Inside BFI London Film Festival’s ‘explosion’ of virtual reality film programming
Kristen is deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Sat directly opposite me, her hair is dyed blue, her denim jeans are ripped and she’s opening up about her personal story. “How are you feeling?” I ask her, as luscious animations illustrate her changing feelings. She appears genuinely lifelike during our one-to-one conversation, but in this beautifully rendered virtual space, Kristen isn’t real.
She’s presented to me using volumetric capture technology, otherwise known as a three-dimensional recording, making Kristen appear genuinely lifelike in a way a digital animation or hologram couldn’t. The piece is a profoundly affecting exploration of women’s reproductive rights and personal choice. By answering questions selected by the participant, she discusses the tragic but urgent story of her painful experience facing the harsh realities of Texas abortion legislation during her pregnancy, inviting pro- and anti-choice persons to engage in the highly contentious debate around female reproductive rights.
“We wanted to create an experience where people were making choices for themselves, actively deciding where the conversation is going,” says Polish-Canadian lead artist Joanne Popińska who created The Choice. “I wanted those who have been in these spaces and had similar experiences to feel represented and identify with the film. Kristen opens up a lot to you about her deeply personal experience, which makes it feel like you’re having a genuine conversation with a real friend.” Away from this project, Kristen is a real person who lives in America who volunteered herself for this project.
If we give this work space – I think we will see an explosion of beauty.”LFF Expanded curator Ulrich Schrauth
This year’s BFI London Film Festival is in full swing, screening the newest films from seasoned and emerging talent, but The Choice is part of LFF Expanded, an equally exciting element of the festival many attendees may not know about.
Returning for its third year, 2022’s LFF Expanded presents 20 virtual reality projects from 17 countries. The Main Exhibition at 26 Leake Street features 17 projects, many designed to place you at the centre of personal, timely stories we may not otherwise have access to, such as Kristen’s.
LFF’s immersive art and XR curator Ulrich Schrauth shed light on where best to start with the Expanded strand, and what makes these immersive experiences a rewarding alternative to catching a film screening at LFF. “For those already familiar with XR or looking to dive straight in, the Main Exhibition at 26 Leake Street contains enough works to demand repeat visits,” he says, recommending one project in particular, Guy Maddin’s Haunted Hotel: A Melodrama in Augmented Reality. “It’s a free installation available at BFI Southbank until 30 October. No booking is needed and you can get a real feel for the type of experiences these art forms offer.”
You go from a passive viewer to active participant – that’s why VR is so specialLFF Expanded curator Ulrich Schrauth
Despite cinema’s immersive capabilities, XR and immersive storytelling pushes the boundaries of art by inviting you to become physically involved in the narrative. As Schrauth puts it: “The fact you go from a passive viewer to an active participant in the story makes these exhibitions so uniquely special.”
Projects range broadly in their subject matter. From the shocking reality of the 2018 Hawaii false nuclear missile alert in On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World) to a poetically enchanting meditation on how landscapes shape Northern English identities in Monoliths, the VR works carry powerful messages universal to all.
The average festival goer might spend an hour and a half in the calm, atmospheric Leake Street space, trying out two or three VR experiences like The Choice, participating with others in interactive exhibitions and learning from informative display boards about the creative voices behind the ground-breaking projects.
Optimistic about the XR industry’s progression, Schrauth gleefully looks toward the future, hoping LFF Expanded can live up to its namesake next year and increase in size. “The artists and creatives are the ones here pushing the boundaries in this industry. If we can give more space to the creators, I think we will see an explosion of beautiful works.”
LFF Expanded runs at BFI London Film Festival until16 October, Tickets for the Main Exhibition give you a 90-minute time slot to try out as many of the different projects as you like. There are also presentations of other XR and immersive storytelling projects at the National Theatre
For the films not to miss at the festival, check our listings