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The VR Experiment at SXSW Looks Like the Future of Film Festivals

Virtual reality at SXSW provided an opportunity for the real film festival experience thanks to VRChat and a muscle-bound Winnie the Pooh.

SXSW’s virtual space, built in VRchat for the 2021 edition

Get a headset: That’s what I’ve been telling people for the last year. As film festival screenings and parties devolved into online screenings and Zoom chats, more ambitious opportunities are available for those willing to strap on the gear. And thanks to VR presentations like the ones provided by SXSW 2021, opportunities to access a wider world through VR technologies will stick around when the pandemic recedes.

I began experimenting with VR last summer and since then, I’ve grown fond of roaming online environments in avatar form, seeking the rush of networking and industry buzz that physical festivals provide. At Sundance, that opportunity came in the form of a bespoke platform created by Active Theory; at SXSW, it was French studio VROOm, which built several worlds on social platform VRChat.

Like all of VRchat, the entire space was accessible via PC, but in the third person; headsets provided a more immersive first-person option. That barrier for entry may seem high for some traditional moviegoers and other SXSW regulars (headsets run $300 and up), but more festivals would be wise to embrace the potential and let audiences figure it out. Estimates place the number of VR users in the U.S. at more than 52 million in 2020, with 11 million headsets owned by the end of 2021.

The SXSW virtual environment provided a nifty backdrop, but it would have been an empty technological exercise without the curated program assembled by SXSW’s XR programmer Blake Kammerdiener. The result was an impressive set of venues based on Austin landmarks where festival accreditation allowed you to connect and experience much of the SXSW program in digital form. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave audiences ample opportunity to peruse a substantial lineup of XR works and hang out with others from around the world, including many who might never have made the trip to SXSW in the first place.

By logging into SXSW Online through the browser, attendees would spawn in the middle of a psychedelic variation of Austin’s South Congress Ave. The setting was surreal in its specificity: The Capitol building dominated a neon sky, while a striking replica of the 1,200-seat Paramount Theatre, designed to scale and built from blueprints, included live streams of music and conversations.

Across the street at The Contemporary, portals on the second floor offered several of the 20 projects in the Virtual Cinema program; panels and mixers took place on the rooftop. Back on the street, a portal to the Red River Cultural District took visitors to more expansive locales. These included the VR version of the famed Empire Control Room & Garage, the location of several packed parties. (In the digital version of waiting in line due to capacity, audio lags were an issue) Empire’s gorgeous design included an outdoor art installation and an on-demand, motion-captured performance of British jazz musician Theon Cross. Inside, visitors could grab virtual beers and hover around old arcade games.

SXSW has not released attendance figures for its virtual spaces, but at peak hours I saw plenty of avatars wandering around. Almost every time I paused for a conversation, other accredited SXSW attendees joined us to swap buzz — just like real life. Since users had to create avatars, a giant reptile might have a serious conversation about emerging media with a muscular Winnie the Pooh outside the Paramount. But hey, keep Austin weird, right?

I still lack the high-end tethered headset and PC setup required by the more advanced VR projects, which benefit from physical festivals where anyone can wait in line to try the projects with the gear available. Instead, I engaged with a number of Quest-compatible offerings, including some tremendous 360 videos.

These include “Odyssey 1.4.9,” a dazzling meditation on “2001: A Space Odyssey” that doubles as a form of visceral fan art. As Strauss’ famed “Sunrise” theme crescendos, viewers glide through some 200,000 images from Stanley Kubrick’s movie alongside remarkable 3D imagery that create the impression of hovering within the movie’s awe-inspiring themes. It almost seems as though the work has been built within the confines of poor HAL 9000’s mind as it deteriorates one fragment at a time.

Another 360 highlight was “4 Feet High,” which premiered at Sundance 2021. The episodic story from Argentine directors Maria Belen Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan revolves around 17-year-old wheelchair-bound Juana, who learns to explore her sexuality at the encouragement of her friends. The bittersweet drama has been designed to generate empathy for Juana’s experience, but it also shows how VR storytelling can root audiences in a precise moment. You might linger on details from Juana’s life or the scenes unfolding around her, but that subjectivity creates a deeper connection to her emotional journey.

SXSW premiered two strong documentaries, which is still the format for the strongest 360 video work. In “Reeducated,” director Sam Wolson adapts recent reporting from The New Yorker into a haunting, lyrical representation of the experiences of Muslim immigrants subjected to constant torture and psychological abuse in extrajudicial prisons known as Chinese “reeducation” centers.

“Reeducated”

The 20-minute project is built around black-and-white animation (some based on sketches from the prisons, others from satellite imagery) with voiceover from the survivors who talk through their terrible ordeal and share the poignant methods that helped them maintain the will to live. “Reeducated” seems like an obvious frontrunner for the Emmy in Outstanding Interactive Program; the medium injects immediacy into stories of persecution that might otherwise seem tragic but remote.

My personal favorite of the projects took me to space. “ISS Space Explorers: Advance” marks the second chapter of a four-part series from Felix & Paul Studios, which assembled VR footage shot in the International Space Station to create the  experience of floating alongside astronauts as they orbit the Earth. Following the “Space Explorers” chapter that premiered last year, “Advance” captures several astronauts as they juggle experiments with more playful activities, from haircut hangouts to group mealtimes. The cameras drift so close to their subjects that it often feels as though they’re part of the cosmic gang.

This installment emphasizes the experiences of female astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain, who talk through their work alongside archival footage that recaps women’s historical efforts to join the space program. Each 360 shot is dense with details of the ISS’s crammed corridors, but the scenes flow with precision and the setting never becomes overwhelming at any single moment. Peering out the window through these cameras may be the closest most of us come to experiencing the overview effect.

The only interactive offering that worked with my hardware was Double Eye Studios’ “Finding Pandora X,” which premiered last fall at Venice. The experience unfolds against the vivid backdrop of Mount Olympus (also the setting for IndieWire’s Sundance VR party) as actors playing Zeus (Jonathan David Martin) and Hera (Palema Windslow Kashani) guide participants through an hour-long quest to recover the late Pandora’s box of hope. Blending giddy improv comedy with shocking magical effects, it leads some players all the way to the underworld in a quest to save the gods from extinction. The experience is an unpredictable blast.

“Finding Pandora X”

Originally produced for Off-Broadway before the pandemic intervened, it’s easy to see how the original vision for “Finding Pandora X” might have been more involving throughout. Still, creator Kiira Benzing crafted a beguiling blend of mythical storytelling and whimsy that invites the audience to become a piece of its colorful world. Participants can hang out afterward at a virtual bar, where I discovered attendees from Italy and Jordan — further proof of the potential for VR programming to engage global audiences.

Some of the chatter revolved around the idea that virtual spaces like these don’t have to go dormant at the end of the festival. The VR version of Black Rock City, which provided a virtual alternative to Burning Man last summer (and won a PGA prize for innovation), remains active today. If SXSW can get the blessings of the various venues it resurrected in VR, the festival would do well to maintain its presence and expand its brand into an arena eager to embrace its programming.

At SXSW’s closing party, the VR crowd erupted in pandemonium. While Charli XCX’s music streamed into the venue, avatars swapped stories and highlights from the previous days. Glitches were constant; participants were supposed to get bumped to new “instances” of the event when it reached capacity, but the party seemed to surpass that threshold many times over. Some people repeatedly tried to get in before giving up in frustration; others laughed off the mayhem and tried to make it work. It was loud, chaotic, sensory overload, just like the real thing. Not even a pandemic can stop the lifeforce of a SXSW party.

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