Virtual reality is far from what anyone would call an established medium, but at events like this week’s Tribeca Film Festival, it’s a mainstay. Since awarding early VR journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña a grant in 2013, the Tribeca Film Institute has developed a full-fledged interactive art section known as Tribeca Immersive, where all but one of this year’s 30 experiences involve virtual reality.
At last year’s festival, I grouped the best work into “cinematic” and “interactive” categories — cinematic usually meaning 360-degree video or animation, and interactive meaning anything that offers some control to participants. But these catch-alls no longer seem relevant. Many creators are now working within specific genres, like live-action documentaries and experiential installations, and a lot of experiences excel in one area, but don’t lend themselves to traditional ranking.
So what should VR festival awards look like in 2017? I loosely adapted some new categories from the Proto Awards — VR’s (much, much smaller) version of the Oscars. This system may not last long either, but it’s the best way I’ve found to capture the show’s varied experiences.
Best documentary work
Winner: The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes
The Protectors, co-created by director Imraan Ismail of VR studio Here be Dragons and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, boasts a combination of interesting subject matter and cinematic flair. It’s an up-close look at the work of park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who risk their lives to protect endangered elephants from poachers. The piece is structured more like a PSA than a piece of art, with an ending that could be smoother and more fulfilling. But up to that point, you can enjoy its compelling story and excellent cinematography, by turns sweeping and intimate.
Honorable mention: The Last Goodbye
VR filmmakers Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz made The Last Goodbye to preserve the story of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who was held in the Majdanek Concentration Camp in German-occupied Poland. Also produced by Here be Dragons, the piece blends photography with three-dimensional rendering to re-create parts of the camp’s remains as Gutter visits them for the last time. The Last Goodbye would benefit from sticking to this kind of spatial design, instead of making a jarring shift to 360-degree video in some places. Even so, its oppressive and claustrophobic environments are an effective complement to Gutter’s somber testimony.
Best narrative design (tie)
Set in the near future, creator Steven Schardt’s short film Auto is like a shorter and less smug episode of Black Mirror. Its protagonist Musay is a longtime cab driver who can’t adapt to a new world of self-driving cars, where his job is reduced to that of emergency “safety driver.” Auto’s simple, naturalistic cinematography is sometimes drab, but it’s still a good fit for the slice-of-life narrative. A virtual reality headset lets viewers follow entire scenes without camera cuts, but the filmmakers never overload your field of view with lots of characters or set pieces.
Continuing the theme of near-future tragedy, Alteration is the story of a man who volunteers for an experiment in recording dreams and memories. When he begins, he finds himself haunted by a fledgling artificial intelligence named Elsa, who is seeking to learn about the world through human memories. Soon, though, her observations of him descend into a kind of emotional vampirism. Creator Jérôme Blanquet isn’t making a cautionary tale so much as a fever dream, exploring what it might look like if present-day AIs’ mass data mining got very, very personal.
Honorable mention: Extravaganza
In the often idealistic world of virtual reality, Ethan Shaftel’s Extravaganza has a uniquely pointed viciousness. The short film is set inside a headset strapped to a corporate executive’s face, as he runs through scenes of cruel humor, crude sexual titillation, and colonialist fantasies in what he’s been told is an “empathy machine.” The satire could be sharper, and the ending doesn’t quite match the tone of the piece. But as people debate whether virtual reality will be co-opted into the media status quo, and whether empathy is just a form of voyeurism, Extravaganza is a sloppy yet brutal bit of commentary.
Best live-action filmmaking
Winner: The Other Dakar
There are all sorts of hurdles to making virtual reality film beautiful, from the difficulty of stitching together camera feeds to VR headsets’ low resolution. But The Other Dakar creator Selly Raby Kane shows how much you can do with set and costume design. It’s a gorgeous short about a young girl moving through a magical realist version of Senegal’s capital Dakar, replete with characters in vivid and creative couture. While it’s hardly plot-heavy, the enigmatic narrative provides a forward momentum that purely abstract work sometimes lacks.
Honorable mention: Broken Night
Broken Night writer Alex Vlack and digital studio Eko are far from the first VR creators to experiment with branching narratives, but they execute the concept very well. As the film’s protagonist recounts her memories of a burglary and shooting, viewers see the ghosts of different choices she might have made; when they look at one image for a few seconds, it becomes the official narrative. The system is stylish and fluid, adding a game-like element without sacrificing the cinematic feel of the piece. The story itself isn’t hugely compelling, but it builds a foundation I’d love to see in future works.
Winner: Arden’s Wake
Arden’s Wake is one of my favorite pieces at this year’s festival; I’ve already written about it here. Its diorama-like visual style is a central part of the narrative structure, creating scenes that aren’t technically interactive, but encourage active participation. VR studio Penrose is also telling its most ambitious story so far: its Tribeca entry is supposed to be the prologue of a larger tale set in an underwater far future.
Honorable mention: Apex
As virtual reality films are expanding in length and narrative complexity, Apex keeps things short and intensely experiential. It’s a partnership between studio Wevr and musician Arjan van Meerten, pairing a thudding musical composition by van Meerten with apocalyptic scenes that suggest both destruction and rebirth. I try to stay away from the term “immersion,” but at its best, Apex makes you feel like you’re being subsumed into some fiery new world.
Best interactive design
Winner: Talking with Ghosts
Talking with Ghosts is a collection of four virtual reality comics created with Oculus Story Studio’s art tool Quill. Most existing “VR comics” feel like either animated shorts or flat panels ported to a headset, but these are genuine sequential illustrations created for three-dimensional space, proceeding at the viewer’s own pace — which, despite being a minor form of interactivity, changes the whole experience. The strongest section, Ric Carrasquillo’s The Reservoir, crafts a story about anxiety and failure through an all-encompassing miniature golf course that unfolds with every click of a remote. But each artist plays with the medium in their own way: there’s Maria Yi’s mythological fantasy Tattoo Warrior, Roman Muradov’s minimalist ghost story The Neighborhood, and Sophia Foster-Dimino’s quietly melancholy teenage drama Fairgrounds.
Honorable mention: Bebylon: Battle Royale
In Kite & Lightning’s futuristic Bebylon: Battle Royale, a separatist kingdom of immortal babies spend their time engaging in ritual combat based on taunting and humiliating opponents for hordes of social media followers. Mechanically, this plays out as a Super Smash Bros-esque fighting game played with Oculus Touch controllers. You command your baby with motion, buttons, triggers, and the Touch’s capacitive sensors, which — among other things — allow for obscene hand gestures. I haven’t played enough to speak to its merits as a game, but there’s nothing else at Tribeca with the same vulgar, high-concept silliness.
Winner: Talking with Ghosts (redux)
I’ve tried to keep duplicates off this list, but Talking with Ghosts deserves a place here as well. It doesn’t involve any technological breakthroughs, but its physical graphic novel format isn’t like anything I’ve seen before — even Dear Angelica, the first project made in Quill. Virtual reality comics are a medium I could actually imagine artists adapting to easily, without becoming full-fledged 3D modelers or animators. Of course, we’ll need a better name than “VR comics” if that happens, so feel free to drop your suggestions in the comments.
Honorable mention: Hallelujah
In VR director Zach Richter’s take on Leonard Cohen’s classic, vocalists surround you, singing in complex harmony. The piece is shot with Lytro’s Immerge light field camera, which records different focal lengths to create three-dimensional space out of a video feed. You can’t exactly walk around, but the world no longer snaps out of place every time you shift position. It’s a little advance that makes it far easier for me to stay in the moment while watching VR video. And that makes Hallelujah well worth experiencing, even if you’re not wild about yet another rendition of the sad montage song.
The Tribeca Blackout booth (which, ironically, is pure white) is one of the most striking-looking things in the venue: a gleaming, empty recreation of a New York City subway car section, complete with poles and seats. From the outside it looks sterile, but inside a headset, VR studio Scatter has created a dimly lit car where you can listen in on other passengers’ internal monologues, experiencing a different cast of characters each time.
Honorable mention: Treehugger: Wawona
Treehugger: Wawona, a project by design studio Marshmallow Laser Feast, is as intense as the four-person forest simulator the studio brought to Sundance in 2016. The experience is built around a foam pillar pitted with hollow spaces, which participants explore from inside a VR headset, while wearing a scent mask and rumbling backpack. As you move your hands (equipped with HTC Vive trackers), you can change glowing currents around a massive virtual tree, rising higher and higher into the sky as it grows.