Films may be the main attraction at the Tribeca Film Festival, but tucked into the fest’s Varick St. Hub this year was an assortment of nearly two dozen immersive experiences at Tribeca’s Virtual Arcade. Though VR experiences are on the rise—as far as cinema exhibition is concerned, Cinemark has made strides by including in-lobby VR experiences in two of its locations—the sorts of virtual reality, immersive reality, and mixed reality entertainment experiences on display at Tribeca remain mostly inaccessible to the general public outside of museums and festivals. The variety and quality of experiences on display at Tribeca this year makes one anticipate the increasing availability of this technology all the more.
A highlight at the Visual Arcade was Gymnasia, from Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, directors of the Oscar-nominated short film Madame Tutli-Putli. Gymnasia‘s status as a six-minute-long VR experience should not disqualify it as being one of the stand-out horror films at this year’s Tribeca. A VR headset places the viewer inside a dilapidated gymnasium slowly coming back to life. Lavis and Szczerbowski combine 360-degree video, CGI, and stop-motion to expertly evoke a chilling mood. One of the challenges of VR storytelling is the same as one that exists in live theater: directing the audience’s attention to a particular place without the camera movement to hold their hands. Not to get into too much detail for those lucky enough to see Gymnasia, but let your eyes naturally follow a moth that appears before you, and you’ll be rewarded with quite the scare.
Another highlight—and one, like Gymnasia, positively dripping in atmosphere—is Ayahuasca, which had its world premiere at the fest. The film, 12 minutes long, takes it name from a psychoactive drink used in some South American cultures to induce hallucinations. The film mimics those hallucinations, taking viewers through a psychedelic experienced filled with snakes, skulls, and other less disturbing—and no less mesmerizing—imagery. Ayahuasca is based on the experiences of project creator Jan Kounen, a filmmaker (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) who has made a study of shaman culture.
Switching gears entirely, the BBC and Passion Animation Studios took to Tribeca to show off Doctor Who: The Runaway, an interactive, animated spinoff of the popular sci-fi series Doctor Who. The film puts the viewer in the TARDIS with Jodie Whitaker’s 14th Doctor as she attempts to return a runaway alien to its home dimension. The problem: The alien, if it gets agitated, might explode. As the Doctor’s companion (for 13 minutes, anyway), viewers get to use the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to help save the galaxy. An accessible, enjoyable film, The Runaway or something like it has the potential for success in the exhibition market—especially given the fact that it’s based on an existing IP that’s proven popular with event cinema screenings.
Like Doctor Who: The Runaway, 2nd Civil War invites viewers into the action in a very real way. A bit like an interactive video game, 2nd Civil War gives you a role: a journalist tasked with going into Baltimore, torn apart by years of civil war and a hotbed of either terrorists or freedom fighters… depending on who you listen to. (The film, a collaboration by Moth + Flame; Conversive; Pollution Studios; Denis Sharabarin; and Jay Bushman, is set is not too-distant future.) You start, not in any sort of headset, but sitting at a desk talking to a rather imposing actor playing a military official. Your first task is to convince her to let you into the war zone. Once that’s done, a headset puts you into a voice-activated “choose your adventure”-type experience, interviewing people and trying to get an in with the lead insurgent. At times glitchy—you’re given a handful of responses that you can choose from, and sometimes you say one and it acts like you chose the other—2nd Civil War is still commendable for its creative integration of real-life and VR.
Live-action and animation blend in VR experience Future Dreaming. The film pairs monologues from four Aboriginal Australian teens explaining what they want to happen in their lives with neon, geometric depictions of those events. In terms of form, Future Dreaming is more straightforward than 2nd Civil War or Doctor Who: The Runaway—as with Gymnasia and Ayahuasca, you more or less peer all around you (occasionally getting tangled in various cords) and watch things play out. Bubbly and energetic, Future Dreaming may not feel particularly groundbreaking, but it is solidly entertaining. Also, there are robots, space adventures, and a lot of emus.
One of the more emotionally grounded offerings among this year’s Tribea Immersive slate was Water Melts, from project creators Lilian Mehrel and Mary Evangelista. A 360-degree experience that takes plac on a beach, Water Melts invites viewers to eavesdrop on a handful of couples as they laugh, bicker, and—as eventually dawns—prepare for some of them to pass away from illness. Low-key and meditative, Water Melts explores ways in which VR can enhance quieter, more emotionally-driven stories.
Finally, emotion combines with the fantastic in director/producer Celine Tricart’s The Key, which takes a real-life issue often explored in film (to identify it would be a spoiler) and presents it through the lens of science-fiction. As with Doctor Who: The Runaway, the viewer interacts with the virtual landscape, here with the goal of helping an alien protagonist unravel a mystery from her past. Another highlight of Tribeca’s immersive offerings, The Key exemplifies the ways through which immersive storytelling can convey truths to its audience in a way that is at once entertaining and emotionally profound.