Myself and Tessa attended last year's exhibitions at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) to experience the projects on show, most notably the Doclab: VR Cinema screenings. These were day-of ticket bookings, and between us we made a good effort to see all we could. And ~*discuss*~!
This is a timely post as the current 2020 IDFA is running between November 18 and December 6, right now. More than 200 documentary films and discussions are taking place online and in theatres, and it is a crying shame THE OTHVRS can’t be there this year.
Here’s a link to the IDFA website. https://www.idfa.nl/en/
Here I’ve repurposed some thoughts and feelings on the amazing work on show last year from Tessa and me (Fi). Take a read and see what we came away with. Please note: These are transcribed and rephrased from audio recordings. They’ve jogged my memory of what I watched and felt, but do forgive me for any detail I miss out.
The Inhabited House / La Casa Habitada
Diego Komei (Argentina) Duration: 8 min
A loving reflection on the flows of family life over generations, this short VR film brings the house of the creator’s grandparents, one a site of boisterous family gatherings, momentarily back to life.
This piece was viewable in a headset, and was at the VR Cinema, and also had its own exhibition space too.
A spectacular piece of art made entirely from still 360 shots of the artists’ grandparents’ home, layering archive home movies to create one literal window into the past.
Understanding The Inhabited House's construction really brings home our appreciation for this work. It appears a painstakingly crafted slice of magic, the artist having pasted home footage (traditional 2D) frame-by-frame onto the 360 background. Whilst it must have been excruciating to make, it also serves as a super clear example of how simple and “DIY” 360 Film really can be. The “present day” footage remains a handful of shots, mostly still, occasionally stirring with movement when lights switch on or off. Sometimes the film is punctuated with a change of scenery or thunder clap, but as the audience we are not moving, only observing.
The nature of the original footage works so well as the camera operator stays in place, tracking the subjects around the room. The audience do not feel like they are the camera operator, but we do get a feeling of seeing the world from someone else’s view, once, even twice removed.
Both me and Tessa agree this film is beautiful. It’s an intricately made, uber-personal love letter to the artist’s family and to their family memories.
We feel the juxtaposition of a quiet, empty house versus a once-bustling family home. The audience are able to compare what furniture from decades gone-by still remains, some in the same space, some subtly moved.
The emotion brought out by such a setting is emotionally bittersweet. Home videos, usually of children, can bring reflections on the innocence, joy, and nostalgia of youth. In this setting, they are amplified, now running throughout the house like ghosts. The nature of the medium, old home film and modern 360 digital footage also reflects a nostalgia for past technologies, like film reels and slide projectors. It feels entirely a nod to the act of passing down history. Through the Inhabited House, we are preserving and immortalising the past in new formats.
The window of memories when moving around the room, is obscured by framed photographs on the coffee table as it darts behind. Its own sense of character is felt, mixing personalities of the subject (for example, a young energetic child) with the panning and framing the camera operator. The jumping, moving window, also joined with loud and antiquated sound quality, is the main draw of the viewer's eye. When it leaves, we feel the emptiness mirrored by the author’s grandparents after family gatherings dispersed, or in grief. The film ends with a digital application of rain-on-window projected into the room. The moments when the archive film disappears and we hear thunder or see a change of lighting sharply bring us back to the present day. This reminds me of the artist themselves walking around the empty house alone, not even needing home footage to recount their own memories. It’s hard not to find moments like these especially sad.
I loved that this piece was done with only four main pieces at play, 360 video, home footage, narration and visual effects (eg, the layering of the rain). It really makes us want to “try it at home” and encapsulate our own memories in this new technology (a real step-up from VHS tapes.)
Both of us felt it was touching and beautiful, able to get across a strong artistic direction, regardless if Tessa and me can even remember much of the spoken content of the piece. If we could ask for more, we think we would like to jump the barrier from being a removed spectator, to becoming an involved member of this family, possibly by being personified as the person who is filming. More focus on who they were, the words they say, or something to relate us to the person “sat” in our seat could bring the audience into an embodied role. However, if the intention was to keep the audience at arms length, and focus on the extremely personal artist’s perspective, this was done flawlessly.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
An exemplary use of "capturing history". Educational, historical, archival found footage is important as well as cool - museums, galleries, and historical places take note. This is how to induce time travelling.
Sweet, poignant, nostalgic, thoughtful. Made with meaning, what we strive for as makers.
A peaceful film, limited movement, not overwhelming with emotion, imagery, or sound. No potential for motion sickness!
Duncan Speakman (UK)
Duration: 40 mins
As sea levels rise and wildfires burn, Only Expansion remixes the sound of the city around you to experience sonically how your own life might change in the future. A beautifully made guidebook prompts you to explore the city, choosing your own route, while headphones with customised electronics capture and manipulate the sounds around you. Field recordings of climate collapse blend into your surroundings, you begin to hear your city as if it was under water or beaten by dry desert winds. A visceral and poetic reflection on what it means to live on a planet in crisis, Only Expansion connects the here to the elsewhere, letting you experience our tangled ecology through sound.
THE HOW My only review not of Virtural Reality, but instead of a sound-only interactive piece. Only Expansion is a walk of the city, dependant on where the piece is being hosted, accompanied with a set of headphones that instruct you and record your surroundings and feed the input back to you. You carry a booklet, and when prompted by the recording, you turn the page. The equipment is also a little electronic box that we were told to turn on in synchronicity when boarding the ferry opposite the Doclab venue. Me and Tessa also took different routes.
The piece prompts the listener to view the world around them acutely, take their time, pause in places, feel things. Sounds were amplified, Amsterdam Centraal's ceiling fans, bowling balls and footsteps turned poetic. Road work drills turned percussive and choppy when fed back to our ears.
The piece pushes the listener to reflect on the world around them, listening to a narrative soundscape that evokes time passing, future and present. Distorting the listeners world intends to slows time, and heightens their senses. We the listener consider climate change, hearing the echoes of the world as if we are walking underwater and the sea levels have risen to cover the streets. There are many adjectives to attribute to this not-so-virtual reality - meditative, emotional, spooky, effecting, weird, cinematic, contemplative.
The push from the narration and the booklet makes participants force their focus on the immediate landscape, moving their eye line like it was a camera. The piece encourages interaction, prompting physicality and conscious thought from it's users, keen to produce immersion within that feels natural.
We haven’t been involved in so many sound-based experiences, but found a lot of considerations into how peaceful and non-frightening we found this project. It was relaxing, emotive Despite what can be a frightening topic, it was quite pleasant rather than uncomfortable. The piece had a great poeticism to it, making the very ordinary world extraordinary for 40 minutes. Of course, the sound was the strongest element, over the accompanying book. If there was no book, Only Expansion might feel completely ephemeral.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
Only things hampering the embodiment were our damn bodies! The necessity of having to return at the halfway point (to see more films and return the gear) did cross our minds. Tessa was carrying a heavy bag, I was very hungry… this also didn’t help.
Complete control and direction was relinquished to the participant. There were no rules, no way to go wrong - I only felt a bit awkward touching a tree.
Sound is so important in bringing out emotion, sometimes visuals are just an added touch...
Ana Vijdea & Cosmin Nicoară (United States, Romania)
Duration: 20 minutes
Meals are prepared, tables are set, children are fed and entertained, and exhausted adults chat in snippets. This VR experience allows us to take a “place at the table,” where so much of the inner workings of family life play out.
A very simple and entrancing slice-of-life, Dinners is a 360 Film that captures the mealtimes of a variety of families from different cultures around the world.
What starts off suspiciously slow, with the potential to become uninteresting, Dinners opens with a silent dining room, one family setting the table. Looking down, we can see the bottom plate lists the names of the family members in the household. Cut - and we are in a different living room, and the same happens again, a similarly quiet yet noticeably unique table setting. Cut - and again the same. We have a perfect opportunity to ogle the houses we are in.
What remains consistent in these shots is that the camera is placed at a seat on the table, these are all real and live conversations, and by the end of the film, feel an honoured window into different worlds.
Another example of a great DIY, simple camera set-up and a great idea. The characters (who initially we watched with anxious worry that they would be scripted in some way), grew on us the same way observing any family would probably make one feel familiar and likened to them. There is such an abundance of natural funny moments, some precious and cute, some awkward and real, some bizarre and engrossing; Tessa found herself forgetting to eye-up the room around her during the couple feeding their cat at the table, and was too busy watching, enraptured.
This documentary is thoroughly simple and straight-forward, documenting these different dinners with impartiality. Dinners does a fantastic job of “capturing the real” or making the audience a true “fly on the wall”. The families do reference they are being filmed, and that a camera is present, breaking the fourth wall and dispelling any assumption or feeling that the scenes are staged. The nuanced conversations, awkward parts and discussing the filming made this piece all-the-more loveable. It wasn’t perfection being filmed, nor was it really anything “bad” or embarrassing, just normal stuff. It seems parent/child dynamics are entertaining, all over the world.
We underestimated it, and it charmed our socks off.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
Camera + great people = great film. Not much more to it! Sound would have been lapel mics on the participants and hidden around the room.
An example that not all films need narratives.
Dinners lets us travel the world, gain insight into different ways of living, and understand people without voyeuristic body-hopping.
Great use of subtitles in VR, which were necessary and easy to read.
Darren Emerson (UK)
Duration: 30-40 minutes
Common Ground explores the notorious Aylesbury Estate, home to thousands of South Londoners, and a concrete monument to the history and legacy of social housing in the UK. The Aylesbury Estate is undergoing a massive regeneration scheme that will see big changes to the community of thousands that live there and call it home. Common Ground mixes 360 video and real time environments to allow people access to areas of the estate itself and personal spaces of residents, in order to examine how design, planning, dreams of utopian living and the political will of the day has affected the ordinary people caught in its midst. Utilising stereoscopic 360 video, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, and archive the viewer enters the world of the estate from its birth in 1960’s, through its decline and up to its controversial regeneration today. This multifaceted documentary questions notions of community, examines the dis-enfranchisement and demonization of the working class, and ask whether current housing policy today is destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Common Ground is a 360 film that is one of the highest in quality cinematic feature documentaries of its kind. Not many VR productions can feel as multi-faceted, with as much production-value, or be as compelling as this. Combining many different mediums in a virtual world, we watch, listen, and interact with elements to unravel the history of the Aylesbury Estate. The interaction is balanced so as to not distract audiences from the content; an opportunity to spray paint a CGI wall is not out of place. Listening to a residents description of the estate at its lowest, we are transported to a dank, dark stairway, somewhat dangerous or unpalatable, and ourselves are tempted (and invited) to spray our own graffiti. Even in taking part in this virtual interaction, we can understand and embody a resident who might carry out the action themselves. In turn, we can also find the stairwell unfriendly.
The film uses interesting choices, such as occasional fast cuts and music (not unlike music videos), providing some breathers between heavy informative segments. The music functions astoundingly well in pulling emotion out of viewers, and the film never relies on hard-hitting content or the 360 “face-to-face” elements to force tears from us. The film works much as a feature or televised traditional documentary may function, but pushes new methods of storytelling in VR, using new technology to educate and involve the audience.
As a documentary, the question as to “WHY” make something like this in VR is important. In Common Ground, the answer is clear. In VR we can see the space, and we are asked to be there to understand in-person the political machinations, and the way in which places can stand-in for other things, such as home, identity, or values. We time travel within the film from half a century past to the present day, witnessing building plans develop, all the way to the reality of now. We are placed in computer generated recreations. Inside Ayelsbury apartments of the 1980’s, we are shown on the television set news clips of the time. Through interviews, newspaper headlines, and projections of archive footage, we begin to witness the visual history of the estate and we can get a clear understanding of how the governments, and media has enabled mistreatment of the estate and the individuals living there.
In VR are no longer a spectator but a visitor, having lived the history of the building ourselves.
The film works well and doesn’t ask us to “empathise” in a voyeuristic VR manner. We are never thrown off the deep-end, put into traumatic situations or one-on-one conversations with emotionally vulnerable families. We are instead treated seriously, and they are too.
Emerson commonly works well with participants to allow poignant and meaningful moments during voice-over narration. One family’s story is told through spoken-word poetry, powerfully performed through 2D projections of the artist, making the film unreliant on flashy technology or 360 itself. Again, the music is a wonderful tool to push the audience during touching moments without using any Virtual Reality gimmicks.
The contributors have strong voices. Interactions and explorations in the computer generated spaces, captured in photogrammetry or reproduced through drawings, avoid being cheesy. The scenes and controls were interactive enough, without being overwhelmingly obscure for new VR-goers. I believe Emerson's filmography is required reading for any student of VR.
THE OTHVRS PRACTICE
Despite being one of our favourite pieces ever, both me and Tessa have thoroughly discussed the imperfections. There are stitch lines, dodgy compositing, some shots slowed down (and therefore appear low fps), the CG is not photorealistic, and we experienced glitches. Even the real-life restriction of wearing an Oculus Rift for so long is worth complaining about in a thoughts-and-review. We believe these technology hitches however do not take away from the story’s impact, which is good news for everyone's future filmmaking.
There was a mix of mono and stereo shots, which is an interesting choice. If any footage was close to the camera it was not in-your-face or gimmicky. There were some beautiful uses of drone footage, which were mindful to not to move too fast. The music was a simple and effective immersive tool.
We will always aspire to make something as powerful and “for good” as this. The only downside is such a wide spanning project does require large amounts of funding. Perhaps something similar with less interaction and less technologies would be attainable on a shoe-string budget, too.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, or scroll to the bottom. Feel free to email me or hit me up on Twitter if you have any thoughts to share. Look out for Part 2 publishing tomorrow!