A black crow perched on a wooden bench stares at you ominously. Your eyes meet, and poof – you’re the crow now, looking back at where you were just standing. You glance around. It’s late at night, pitch dark, the middle of some kind of waiting area or platform. Then the train arrives: there’s another crow, perched this time just inside the caboose, and you can tell that if you lock eyes again you’ll teleport on board.
This is Manifest 99, a short-form virtual-reality experience by Flight School Studio. It is “screening” – if that’s even the right word – as part of a festival-adjacent VR installation in a park near the Lightbox, mounted expensively under the aegis of Bell. “I never thought I would be at TIFF and have a platform like this to show off the work,” says Brandon Oldenburg, Flight School’s chief creative officer and the curator of this installation. “It’s not just an honour. It’s crazy.”
Bell invited Oldenburg to programme their VR platform as a leader in the field, and he has assembled a broad and intriguing selection of virtual-reality work in different styles and vernaculars. But he insists whatever expertise he has was only recently acquired. “We tell stories at Flight School,” he says. “That is the most important thing. VR just happens to be one of the mediums we work with.” And even then they only work with it skeptically.
“I was really anxious about moving into VR as a space to work in,” he says. “Sometimes you can be so much on the cutting edge of technology that you’re there too soon, and no one cares.” A few years ago he and his team developed a project in the then-burgeoning “augmented reality” space for Playstation: it was called Digg’s Nightcrawler, and it seemed like the future. “It’s totally obsolete now,” he laughs. “It was just too soon. That experience paved the way for us to experiment with new mediums, but it also made us timid about VR.”
Many people still are. It’s telling that this programme has been relegated to the outskirts of the festival rather than commanding a sidebar within TIFF proper. Other festivals have been more open to the concept. “Sundance this year was eye-opening,” Oldenburg says. “It almost seemed more like a VR festival than a film festival.” This bodes well, he believes, for the future of the medium – and for a permanent place in the festival of festivals. “You look around at all this VR stuff. This is the world we live in now.”