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Virtual reality, a matter of points of view

In the cinema, this is called the camera look and it is forbidden. A taboo plan. Because by having his actors resolutely set the goal, a director risks breaking a tacit agreement with the audience. To know that what happens on the screen is true, and not simulacrum. To look at the camera is to look the viewer in the eye and suddenly signify the existence of a staging that he had agreed to ignore when entering the dark room. There are of course exceptions (Alfred Hitchcock’s final Family Plot plan for example) but as a rule, this is not done. In virtual reality (VR), it is the opposite. The process of the 360-degree spherical image creating immersion immediately makes from the spectator’s point of view an issue of the narrative, solicited, put to the test. The selection of the second VR Arles Festival, which lasts until August 31, 2017 as part of the Rencontres de la photographie, offer glaring examples.

Starting with the winner of the jury prize, Miyubi. By wearing his head-mounted helmet, the viewer embodies the toy robot that gives its name to this 40-minute film with actors. Offered to a little boy on his birthday, Miyubi (and the spectator therefore) and constantly challenged, mocked, threatened at times. He is also the privileged witness of the evolution of a typical American family of 1982, with the grandfather veteran of the Pacific War who gradually loses his ball, the father fascinated by Japanese technological gadgets who loses his job and the elder in crisis of adolescence. The film is a succession of sequences where the robot is turned on and then turned off. At each relaunch, a screen reveals the progressive degradation of the electronic system (memory, autonomy). The reactions of the robot slow down, the screen goes out of control and the viewer can see that the articulated arms and the body of the machine (his own, in the VR device) are damaged. A disturbing parallel is thus drawn between the decay of a family and the programmed obsolescence of the robot. To a bittersweet conclusion on the future of technological products, then and now…

Miyubi is one of the few VR films with actors and sets, as in the cinema. The festival offers others. Dutch production with multiple directors, Ashes to Ashes puts the viewer in the place of a … funeral urn containing the ashes of a grandfather. The opportunity to see, all around, the relatives struggle with the last will of the disappeared and compete with hypocrisy. But the film is also a game with the virtual reality media since the story, shot in a single shot sequence, is actually set within the framework of a film shoot. ” I’m too old for this damn virtual reality “utters one character, while another promises that “virtual reality is the big thing to come”. The sets change before our eyes and the film device shows itself, until revealing the rails on which is moved the Jaunt ONE, the module of 24 synchronized cameras that serves to film at 360° and occupying the position of the urn.

With Alteration, the viewer soon no longer knows where or who he is

Alteration, on the other hand, was produced by Arte and Okio Studio, already behind I, Philip. We find the same motifs (an oppressive enclosed space, here a swimming pool, a seaside) and the same themes inspired by the writer Philip K. Dick (techno-scientific experiment, manipulation, paranoia, jamming memories). In the visiocasque, the viewer soon no longer knows where he is or who he is, the unconscious of the character being gradually replaced by an artificial intelligence.

More poetic, the blurring between memories and reality is also at work in Dear Angelica. The narrator remembers her late actress mother Angelica (who has the voice of American actress Geena Davis). The viewer is literally enveloped by computer-generated images that are perfectly fixed but whose superposition and succession creates movement. In S. E. N. S. VR, developed for Arte Creative from the world of the cartoonist Marc-Antoine Mathieu, the viewer’s gaze in the helmet makes the story move forward.

But perhaps the most disturbing is Nothing Happens, directed by Israeli Uri Kranot and produced by Denmark. In a snowy plain away from a city, around a stage of which we know nothing, various characters gather who do not do or say anything (apart from two musicians who start to play). The viewer passes from the point of view of one to that of the other, including that of birds and that of the bottom of a pit. The film, mixing pencil drawings on paper, rotoscopy and digital images, is like a kind of painting in which we navigate in 3D to try to understand who is watching who or what. Before the final explanation that ice the blood…

The paintings, precisely. Already author of an exploration of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, Colombian artist Carlos Franklin makes particularly relevant use of VR in Velasquez’s Menines. This famous painting from 1656, showing the Spanish painter painting someone out of frame but who occupies the place of the spectator, is already in itself an exercise on the point of view. With the visiocasque, the director makes us enter the canvas to vary the perspectives and expose various theories on the subject of the painting, including placing us in the position of the painter.

Finally, it is perhaps with realistic or purely journalistic exercises that the immersive device still finds its limits. Impressive, the nine minutes of running herds of wild animals in Exodus: the great migration are enough on their own despite the technical means implemented (drones, 360°camera…). This is even more true for We who remain. This report by Trevor Snapp and Sam Wolson on a little-known conflict in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan, plunges into the heart of the drama and daily life of the protagonists: in a bomb shelter, on the bed of a field hospital, in the middle of a village, in the jeep of fighters. But the strength of the subject does not owe much to the 360° and we feel that style effects and a game with the viewer would have come badly here.

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