The first-ever VR film festival showed me the future of movies

virtual reality

I was able to speak with four directors about their projects in the festival. With live action, experiential and animation thrown in, there's a substantial amount of genres to choose from each with their own filming challenges.

virtual reality

Tyler Hurd, director of Butts, never thought he'd be talking to a reporter about his animated short. Originally 2D, Hurd's coworkers at Double Fine wanted to make Butts for VR. Simple, hilarious and yes, even touching, the short was one of the first virtual reality films made.

Technically, he says the conversion is tricky, because VR is still in development, "There's a lot of things that break." Creatively however, it's "been fun to explore." Examples include directing the audience's attention to little moments with certain cues to look in different places since you "can't physically turn their heads" you have to provide visual and auditory hints.

Audience participation is something director Mac Cauley is familiar with. His piece, The Night Room is a homage to Vincent van Gogh and beautifully captures the artist's style in VR. More experiential, you move forward with the Gear VR touch pad to look at the vibrant items and people in the room.

Cauley says he wanted more game-like interaction but as he was developing it, there wasn't enough time and the film became a visual experience. However, depending on where you're "standing" in the room, characters may react differently.

virtual reality

Artists inspiring artists seems to be a trend with virtual reality. Bright Shadows, directed by Michael Catalano also brings in art with a more musical tilt. Drawing inspiration from Expressionist art films used by German artists like Paul Klee, Joseph Albers, and Wassily Kandinsky, Catalano focused on bringing music to the forefront of his animated short.

His technical difficulties weren't too hard to solve since Bright Shadows is a pre-rendered opposed to real-time animations where moving your head causes the parallax to change.

However he did want to sync the visuals with the music in the film perfectly. To achieve his, Catalano devised an algorithm to analyze what was happening in the music and then use that data to move the pieces in the film.

virtual reality

While animations are certainly immersive and innovative, live action is breathtaking in its own right. When done well, the film should make you feel like you've just witnessed history or participated in a major event, then compelled to take action - which is what company Ryot is trying to do. COO Molly Swenson explains how the virtual reality documentaries Ryot is creating are creating a social awareness they've been hunting down.

Ryot takes news stories and pairs them with actions you can take to actually do something instead of simply reading and moving on. Swenson says Ryot wanted to find what content, medium and format best compels action at the highest rate. She notes, "this medium [virtual reality] is incredible for that because it makes people feel something and want to get involved."

Ryot is the company behind The Nepal Quake Project, directed by David Darg. It's the first VR film done in a post-disaster zone and yielded a substantial amount of donations for relief aid. Welcome to Aleppo directed by Christian Stephen was filmed in the similar documentary tone to shed light on the Syrian war zone.

virtual reality

This "documentary-style cinema verité," as Swenson describes it, is perfect for the Ryot news outlet. "Once the equipment got durable and small enough to travel with - we just use the GoPro 360 Hero rig - it became the perfect marriage of our filmmaking, our journalism and our action capabilities."

Despite the incredible footage captured, Swenson says there are still a lot of challenges filming live action, even documentary-style:

"As you're figuring out as a filmmaker how to do it, it's very different. You can't move the camera or you risk motion sickness, you can't have a crew of any sort because they're all in the shot. You can't hide any effects from the audience."

Essentially, improvising and improving filming techniques as you go is a huge part of VR filmmaking. Swenson notes it's all based on a steep learning curve but Ryot will continue down the VR path because of the success they've had with the immersive projects.

The Kaleidoscope Film Festival is the first of its kind and surely won't be the last with the upwards trajectory virtual reality is taking. All sorts of films are out now with more on the way, and the filmmakers I spoke with are already excitedly in the midst of new projects. With Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR (formerly Sony's Project Morpheus) on the horizon, plus newer innovator editions of the Samsung Gear VR coming out soon (and even more mobile headsets I can keep up with), it's obvious virtual reality isn't a medium that's disappearing any time soon.