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Getting sweaty, disoriented, and astonished at the world’s first VR film festival

“I know what it’s like to be dead.”

Peter Fonda famously spooked John Lennon with these words on the LSD trip that inspired The Beatles’ song She Said She Said, and I’m starting to understand where he was coming from at Kaleidoscope, the world’s first virtual-reality film festival.

I’m watching — maybe the better word would be partaking in — Tana Pura, one of 20 movies that nearly 300 curious festival-goers have flocked to experience at the opening of the VR film fest in Portland, Oregon. According to the filmmakers, “it explores the moments following death, and the transition of the soul into the afterlife.”

Whoa.

As I slip on a pair of Samsung Gear VR goggles, total darkness envelopes me, except for ribbons of purple, blue, and yellow that swirl around my head like schools of glowing eels. Sitars and a violin sing in my ears. The ribbons dart and flit with the music as if they’re alive, leading my gaze all around the inky blackness around me. The music swells and the ribbons turn to white, spiraling up to a white orb above me, stuck in its vortex. I, too, seem to be ascending toward it. It looms closer, closer, closer, until swallowing me in light.

I look around. Everything is white.

Whoa.

I take off my headset and headphones to the sight of a dozen other attendees around me, each as slackjawed as I was, slumped in rows of black folding chairs, back in the real world but still clearly lost in their own.

Reality at a virtual-reality film festival, it turns out, is just as weird as the stuff in the goggles.

Ascension of an artform

In case you missed the memo: Virtual reality has arrived, for real this time. Ever since the promise and disappointment of the ‘90s, the technology has been slowly evolving. Technologists like Oculus founder Palmer Luckey have toiled to eliminate dealbreakers like pixelation and nausea-inducing lag. The latest devices deliver mind-blowing experiences real enough to make you wince.

You can watch in 2D, but you might as well FaceTime with someone visiting Niagara Falls.

So what do we do with it? Rene Pinnel, who cofounded Kaleidoscope, hopes his festival will help answer that question.

“We think VR has the potential to become the dominant art form of the 21st century, just as cinema has been the dominant artform of the 20st century,” Pinnel told me. “These are pioneers who are starting to figure out the first words of what will become the language of virtual-reality cinema.”

“Pioneers” makes an apt term for the wild-west state of the industry. If VR were a film, it would still be putzing around at a stage where filmmakers cranked cameras by hand, pianists provided live soundtracks in theaters, and gentlemen resolved disputes outside with duels.

“Everything you do breaks,” explains Tyler Hurd, a former game developer who animated the VR film Butts — the world’s first animated VR short for the Oculus Rift. “You have to constantly be like, ‘What’s the problem now?’ and find other angry people online. It’s just like a mishmash of hacks.”

Please excuse our dust

The prickly hardships of VR content still poke through at Kaleidoscope. Rift headsets spew cords that plug into high-end gaming laptops, which chug under the strain of rendering frames fast enough to keep you from reaching for that barf bag. Lacking true panoramic cameras, panoramic filmmakers slap together six GoPros in mounts they 3D print themselves. Volunteers run demo stations, helping novices fiddle with straps and dials, then dabbing sweat off the hardware afterward.

Sundance, it is not.

But you’ll detect no lack of enthusiasm from participants, who reflect the same eclectic collision of art and technology that VR itself represents. Attendees are young and old, hip and slobbish, men and women. It’s also in Portland, so there are mustaches, ironic hats, a ukelele poking out of a backpack.

My personal favorite, Surge, was like living inside a Radiohead music video.

Unlike a traditional film festival, there’s no theater screen for everyone to gaze at together, and definitely not 300 VR headsets. So we wait. Different stations around the room show different short films, which participants patiently queue up for while they chatter about their favorites, like patrons at an amusement park. Breathlessly describing a film to the guy in front of me, I might as well be a 10-year-old describing a rollercoaster to his parents.

“Films” might be a misnomer for what you experience when you slip on a pair of goggles here. Tana Pura – the afterlife (or maybe afterdeath) film — felt more like a dream than a movie. DMZ: Memories of a No Man’s Land, a tale about South Korea’s border with North Korea, seems like an interactive display you would find at a museum, with 3D recreations of photographs and narration from a former border guard that you can queue on demand. Butts is … well, a tale about butts that shoot confetti. That one’s definitely a film.

My personal favorite, Surge, was like living inside a Radiohead music video. In front of you, a shiny glass floor stretches out in every direction, as tiny cubes in the foreground twang together, as if driven by magnets, and combine to create new forms. A pile of cubes begins assembling itself into a humanoid shape that shuffles along, collapsing and changing with the electronic music. Giant block men stride by, crumbling cubes, as the sky turns to an expanse of barcode-like lines. You can watch it on YouTube in 2D, but you might as well FaceTime with someone visiting Niagara Falls.

What should we call such a thing? We’ll figure it out later. The art is real now, even if the words to describe it are still somewhere in the primordial ooze the art crawled from.

New frontiers

If there’s a common theme to the 20 films here, it’s this: Nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing.

And that’s exactly why it’s so exciting. The same rough edges that make Kaleidoscope a bit goofy, a bit unorganized and a bit unsure of itself are the same qualities that make it feel innovative, fresh, and thought-provoking. The medium is growing. This is the ground floor.

In an age where Hollywood studios have been regurgitating the same dreck for 100 years now — quite literally — virtual reality promises to shatter tired stereotypes and give viewers something new to chew on. Tana Pura isn’t a saccharine rom-com, a pouty art-house flick, or a brainless shoot-em-up. It’s … something else entirely, made possible only by the new medium it embraces.

Finally.

So filmmakers, start your VR engines. But no ‘90s remakes, please. We really don’t need Mighty Ducks VR.