​Greg Klymkiw and Ana Serrano Talk Virtual Reality

By Greg Klymkiw ● August 25, 2016 10:30

The 2016 Fantasia International Festival of Films in Montreal celebrated its 20th year of screening the finest cutting-edge genre films from all over the world, so it seemed an ideal time to celebrate the cutting-edge technology used in these films. Fantasia, along with CFC Media Lab, hosted The Samsung Fantasia Virtual Reality Experience at Concordia University.

And what an experience it was! Upon entering the main floor of the building, one was greeted by an imposing box created with black drapery. Inside, a whole new world of content delivery, a grand selection of films and the opportunity to be outfitted with personal headphones and viewing head set, allowed one to be plunged into the world of Virtual Reality (VR). All the films provided a combination of experiential and narrative cinema that allowed viewers to be IN the space of the narrative and explore it in a full 360-degree setting. To say the experience was inspirational, wildly entertaining and, at times, heart stopping, would be an understatement.

Armed with these overwhelming feelings of elation and edification, I descended into the bowels of Concordia University’s McConnell Building with Ana Serrano, the CFC Media Lab’s visionary director and producer of two CFC films featured in the aforementioned festival. Here, in the dank Concordia University basement tunnel complex, we talked about all things VR.

Greg Klymkiw: Would it be fair to say that VR is still in its infancy on both technological and aesthetic levels?

Ana Serrano: Very fair. We’re just getting started. However, the starting points are different for the various tribes within the VR space.

Greg: In terms of the VR product programmed by the CFC Media Lab for The Samsung Fantasia Virtual Reality Experience, I was impressed with the variety of films presented. Of the 11 films, it felt like there was an almost 50% split between those films which were primarily experiential/thematic and those that were narratives, though blending experiential/thematic concerns within their stories.

For example, in George Kacevski’s Remember, there’s a slight narrative through-line, but the film feels almost wholly experiential as it presents a woman interacting with a computer erasing her memories.

Ana: I agree that the film hints at a narrative, but isn’t quite a narrative within the context of it currently being a stand-alone piece. However, and to be perfectly fair, the film was also produced as a teaser for a much-longer-form episodic piece.

Greg: That’s so interesting. Remember was one of the few pieces which I simply did not wantto end. The bottom line for me is that it’s a trip – first and foremost. It’s like certain trip-like set pieces within Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, there’s the wholly experiential aspect of the CFC piece that you produced, Body/Mind/Change Redux Teaser – it doesn’t get trippier than David Cronenberg’s floating head expounding between pods from The Fly and ending with the prescient words of Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome. It’s like watching the star-gate sequence in 2001 – you don’t want anyone to bogart a joint while you’re grooving on it.

I’m curious, however, about the “gimmick” aspect of VR. In the 50s, Hollywood needed to revive cinema by introducing 3D, and in the 70s, there were the aural rumblings of Sensurround, which actually made you feel like you were in the middle of an earthquake and hell, even John Waters’s scratch and sniff Odor-Rama experience in Polyester allowed one to experience the aromas of suitably disgusting items. What are some of the thoughts and concerns surrounding the “gimmick” aspect of VR?

Produced by CFC Media Lab

Ana: I think everyone is looking for the answer to that, especially in terms of narrative beyond the gimmick. There are a number of schools. One of these is that VR will never be a complete storytelling medium, that it’s going to be a more experiential, gaming medium – exploratory, if you will. Others believe that VR will ultimately be about storytelling, but that we haven’t quite figured out how to tell stories in this medium.

What’s happening now is that the whole 360-degree aspect of VR is seen by some as being a gimmick and ultimately, far less important than the storytelling elements being within a virtual reality environment. Many content creators feel that 180 or 200-degrees are the ideal ratios in which to present VR.

Greg: That’s a bit disappointing to me. The 360-degree element of VR is its most exciting aspect, not just in gaming, but in narrative. The 360 appears to be that which is the next great technological achievement to propel cinematic narrative forms even further. It’s what all filmmakers strive for, to plunge an audience into the reality of a particular story. VR has the potential to tell stories in a way that’s never been done before.

Ana: The reason why the 360 is an interesting space in which to tell stories is that at this moment, people feel this is a space they can explore how narrative becomes experiential in new and exciting ways. This currently seems to leave directors somewhat hanging since the viewers can be looking at different places, so their ability to direct the viewer’s gaze and the focus of the story is hampered by the fact that the viewer can look anywhere.

Greg: Then allow me to interject obnoxiously with the assertion that those directors are not very good filmmakers.

Ana: This is part of the whole debate right now. There are two camps. One argues for the need to develop a language to help filmmakers create the attention-journey for the VR participants [the audience]. So they’re designing the viewer’s journey in this 360 space by using things like audio, point of view and edits. They’re finding ways to develop the literal focus pulling within VR.

The other camp says, “That’s not our job – we’re not here to direct the user’s attention, but to create the conditions for the users to explore a much more open narrative that doesn’t necessarily have the kind of structure that traditional linear narratives do.” I think both are good explorations.

Greg: I think the storytelling language – the tools, if you will – are already there. It’s thousands of years of rendering stories visually – from theatre, opera, performance art and cinema. It’s my firm insistence upon the “everything is new again” ethos, which is what should be the guiding principle for filmmakers to adapt into a VR experience – using visual storytelling basics as a springboard into this new and exciting form to take us even further. You know, like in Star Trek, the Enterprise ship must “boldly go where no one has gone before”, but everything Captains Kirk and Picard do is rooted in thousands of years of standard navigation technique. Certainly in terms of what you’re doing, the CFC Media Lab is the logical extension of exploring narrative.

Ana: For sure. Certainly our current commitment to looking at VR through the lens of genre comes from this very thing. Most people know how to “read” a genre film. There’s a bunch of shortcuts and symbols in genre that have specific expectations, but which also have a myriad of cinematic techniques attached to them.

Greg: And I think the sky’s the limit in VR, using all the traditional tools to take us to the heavens and in so doing, creating new tools that can work in VR and possibly be transposed to other forms of storytelling. My worries with respect to VR are similar to those I’ve always had about filmmaking. From its inception over a century ago, film has been driven to ever-new heights, but because the advancements have been so rapid, I feel that many techniques of visual storytelling were never properly mined and/or exploited to their fullest potential. In computer land, things move so rapidly that–

Ana: There isn’t enough room or time given over to experimentation.

Greg: Exactly!

Ana: So much money is being thrown at VR right now that it might be anathema to experimentation. If you look at who’s supporting VR in the current environment, there are Hollywood studios, major brands, celebrities and many others who’ve all decided to participate in this VR revolution, and their goals are very different from artists. This a worrisome trend.

Greg: I sometimes think that the divide between cheque-cutters and artists has been manufactured, machine-tooled if you will, to keep the respective interests apart.

Ana: I don’t think so. It’s absolutely not a conflict and certainly not a conflict of values. It’s more like this: when you have a ton of money being poured into something, then you’re less likely to fool around with the riskiest proposition because it’s already so risky, especially when you consider that, at least for now, the delivery method of the content is on a much smaller scale. To experience VR is to do so with headsets and not in the communal setting of cinemas or broadcast television.

Greg: One of the cool things about VR is that it’s currently all about the relationship between the participant, the viewer and the artist. I love that, but I also feel I’m missing out on sharing that experience with others.

Ana: While social VR is not yet ready for prime time, people are harnessing its power in two ways. One, they’re actually creating presentation spaces where people can watch things via the VR headsets and other people can watch those people as they watch things, which is sort-of crazy.

Greg: Man, if only Hitchcock had been alive to exploit the fetishistic or voyeuristic nature of watching watchers watch. I must admit that after watching a whole whack of VR productions, I took off the headsets and then just watched people watching. That was extremely bizarre, as the viewers are reacting physically to the VR experience, especially during jump-scare moments, and also to the simple actions of looking up, looking down, looking side to side, and most delightfully, as they spin around in their chairs to take in the 360-degree experience.

Ana: The other thing that’s happening, something that’s generating considerable investment, is what I would call social cinema. They have them in Denmark, France and other places. They’re open to the public and are much nicer venues, which include restaurants and bars. Upon completion of the VR presentations, there are moderated discussions between the participants to share their experiences with each other. In this sense, a good part of the VR experience becomes one in which you talk about your experience.

Greg: Exactly! What’s being eradicated is the social, public experience of moviegoing, to the point where we’re even losing the art, if you will, of talking about stuff, especially right after the experience is still fresh.

Ana: Ultimately, though, the current thinking is that the many years of developing and studying interactive storytelling have all been leading up to the commercially viable form of gaming at the next level, which VR adds, but throughout that search, it’s been a case of finding a suitable delivery platform for it. It seems VR could be that.

Produced by CFC Media Lab

Greg: God knows I’ve been a gaming geek-freak from Pong on down, or rather, up. Yet VR’s use for gaming seems to be a given and I’m still obsessed with its straight-up storytelling potential. For example, the other CFC Media Lab production within the program here at Fantasia is The Closet, which utilizes a number of tried-and-true cinematic methods, but does so within the VR context and as such, contributes to the development of new storytelling language. How was the project developed?

Ana: The mantra of the CFC Media Lab is that we must eat our own dog food. If we’re going to say that we’re going to help VR content creators, then we need to make it ourselves. We’ve always produced our own product across a variety of platforms. So, with The Closet, we had a number of things with which we wanted to experiment. First of all, we needed to find a solid story with a traditional three-act structure – a beginning, middle and end. Most VR doesn’t have that. Second, we’d decided upon offering a genre VR accelerator and wanted to create a property with that in mind. Third, we wanted to exploit the 360 to its fullest storytelling potential, and to do that we’d utilize fast edits to drive the viewer’s perspective where it needed to go. Finally, it was important to do something different with the meaning of the stuff on which we were working. What filmmakers tend to focus on in genre VR is the gimmicky novelty of the jump-scare, but my directive was to see if we could use VR within genre as a means of interrogating that.

Greg: Interrogate what? The genre? The form?

Ana: Exactly! Given that the majority of viewers of genre and participants in gaming are male, we decided to add a level of discomfort for them by dealing with something they’d normally avoid – homoerotic horror. The series itself, which uses gender as its primary theme, allows us not only to experiment with the form, but also to explore the discomfort that can be felt when participating in work about gender.

Greg: And of course, to explore the discomfort we all feel, to varying degrees, with intimacy.

Ana: For sure! Within those parameters of experimentation, the development included script, design and technological aspects of telling the story. Actually shooting it took only a couple of hours. Now, of course, having created and experimented with these parameters, we have a model of constraints with which our filmmakers can work within on their own properties.

Greg: It’s an excellent model. Emphasizing proper development and prep allows the actual shoot to go as smoothly as shoots should ideally go. Hitchcock, of course, emphasized making the film via development, because the process of shooting bored him. Using this model that you’ve developed, will CFC Media Lab encourage filmmakers to follow the path of “You’ve got to know the rules before you break the rules,” and, in fact, create an atmosphere wherein filmmakers then have the freedom not only to work within the parameters, but also to break them to contribute to the creation of new forms of storytelling vocabulary within VR?

Ana: Absolutely! We’re interested in working with people who want to f*** around with the form.

Greg: I accept this – wholeheartedly.

During his 40 years in the motion picture industry, Greg Klymkiw has produced numerous feature films in addition to serving as a teacher, writer, consultant, script editor, programmer and on-air broadcast personality.