At Tribeca, VR Provides a New Frontier for Visual Storytelling

A popular urban legend surrounding the 1896 French film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, states that when audiences saw a moving image of a train coming towards them they screamed and ran to the back of the theater.

While the veracity of this legend is debated, there is undeniable truth in the fact that audiences were astonished at the sight of a moving image. Early films established a new frontier in visual storytelling, much like virtual reality films are doing today.

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss virtual reality technology as nothing more than a gimmick that will fade as all technology fads eventually do. However, filmmakers at the 16th annual Tribeca Film Festival are utilizing the immersive possibilities inherent in a VR headset to their full extent, and are thereby pushing storytelling boundaries in a bold new direction.

By directly inserting the viewer into the middle of the story, and allowing them full agency to direct their view in any direction they choose, the viewer is no longer just a passive observer. Instead, they become a part of the story in a way that is, without hyperbole, as innovative and groundbreaking as the first motion pictures were to visual storytelling.

Creator Ricardo Laganaro’s project Step to the Line documents the rehabilitation of inmates in a California maximum security prison. Shot entirely on location, Step to the Line begins with the viewer surrounded in a small chainlink enclosure at the entrance of the prison as the gate shuts. The immediate sense of isolation and imprisonment did more to help the viewer empathize with prisoners’ plight than the combined efforts of the multitude of prison documentaries on TV.

“In this project we see how release from incarceration can be just as jarring as intake,” said the creators in a press release. “Parallel lives diverge when someone serves time.”

Also present at Tribeca’s immersive exhibit this year was “The New York Times VR” who premiered the short VR documentary Under a Cracked Sky. The documentary followed divers who explore the world’s clearest waters under eight feet of Antarctic sea ice.

Whereas other VR documentaries serve to immerse the viewer in potentially discomforting situations, Under a Cracked Sky demonstrates how VR technology can create educational documentaries that are far more engaging than anything that has come before.

The experience is not limited to nonfiction, however. VR also creates the possibility for more narratives which involve the viewers in new ways.

Auto is a short VR project created by Steven Shardt, which tells the story of Musay, an Ethiopian immigrant in the near future, who is one of the last remaining active taxi drivers in an age of self-driving car services.

Whereas standard films would force the viewer to watch scenes from predetermined angles, Auto allows viewers to sit alongside Musay in his taxi. This intimacy that has been unattainable in film up to this point allows viewers to almost personally experience Musay’s struggle as his only skill, his livelihood, is taken from him as he is forced to passively watch.

Where standard films are a static experience during which viewers can distract themselves with cell phones and conversation, VR is a uniquely intimate and personal experience. Each project is its own self-contained world that viewers become a part of in a storytelling experience that is changing the game for prospective filmmakers.

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