How An Indie Festival Is Fostering A New Kind of International Cinema In The Pandemic

The festival has created a powerful online venue for social, immersive media.

Full disclosure: the FIVARS festival is organized by the author.

In a time when attention deficit runs high and news and marketing bombard us from all sides, immersive stories have a singular ability to envelop the viewer and transmit context and culture that is so often missed. I firmly believe in nurturing the evolution of this medium, which has an enormous transformative power and untapped potential.

It is truly remarkable, the strides that panorama photography, and then video have made in less than a decade. Just a few years ago, stitching together a spherical photo was for enthusiasts only. Today, the iPhones and iPads have realtime “lidar” scanners built in that let you capture depth, and clone objects as 3D models and much more.

But the road for this incredible emerging medium has not been all unicorns and Saturday morning breakfast cereal…

By 2019, everyone left 360 movies for dead. Samsung made a go of it as a way to sell phones but eventually had to shutter its immersive content service; the market was just too small and the tech too nascent for even remotely enough return-on-investment to justify keeping the content side of the platform going (let alone the hardware side). Early bird Jaunt, originally buoyed by a 50 million dollar injection from Disney, never found a consistent business model for their black-box proprietary system. GoPro cameras invested heavily in the market, but eventually even their editing/finished tool Kolor was shelved. Media aggregator Plex had a great player for home streaming on VR headsets — and I was loving watching 3D movies in it — but they too, ultimately, abandoned further development. Then Facebook announced the end of the affordable and polarizing Oculus Go — a once-lauded, affordable, compact way to watch 360 content, and play some simple 3DoF (3-degrees of freedom) VR titles. The best part about the Go was that it ended the need to click a phone into a Gear VR, or clumsy Google Cardboard. I personally loved them for watching Netflix, or 3D content — blockbuster movies etc. For VR enthusiasts, though, it was generally perceived as a misleading anathema to the cause.

Alas, 360 became the unwanted guest of the VR industry.

Once hailed as the bright hope of the VR industry, the Oculus Go soon became its unwanted guest.

Meanwhile, most of the major film festivals started experimenting more and more with so-called immersive content. Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca, VIFF and Venice all now have annual showcases. Then, there were a few festivals solely dedicated to this developing medium, meaning they are not extensions of existing film festivals: FIVARS, for example, which launched in 2015 focused exclusively on narrative immersive content, rather than on the technology itself. What surprised me most with FIVARS was that we were receiving dozens of unsolicited submissions from all over the planet, truly, from Kamchatka, to Norway, Rapa Nui to Nepal.

Moreover, project submissions included both bootstrapped indies and government-funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some creators had previously worked for Pixar or NASA (or used to direct car commercials). Others were young students who had Scotch-taped a pair of cameras together. Neither is a predictor of the quality of the final product, however; a new set of tools, and the nature of the new tools that are being made available to anyone, has levelled the playing field. In short, it is essential that we hold space for anyone, anywhere, to actualize their vision, because the results we get back are extraordinary.

Pump Up the Volume

To be fair, I don’t call spherical video “VR” — at best I call it all immersive media. The lines will eventually become more blurred as experiences like VR-world-as-live-theater or surround video with 6DoF (6-degrees of freedom) parallax become more prevalent. (Parallax is an effect that was exploited a lot in the early days of animation by placing foreground and background on different planes so as to create an effect of movement and depth as the planes tracked across the screen at different speeds. The background would appear to move the slowest and the foreground faster. It is the same as driving through the countryside and looking out the car window at the distant treelines.)

An example of parallax effects can be understood through this rotating capture GIF from the FIVARS 2020 festival 360 Galleria as it displays in the web browser

The coming wave of new dimensional video and the need to develop its narrative grammar is the inspiration for this article and use case. Volumetric Capture, like 360 video, used to cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour to finish but has become increasingly more affordable. Even light field capture is starting to become a reality. In fact, Google has even figured out how to stream 6DoF video over the internet. Light field projection will follow soon.

Google’s Light Field Camera from “IMMERSIVE LIGHT FIELD VIDEO
WITH A LAYERED MESH REPRESENTATION”

There is a new cinema emerging here, and people are doing important new work now that the medium is maturing. Beyond industrial and scientific application, how can we understand the potential of these tools and how they can help us to understand the phenomenological world if not through narrative frameworks? It is the right time to host this cinema and create a new place for us to sit around the campfire and participate together in crafted experiences that introduce new grammar while porting over the lessons learned from the past century. But how and where do we see it?

I Screen, You Screen

My friend told me that he was in New York City walking past pop-up inflatable movie screens erected to try and rekindle cinema in groups during the COVID era. No one came. In Canada, Cineplex tried to rekindle audiences with social distancing and resurrection of classic blockbusters, while Hollywood either delayed tentpoles or moved to VOD for premieres. Mulan was a notable break in the chain of distribution that served as a major harbinger for the movie industry. Then James Bond “No Time to Die” got moved, and now AMC, Regal and other massive chains have shuttered hundreds of theaters, with many more to follow. But we can operate these cinemas online in a new way applicable to the times; paradoxically social and socially distant.

The FIVARS festival — an acronym for the Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories — was created as a think tank for what the new spatialized media could become. Our small and intrepid team strives to maintain the highest standards while pushing the outer limits of what a 21st-century festival can and should be. We have focused on new approaches to user experience, solving how to mitigate or completely remove wait times for in-person Virtual Reality festivals, provide meaningful feedback from end-user to content creator, determine the correct and fair pricing for the market, all while remaining uncompromising in our search for the finest new content from creators from around the globe.

How to Make A Scene

In 2020 we, like hundreds of other festivals and conferences, had to adapt to the new pandemic or perish. We studied dozens of competing virtual conferencing solutions, tools and techniques, code, design principles and ideas for what socially distanced conferencing was at that time. Everyone was pivoting: Zoom, Google Meet, Discord.

An ally in the industry pointed out that most of the platforms that are still charging thousands or events tens of thousands of dollars to license their virtual space for a weekend would eventually fall to the new open-source, web-based culture that was accelerating faster than they could adapt. We had no idea if attendees would recognize the same value being in a virtual space as they would in a terrestrial location. We decided to leave behind real-life considerations and time-restraints and run it for a full month. In June of 2020, we rapidly iterated and launched VRTO — Virtual & Augmented Reality Conference, into a true spatialized conference in the web browser, running a deployment of Mozilla Hubs on Amazon Web Services. I believe we were one of the first to deploy their newly launched subscription-based tech stack this way.

The show was a success. It felt like a sort of summer camp, and every day, after my two or three hours of sleep, I would head back to our floating sky city where we got together and held panels and meetups, and do it again.

Almost immediately following VRTO, we had to bring together six years of experience and input to do the same for our beloved, public-facing immersive stories festival FIVARS. But how?

How do you move a festival built around access to expensive equipment you stick right on your face, that is shared in close time and proximity with other attendees, exhibiting content that has to be carefully managed and has no established rules for operation, accessible to anyone?

Anyone, Everyone, Anywhere, Everywhere

As always, FIVARS 2020 is an evolving experiment. We have designed a truly independent, spatialized, UX and accessibility-minded platform for industry networking, and the exhibition of instant-on 4K, spherical video with ambisonic or 5.1 audio, building on the powerful, highly customized open-source JanusXR web-based 3d engine managed and tended to by a passionate community. The tech stack is hosted on Amazon Web Services (“AWS)” and, with a startup grant from AWS made available to us through an accelerator program with the Canadian Film Center’s new media division, we have had the extra bandwidth to test a wide variety of configurations for the transcoding of this high-resolution media, how to serve it on-demand, and without buffering delays. The result is of extraordinarily high quality, all of which runs in your browser. Without delay, without needing hefty download, without proprietary software.

And on the subject of software, the fact that this is a Javascript-powered online web app means we can push changes instantly to our users. We do not need to inform them of patches or take up space on their drive, or even risk breaking their current configurations; rather by using a Github-based collaborative work-flow, our team and partners can do a pull-request, to merge in their code updates, and when approved by our lead developer, update the platform immediately.

An actual screenshot of the navigable 3D space with beautiful lighting, drawn by your graphics card and some publicly available code right in your browser.

Check out this video where we walk through the fast development of the FIVARS webGL based platform for showcasing immersive content natively in the browser.

When we used to work with various distribution partners, like SamsungXR, to promote our annual selections, the question was always front and center: how do we support and nurture these extraordinary artists who have made their way to our attention, and who have toiled against incredible odds to produce outstanding content using provisional tools, tedious production pipelines, but felt such a powerful compulsion to tell their stories in this way, that they succeeded? What is the path to monetization?

These questions have not yet been answered, but slowly, we can build an audience, an economy, an appreciation for this manner of expression.

Marvels of the Modern World

The final 2020 catalog features incredible animation and oddities for those who seek the outré and bizarre. We even have the world premiere of a new music video “Spiral of Strength” from two-time Grammy award nominee Steve Roach, whose beautiful ambient records have been a favourite of mine for the past 25 years. The video features groundbreaking 4k generative spherical visual effects by Audri Phillips of Robot Prayers.

We feature works from over a dozen countries, including some we have not seen represented until now: Lebanon, Qatar, Brazil. We have original theater from Austria, folkloric festivals from Spain, and heart-warming documentaries from Puerto Rico, the American Midwest, Australia and Canada. We also noticed that half of the final selections by judges were by female directors.

It is this work, spirit and necessity that we are here to protect and nurture.

In the shadow of companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google controlling what we see, how we see it and for how much, it is more important than ever to build spaces that belong to artists, creators and programmers. Beholden to no one, accessible to all.

These social spaces are now emerging in the spatialized online arena and can now host traditional cinema and television as well. We have already seen socialized viewing work with software like Bigscreen, and Facebook keeps trying, but the problem is that they require proprietary downloads. What we have managed to do with the help of our battle-hardened coders, running in parallel with the rapid development of Javascript, three.js, WebGL, HSL streaming and so on, is to democratize the tools, open the code up for others, and make it accessible and available to anyone on the planet, anywhere.

In the collaboration between our lead developer James Baicoianu, WebXR experience developers Jin, Hunter Fox, Ben Cross, and the experience of the FIVARS team, we develop under an MIT license so that while the web app platform is licensable, the greater majority of the developed code also is folded back into the common trust, so that the codebase for the community is improved and expanded.

Attempting a ticketed festival with a built-in registration, rating system, VOIP, video chat, a 3D world (which you navigate in the form of a space fish) for a paying public visiting from around the world on any device, is the sort of real-world use case that can help to focus the beam and help to create a more robust and enjoyable virtual venue for the broader audience that will follow.

We are far from the finish line, but the feelings of exploration, excitement, independence and discovery presage better days and golden eras more than ever, not just for spherical video, not just for WebXR, but for the future of digital storytelling, cinema, and a path to sharing and understanding contemporary culture around the world.

Here are a but a few highlights from this year’s festival that features over 40 new works:

Inside Lieutenant Gustl

(Austria)

Based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler and one of the first virtual theatre experiences, “Inside Lieutenant Gustl” immerses the viewer in the mental headspace of a young Austrian officer from 1900 grappling with an existential crisis.

Missing Pictures: Birds of Prey

(France)

American director Abel Ferrara takes us with him on a journey through the heart of the story brought to life thanks to custom-designed animations based on his original films’ preproduction material. The director is shot with volumetric cameras and encrusted into the VR experience. He narrates key points of the storyline, why the movie was important for him and why it collapsed.

Swing VR

(USA)

Swing is a narrative, Virtual Reality film from Mari Jaye Blanchard combining 2D, 3D and 2.5D animation techniques. The story unfolds in overlapping acts that depict the internal and external struggles of a frustrated girl who is attempting and failing to swing on a playground swing. As she struggles with the swing, she imagines the demise of the children swinging successfully around her, and anger builds until she ends up taking it out on herself. When she finally hits rock bottom, she looks up to where she had been. A new perspective is found.

Indirect Actions

(USA)

Join a documentary filmmaker on a mission for justice at Standing Rock, where over 300 indigenous tribes stood together in solidarity against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Hominidae

(USA)

In a world where creatures have evolved in surprising ways, with humans, birds, spiders and frogs sharing unique anatomies, this experience follows an Arachnid Hominid — an intelligent creature with human and spider physiology — as she struggles to raise her young in a hostile environment.

A Fire at Chernobyl

(Denmark)

The haunting story of a family caught in the Chernobyl disaster. Irina, Yuri, and their daughter Nataliya are a close family hoping for a stable life in Pripyat, but when a fire breaks out at the nearby nuclear power plant and Yuri is called in to fulfill his firefighter duties, the life of the family is turned upside down.

Sleeping Eyes

(Korea, Republic of)

A Korean soldier compares his undiagnosed narcolepsy to quantum mechanics in this eerie memoir.

Warsaw Rising

(Poland)

A Warsaw insurgent received a note with a message from his daughter when he was leaving to fight in the Uprising in August 1944. At the time, he did not know yet how that the note would change his fate.

With the Wind and the Stars

(USA)

With the Wind and the Stars is a 360/VR docuseries that takes you on an adventure into the lives of women who fly. Episode One features Teara Fraser, a pilot, mother, and proud Métis woman setting out to launch her own airline.

The Pantheon of Queer Mythology

(Spain)

The Pantheon of Queer Mythology is a window into the worlds of a collective of Queer Deities that propose a way to question, empathize, celebrate, repent, resist, consume, abstract, identify, regenerate, and love.

See the complete list of FIVARS 2020 Selections

FIVARS launched October 7th and runs through November 2nd, 2020, showcasing an expertly-curated selection of immersive experiences from around the world.

For more information, visit

https://fivars.net

Keram Malicki-Sanchez is the executive director of the VRTO World Conference and also the FIVARS Festival of Immersive Stories.

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