As one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals in the world, the Venice Intl. Film Festival has been launching films that have gone on to grab top awards and discoveries of emerging filmmakers, and now, after several years as a leader in the VR space, the 78th edition is poised to do the same for this cutting-edge medium.
For more than five years, the festival has recognized VR and the creatives who work with it as a powerful force that’s pushing its way into the mainstream. While standardized ways of presenting VR projects and distributing them are still evolving, the festival is keenly focused on being part of that process.
“The way VR is promoted in Venice is very special compared to any other festival, because it was an initiative that was taken in 2016 as a pilot experiment to bring a new section of the festival,” says Michel Reilhac, curator of Venice VR. “It was started as a small VR lounge where we showed about 15 VR projects at the time, and it was a very small-scale attempt to see whether people were interested. It turned out to be an amazing success, and therefore the following year, Liz (Rosenthal) and I were officially appointed in charge of putting this together within the frame of the film festival, as a full-fledged competitive section.
“To this day, the Venice Film Festival is the only festival that treats VR on the same level and with the same respect, in a way, as feature films with a proper international jury with three international awards. All other festivals, including Sundance, have VR as sort of a sidebar and it’s not part of the main competition. So this is something we’ve been doing since 2017. In 2020, of course, we had to go fully online digitally because of COVID, and this year we’re also online with an access point, a VR lounge which, funnily enough, is in in the exact same space where we started in 2016.”
Reilhac, along with Rosenthal, who is a fellow Venice VR curator at the festival, sought out ways to make VR an event and show that it was considered an important art form.
“What Michel and I really wanted to do was make a beautiful audience experience and that’s something we found wasn’t necessarily happening at festivals we were going to,” says Rosenthal. “Often at other festivals they would have VR somewhere that was really noisy, that looks like a trade fair, with loads of people around you and everything. But what was really important for us was everything down to developing a booking system so, when people came, people didn’t have to queue. All of these things were designed and we thought about every part of the user experience.”
Alberto Barbera, the artistic director of the VIFF, also believes in VR as an emerging way for creatives to tell new stories:
“We take VR more seriously than all our colleagues. We think that the new immersive technology not only opens a lot of possibilities in terms of applications in different fields (medicine, architecture, archeology, commerce, videogames etc.), but it creates a brand-new form of expression with artistic implications. From this point of view, VR is still in a period of transition and experimentation of an original language, maybe a hybrid one. Like cinema in its first 20 years of life, when filmmakers were trying to give birth to a new form of art with its own language, partially borrowed from the other arts (theater, dance, literature, visual arts). We don’t think that VR will replace cinema: it will exist on a side, in its own, as an unprecedented form of expression, of art, of entertainment.
“Venice is probably the most innovative film festival: we try to be as up to date as possible, reflecting the most interesting transformation in the cinema field, instead of remaining linked to a conception of cinema (and the role of the festivals) that belongs to the last century.”
While VIFF has been a leader in recognizing VR, Taiwan has been a meaningful contributor to the festival and this year will have multiple VR projects participating in the competitions there. The island nation has long been a leader in VR tech and it’s now taking center stage as many creatives there experiment with storytelling through VR.
Liu Szu-Ming, the President of Vive Originals, and the producer and music supervisor of “The Sick Rose,” a VR project that also incorporates traditional Taiwanese arts, thinks the country is primed to be at the forefront of storytelling through VR in the future.
“As an island, Taiwanese people have a naturally inherent maritime culture, which is why we advocate freedom and are very open to new things,” says Liu Szu-Ming. “Besides already being a tech and knowledge-intensive island, the world VR headset provider HTC is also from Taiwan. HTC possesses the ability to integrate hardware and software and strategically operate a VR content ecosystem, leading to other tech companies following up with them and investing in the production of content applications. With the continuous advancement of science and technology, traditional content and performances are forced to transform in the face of market changes. Taiwan’s leading technological ability combined with small and medium-sized enterprise form is excellent to quickly integrate the industry and executing creativities, which is how Taiwan continues to hold its place in the world of VR.”
Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), a Taiwanese organization dedicated to artistic and technological development, is also poised to help future artists and creatives capitalize on the technology being made there. They’ve made a point of funding VR development in Taiwan and through collaborations.
“TAICCA is connecting tech experts and creators in our incentives and programs,” says CEO Izero Lee. “We encourage creative and business ideas in our grants and courses. We work with international partners to bring our professionals into global production pipelines. Our prospects focus on new business models in the near future. For example, in the VR Expanded section during the Venice Intl. Film Festival in 2020, TAICCA, HTC and the festival experimented on commercial VR theaters. We hope to reach more prospective VR users, expand VR applications, collect feedback and explore market potentials. TAICCA tries to support VR industries in all possible ways. We provide professional training courses and approach institutions in other countries for connections. We also provide financial support in pioneering projects. To connect local creators to global opportunities, TAICCA encourages international co-productions, so they can understand international needs and requirements.”
VIFF shares that mission. As head of the Venice Production Bridge at the festival, Pascal Diot looks to connect VR creators with other industry professionals who can help projects get made and get seen.
“Numerous VR directors are also producers of their own projects and so we are working closely with them as producers through the VR section of the Venice Gap Financing Market during which they meet financiers, potential co-producers, distributors,” says Diot. “Because of the pandemic we haven’t been able to use our special VR venue [the Lazzaretto Island] in 2020 and this year but we hope to be able to get it again next year and to set up a proper Venice VR market.”
Barbera and the organizers of VIFF are looking to a robust future for VR, especially as the pandemic hopefully subsides.
“We have no doubts that the improvements in VR will proceed quickly in the next few years,” says Barbera. “We know that the technology is in constant and fast development, and an increasing number of filmmakers are tempted by using it, experimenting new ways to talk to the viewers. VR has not yet reached the point of setting common standards (which is an essential prerequisite for creating a market), but this will not be long. At that moment, the acceleration will be even faster. It’s just a matter of time.”