Friday, 6/28/2019

"We're seeing a medium come of age"

Interview with Astrid Kahmke

"We're seeing a medium come of age"

This year for the first time, FILMFEST MÜNCHEN is introducing its own section of virtual reality productions. Virtual Worlds, at the Isarforum from July 2 to 4, not only offers the chance to see outstanding current VR experiences; some of these are also being shown in competition, to be judged by an international jury. Parallel to this, industry representatives will be networking at a Professional Day on July 3. Virtual Worlds is curated by Astrid Kahmke, creative director of the Bavarian Film Centre, who's been in charge of VR projects there for years. We spoke to the VR expert about Virtual Worlds and about the maturing new medium.

How much time do you spend in virtual reality?

Astrid Kahmke: At festivals, it can definitely be a couple of hours a day. At home it's perhaps four to five hours a week.

That's a lot more time than most people spend using VR. How does that change the way someone relates to the medium?

You get used to the environment, of course. The motion sickness that affects many people during their first VR experience abates. That has to do with the fact that the experiences have improved. Today we know a lot more precisely when someone might feel sick to his or her stomach and what can be done to prevent it. It's a beginner's mistake, for example, to sit during an experience that's made for standing and vice versa.

Years ago, the VR experience itself was an attraction. Today the 360-degree view alone probably wouldn't impress people very much anymore. What's being done differently now?

I've been working intensively with VR since about 2014. Back then, people were very much focused on the technology itself. They were utterly fascinated by being able to stand inside a room and maybe grasp things interactively. Today the approach is much more artistic. We have a constantly growing international VR community comprised of artists from different fields. They experiment with the medium, but they also want to get their content across. By now, people are no longer just porting flat display content to the VR space; they've made a lot of progress in terms of finding a grammar. A lot is happening in this area, and that's another reason why I'm pleased to be able to show off these developments at Virtual Worlds.


Jurassic World


What does this VR grammar look like?

People might play with scalability, for example: making the user very small or very big in the virtual world. The user is definitely being placed more at the center of things. It's no longer about storytelling in the linear sense, but rather about story world-building. Embodiment is gaining in importance, meaning whether I have a body in the virtual reality and how it moves. The community of VR artists has learned to appreciate and utilize all these things as important components.

Where is VR now, compared to the history of film, which also began with carnival attractions?

Maybe in the early 20th century. With film, the technology came first; people didn't quite know what to do with it. They set up cameras on the street and in train stations. That also happened with 360-degree cameras. Then they sort of needed Charles Pathé to recognize the potential of the medium and construct a distribution network. That's happening now with VR as well: we have the first companies specializing in figuring out how to get VR to the users. We haven't yet gotten to the point where we can say we've invented, in a figurative sense, film editing or talking pictures or color film in VR. We're still just starting out, and that makes this area so incredibly exciting. We're seeing a medium come of age.

Although we're dealing with a relatively new medium, Virtual Worlds is already showing a retrospective of the studio Felix&Paul. How does one look back on such a short creative period?

These artists are indeed very young; this year is Felix&Paul's five-year anniversary as a company. During this time, however, they've already created more than 30 experiences. These include groundbreaking works that have won Emmys. They've animated Barack Obama and produced licensed content for Jurassic World. They developed their own camera systems and eventually came up with a format that is unparalleled in its artistic quality. They take a film director's approach to 360-degree film. That is to say, they have a linear plot, use cuts, and apply depth of field, space, and perspective in service of their narrative. They make their own particular mark on things and guide the audience in such a way that no one notices they're being manipulated. Felix&Paul create not only spatial, but also emotional, immersion. For that reason, I already consider their works to be classics of 360-degree film. Further, an evolution can already be observed during the short history of their company. The studio is starting to shift its focus to interactive formats and augmented reality; it's already taking the next steps. That's another reason why I'm delighted to have founder and creative director Félix Lajeunesse and COO Martin Enault on the panel at the Professional Day on Wednesday.

Gloomy Eyes

Felix&Paul come from French-speaking Canada: Québec. But France as "guest of honor" is also presenting its own works. How do our European neighbors handle VR?

The French were bolder earlier on. There were a large number of companies involved creatively with VR that were willing to take risks. State subsidies were introduced earlier there than in this country. As a result, Laval, a small town between Paris and Rennes, has held the largest virtual-reality trade fair since 1999, for example. Classical film distributor MK2 began making systems for VR available two or three years ago. Very early on, artists also sought out contacts in the United States, where all the VR hardware is developed. Studios like Atlas V and Lucid Realities formed international partnerships early on. We've now brought these pioneers to Munich: for example, the award-winning Atlas V experience "Gloomy Eyes" and Lucid Realities founder Chloé Jarry as a member of the jury.

How can the public discover all these VR experiences?

People can register online for a particular time slot. If they arrive on time, they can get started without waiting. Those who come by during regular opening hours without having registered can use the stations that aren't in use. On Thursday evening, there's also the award ceremony, followed by a party. I'm very pleased that Australian artist Stuart Campbell, who calls himself Sutu, is involved in the party. He designed a party set for the film "Ready Player One". He's a big name on the scene, and he has a colorful style that's very much his own. In Munich, he will use Tilt Brush, a VR illustrating program, to make live drawings in virtual reality that will be projected onto the walls. That's yet another very different way of approaching this subject. I'm interested to see how that will come across in the Ampere.

Interview: Benedikt Frank