Top Image: Senza Peso, by Kite + Lightning
TIFF Digital Studio’s three-part summer series on Virtual Realty has come to a close. While POP 01 focused on art and music and POP 02 dealt with empathy and storytelling, POP 03 ended with experimental film, and I’m happy to report that POP 03 was an unmitigated success.
The highlight was Lost, done by the Oculus Story Studio with some animation superstars from Pixar. In Lost, you follow a gigantic robot hand wandering through a jungle, though the hand has more in common with a lost puppy than a metal autoton. It’s a short but sweet little film that really flexes the animation muscles Pixar is known for, and feels like one of the shorts you’d watch before a Pixar movie at the theatre.
Unfortunately, every good use of VR seems to be balanced with a lazy one. Vice’s Cut-off was the latter. The film looks at important subject matter, examining Shoal Lake and its multi-decade lack of clean water. The Ojibway reserve has been in the news recently because of a rash of youth suicides, and Vice had the inside track when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the reserve in April. The problem is that while the event had plenty of pomp, it didn’t create much real change, and there’s nothing even remotely interesting about the VR version of the experience. Beyond the poor shot selection and production value, Vice blurred out large areas of the field of vision to force your attention to what it wants you to see. I wasn’t sure why the film needed to be in VR, and the whole thing left me wanting something more substantive.
Food Fight, on the other hand, is some of the most fun I had playing a VR game, and it has the makings of something that could be played for extended periods of time. In VR, that’s something of an achievement. Food Fight is created by Pinnguac, a production company that does film, virtual reality, gaming, education, and application development (Pinnguac means play in Inuktitut). The game is a First Person shooter that has you picking up and shooting food at enemy chefs. They try to block your tomatoes with cutting boards, but you can try to get around their cover by throwing a watermelon that acts like a grenade. It all plays at an absurdly fast speed reminiscent of Quake. I had to stop at one point because I felt a bit motion sick, but it’s a fun romp and I hope more gets added to it in the future.
Oscar Raby’s The Turning Forest, an adventure through a forest that isn’t quite what it appears to be, offered another great use of the first person perspective in VR. In The Turning Forest, you befriend and roam around with a strange creature that feels like something out of the mind of Studio Ghibli. The exhibit tracks where you’re looking to activate musical cues, and it made me feel that I could actually make real music with my eyes. It was a wonderful experience that knows how to utilize VR to its fullest extent.
The final two exhibits I saw were in the same genre but could not be more thematically different. Sonar and Sankhara are both about the majesty of space, though the two experiences couldn’t be more different. Sonar, by Philipp Maas and Dominik Stockhausen, has you exploring an asteroid with a mysterious transmission, and it goes from creepy to scary very fast. I was half-squinting the whole time, thanks in part to the excellent use of the first person to generate scares. I won’t give away any specific details but it’s worth a watch.
Tendril Studios’ Sankhara, meanwhile, is about a space traveler seeing some of the most beautiful things in the universe, then returning to his life with his family. Inspired by T.S Eliot’s “Four Quarters,” Sankhara is a visual delight that reminds us that sometimes things can be enjoyed without being fully understood.