Raindance Film Festival began 25 years ago, bringing audiences fresh talent sitting outside the mainstream. 25 years later, and pioneering the VR awards as part of their 2017 Festival, Raindance continue to re-define new talent, mediums and trends. Having produced the VR Arcade for Raindance and Lexus, for 2 consecutive years at Hospital Club, and seen a lot of top notch content, I am left wondering what VR (360, AR, and all the other R’s) mean to the live theatre, music and arts sectors - and their audiences?
At the moment? Not much.
Commercial VR in medicine, gaming and even estate agency is out there and thriving, showing its core audiences what they can’t see any other way. Millions of doctors are being trained in complex operations, kids are going deeper into fighter games and the wealthy can acquire a new luxury property without having to leave the one they are currently in. Film and documentary is catching up, with cutting edge artists moving on from their handmade cameras to create quality work that is emotive, life changing and easy to watch if you have the right headset. The VR/AR community is a vibrant, collaborative and risk taking one.
And yet, the live arts are trailing behind, with a unique problem. How do we reinvent something that we already do pretty well? We have made surround arts experiences for centuries. With the acoustics in churches, all-consuming musical experiences are nothing new. Theatre in the round is as old as the Greeks and with the hunger for more interactive experiences, care of Punchdrunk and their ilk, interactive audience journeys are ‘done’. So how do the live arts embrace and create with this new art form?
I have seen five key pieces of work braving the transition.
Jane Gauntlett and In My Shoes is a series of work that places the audience at the heart of a personal experience, accompanied with set and sometimes an actor, to help you ‘immerse’. Doom, which opened at Sheffield Doc Fest, is at the live art end of the spectrum: there is blood, animal heads, spirituality, sex and for me, total confusion between a live and ‘real’ world. Cirque de Soleil’s VR work is an essential film, bringing to life the unique world of their shows. There are then the promos: ENB and others using VR and 360 to help audiences ‘experience’ their rehearsal rooms and productions (try before you buy).
For me, it’s the fourth that lands. Curious Directive’s Frogman is a theatre piece that uses VR to take audiences through two timelines, uniting the narratives and providing an experience you haven’t seen before. It makes sense and adds something unique to the experience of theatre.
So it is starting, it is happening. But three factors continue to hamper these creatives.
Cash – obviously. The quality of Curious Directive and Jane Gauntett’s filming is grainy, there is no other word for it. And it does matter. When you start to see other work in VR – Docs, animation and film – you are immersed into narrative and technical quality that has a serious impact. This places great strain on our theatre who might not have been filmmakers to begin with. The Arts Council have now started to fund VR experiences (where they don’t fund film) so maybe this will start to change opportunities for experimentation but no doubt this will be slow progress, based on individual artists and projects carving out the time to play.
Thirdly, there are no connected systems that allow audiences to interact with each other, during their audience-ship. Outside of some expensive kit and gaming systems, VR is a solo experience. And so, at present, whatever the setting, it still feels like watching a film rather than benefitting from that unique experience of an audience communally hearing, responding and seeing something at the same time.
But maybe none of this actually matters.
It is really quite hard to watch VR for more than about 20 minutes. And that’s when it’s really good. Our minds get too full from the total technical immersion in sound, light and story. I hope it stays this way, for fear of the damage we are already doing to our youth through the over-use of technology. AR – the stuff you do with your phone – seems to be the underdog that might lead the way and this is definitely an enhancement tool, rather than the show in itself. So however good AR and VR get, it still feels like something the Arts can incorporate into what they already do well, rather than replace it.
But I do think there are key things from this new wave we can be incorporating. This young sector thrives on innovation, sharing of kit and ‘bigging up’ peers. It feels a positive sector to be a part of. With dwindling resources and attempts to make the arts more accessible, more people than ever want to make work, with less resources to support it. And at times, well, it sort of makes us a bit competitive, dare I say mean? Not words anyone would associate with creativity. The VR industry also incorporates a range of nationalities and cultures, and some stellar women are leading the way. It’s a meritocracy – something else the arts knows it needs. And so whilst we might not need the art in VR, the wider arts sector might want to think about how it can adopt the crucial, forward thinking elements that are making it.
Top players in VR
Nexus – with their work with the Gruffallo & Obama, these guys do participation on a biiiig scale
Marsmellow Lazer Feast – need I say more?
Darren Emerson – VR City is making some beautiful work for brands and himself
Jennifer Brea and Unrest – using VR for what it should be used for, empathy and imagination combined.
Chris Milk – check out his Ted Talk to find out more
Beginners Guide to the Kit
Google and Samsung headsets come in for around £100 and are compatible with most of the films you might want to see. Oculus, the main player in VR content distribution, have produced the Rift which goes further in terms of quality of experience - and cost at more like £400. HTC Vive is the provider for more complex, interactive experiences and feels like its useful for those who know what they are doing, coming in at £600. Worth noting, Playstation is about the mid way point in terms of price – at £350 – and leading the way for Gamers.
BLOG EDITOR Caroline White