Reviews ∕

2021 . 10 . 12

"Digital Common Sense: French VR Showcase"- A moment for shared digital experiences

By Hsing-Jou Yeh
Showcase Director, Digital Common Sense: French VR Showcase/Executive Director, ET@T

ET@T incents VR creation and review via exhibition

Continuing the experience and practice in promoting VR production, review, and exhibition since 2018, ET@T curates Digital Common Sense: French VR Showcase this year, aiming at creating an environment conducive to the above visions. To achieve this goal, the duration of the exhibition needs to be sufficient and projects on display require diversity. In addition, ET@T has been keen on the prospects of digital culture and techno-art. Therefore, to differentiate the showcase from the status quo where VR in Taiwan is mostly found in film festivals, Digital Common Sense presents to you projects whose stories are told not through lenses and languages that you usually find in films.

Bearing elements in Ayahuasca- The Shamanic Exhibition, the opening exhibition at VA Hub in 2020, the exhibition duration of Digital Common Sense is longer than regular film festivals, with a view to including as many projects as possible. 10 VR productions funded or produced by French companies are selected by ET@T and Taipei Film Festival, for the grand event Digital Common Sense, which would not be possible without the help from Ellen Kuo, a consulting curator in international XR exhibitions, in collaboration with Bureau Français de Taipei. There are also supports from art and cultural institutions in France as co-organizers and sponsors that include Producteurs d’Expériences Numériques (PXN), Institut Français, and UniFrance, topped with the resources and grants from National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF). This year, there are films released as early as in 2017 and those just coming out in 2021. Over the four-year span, the continual productions show that VR technology has evolved from telling stories through 360VR to contents that allow interactions we experience today, or even 6-DoF[1] (6 Degrees of Freedom) technology that allows viewers to determine how the story develops through interactions.

The 10 VRs selected feature production using 3D animation and visual effects, with few materials from real shooting involved. More than half of the projects adopt 6 DoF, enabling viewers to intervene in the plot development and map out the pacing for the images through interactions that include moving around, fixing their eyes at certain spots, and even speaking. With the development of motion detection technology, it is foreseeable that gaming experiences are no longer limited to players selecting items from a drop-down list as in conventional video games, nor is it just having players sit in front of the screen; instead, viewers are asked to walk the walk and make their way into the story scenes. In this spirit, Digital Common Sense is a proof that what can be achieved today using 6 DoF is exactly what viewers can look forward to in terms of viewing experiences in the digital age.

Film selection based on the VR trilogy by François Vautier

Digital Common Sense covers a vast array of film themes including sci-fi, horror, and romance as well as the poetic movies or the ones that highlight humanity. With the diverse approaches of storytelling in these works, there are three kinds of digital experiences to be explored: (1) following the camera to roam in the virtual world; (2) intervening in the contexts with personal interactions; (3) roleplay.

Following the filming lenses, viewers are introduced to a virtual world constructed by the three 360VR projects by the renowned film director, François Vautier. The first is I Saw the Future (2017), where viewers, in a dark cosmic expanse and surrounded by abstract and imposing sci-fi images, listen to an interview from 1964 with Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), on his elaboration on the coming of digital revolution. In Odyssey 1.4.9 (2019), the second project, 200,000 movie stills of classic scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey are put together and presented repetitively, like strings of codes from a gigantic database running through screens. The iconic black monolith, filled with mysterious energy, turns static images into moving ones and guides viewers to tap into the central and unifying concept of 2001: A Space Odyssey– ABSOLUTE INTELLIGENCE. The third is Recoding Entropia (2020), which was premiered in Digital Common Sense, with brilliant visual effects giving out cold sci-fi vibes and featuring highly abstract images as well as minimalist storytelling. Viewers are invited to witness a radical change of the century through the compelling story.

As the only three 360VRs among the 10 selected projects, the works by François Vautier present to us visual effects that ET@T sets as the key notion for curating Digital Common Sense: French VR Showcase. Among them, Recoding Entropia makes the master vision idea, based on which other VR projects are selected for display.

Active participation through camera movements

For projects where viewers are guided with the camera movements, we give you Jailbirds: Bwa Kayiman (2021), which was also premiered in Digital Common Sense. The project depicts the 3D visual world by Philip Foster, an illustrator who brings to life the scenes of a prisoner escaping at will and flying away after crawling through the prison jail window bars. In The Hangman at Home-VR (2020), viewers access the protagonist’s mind for the secrets deep down, from the perspective of BYSTANDERS, instead of just being the AUDIENCE in front of screen. The narratives triggered by viewers’ resonance for the scenes before them also interweave cognition and judgment in viewers’ mind, which in turn, turns them into INFORMERS who conspire with the protagonist in the story. Viewers have no way to intervene, but can only observe, like in a dream, and compile knowledge on all aspects of human nature.

Essence and profile of VR images

The trilogy of Spheres (2018), the Best VR Award-winning VR project at the 75th Venice International Film Festival in 2018, adopts 6 DoF VR technology that features moving around, using handles, and inviting interactions, anchoring viewers in the vast cosmos to listen to the music echoing among the planets. Viewers are able to adjust their viewing angle by moving the body, while the projects, infused with innovations, allow the viewers to enter the interior of the planets to see the geological structures like those found in popular science videos and hear the sound made by the planets that is unprecedented. The interactive handles in viewers’ hands are projected through abstract visual effects as an avatar in the form of a cluster of stardust, in dances with other planets.

As most of the fantasies processed via VR, Missing Pictures: Birds of Prey (2021) also seeks to create an unfulfilled dream. Missing Pictures is a VR documentary series, inviting internationally well-known directors to outline the movie scenes, with the director himself/herself in the VR scenes. Birds of Prey is a film planned by an American film director Abel Ferrara, but at the same time, a project that can never been seen through. Now, Ferrara rebuilds the sets in a VR world to give viewers a sense presence on the set and a view of the art laced in the film, such as 3D scenes and detailed setups. Furthermore, viewers will experience occasional surreal scenes constructed by the director’s narrative. Through VR with simulation, description, listening, and imagination, viewers, alongside with the director, get to depict a movie dream that was never realized.

From viewers to characters

The Passengers series, including The Passengers: HER & HIM (2020) and The Passengers: The Kid (2021), build a viewing experience through “introducing the characters” via “casting” by viewers in the beginning. This project integrates eye-tracking technology into VR, allowing viewers to undergo an experience as ordinary as having eye contacts, where viewers embrace emotional upheavals from having eye contacts, making conversation, or even making acquaintance with strangers on a train. In Lady Sapiens, The Experience (2021), viewers, in the body of a Sapiens woman from a prehistoric village, dive into an interactive experience where a series of missions are to be completed to progress an overall story, such as first encounter of characters or rescue missions. This project, both educational and entertaining, is presented by Ubisoft, a famous French video game development company. In Lady Sapiens, The Experience, part of the 3D scenes are modified from the setups of Far Cry: Primal, a video game by Ubisoft. This can be seen as a new iconic example of bringing together video games and interactive VR projects, given their production and themes.

As a director in animation and visual effect productions, Abel Kohen sets foot in VR and produced Biolum (2021), which has been highly recognized by grand international film festivals in less than six months since its premiere. Biolum is certainly a production that is on point, in terms of visual effects, character shaping, and design for interactions among the works on display this year. When viewers experience through the perspective of the diver, coupled with the plot setting of an expedition into the alarmingly dangerous sea, the story lays out the thrilling moments, as the protagonist moves step by step into the jaws of danger. Using a dive into the mysterious beauty of luminescence with surrounding deep sea creatures, Biolum blurs the line between biological truth and sci-fi elements to create a surreal experience of seeking survival.

A platform for dialogue between creators and viewers

In addition to showcasing VR films, ET@T invites creators, such as directors and producers, of each selected project to have online Q&A sessions with viewers from Taiwan to exchange ideas and reflections on their production. These sessions will be held online for live streaming and saved also online to remain accessible for future reference in creations. This arrangement is made to echo with the idea of curating Digital Common Sense in the first place, that is, to lay a solid base for VR creation, exhibition, and review. Sharing digital experiences will be possible through exchanges and dialogues between viewers and creators. In this way, it is hoped that VR productions with originality and the corresponding technology development can take root in Taiwan and become more prevalent and popular over time.

[1] Six degrees of freedom (6DoF) refers to the free body movement as forward/backward, up/down, left/right translation in three perpendicular axes, combined with changes in orientation through rotation about three perpendicular axes, often termed yaw, pitch, and roll.