Thursday, January 26, 2023

Taiwan VR Creators Ride Big Wave Into Venice Festival

With seven titles selected for Venice VR Expanded at this year’s film festival, Taiwan has once again demonstrated its potential as a global leader in virtual reality content production. But this time, the tech hub in Asia has more to offer: it aims higher than just flaunting its technological advancement and the quality of locally produced works. It wants to elevate itself as an international player that collaborates with creative forces from around the world.

Of the seven titles, five featured in competition and two in out-of-competition, four are co-productions with talent from other countries. Among the five titles in competition that are backed by Taiwan Creative Content Agency, three are international co-productions. The entries for this year’s VR Expanded has set a record for the independent agency promoting the island’s creative and content industries established under the Executive Yuan and the Ministry of Culture.

“Taicca’s efforts in encouraging international co-funding and co-production, promoting international exchanges of talents, and supporting content development with technology is now bearing fruit after two years,” says Taicca chair Ting Hsiao-Ching.

Taiwan had impressed the world back in 2019 when it exported seven VR titles to the Venice Film Festival. The majority of them, however, were local productions. The agency subsequently in 2020 launched the first edition of the Immersive Content Grant targeting international joint ventures or co-productions between companies from Taiwan and abroad.

“We will continue to cultivate global talents, consolidate resources worldwide to incubate more content, and promote Taiwan’s excellent creativity to the world to further push the boundaries of XR content and raise the global profile of Taiwan,” Ting says.

Tech giant HTC, a global leader in developing hardware such as VR headsets and software as well as a key driver in Taiwan’s original VR content under its HTC Vive Originals shingle, sees the need to strengthen Taiwan’s global network in order to further enhance the island’s VR industry.

“Our hope is to build bridges with global resources,” says Liu Szu-Ming, president of HTC Vive Originals and producer of Venice VR Expanded competition contender “The Sick Rose,” a stop-motion animated short that unites the state-of-art 8K S3D macro photography with the traditional craftsmanship of dough figurines. Directors Huang Yun-Sian, a descendant of a dough figurine artist family, and Tang Chi-Chung, compared the experience of spending days in the studio to shoot in VR with being in a dream.

“Whether it is co-production or collaboration in investment or distribution, we hope to build a global distribution network for our VR content,” Liu told Variety.

This year, HTC Vive Originals partnered with Astrea, a distributor specializing in immersive entertainment with offices in Paris and London, to expand its global reach, particularly in Europe and North America. HTC itself handles Asia territory.

“Through [international] collaboration in production, distribution or investment, we can boost the number of and scale up VR productions. We hope this will help commercialize VR content in the long run,” Liu says.

International creators who have collaborated with Taiwan and earned their tickets to Venice Film Festival have raved that the island is an appealing partner and not just because they have received a grant from Taicca. Antoine Cardon, producer of “Bedlam,” which brings audiences an immersive experience in a 17th century mental hospital, praised the technological expertise offered in Taiwan.

Jörg Tittel, the U.K.-based director of “The Last Worker,” one of the Taicca-backed VR titles and the only game title competing in Venice this year, says Taiwan is not only a tech hub but also a talent hub.

“The development of ‘The Last Worker’ is led from here in the U.K., but it wouldn’t have been possible without Taiwan,” says Tittel, also a director of production company Oiffy. “The Last Worker,” co-funded by Oculus and Wired Productions, features participation from Taiwan’s Pumpkin Studio.

“Taiwan has been a leading light in the immersive space from day one — HTC Vive being a good example. But what’s more important to me as a director is talent, and Taiwan is full of bright artists, programmers and creative thinkers with a uniquely open outlook on the world,” Tittel told Variety.

“Taiwan is a shining example of what international collaboration and diversity is all about … I believe that great work promotes itself and Taiwan happens to be associated with a whole wave of incredible VR projects across a wide spectrum of genres.”

“Speak to Awaken Ep. 2 Kusunda,” a documentary VR experience revolving around the disappearance of endangered indigenous language co-directed by Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran, is a project that was made possible by international collaboration. It involves not only participation from Kaohsiung VR Film Lab from Taiwan and the Berlin-based NowHere Media, but also from Nepal, Sweden and Switzerland. The work is featured in the Best of VR Experience, out of competition.

Co-productions are challenging but rewarding at the same time, says director Parameswaran, as they allow the teams to explore knowledge and cultural identity represented by languages without boundaries or barriers. And such global collaboration on the universal issue of the disappearance of languages is made thanks to technology, says Lai Kuan-Yuan, a co-producer of “Kusunda.”

New media artist and director Huang Hsin-Chien has two titles appearing in this year’s VR Expanded, “Samsara Ep.1” and “The Starry Sand Beach,” a co-production with the Paris-based Lucid Realities Studio that he co-directs with Nina Barbier. Both titles are backed by the Taicca grant. He said the beauty of VR lies in its interactive nature.

“VR is storyliving rather than storytelling,” Huang told Variety. “I hope audiences can experience the story I want to tell with their bodies. Programming, interactive design and narratives are closely knitted together in order to achieve this.”

In “Samsara,” audiences are invited to experience the lives of different beings and characters thanks to technology. “This is why I want to create with VR. I’m not just telling a story. I want audiences to live in a story,” he says.

To take Taiwan’s VR content development further, cultivating private funding sources will be key, but Huang remains hopeful. HTC’s VivePort has been one of the major outlets for VR content in Taiwan, the artist notes, adding that there has been a growing number of location-based venues, such as ViveLand at Syntrend in Taipei, introducing VR to a wider audience. These venues may not be able to operate as usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he believed that the momentum will pick up again once the pandemic is over.

“With more VR content products available in the market, there should be more investors willing to invest in VR content. If Taiwan’s industry awards such as the Golden Bell Awards and the Golden Horse Awards could also include VR as an award category, it would be a big encouragement to VR creators.”





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