In a year that has been marked by the return to in-person events, the fall edition of the Festival of International Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories (FIVARS) is bucking the trend by continuing to offer a hybrid event.
While I was able to make my way to Toronto to catch the few projects that were showing there exclusively, the bulk of the selection has been made available for viewing in FIVARS’s WebXR theatre until November 16th, 2022. While on location, I also had the pleasure of meeting the one and only Keram Malicki-Sánchez who graciously answered some of my questions regarding the past, present, and future VR festivals.
Cover: ANTIGONE’S OF THE PANDEMIC
Immersion by any Means
FIVARS is an immersion festival, not a VR festival, and not even an XR festival.
– Keram Malicki-Sánchez, FIVARS Founder
This much is made clear by the sheer variety of experiences on offer. These include 180° and 360° videos, animated shorts, AR applications, live shows, and even a one-on-one phone-based performance. This last example is WE SHOULD MEET IN AIR, a “live, over-the-phone interactive experience [which] allows audience members the ability to speak with Sylvia Plath.” While much the XR space has been obsessed with the most advanced gadgets, this experience showcases how immersivity is a state of mind that can be achieved even with relatively simple technologies. What counts here is the technological immediacy that allows a user to immerse themselves in a time and place different than their own.
After years of seeking the best and most innovative immersive productions, FIVARS has shown me that 360°—and even 180°—video still has a lot to offer. For instance, in Iona McEwan’s KINGDOM OF PLANTS WITH DAVID ATTENBOROUGH, a series of 180° 3D stereoscopic macro timelapse transported me to a truly disorientating world; that of plants. Although I was still on earth, the incredible proximity with plants, bugs, seeds and other microscopic phenomena confronted me to an entirely different reality. Save for some of the footage that Felix & Paul has shot in space, the images from Kingdom of plants are some of the most beautiful live action images I have seen in VR.
Two more 360° pieces are worth mentioning. While ANTIGONE’S OF THE PANDEMIC opens with classical music and an opera singer, the film uses the myth of Antigone to recount how burial rituals were performed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some technical issues did arise in my viewing which showed some of the most egregious limits of 360° video, the story proved quite moving. TEARLESS is another 360° video which exceeded my expectations thanks to its minimalist yet haunting narrative. The film takes place in “a medical prison established by the South Korean government and staffed by the US military in the 1970s to isolate and treat US military comfort women with STDs” (source). Images of empty rooms in the abandoned prison come to life through the use of sound effects which evoke the events that unfolded when the facility was still active. With TEARLESS, director Gina Kim shows how sometimes less is more, highlighting again just how one’s imagination can contribute to creating a more immersive experience than fancy visuals alone might be able to accomplish.
Finally, by far my favourite experience out of all those I was able to see during FIVARS was REIMAGINED VOLUME 1: NYSSA. This gorgeous animation reimagines the Grimm fairy tale of “The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” While many projects on the festival circuit have used Quill for their animation (namely LUSTRATION, which is also in the FIVARS selection), there is a certain je ne sais quoi in the way director Julie Cavaliere used the affordances of animation and VR to tell her story. I was truly awestruck at the visuals. As the title suggests, this is only the first episode in a larger anthology which should see future episodes come out on Quest headsets in the near future.
The Future of Immersive Festivals?
As Keram Malicki-Sánchez was finishing to set up the festival for opening day on October 28th, 2022, he told me about the work that had gone into organizing such an event. For one, we discussed the rationale for organizing a hybrid event at a time where most festivals are abandoning their virtual offerings. The festival offers a web XR platform based on Janus XR, an open-source solution for immersive web content. This means anyone can access the selection regardless of the device they have, even if they don’t have access to VR headsets. All those who register for FIVARS are also encouraged to join the event’s discord server, which not only serves as a networking hub, but also as a resource centre for all things relating to the event. This goes a long way towards making a virtual event less daunting, even to the less tech-savvy in attendance.
What’s more interesting still is the work that went into making all the projects accessible through this web portal. Keram Malicki-Sánchez explains that a lot of work went into developing transcoding pipelines, in order to make all works available in as many formats as possible to accommodate all users. What I see in this procedure, however, is also the groundwork that would be necessary for developing a VOD platform which could alleviate many of the woes XR productions currently face when it comes to distribution.
During the panel “Independent Distribution and Creative XR” which XRMust organized on October 26th, 2022, I suggested that in addition to showing premieres, festivals could also offer a way of accessing projects that haven’t received the widespread distribution they might deserve since launching a year or two ago. Think of it as building an archive and preserving the early history of this budding medium. When I asked Malicki-Sánchez what his thoughts were on that issue, he mentioned his platform was all but ready for such an occasion. The only thing standing in the way is that deals would have to be renegotiated with rights holders to secure distribution.
Part of the problem, he tells me, is that many creators have since moved on to other industries. I cannot help but think that another issue will be the reluctance of some in the industry to let go of the film festival format and its cherished exclusivity. This would be a deterrent to innovations in distribution, in my opinion. On the contrary, I see FIVARS as a shining example of what a festival should be doing to ensure that XR can become more accessible, now, and for generations to come.