At the Venice International Film Festival, virtual reality is only a small part of the immersive experience.
On a small island just a short water shuttle ride from the main festival headquarters on the Lido, festivalgoers are being offered a chance to step into the metaverse. They can play games, "world-hop" with a tour guide, dress up in costumes with background dancers or even help Coco Chanel develop her Chanel No 5 perfume.
The programme, curated by Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac, runs from Thursday to next Saturday and provides a hands-on glimpse into the future of storytelling.
“It’s the biggest edition we have ever done,” Rosenthal said.
The forms have also evolved in the past two years when the Venice virtual programme had to go virtual itself. For this grand return to the Lazzaretto Vecchio, they’ve also given the programme a new, more inclusive name: Venice Immersive.
“We wanted to refocus on how quickly the field is diversifying,” Reilhac said. “We did not want to focus on one technology like VR, but to try to represent all kinds of different ways of offering an immersive experience.”
Of the 43 projects, only some require a VR headset. Some are big 360-degree installations and others offer a hybrid “mixed reality".
One of their most ambitious undertakings has been committing to giving tours of virtual worlds to small groups. Worlds is a general term that essentially means a space where people can gather virtually — it can be a beach, a forest, a fantastical science fiction space.
In the worlds, visitors can simply hang out, do activities like playing mini golf or even train dogs, Reilhac explained. Like many things in Venice Immersive, the worlds, and world-hopping, is something best experienced first-hand.
Framerate: Pulse of the Earth, is one of the multi-screen installations on display, which the curators said shows the potential of this art form. Made with 3D scanning technology, the project is focused on changing landscapes.
“We’re aiming to reveal alterations to the planet that are caused by nature and that are also caused by human-centred industries,” said Framerate director Matthew Shaw. “We see sites of destruction, extraction, habitation, we see harvests, we see growth, and we see erosion.”
To experience Framerate, audiences enter a dark room where they’re surrounded by screens that act as “holographic portals” into vast scenes, like a 60-metre cliff eroding and crumbling into the sea over a year or a forest transforming across 12 months. You can stand anywhere in the room, move about and choose what to focus on, whether it’s the cliff or a single pebble.
The team working on the project captured these scenes in Norfolk and Glasgow, in the UK, where they filmed daily for a year. Shaw said it wasn't just someone setting up a camera and tripod and leaving it to film — it required a fair amount of research and development as well as innovation.
“We don’t just make art works,” Shaw said. “We build the tools to make them work as well. It wasn’t just: 'Can we 3D scan something on the scale of the landscape', but: 'Can we scan it while it moves'?”
Shaw is just one of the pioneers of the new immersive art forms on display at the festival. Another high-profile project is Mathias Chelebourg’s Rencontre(s), featuring the voice of Marion Cotillard.
The “multi-sensory haptic experience” invites you to step into the perfumer’s shoes in 1921 when Gabrielle Chanel met Ernest Beaux and they created Chanel No 5.
There’s also an interactive VR game set in 1920s England inspired by the television show Peaky Blinders called Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom, which features the voice of lead star Cillian Murphy as well. Others are more serious, like Stay Alive My Son, in which the player steps into the shoes of a Cambodian genocide survivor.
“There’s no other A-list festival in the world that has committed so much to representing immersive as a new art form,” Reilhac said. “By juxtaposing immersive arts with prestigious feature films, we elevate the perception of immersive arts as a true art form and not just a technological gimmick.”
Reilhac said “there is no real market for immersive arts". The creators at Venice are doing it out of passion and curiosity. But he thinks that could change.
“It’s the birth of a new art form and possibly a new industry,” he said.
Scroll through the line-up for the Venice Film Festival 2022 below