SIFF's VR Zone, set up for the duration of the festival at Pacific Place, shows the growth and advancement in virtual-reality storytelling.
In the winter of 1896, one of the first silent films, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” had French audiences astounded as it appeared a moving train might actually hit them. More than 120 years later, the virtual-reality projects on display at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) VR Zone promise a similar sense-deceiving advancement forward in storytelling.
Shoppers at Pacific Place mall in downtown Seattle have been already peering through shrouded windows and tapping on the door of the former BCBG clothing store, where SIFF’s VR Zone is located, eager to get a look at a form of entertainment just starting to realize its potential.
“The biggest problem from my perspective in this space, and I’ve been in it for four years now, is we haven’t had a lot of mature content,” said WonderTek Labs CEO Kim Voynar, who produced the VR Zone for SIFF. “It’s been a lot of experimental, demo-y stuff, really up until the last year or so when we started getting pieces that are more complete. It’s very similar to the beginning of the internet in the ’90s, which I was also around for, watching the emerging tech bubble grow.”
The VR Zone, which opens Friday, May 18, is proof of that growth. Last year, virtual reality was just a small part of a larger festival-lounge area, but this year there are 36 pieces curated from film festivals around the country, including Sundance and Tribeca, set up in a space at Pacific Place for the duration of the festival. Tickets are $25 and allow visitors in groups of 40 about 90 minutes to explore the different stations and installations.
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It’s impossible to explore everything on offer in 90 minutes, so it’s recommended that visitors prioritize what interests them most. Whether that’s a documentary on what it takes to explore the depths of outer space, or an introspective journey into a South Korean girl’s relationship with the surreal space around her, there’s something to pique almost every interest.
Even if you’re just taking in one of a handful of music videos, be sure to look behind you, because most pieces are filmed in 360 degrees and your view will change as you move your head. The sense of immersion is certainly better than when VR debuted in its modern form a few years ago.
While the fidelity is not as sharp as what you might be used to on your television or computer monitor, look down during the space walk featured in “360 Outer Space: Space Explorers: A New Dawn” and try not to fall out of your chair. Belief — and your sense of gravity — is temporarily suspended as you take in the beauty of the Earth from an astronaut’s view.
Similarly, “360 Experimental Storytelling: Space X Girl” allows the viewer to temporarily forget the clunky headset strapped to their face. It’s like living inside a three-dimensional painting and the temptation to reach out and touch the walls is immense.
One of the most powerful experiences in the VR Zone isn’t a film but a piece of whimsical semi-interactive entertainment — “UpLift VR — Maiden Voyage” — created by Seattle residents Larry James and Julia Jackson.
Step inside a faux-wicker basket, strap on a headset and then take glorious flight in a hot-air balloon. Soaring over a pastoral village and castle with mountains in the background rendered in cute, blocky polygons, the sense of flight is very real but never overwhelming.
“Mainly I’m more interested in [VR] as a transformative medium for storytelling,” said James, explaining why his project isn’t a game like so many VR endeavors tend to be. “In my head there’s a feeling of flight you get in dreams, and in my head, in our heads, we wanted to be able to share that experience with other people. It’s like any kind of art piece. It means something to the person who created it, but it also means more to the person who is experiencing it now.”
No matter what you like, be sure to check out the seven films created by Seattle kids for the Youth 360 Showcase, especially the powerful “Isolation” by Reel Grrls participant Ariana Fiol. The showcase was produced through a partnership between WonderTek Labs and Reel Grrls and funded in part by 4Culture, a publicly funded organization that disseminates millions of dollars in grants across King County annually.
It highlights one of the appeals and perhaps little-known facts of virtual-reality filmmaking: With the right equipment, it’s actually quite easy to start creating.
“It’s important to have this content and this technology accessible to diverse youth or who don’t have this tech in their home,” Voyner said. “Not everyone has a mom or dad who works at Amazon or Microsoft. We just got them hands-on with the gear. We didn’t want mentors influencing the creative content at all. It was about enabling them to tell their stories and scaffolding them with the support to do that.”
“SIFF VR Zone,” 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon-Sun, May 18-June 10; Pacific Place, 600 Pine St., Seattle; $25 ($20 for SIFF members); 206-324-9996 or siff.net/festival/siff-vr-zone