When I entered the elevator to the Tribeca Film Festival's Immersive VR exhibit, I didn't expect Tribeca co-founder Robert de Niro and his media entourage to stroll in after me. I decided not to breathe on the ride up to avoid disrupting his conversation, and then I slowly stalked after him into the exhibit to see this year's slate of films.
My brief brush with Hollywood stardom would prove to be symbolic of this year's Tribeca Immersive experience. Last year's VR exhibit teemed with exciting tech demos and indie films from up-and-coming film studios and amateur enthusiasts. This year, many of those studios had returned, sporting exciting new tech, Oscar-winning directors, and prominent actors to create their virtual worlds.
For ten days starting April 21, New Yorkers can visit Tribeca's virtual arcade to see 30 incredible VR worlds for themselves. If you're in the area, we recommend you start with the films and experiences below, some of which won't be publicly available for months.
Best virtual effects
Starring Pom Klementieff (Mantis, Guardians of the Galaxy 2) and Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise, It), Alteration places you in the head of a man whose memories are being slowly consumed by a vampiric artificial intelligence. Blending science fiction and Surrealism, the film recreates the feeling of being unable to differentiate dreams from everyday life.
Live-action VR films often have a blurry, artificial quality that can detract from the experience, but Alteration turns the platform's flaws into an aesthetic strength.
Characters glitch in and out of vision; background objects warp in disturbing patterns in your peripheral vision; tears in the fabric of reality correspond to the characters' emotions. And according to film director Jérome Blanquet, the climactic scene's unique art style, shown above, was designed not by the VR team, but by an AI "dreaming" and processing the images as it saw fit.
Best animated VR feature
Penrose Studios' films don't follow the usual VR script. Most films keep you immersed as a character inside a directed, on-rails experience; Arden's Wake, Penrose's latest film, has you towering over the miniature characters, and encourages you to ignore the story and stick your head through building walls to get an intimate, x-ray view of the characters' world.
Where other animated films keep background textures vague and at a distance, every single inch of Arden's world shows an incredible attention to detail.
When interviewing Penrose CEO Eugene Chung and lead tech director Jimmy Maidens last year about their hit Allumette, Maidens described how designing VR art assets in 2D was time consuming and difficult, and hinted that they had begun designing directly in VR. Now Penrose has revealed the software they created to do just that: Maestro, a shared virtual space where Penrose designers in different cities can design VR art in one shared space simultaneously.
By streamlining the process for creating the individual pieces of a virtual world, Penrose has provided a template for other VR studios to follow: making virtual worlds as intricate and explorable as possible by taking the time to work and live in those worlds themselves.
Best visual design
Baobab Studios, the talented team behind last year's Emmy-nominated VR short Invasion!, showcased the eye-achingly beautiful first episode of the Rainbow Crow series, a recreation of a Native American legend starring the voice acting of John Legend, Constance Wu, Diego Luna, and others.
Baobab's previous VR films employed a Dreamworks-style aesthetic—huge, striking faces, blocky environments—but Baobab CEO Maureen Fan told me that the studio has stepped away from that style for this project to pursue a softer, more natural style. Based on the short demo on display, the transition paid off amazingly well.
One particularly cool visual technique Fan highlighted was their use of multiple light sources to guide the viewer's gaze, magnifying or desaturating portions of the environment to subtly suggest where the main narrative would focus next. While the demo has you passively observing the animals as the spectre of winter approaches, the final version lets you use HTC Vive or Oculus Touch controllers to manipulate the environment around you and influence the story.
Best VR music video
Arjan van Meerten, musician and creator of the popular VR music video Surge, has produced another dynamic visual experience with Apex. In this film, floating objects and monstrous creatures appear and move with the beat of the rhythm and melody of the electronic soundtrack, as you stand and watch the explosive destruction of the city around you.
Likening the music video's experience to "nuclear footage", van Meerten told me that he strove to bring "aggressive energy" to the VR format, both through the music and visuals. In that, he certainly succeeds, though even more striking than the music and violence is the design of the mysterious, disturbing invading force that accompanies the destruction.
Best VR documentary
The Protectors: Walk in the Rangers' Shoes
This film depicts the lives of conservationist soldiers fighting elephant poachers and terrorist groups in the Congo and it received the most pre-festival buzz due to its Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). Protectors documents the experiences and struggles of individual rangers as you see piles of confiscated ivory and an up-close view of a rotting, slaughtered elephant.
By the film's conclusion, Bigelow and co-director Imraan Ismail have achieved their goal, placing you in the shoes of people in constant danger and under constant emotional stress and trauma, before issuing a call for support and action. They cleverly superimpose subtitles in different areas of the screen to guide viewers to specific portions of the action, but otherwise appeared to use fairly standard, unflashy filmmaking to convey their message.
Best social VR experience
The Life of Us
First debuting at this year's Sundance festival, Within's The Life of Us takes you and one to three other people on a collective evolutionary journey from simple organisms to dinosaurs to humanity and beyond. I bonded with a stranger - Max - as we watched each other evolve. We could speak to each other through our headsets, but our voices were distorted based on our current form: frantic and high-pitched in velociraptor form, deep and distorted in gorilla form, and so on.
Virtual reality is usually incredibly isolating, but The Life of Us showed how that might not always be the case. With Max, I not only could share my excitement over what I was seeing, but also could see and hear him doing things I had missed, and vice versa. He pointed out that our velociraptors could breathe fire, while I warned him that he wasn't seeing the monkeys attacking his gorilla form. Together, we augmented each other's collective experience.
Best upcoming VR game
Bebylon: Battle Royale
Kite & Lightning, founded by Ikrima Elhassan and two-time Emmy winner Cory Strassburger, has developed an online VR brawler for Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR where you fight opponents as immortal, overcompensating babies who power up by flipping each other off and building up their ego meters. It's as hilarious, irreverent and bizarre as it sounds, and it's extremely fun to play. While smashing Strassburger's "bebie" avatar, I flipped him the bird, powered up, and broke into a deadly combo while taking photos of myself with a diamond-studded selfie stick.
Strassburger and Elhassan's previous works include developing VR operas, special effects for Minority Report and Star Trek, and producing CG experiences with actors like Kate Winslet. So their latest venture might seem a little strange by comparison. But the special effects veterans are hoping their game of grandstanding, swag-collecting bebies will attract a strong VR gamer following. Beyond the main brawl stage, their next step is to add more game modes and ways to players to socialize with one another.
Best interactive VR experience
This sobering experience highlights each painful step of a man's descent into homelessness and the struggles faced by actual homeless people of varied backgrounds, ages and genders.
Created by Stanford's pioneering Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Becoming Homeless has you use Oculus Touch controllers to hock belongings to pay rent, protect your belongings from bus thieves and confront those hostile to the homeless.
Becoming Homeless challenges the common notion that the homeless somehow deserve their lot, and challenges the viewer to see how he or she could easily fall into a similar scenario under unlucky circumstances.