Do you see what I see? Virtual Reality Storytelling at Sheffield Doc/Fest

So it turns out there’s more to this Virtual Reality shindig than meets the eye – and I’m not the only one to see the potential here for archaeology.

In the Virtual Reality Arcade at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.
Kiya by Nonny de la Peña (2015). Plugged into the Virtual Reality Arcade at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.

The Virtual Reality Arcade, which was co-curated with Sheffield’s Site Gallery, seems to be a new addition to the Doc/Fest (or at least, I can’t find any references to it in prior years) – and I hope they make it a permanent fixture synched with the Crossover Summit because there is so much to be inspired by here. Exhibiting a variety of immersive projects from experimental media to fully formed documentary storytelling, one can’t help but wonder if that big dark cinema will soon be replaced by these daggy goggles and headphones. It’s also refreshing to see not only game-like pixelated worlds featured, but observational filming out in the real world. Here’s a selection of my favourite works:

Oscillate (2015) by Brendan Walker. Photo: Kate Rogers.
Oscillate (2015) by Brendan Walker. Don’t look down! Photo: Kate Rogers.

Oscillate, created by UK engineer Brendan Walker, is an immersive art experience that fuses the classic playground swing with Oculus Rift technology. In short: as you swing so too does the virtual world you find yourself in – it moves with you. And it’s a funky world: M.C Escher meets minecraft in space is the best description I can give it. I kept expecting Labyrinth-style David Bowie to appear through the crumbing wall before me, if only I could swing a little bit further to peer around that distant edge. Be warned though: swinging high when blind and deaf to the real world is kind of alarming – it’s easy to forget that there are people around you and a hard floor below. Especially when that floor is replaced by swirling star-filled space. Oh, and did I mention you have no body? You look down and there’s noting there – no you, no swing – it’s like an out of body experience – in fact that was the case in all the VR projects I saw. Psychedelic much?

Clouds Over Sidra (2015) by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Promotional Still.
Clouds Over Sidra (2015) by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Promotional Still.

Clouds Over Sidra was easily my favourite VR project and I was pleased to see it win the Interactive Award at the festival. Co-created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora and a whole team of “artists, technicians, thinkers and innovators,” this project combines traditional short-form documentary filmmaking with 360’ filming and Oculus VR technology. Commissioned by the United Nations and Samsung as part of an advocacy exhibit at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2015, Clouds Over Sidra tells the story of a 12 year Syrian refugee Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, along with 84 000 other refugees. She narrates and shares her day with us in her own words, introducing us to her home, having breakfast with her family, going to school, playing with the other kids, and tells us how she wishes to return to where the clouds come from: her home in Syria. Interestingly she is dubbed into English (although you can hear her own voice beneath) – which makes me wonder how subtitles might fare in this new technology. That’s a technicality though. Ultimately, Clouds Over Sidra’s simplicity makes it a powerful piece – Sidra’s world is brought to life in a thoughtful, gentle and emotionally affecting way – demonstrating the real potential for using VR as an immersive storytelling device to drive social and political change. The VR technology here is serving the story, not the other way around. Check out Milk’s TED Talk for a taste of the film and the philosophy behind it, and the Creators Project for an interview with Arora for the more on the making-of this inspiring work.

Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015.
Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015. Promotional Still.

But what does this mean for archaeology documentaries? Well, Clouds Over Sidra certainly gave me ideas for filming archaeological stories – but damnit Bikini Atoll beat me to the punch. Directed by Phil Harper, Bikini Atoll is a short 360’ film depicting the archaeological and environmental research conducted at the WW2 shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands), which later became a US nuclear test site. Thus the film takes us to two place we might never get to visit otherwise: underwater wrecks in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and a nuclear test site (is that even safe?). There’s no scientific description of the research here – nor a clear documentary story driven by character development or change – rather its more of a poetic portrait of the site: you can all but feel the tug of the current as you twist and turn to watch the divers at work. But ultimately it feels like a promise of more to come, rather than a final finished product.

Bikini Atoll (2015) by Phil Harper. Promotional Still.
Take the plunge. Bikini Atoll (2015) by Phil Harper. Promotional Still.

“We’re on the brink of a simply enormous change in visual communication.” – Sir David Attenborough
To me it VR also seems to be a promise: even though the technology has been with us for several decades now, it seems only recently to have begun pushing into fields other than gaming. Now there are stories here that it feels like only VR can tell, and other mediums – particularly the flat-screen of the television or cinema with its distant stereo speakers – will soon be unable to compete in the documentary quest for capturing actuality. And with pocket 360’ cameras and VR headsets now entering the consumer market, perhaps VR stories soon be cheaper and easier to make as well. Will the coder replace the editor? Will that shared communal experience of the cinema become a distant memory, traded in for personal immersive experiences (if that hasn’t happened already)? What are the ethical implications for our audience if such immersive stories become difficult to discern from reality? Will documentary modes change to suit the new vision? And most importantly, how can we eat a choc-top if we can’t see our hands?

Well, that’s a wrap on Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 for this blogger. I came, I saw, I spilled some vodka. And now it’s time to get back to my dusty dell at uni and a ever-growing pile of readings, paperwork and chapter drafts. But please share your thoughts on what you’ve read here – comment is free – and stay tuned for more musings, informal reviews and news on the constantly changing but always inspiring world of archaeology docs!

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