Meet The Women Pushing Boundaries In VR At The Tribeca Film Festival

At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, women are taking center stage — particularly in the realm of immersive experience. The Storyscapes Award recognizes achievement in storytelling via technology, and this year, four of the five virtual reality experiences up for the award were made by women creators — projects ranging from an escape-room thriller to a mixed reality piece about an Egyptian couple seeking asylum.

Ahead, we talked to the women nominees pushing boundaries in VR about the power of virtual reality as a storytelling tool and what advice they would give to other women creators trying to break into the industry.

“Technology has allowed for a greater level of immersion into story,” said Loren Hammonds, Tribeca Film Festival’s programmer for film and immersive. “Whether we’re talking about VR experiences in which viewers are thrust into scenes to interact with characters, or Immersive AR Audio that allows audiences to have their actual surroundings enhanced in unprecedented ways to create new storytelling beats, there’s no denying that media can be wildly innovative in the hands of the right storyteller.”

Another Dream(World Premiere) Netherlands, U.S.A., Egypt
Project Creator: Tamara Shogaolu, Ado Ato Pictures

Describe your immersive experience:

“The core of our animated mixed reality piece, Another Dream, lies in the documentary audio recordings of a young Egyptian lesbian couple, whose stories I have followed since their participation in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution through their journey to seeking asylum in the Netherlands today. I wanted to share their story in a way that would best honor their experiences and voices — and share them in a way that challenges the stereotypes and even erasure of women of color, queer people, and the Muslim community that is too often presented by the mass media. Working toward these goals naturally led our team to experiment with new ways to share their story.”

How does VR help you tell stories?

“I believe that sharing these stories in innovative and engaging ways is all the more urgent today. Politically and in the media, we hear so much ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ but because of technology, our world actually now has the potential to be more ‘we’ than ever.

“Animation allows us to protect the women’s identities, but it also emphasizes the personal nature of their accounts, as well as their unique perspectives. This choice also offered our team a chance to experiment visually, with inspirations that range from Dutch and Egyptian painters to elements of magical realism. VR also afforded our team the opportunity to create a hybrid animated documentary with gaming elements and combine three different types of animation in a way not done before by bringing together 2D and 3D animation, with hand-drawn characters in virtual environments using tools like AnimVR.

“New and immersive media tools emphasize that stories don’t just need to be heard — they need to be felt. I feel that mediums like VR have the power to make the political personal and the personal universal.”

What advice would you give to women creators who want to break into VR and film?

“Think of your story first, always. Decide the best medium to share your story and start experimenting and testing. There are so many resources available today to let you experiment and build prototypes on your own, which is incredibly empowering. You don’t have to wait for someone to say yes for you to get started on your journey in traditional film or new and immersive mediums like VR. Also, don’t let the technology, or the pressure to be the first to use some new form of technology, be the driving force. Audiences will remember your piece because of the story, so the technology should be the tool — and the right tool — to tell that story.”

Traitor(World Premiere) — U.K.
Project Creator: Lucy Hammond, Pilot Theater

Describe your immersive experience:

“Traitor is a two-player VR escape-room thriller. Eight hours ago, special operative Emma McCoy vanished, and all she left behind was a VR game. Now it’s up to you to help find her. Traitor relies on constant communication between the two players. The story explores what it means to be a digital citizen today.”

How does VR help you tell stories?

“VR allows us to tell our story in a way that puts our audience at the center of the action. The VR creates a world within a world — helping us explore our themes of trust, as each player has to rely on the description of what the other sees.”

What advice would you give to women creators who want to break into VR and film?

“Storytelling in immersive technology is such an exciting emerging medium and is fertile ground for new and unusual ways of storytelling. There is no rule book for this work, so as an artist or storyteller, you can find your own way of working. I would say to explore what is currently available in the immersive form you are interested in and break new ground. There is so much to be learned, broken, and reimagined.”

The Key(World Premiere) U.S.A., Iraq
Project Creator: Celine Tricart, Lucid Dreams Productions in partnership with the Oculus VR for Good Creators Lab

Describe your immersive experience:

“The Key is an interactive experience mixing immersive theater and virtual reality. Participants will get to meet Anna, a young woman who has vivid dreams but no recollection of her past. By exploring her dreams, they will be able to find clues about where Anna comes from and unlock the mystery of The Key.

“As a lucid dreamer myself, I draw a lot of inspiration from my dreams. In The Key, I want to take the participants into a magical realism journey through different dreams, where each detail has a metaphoric meaning. It’s a multi-sensory experience where colors and music carry the narrative. Through this journey, a hidden truth is uncovered and a new beauty revealed.”

How does VR help you tell stories?

“VR is a game-changer. It’s the tool every storyteller and world-builder dreamed about. At first, I was blown away by the creative freedom and the infinite possibilities offered by game-engine technology. The main challenge for me was to find a way to craft interactivity so that it didn’t get in the way of emotion. As an avid gamer myself, I know that’s something the video game industry has mastered.

“But in VR, we haven’t quite achieved this balance yet. How do we get past the gimmicks and create something just as powerful as lived memories or lucid dreams? I’ve studied hundreds of interactive VR projects, trying to understand what works and doesn’t work for story-driven experiences. I learned two things that I decided to use in The Key. First, simplicity is key. Instead of using all the buttons on the controllers for tasks or teleporting, I decided to craft the environments so that the participant doesn’t have to. In order to interact with objects or characters, touching them is enough. That way, even non-gamers can easily understand the experience mechanics and enjoy them without having technicalities getting in the way.

“The second thing I’ve learned is to treat the participants with respect and kindness. I believe VR is a first-person medium. We bring a lot of ourselves in with us: our identity, our thoughts, our emotions. It is important to “ease” the participants into the VR story world with smooth, smart transitions from the real world and to educate them on the ‘rules’ of this new world as early as possible. And most importantly, not to try to squeeze the participants into other people’s bodies and tell them what to think and when. It’s story-living, instead of storytelling.”

What advice would you give to women creators who want to break into VR and film?

“In VR, we are blessed with a beautiful, diverse, and supportive community. I’d encourage women creators to go to festivals or VR-XR–related events and watch as many experiences as possible. The language of virtual reality is unique and very different than the language of film or video games. It’s only by trial and error that we can explore this exciting uncharted territory. There’s a lot of resources out there to learn: books, the Women in VR/AR Facebook group, community events. Don’t be shy, and reach out to the experienced VR creators out there and ask for guidance!”

The Collider (North American Premiere) — U.K.
Project Creator: May Abdalla (pictured) and Amy Rose

Describe your immersive experience:

“The Collider is an experience for two people at a time. It’s about our relationship with power and dependency.

“You enter separately and move through a series of rooms until you encounter one another — one person inside a VR headset and the other person wielding controllers, which, they discover, gives them power over what the other person sees and does.

“The story is that The Collider is a machine built to decipher the mysteries of human relationships. Like its better-known counterpart, The Large Hadron Collider, The Collider also sets out to reveal bonds between unique entities. Although, instead of particles, this machine hurls people together.

“Its mission: to identify and understand the invisible material that passes between people — the corrosive, delightful, and mysterious matter that keeps us together and pulls us apart. This material is what we play with in the experience: how it forms, and when and why it sometimes breaks.

“While we were making the piece, events took place that led to wider conversations about power: the quest for a “strong leader” after the election of Trump and the evidence for how dynamics of domination were accepted through the #MeToo allegations.

“Increasingly, the piece became more about the will to power and the extraordinary ability of another person to limit your freedom. What part do we play in how power is proportioned between people — and how do the memories of that live in our skin?”

How does VR help you tell stories?

“In many ways, and within reason, VR can create almost any kind of space — it’s like malleable architecture where your movements can create almost anything. When VR is actually interactive, it has the potential to engage every part of you viscerally — because your attention, and your body, are in there.”

What advice would you give to women creators who want to break into VR and film?

“VR is about being somewhere. Unlike film, it’s a bit of an error to ignore what people’s bodies are doing and feeling in the experience. Standing there, they might feel exposed, pumped, dreamy; the best advice is to experience as much work as possible, to feel it through your own skin. Don’t let anyone tell you how you’re supposed to feel about a piece — there is so much hype out there! But great work comes from working with the live experience of what you can create for people.

“In terms of breaking into the industry — it’s a great time. The rules are yet unwritten, the business models are all a bit bonkers. The audiences haven’t really developed their taste. No one really has it cornered, so there’s loads of space for upstarts, hustlers, and dreamers to get in there.”

The Tribeca Film Festival is taking place between now and May 5.

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