AUSTIN, Texas—You may love, hate, or shrug at the idea of virtual reality, but one niche is still unequivocally devoted to the format: film festivals. The reasons aren’t all great.

Because VR usually requires one-at-a-time kiosks, it invites long lines (which film festivals love for photo-op reasons). These films also favor brief, 10-15 minute presentations, which are the bread-and-butter of the indie filmmaking world. And the concept reeks of exclusivity—of the sense that, if you wanna see experimental VR fare, you need to get to Sundance, Cannes, or SXSW to strap in and trip out.

But—seriously, hear me out—VR filmmaking at its best replicates the experience of live theater in a really accessible way. (I’ve been saying this for years.) You can’t watch something like Hamilton on DVD and expect the same impact. And when a VR “film” is done right, with smart technical decisions at play, it really meets (or, sometimes, exceeds) Broadway’s best without requiring a flight to New York or a ticket lottery.

This brings me to my favorite thing about this year’s South by Southwest VR Cinema Competition: its best stuff nuked the whole “inaccessible” thing.

Sure, a couple of this year’s features benefited from a “nicer” computer or headset. But filmmakers en masse are finally tuning in to a very cool reality about VR’s immersive power: an artful eye and smart production is almost always more effective than an expensive, unwieldy rig to answer the question, “Why watch this in VR instead of a flat screen?”

Ars’ Grand VR Prize, SXSW 2019: Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega

This year’s best VR filmmakers have been delivering something surprising: 360-degree video.

I’ve been a frequent hater of this format because of how it wraps a flat-screen image around your head like a dome. Seeing this usually prompts me to ask, “Why can’t I watch this on a flat screen instead?” The stretched images often force viewers to crane and turn their head, usually just to emphasize VR’s gimmick of, “yowzers, there’s something behind you!”

Enlarge / A still taken from the 360-degree film Metro Veinte.

Metro Veinte: Cita Ciega, an Argentinian film about a disabled woman’s blind date, is the best 360-degree film I’ve ever seen, in part because its wrap-around images get VR’s principles right. Crucially, its scenes limit their interesting content to a 140-degree focal range, thus requiring only a bit of peripheral glancing. The scenes organically show viewers that turning around won’t pay off. Peek behind you, and you’ll see the windowless corner of a bus seat, a blurry-focused field in a park, or the same bedroom background that has appeared a few times already.

Instead of being a distraction, this background content feels like an anchor. That’s crucial, because each sequence takes long enough to establish a comfortable, intimate look at a wheelchair-bound life. Metro Veinte‘s opening sequence sets this tone in emphatic fashion by placing a camera mere feet from a bathtub, where we meet lead character Juana. She’s having a silent soak while watching porn on her smartphone. (It’s not until later that we find out about her wheelchair.)

This opening scene establishes a rare moment of comfort and quiet contentment, only to be interrupted by her meddling mother. The rest of the film doubles-down on her push-pull relationship with help and kindness, all emphasized with “feet from the camera” sequences where she either resists or dejectedly accepts someone else’s attention.

Thankfully, this isn’t a painfully slow film. Metro Veinte wisely punctuates its slow-moving scenes by having Juana send texts and audio messages to a good friend. (This is shown in Sherlock-like fashion in the VR field of view.) In one great example, Juana goes back and forth with her friend about a possible date, letting us get some sense of story and character while hanging out in a bus for a minute. Soon after, an elderly passenger says hello to Juana in pitying fashion—and there’s a sense that we’re meant to empathize with the feeling of sitting on a bus with someone in a wheelchair, maybe feeling awkward or wanting to say something.

But Juana could do without the “polite” banter. “Where are you going?” the older woman asks. “Oh, I’m going to fuck a guy,” Juana responds. End of conversation. But not end of the moment.

I absolutely bought into this visceral experience, having shared that bus with Juana for so long. It’s the same way I bought into having a front-row seat on her blind date, or examining all of the anti-establishment stickers on her wheelchair, or having her family members’ faces so close to the camera when they reacted to Juana’s sexuality.

In Metro Veinte, intimacy and struggle hover comfortably in a VR headset’s lenses, though the film admittedly has two “ugh, I have to stretch my head to see something” moments. And these might be my favorites in the film, because in these, I caught myself saying, “gosh, this is inconveni—” then stopping myself. It’s a rare case of a good 360-degree gimmick, and Metro Veinte‘s best storytelling beats earn the right to play that card.

Best of the rest: Reggie Watts, spooky-cute zombies, World War 1, and spiteful lovers

Gloomy Eyes: Colin Ferrell lends his voice as a narrator to this all-too-brief, all-too-incredible demonstration of VR theater done right.

Gloomy Eyes (Oculus Rift, SteamVR) introduces a universe where dangerous zombies roam freely and natural light has not shone in years. Via narration and short, cute scenes, the film introduces a few characters: Nina, a sad girl who keeps losing her puppy but also has mysterious access to a magical light source; her uncle, a grumpy overseer who seeks to establish order in the dark world and wipe out its zombies; and Gloomy, a young zombie boy who seethes with equal parts good and evil.

His duality hints at a potentially interesting conflict and story. But right when the video’s narrative roots are set, they’re immediately yanked out with a “to be continued” alert.

I look forward to the series’ final two episodes, which the filmmakers say will each run 10 minutes and launch on commercial platforms (Oculus Rift, SteamVR) “this Halloween.” In the meantime, every moment in the eight-minute short plays with shadow and light in incredible fashion. Its use of spotlights does well to direct your VR eyes to only one concentrated point at a time, not a bunch of background or behind-the-back scenery.

This focused attention does something dramatic in the short: it gives viewers mental permission to lean into each diorama, rendered in real time, to take in the tiny details of its immaculately animated characters and the depth and scope of each miniature stage. A flash of light or a wildly animated shadow will direct your eyes to follow characters to the next set piece, where, again, you can linger for long enough to soak up its details without craning your neck to look every which way.

The result is a number of moments I still clearly remember after stepping away from the demo, including a showdown between the overseer and his minion in front of a cathedral, bathed in red light; a spooky drive-in movie that sees the boy character unleash his demonic potential; and an in-your-face moment where the boy and girl finally share a moment of kindness, as he builds a bridge so that she and her cute pup can pass. The results reminded me of the VR dollhouse effect I got from playing the video game Moss, only this time with a focused story that let viewers get sucked into a “spooky-cute” universe without having to hold a game controller.

I watched this short more than any other at SXSW, because I found myself captivated by its unique world. The catch: because this film supports leaning in and admiring its smaller details, it requires a more powerful VR rig than Oculus Go or Google Cardboard. Even so, the limited details and focused lighting help this experience scale to weaker computers, so it still falls under the “accessible VR” umbrella that I mentioned earlier.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech



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