Bran­don Olden­burg

National Post (Latest Edition) - - SATURDAY FEATURE - Week­end Post Week­end Post

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.”

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