely in augmented reality. Imagine, he says, five years down the road, a regular 2D movie screening to an audience with AR headsets. The same film is presented to those without – traditional films for traditional viewers – but an augmented version screens simultaneously. The appeal for traditional venues is that no new hardware is required. “VR inside cinemas is a fad, VR and cinemas is the future… We’ll all be living in an augmented and mixed reality. As soon as we start walking across that bridge…the sooner we will all thrive.”

Written by Sean Welsh. Image: This Way Up 16, Eoin Carey.