STRAP ON A HEADSET
Virtual-reality (VR) videos have changed the rules of filmmaking. No longer confined to a two-dimensional screen, VR users can strap on a headset and let the experience drop them inside the action. Documentaries place observers into fascinating locations like jungles or warzones, horror movies force viewers to look feverishly around them, and animated shorts transport kids into colourful worlds. Endlessly inventive, the videos open up new realms of narrative possibility, catapulting viewers deeper into the action.
That’s something that Leon Ng, cofounder of the Vancouver Virtual Reality Film Festival (YVRFF), understands very well. Formally schooled in filmmaking, Ng went on to cofound LNG Studios, an agency that specializes in animation, 3-D rendering, and—fittingly—virtual reality. Always interested in the way that film and technology intersect, Ng was enthused by a pop-up VR film festival he discovered by chance in Amsterdam. Inspired to bring the concept back to the West Coast, he created the YVRFF with the goal of introducing as many Vancouverites as possible to the groundbreaking technology.
“It’s surprising to me how many people are still saying that they haven’t tried VR yet,” he tells the Straight on the line from Hong Kong. “That number is coming down, but there are still so many individuals out there. The immersive nature of VR offers a new way to tell stories, and those narratives are being told in a really creative way. I believe that storytelling will be the gateway for people to become more familiar with virtual reality, and can change how we view the world.”
Now entering its second year, the YVRFF will be set up much as it was for its inaugural event—a two-day showcase that sold out weeks in advance. At the centre of the room will be synced viewings of feature movies, with a group of people all watching the same title together on Samsung headsets. Around the outside will be more interactive demos, which let viewers walk around inside virtual worlds and touch what they see. Providing a full range of VR experiences, the event offers an extensive peek into the versatile technology.
“This year, we’ve got some really high-quality films,” Ng says. “We had a lot of submissions from more than 19 different countries, and they all show some very unique ways of telling stories. One that we have, for example, is an experience called Coco VR. It’s Pixar’s first virtual-reality feature, which lets you pick quests and activities that follow the Academy Award–winning movie. Another is Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab, which lets you explore the universe from that film. Then there’s Chorus, which is a powerful and immersive fantasy adventure.
“We wanted a wide range of movies, so not just action films, or documentaries, for example,” he continues. “One thing I do think about VR is that it’s a really strong empathy machine. Being able to experience something from someone else’s point of view, and be literally inside their world, moves people in different ways. You become the director, and you have control over what you see.”
In Ng’s view, Vancouver was an obvious choice to launch what he hopes will become a permanent fixture on the film-festival calendar. Dubbed Hollywood North, the city is home to a huge number of film studios and shoots, and is also the second-largest VR hub in the world. With its dual expertise, he believes the city is wellplaced to host the innovative event.
“We’ve become a mini Silicon Valley of the north, and Vancouver is a huge centre for movies,” he says. “It makes sense to combine the tech and the film industries here—it’s a no-brainer for us. As well as that, the people here are special. I feel like Vancouverites are very open to trying new things, and more than other places in Canada— especially on the creative side.
“There aren’t too many film festivals around the world for VR,” he continues. “You see events around the world like Sundance that have a small VR portion to them, but there aren’t really any dedicated festivals. We’re offering people the chance to come and see these great films, and create an experience around it.”
The Vancouver Virtual Reality Film Festival is at CBC Studio 700 (700 Hamilton Street) from Friday to Sunday (May 18 to 20).