As one of the leaders championing the future of film in Washington State, Washington Filmworks is always invested in efforts to bring new and emerging motion picture technologies to the state. That’s why we’re particularly excited to support SIFFX, which is a four-day immersive storytelling event new to the Seattle International Film Festival this year.
SIFFX VRiter in Residence Brangien Davis shared her interview with Festival Director Sandy Cioffi – read up below.
For the first time, this year the Seattle International Film Festival will include a festival within the festival devoted to new modes of storytelling using Virtual Reality, 360° cinema and Augmented Reality. Called SIFFX, the four-day event (June 2-5) takes place at venues across the Seattle Center, including the SIFF Film Center and the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome. We spoke with SIFFX director Sandy Cioffi to learn what prompted the creation of SIFFX, what the goal of the festival is, and what sorts of experiences audiences can expect.
SIFFX Q/A with Director Sandy Cioffi
When people use the term VR, what exactly do they mean? There are actually several different technologies that tend to get lumped under “VR.” The one that people are most likely to have seen is 360° video, which is when the filmmaker captures a spherical image so the viewer can choose to look at the sky above, the ground below, and all around the perspective of the camera. You can experience this on your phone or with a simple headset. To experience a full range of Virtual Reality, which allows you to wander around an entire environment (not bound by a camera’s point of view), you need a headset. In active VR environments, you can add handheld controllers, which allow you to manipulate objects. If Virtual Reality can be understood as a simulation, then there’s also Augmented Reality, which describes any technology that overlays digital interfaces onto the physical world—such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Google-backed Magic Leap. You point your device at something in reality, and added information pops up. At SIFFX you’ll be able to try out examples of all three—360º, VR and AR.
Who should attend SIFFX? Anyone who enjoys avant-garde cinematic experiences not widely available. Artists who want to push the boundaries of their genre. Developers who want to meet artists and make something creatively groundbreaking together. Audiences who want to be in on the early days of a new medium. People curious to see what 360° video looks like when projected on a planetarium dome. VR enthusiasts eager to see work that isn’t yet in distribution. Filmmakers who are VR-curious, and looking for a solid 101-level education in the medium. Retro-futurists who want to see how the tech we were always promised is finally coming to be. Anyone who loves full immersion in another world—including scuba divers, fans of the Star Trek Holodeck, and people who love getting swept away in a good book. And especially anyone who wants to see why VR is being described as the most powerful empathy machine in human history.
Isn’t VR mainly for gaming? We have this incredibly powerful new medium, and it’s currently being driven from the gaming and tech side. That’s not evil, but it’s culturally incomplete. How might cinematic and other types of artists make an imprint on in this new platform? What kind of world building would filmmakers do, if given this technology? Right now, there isn’t enough intersection between those groups. Many of these people who are extraordinary artists don’t know about this new tool for their toolbox. But when you show it to someone who’s a dancer or performance artist, they get the possibilities instantly. We want to connect artists with creative technologists and midwife a new form of storytelling, both in Seattle and beyond. We’re trying to start a fire. This is just the beginning.
How are artists using VR and 360? Documentary filmmakers and journalists are captivated by the possibilities—because the immersive storytelling techniques they rely on in film and writing could be enhanced immensely. The empathetic response goes off the charts. We are also seeing more 360° videos of live music concerts—an experience people have been trying to recreate since age-old bootleg days. The possibilities for contemporary choreography are incredible, especially for making audiences feel the movement in their bodies, rather that watching it on a stage and feeling intimidated because they “don’t know anything about dance.” Poetry looks terrific in VR—the words floating in space take on an architecture of their own. Comedy is another form with great potential. We’re showing Reggie Watts’s new film Waves, in which he plays with space, time, improv, music and humor. But we’ve just scratched the surface.
Several screenings are in the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome—but aren’t we supposed to watch this stuff on headsets? Since ancient times, humans have been lying back and looking at the stars—telling stories to each other about Orion and other myths. Planetariums were created to give modern day humans that same opportunity to lay back and feel a sense of simultaneous awe and community. Since VR and 360° relies on spherical footage, projecting these images on a dome works well—and it brings us back to that sense of experiencing something momentous together. Plus, SIFF is a film festival, and dome screenings are the perfect intersection of cinematic and immersive VR arts. We’ll show some very short films both in the dome and on headsets, so audiences can compare the pros and cons. But the physical sense of immersion you feel in the dome is miles beyond that experienced when watching a flat screen. You are there—on a raft full of refugees in the Mediterranean, swimming undersea with whales, or exploring an animated environment with Reggie Watts—as the story plays out over and around you in a visceral way. Cinematographers have a lot of wonderful tricks to make you feel involved in a film, but you’re still watching it at a remove, on a flat, rectangular surface. Being inside the dome really impacts the senses, and draws you further inside the story. Every art form wishes its audience could feel this kind of immersion in the work.
But the headsets look so goofy. We are definitely in the giant ‘80s cellphone days when it comes to the hardware. In a decade we’ll be looking back on the current VR headsets and laughing, saying, “Can you believe we used to put those things on our heads?” Similarly, the earliest visuals were pretty hokey. You can get a sense of how far VR has come at the Nonny de la Peña retrospective in the pavilion, focused on the full trajectory of her work. She’s the documentary filmmaker who is considered the “godmother of VR.” In the early days, she had a young intern named Palmer Luckey who developed a prototype headset for viewing her pieces. He went on to invent the Oculus Rift. (You might have seen him “floating” on the cover of Time magazine last year.) Seeing the progression of de la Peña’s work makes clear how the technology is improving exponentially, right before our eyes.
Do we have to bring our own headset to fully experience SIFFX? We will be giving away cardboard viewers to people who come to opening night. If you already have a viewer or headset, you are welcome and encouraged to bring it. For popular exhibits, having your own viewer could mean avoiding a wait to borrow one onsite. But not to worry, there are VR experiences available for everyone.
Won’t VR further isolate people from each other? In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book about the human urge to make and tell stories, the author talks about how stories have always taught us how to avoid dangers—whether they be poisonous mushrooms or murderous psychos lurking in alleyways. He says with every leap in human innovation there’s been an accompanying leap in storytelling technology. So now that engineers are playing around with Artificial Intelligence, and the dangers encompassed within, we probably need a new way of storytelling to maintain our humanity. VR may be the technology that makes us more human—because it makes it easier for us to empathize with people living lives very different from our own. Being fully immersed in the experience of Syrian refugees as they land on foreign shores makes you feel it in your bones. Instead of just tsk-tsking, you are moved to act on behalf of other people. This is precisely the mission of featured Opening Night artist company RYOT (just purchased by Huffington Post). It’s unlikely that an AI device would make that empathetic connection. As Gottschall says, humans have always simulated other worlds so as to live better in this one.
What about the danger of us turning into stationary lumps, as we watch the world go by on a headset? Watching VR and 360° video is an embodied experience. You’ve seen the photos and video of people looking up and all around, or walking into furniture. VR gets you physically moving in ways that television and film and smartphones never have. When you’re immersed in the water with dolphins, you can’t help but move around. It’s totally different than hunching over your iPhone and squinting into it. That telltale hunch is just a blip in the trajectory of how we interact with stories.
VR festivals are already happening in other US cities. Why do we need one in Seattle? With all the technologists, artists and venture capitalists in this town, we have the potential to make Seattle a place that will define entirely new aspects of VR. The West Coast is already famous for Silicon Valley (Palo Alto) and now Silicon Beach (Santa Monica). So why not Silicon Rainforest (right here)? Many of the most culturally compelling and powerfully meaningful aspects of this technological moment will happen in the next five years. We can present this new medium through a Seattle lens, and incubate risk-taking projects that pay off big. It’s entirely appropriate to make this happen at SIFF, the longstanding cinematic festival of record, where cutting edge filmmaking has always been a top priority.
See below for SIFFX program highlights. As the festival approaches, get more details at siffx.net.
Opening Night Screening at the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome (Thursday, June 2)
Experience eye-popping 360º films created by RYOT, the LA-based content studio recently purchased by The Huffington Post, which specializes in documentary-style Virtual Reality films. Among the videos premiering for the first time in 360º projection is The Crossing, Susan Sarandon’s immersive video diary about the Syrian refugee rescue effort in Lesbos. Some films will be shown consecutively on cardboard headsets and on the majestic expanse of the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome. RYOT co-founder and Academy Award®-nominee Bryn Mooser will be in attendance.
Pluto in the Dome (Friday, June 3)
Built as the Spacearium for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome was originally a futuristic semi-sphere where Fair visitors could watch wide-angle movies about space. The historic structure returns to its roots on Friday night, with more 360° screenings, including Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart, a new VR exploration of the Pluto system and the New Horizons spacecraft (The New York Times).
Keynote Speaker: Nonny de la Peña (Saturday, June 4)
Hear the journalist and “‘Godmother of Virtual Reality”’ speak on the massive potential of VR for immersive journalism, and its power as an empathy device for conveying the sights, sounds, and visceral feelings of the news. In the Nonny De La Peña Pavilion, view the first retrospective of her work, including her first piece, Hunger in Los Angeles, for which her young intern, Palmer Luckey, created a prototype headset—which later became the Oculus Rift.
X Academy (June 3-5)
Engage in presentations with the national and local Virtual Reality vanguard as they explore current questions surrounding the advent of accessible VR technology—including VR 101;, what this means for the future of cinema and linear storytelling;, whether VR can make us “more human,”; and issues from the aesthetic to the ethical. Learn 360º workflow (cinematography, stitching, and projection) with examples presented in 360º projection at the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome. Review the timeline of VR and immersive storytelling through the lens of previous historic collaborations between the tech and art worlds.
X Gallery (June 3-5)
Explore local, national, and international VR / AR projects that showcase a range of new technologies and illustrate how artists are bending the tech to tell their own stories. Featured projects with attending artists include: fabulous wonder.land, a 4D VR take on Alice in Wonderland, created by Toby Coffey of the UK National Theater; The Visitor, a VR house of mirrors created by filmmakers James Kaelan and Eve M. Cohen; and Giant, a VR memoir of sorts in which director Milica Zec captures the experience of growing up in a war zone.