With a dedicated island set up for narrative VR, Venice is the first major film festival to host a standalone competition for immersive storytelling, featuring a selection of 22 international pieces ranging from traditional 360 live-action and animated shorts to interactive room-scale installations and a feature-length piece.
Curated by director Michel Reilhac and Power to the Pixel's Liz Rosenthal, Venice VR has done an outstanding job taking narrative VR showcasing to the next level, allowing installations, stand-up and seated pieces to benefit from a spacious, inspiring set-up respectful both of the creations and the audience.
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The overall quality of the pieces also confirms that VR storytelling has evolved over the past two years. The technology, of course (albeit not 100% glitch-free), but most of all, the craft and creative experimentation that keep pushing the boundaries of this space between film, theatre, gaming and art installations.
The 74th edition of the Venice Mostra sends out a strong signal to naysayers. VR storytelling has entered a more mature phase, bringing audiences highly creative pieces with strong directorial choices. VR looks set to become a new art form in its own right and we were able to try out all but one of the varied experiences.
Here are our picks of some of the best pieces competing for the Grand Prize.
Best overall experience: Alice, the VR Play
Produced by French veteran innovation studio DVMobile and directed by Mathias Chelebourg, Alice is a one-of-a-kind interactive experience that puts you in the shoes of Alice, shortly after tumbling down the rabbithole. You're late, you're late, for a very important date… your own crowning! Will you catch your crown before the clock strikes?
Along your visual, auditory and tactile journey, you get to follow the Rabbit, rescue Humpty Dumpty and philosophise with the Caterpillar -- and yes, your destiny also involves eating a delicious mushroom to unlock the final scene.
The secret ingredient? Actors who interact with you in real time, merging your time in VR with a real, custom-tailored acting performance. Blending beautiful real-time CGI environments and live acting, Alice is a delightfully trippy sensory VR piece which - if you surrender and engage with the characters - immediately summons your inner child. After 20 minutes of bliss, all I could think of is how much I want to dive back in.
Best animation: Melita
Produced by Madrid & L.A.-based Future Lighthouse studio, this 24 minute piece is the first part of a trilogy in the making. A highly ambitious animated VR project, Melita is the brainchild of Nicolás Alcalá, director of El Cosmonauta and VR festival favorite Tomorrow.
In 2026, our world is collapsing due to climate change. Anaaya, an Inuit scientist and her AI companion Melita are appointed to find a new planet for humans to inhabit, while embarking on a personal journey exploring the meaning of life.
A true visual feat, Melita also stands out thanks to strong directorial choices. Camera placement and movement serve the story, and while a more interactive version is currently in the making, this first episode confirms Nicolás Alcalá as one of the most inspired filmmakers in this new medium.
The first episode of Melita will soon be available for Oculus Rift.
Melita (Oculus Rift)
Best miniseries: Dispatch
Produced by VR pioneers Here Be Dragons (formerly VRSE.works), who were also showing Gabo Arora's The Last Goodbye in competition at Venice VR, Dispatch is a 4-episode miniseries that puts you in the shoes of a small-town police dispatcher, as he faces one of the biggest challenges of his career during an all-night crime spree.
Written and directed by Edward Robles (co-writer of Catatonic and Clouds Over Sidra), Dispatch makes clever use of CGI to turn the gritty storyline into a thrilling experience, by immersing you in a digitally outlined environment that adds to the tension of the crime-in-progress scenes.
Dispatch has no release date announced yet.
Dispatch (Oculus Rift)
Best installation: La Camera Insabbiata
Music, performance arts, sculpture, film - and now virtual reality. La Camera Insabbiata (The Sand Room) is multi-disciplinary artist Laurie Anderson's latest creation, and third collaboration with Taiwanese new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang. While this isn't Anderson's first foray into VR, it is certainly the most impressive.
Using the HTC Vive's controllers, you are invited to explore a dozen rooms scattered across a black and white world of chalk-covered walls. In one of them, you can even create your own 3-dimensional soundwaves. But the piece's most exciting feature is the freedom to fly around this gigantic landscape, uncovering bits and pieces of the story, lighting up words and drawings as you go, dancing around shadow and obscurity.
A groundbreaking pioneer in the use of technology in the arts, Laurie Anderson has produced a highly sensorial VR trip to fool your senses, which you'll more likely be able to experience on the contemporary art circuit.
La Camera Insabbiata (Installation - HTC Vive)
This year's VR installations
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Best animated short: The Dream Collector
At 11 minutes, The Dream Collector (Shi Meng Lao Ren) is a cute and gracious piece, in the same vein as Pixar's more traditional shorts. An old man lives with his dog in a garbage dump under the freeway, where they spend days sorting through trashed objects they see as "abandoned dreams". Once fixed, the objects take on a new life -- and so do the old man and his dog.
The short is directed by Mi Li, and produced by Chinese VR outfit Pinta Studios, which might not ring a bell (yet), but packs some of the most talented Chinese new generation storytellers. Make sure to check out what they do next.
The Dream Collector is set to be released on various online VR platforms worldwide on 13 September.
The Dream Collector (Oculus Rift)
Best Filmmaking: Arden's Wake - The Prologue (Expanded)
This selection wouldn't be complete without cinematic VR wunderkind Eugene Chung's latest opus, Arden's Wake: The Prologue, which premiered last Spring in the Tribeca Film Festival's Virtual Arcade section.
Following last year's remarkable Allumette, Arden's Wake brilliantly confirms Penrose Studios's unique craft when it comes to VR storytelling. Using their very own collaborative creation platform called Maestro, the Penrose team has again pushed animated VR filmmaking to a new level.
No distracting interactivity here, focus is on the story, and on the incredibly detailed storyworld, which you can explore and revolve around. This 15-minute prologue will soon be available on a variety of VR platforms. The creative team at Penrose is already at work on a second chapter, set to be released later this year.
Arden's Wake: The Prologue (Oculus Rift)
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