When picturing the early days of cinema, one common scenario to imagine is that of an old-timey movie audience literally jumping out of the way of a seemingly oncoming onscreen locomotive, its black-and-white cattle guard threatening to slice viewers’ petticoats into blood-soaked Edwardian ribbons. And while a little internet sleuthing suggests that such fanciful tales of early filmgoing naiveté are largely apocryphal, the essence of this enduring myth remains as true: that visual storytelling is an extraordinarily immersive experience—and lately, even more so.
The world of “XR”—the all-encompassing term for the sprawling new frontier of works created across virtual, augmented and mixed reality platforms—is rapidly growing, but accessing the best new works that the field has to offer isn’t always easy. But luckily for those within a (digital) stone’s throw from LMU’s Playa Vista Campus, September 20-22 marks the return of The Portal—Film Independent’s new VR and immersive storytelling showcase—including geo-located AR—now in its second year. You can check out highlights from 2018’s inaugural edition of the showcase here.
“The storytellers in The Portal are visionary interdisciplinary artists, creating VR work that is pushing the boundaries and creating new ways to experience fiction, documentary and animated stories,” says Film Independent Artistic Director and Portal curator Jacqueline Lyanga, announcing the program’s lineup last week, adding: “In addition, augmented reality visual art and theater are bringing these traditional art forms into the future.”
The free event—that’s right: The Portal is free with RSVP, learn how to register to attend here—is once again produced in partnership with Loyola Marymount University, taking place at LMU Playa Vista Campus.
“We’re committed to making sure our students are learning both the art and the craft of storytelling using these cutting-edge technologies,” said Peggy Rajski, Dean of LMU’s School of Film and Television. “The AR/VR/immersive space is expanding the field of media and entertainment,” she added.
So! What can you expect to see—and more importantly, experience—at this year’s edition of The Portal? Here’s the (free!) event’s full program:
ROOM SCALE PIECES
Get ready to cinch up those Keds and do some leg stretches, as you prepare to move your boring ol’ corporeal bodies through these compelling and immersive digital environments, rife with compelling characters, storylines and themes.
Another Dream – Netherlands/USA/Egypt (DIRECTOR Tamara Shogaolu) – A hybrid animated documentary and VR game, Another Dream brings the gripping true love story of an Egyptian lesbian couple to life. Faced with a post-revolution backlash against the LGBTQ community, the couple escapes Cairo to seek asylum and acceptance in the Netherlands. An accompanying installation allows audiences to reflect on what have seen, heard and felt in VR. Another Dream is the second installment of Queer in a Time of Forced Migration, an animated transmedia series following the stories of LGBTQ refugees.
BattleScar (Chapters 1 and 2) – USA (CREATORS Nico Casavecchia, Martin Allais) – BattleScar follows a year in the life of Lupe, a Puerto Rican-American living in late 1970s New York City. The film uses Lupe’s handwritten journal to guide us through her experiences across 1978 as she meets Debbie—another runaway living in the city. Debbie introduces Lupe to the Punk scene, and exposes her to the secret worlds co-existing on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s. BattleScar is a coming-of-age drama that explored identity through the use of animation and immersive environments in virtual reality. Featuring voice work by Rosario Dawson.
Bonfire – USA (DIRECTOR Eric Darnell) – In the latest VR experience from the award-winning Baobab Studios, you play the lead role. As Space Scout 817, you are on a mission to discover a new home for the human race after it’s made of mess of Earth. The stakes are high. Too bad your piloting skills lack… precision. You crash-land in a clearing on a mysterious planet, 300 light-years from Earth. Your only source of light is your makeshift bonfire. Beyond the glow, everything falls to darkness—what are those strange noises coming from the alien jungle? Featuring voice work by Ali Wong.
Common Ground – UK (CREATOR Darren Emerson) – Common Ground is a multi-layered immersive journey into the history, politics and human face of the current crisis in the UK housing system. Through the monolithic concrete blocks of the notorious Aylesbury Estate—the biggest social housing estate in Europe—audiences enter the world of the estate beginning with its 1960s birth through its controversial redevelopment today. This multi-faceted VR documentary questions notions of community and examines the disenfranchisement and demonization of the working class and their sense of betrayal at displacement.
Future Dreaming – Australia (DIRECTOR “Sutu” aka Stuart Campbell) – In this immersive VR film, audiences step into a time-warping dream bubble, as four young Aboriginal Australians guide you through their futures. Their stories evolve from the present day to 20 years in the future where Nelson is driving space trains, Maverick hangs out with robots, Ali’s a world-famous performer and Maxie’s the Governor of an off-world colony powered by emus on treadmills. Be ready for an intergalactic adventure—and look out for space emus!
Gloomy Eyes – France/Argentina (DIRECTORS Jorge Teresco, Fernando Maldonado) – Being a zombie is against the law. The undead have been around for almost a decade now, but peaceful coexistence with “normal” people continues to fail. They hide in the forest, away from dangerous zombie hunters. Gloomy tries to stay out of sight. Hunters are a real threat, but this zombie is hiding from something else as well. Gloomy isn’t like other zombies—he has access to things we don’t see or understand. Nature knows he’s special.
Runnin’ – USA (CREATORS Reggie Watts, Kiira Benzing) –Reggie Watts and Kiira Benzing leverage state-of-the-art technology, inviting users to engage, interact and play! Get in the mood, drumming to your own beat in our record store before being transported to a retro-future dance party. Show off your moves alongside a troupe of dancers, Reggie and his collaborator, DJ John Tejada. The first VR experience to showcase Intel Studios’ volumetric video, don’t miss the chance to join the dance, as Runnin’ takes music videos to the next dimension.
The Key – USA/Iraq (DIRECTOR Celine Tricart) – The Key is an interactive experience mixing immersive theater and virtual reality, with a strong narrative structure punctuated by moments of interactivity. The participant goes on a journey exploring dreams, and must face challenges and difficult decisions, while experiencing a metaphorical journey from danger to safety. Through this journey a hidden truth is uncovered, and a new beauty revealed.
Unceded Territories – Canada/USA (DIRECTORS Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Paisley Smith) – Experience a colorful natural world made built from acclaimed First Nations artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s iconic pop-surrealist art style. Through infectious interaction, participants create a beautiful, natural paradise, experiencing the joy of freedom and satisfaction of control over the land. As the pulse of this world beats faster, the participant is increasingly faced with a lack of control as the wheels of environmental destruction are put into motion, with powerful music provided by A Tribe Called Red.
Wolves in the Walls: It’s All Over – USA (DIRECTOR Pete Billington) – Eight-year-old Lucy suspects that wolves live in the walls of her family home. She has no one to believe her—except you. Forging a groundbreaking blend of film, theater, audience agency and sleight of hand, this exquisitely crafted animated experience casts you as an active performer in a narrative where you interact, forge a relationship with, and go on a quest with the central character in ways that leave your mark on the experience.
360 DOCUMENTARY CINEMA
Harnessing MR’s incredible ability to generate empathy through immersion, these innovative nonfiction pieces take users deep inside a series of unforgettable experiences, both political and personal—you’ll see things the same again.
Ashe ‘68 – USA (CREATOR Brad Lichtenstein) – Before Colin Kaepernick, there was Arthur Ashe. In 1968—one of America’s most tumultuous years—Ashe emerged as an athlete who parlayed his fame as the first black man to win the US Open tennis championship into a lifetime devoted to fighting injustice. Ashe ‘68 brings viewers into the intimate moments right before Ashe’s historic 1968 US Open win, an event that changed his life and the course of sports history forever. This unique VR experience waves together 360-degree video re-creations, archival material and evocative animation to tell the story of Ashe’s defining moment as an athlete and emergence as an activist on the world stage. Produced by musician John Legend.
Accused No. 2: Walter Sisulu – France (DIRECTORS Gilles Porte, Nicolas Champeaux) – The story of the struggle of Apartheid is symbolized by one man: Nelson Mandela, who came to public notice during a historic trial in 1964, where he was sentenced alongside seven codefendants to a lifetime of hard labor—among them Walter Sisulu, the grey eminence of the African National Congress movement, who was the first of the accused to take on formidable prosecutor Percy Yutar. Using 256 hours of audio recordings of the hearings, viewers can explore the story of the ANC’s fight against Apartheid.
Children Do Not Play at War – Uganda/Brazil/USA (CREATOR Fabiano Mixo) – Aloyo, a 12-year-old girl living in Lira, Uganda, sits among other children around the fire to tell their story during war: what they saw, where they went Mixing oral storytelling traditions and contemporary VR narrative, blending fiction and non-fiction, Children narrates the memories, dreams and daily lives of the children who returned from war to recover their childhood.
Girl Icon – USA/India (CREATOR Sadah Espii Proctor) – Around the world, 130 million girls are out of school. Meet Rani, a Girl Icon, who is part of a growing movement of fearless girls leading change in their communities. Though limited by her community and the Hindu caste system, Rani is determined to finish school and become an army officer. In Girl Icon, Rani gives an intimate glimpse of her life, hopes, challenges and dreams, as well as how she’s helping others.
Mercy – Cameroon/USA (DIRECTOR Armando Kirwin) – Edith is a 14-year-old who lives in the village of Centre Lobo with her parents and siblings. At age seven, Edith starts to feel a pain in the side of her face, which eventually grows into a tumor the size of a lemon. Edith mocked and teased at school, and is even accused of being a victim of witchcraft. Despite the hardships she faces, Edith is happy and playful; we follow her as she travels by foot though the jungle for days in order to have a life-transforming surgery.
Traveling While Black – USA (DIRECTOR Roger Ross Williams) – Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams’ finely observed and crafted visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famed DC restaurant, transforms a central community locale into a symbolic safe space. African American visitors, some of who lived through segregation, sit and share a moment of honest discussion, reflecting on their experiences of restricted movement and race relations in the US. These stories strengthen bonds among communities by bringing hidden histories into our modern collective consciousness, confronting the way we talk about race in America.
AUGMENTED REALITY (AR) SPOTLIGHT
What’s old is new again. Don’t believe us? Just ask our old pal Bill Shakespeare, whose immortal texts have once again been reconceived and reinvented for the modern world with this unique piece being spotlighted at The Portal:
7 Ages of Man – United Kingdom/USA (CREATORS Robert Gilbert, Jessica Curry) – The Royal Shakespeare Company explores the future of theatre in this sublime production of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It, presenting a mixed-reality experience using cutting-edge volumetric capture, with Shakespearean actor Robert Gilbert and an original musical score by award-winning composer Jessica Curry. The line “all the world’s a stage” turns literal, as users experience the play in multiple, simultaneous locales.
GEO-LOCATED AUGMENTED REALITY
Across three unique AR experiences relocated to The Portal form their original locations, creator Nancy Baker Cahill explores—through arresting, interactive visuals—the results of human intervention upon the natural environment.
Margin of Error (2019) – This AR drawing/experience originally floated above the water at the Salton Sea Recreation Area, a site marked by toxic, terminal environmental damage. A phenomenon whose scope and impact we can scarcely comprehend, the Salton Sea’s rate of evaporation must be constantly mediated to avoid tipping into full-scale airborne environmental catastrophe. With no stabilization outlets, the Salton Sea has already destroyed much of what was once a natural habitat for multiple species of birds and fish. The drawing refers to this razor-thin line, which if crossed, will have even more devastating biological, chemical and geological impacts, beyond our imagination.
Method No. 13 – The title of the piece is a nod to the first line of George Orwell’s 1984, in which clocks were “striking thirteen,” a reference to contemporary methods of surveillance. Using devices that require GPS tracking to activate the artwork, viewers can experience the piece by looking “through” their screens at the air above to access the artwork while listening to the accompanying sounds, created in collaboration with Lisle Leete.
Revolutions (2019) –This AR drawing/experience was originally located at the Palm Springs wind farm as a monolithic AI “garden,” which was “planted” to help harness energy from the natural wind corridor of the Valley. While preferable to fossil fuels, the wind farm underscores the inescapable human effects on the land. Inspired by natural desert blooms, a series of animated “blossoms” rise above the turbines over the course of roughly two minutes, expanding and shattering. As the blossoms dissipate, they nod to airborne pollutants in the Valley, churning in conversation with their man-made relatives below.
These pieces will be viewable onsite at The Portal without tickets, using the 4th Wall app—download the app here, available for all iPads and iPhones with iOS11 or higher, and Android devices with AR Core. Be sure to download in advance.
Additionally, there will be panels on both Saturday and Sunday, which are free to attend. For more info, visit filmindependent.org/the-portal.
Ready to sink into the world of immersive media and entertainment? Free tickets to Film Independent’s The Portal are now available to both Film Independent Members and the general public—reserve your 90-minute time slot to experience this year’s exiting slate of programming right now. What are you waiting for? And don’t worry about ducking out of the way—that train coming at you isn’t real.
Produced by Film Independent, and in partnership with Loyola Marymount University, The Portal takes place September 20-22 at LMU’s Playa Vista Campus. To learn how to become a Film Independent Member, click here.
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(Header: Future Dreaming)