What's reality? Vancouver’s Reel 2 Real Film Fest spotlights VR storytelling

What's reality? Vancouver’s Reel 2 Real Film Fest spotlights VR storytelling

A world made entirely of cardboard where a split-second decision can have dire consequences; a haunting tale about a young girl with the devastating ability to see past and future at the same time; an immersive dance piece performed on intertidal mudflats where the spectator becomes a critical member of a quartet.

These are but three of the virtual reality works available for screening this week at the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth (Western Canada's only family film festival; more on the full line-up below) – and as those wildly different synopses illustrate, virtual reality (or VR) is a catch-all term for an expansive new frontier in screen storytelling.  

This particular trio of VR films – Cardboard Crash, Blind Vaysha, and Tidal Traces – was produced by the National Film Board of Canada’s digital studio.

The NFB began its exploration of VR three years ago, when products like the Oculus Rift headsets began flooding the market, says VR producer Vincent McCurley during YVR Screen Scene's recent visit to the NFB’s Vancouver studio, tucked away at the top of a spiral staircase in the Woodward’s Building.

A still from  Blind Vaysha , a VR film about a young girl who can see past and future simultaneously that was produced by the National Film Board of Canada. 

A still from Blind Vaysha, a VR film about a young girl who can see past and future simultaneously that was produced by the National Film Board of Canada. 

“We created the NFB VR lab to explore storytelling in this new medium, and especially in the early experimental stages of VR, we wanted to tell stories that fit the medium,” says McCurley. “We didn’t want to necessarily tell a story that could be told through traditional film, or a blog post, or photographs. What was a story that fit VR?”

Cardboard Crash – in which users are asked to make split-second decisions while riding in a self-driving car in a cardboard world – evolved out of that question.  

“By using a real-time game engine, you give the audience agency, and that agency is very different from film and traditional cinema because the audience affects the outcome of the story,” says McCurley, who created Cardboard Crash and was creative technologist on the immersive dance film Tidal Traces.

The audience participation that is a unique and essential element of the VR experience, says McCurley, is “something that our digital studio has been experimenting with in a lot of interactive works, whether that’s through web sites where you choose your path through the documentary or the animation.” 

"There are so many genres coming out of VR," adds McCurley. "Do you like movies or games or television shows or YouTube? It’s all possible within VR."

Behold the trailers for the three NFB-produced VR films that are screening this week at the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth (click here for demo times):

Cardboard Crash

In a world of AI and self-driving cars, who determines the ethics algorithm to handle emergency situations? In this VR vignette, the user is slowed down to bullet-time, becoming the computer, and forced to confront a hard decision where there is plenty of data, but no easy answer.

Blind Vaysha 

Blind Vaysha is an expressionistic work that’s been created in three distinct versions: 2D, stereoscopic 3D, and VR. Based on the film of the same name that was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 89th Academy Awards, it tells the story of Vaysha, who was born with a left eye that sees only the past and a right eye that sees only the future.

Tidal Traces 

Tidal Traces is a 360-video VR dance piece where the viewer joins in, directly composing the performance through their gaze. Captured offshore on intertidal mudflats near Vancouver, creators Nancy Lee and Emmalena Fredriksson blend the best of live performance and dance film, placing the viewer viscerally in the middle of a real-time experience.

Other can’t-miss virtual reality experiences at the 2018 Reel 2 Real International Film Festival include: Maria Lantin’s I Am Afraid, a networked virtual reality application where multiple people can create interactive sound sculptures using their own voices; theBlu: Whale Experience, which brings its viewers deep into the ocean; Mutato Match, a game wherein players gather specimens from all over the galaxy and create mutant species in their sci-fi laboratories; and Scary Cabin, the world's first crowd-created, interactive animated movie.

2018 marks the 20th anniversary of Western Canada’s only family film festival. The festivities kick off April 8 with Sunday Fun Day!, five hours of activities  – including four short programs, VR demos, an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, and kid-friendly animation workshops – before the opening night film: Earth: One Amazing Day. The long-awaited sequel to BBC Earth Film’s Earth is narrated by Robert Redford, and casts its lens on the drama, joy, and magnificence of our planet over the course of a single day.

A still from  A Silent Voice . 

A still from A Silent Voice

Other highlights include the West Coast premiere of Cloudboy, in which a 12-year-old city kid from Belgium heads to his mother’s Sápmi homeland in rural Northern Sweden to learn about his Indigenous heritage; Princess Cyd, Stephen Cone’s stirring coming-of-age film centered on a 16-year-old who reunites with an estranged aunt during a transformative summer in Chicago; A Silent Voice, an award-winning bully redemption story from Naoko Yamada – one of Japan’s only female directors – that won Best Animation at the Japan Movie Critics Awards; Speak Up, about a prestigious public speaking tournament in the Paris suburbs; Treasures, which seeks to bring a fresh perspective to a region of Mexico whose reputation has been damaged by drug cartels; and Rima Das’ Village Rockstars, which shines its spotlight on a precocious young girl in an Indian village who longs to play guitar.

The festival closes with High Fantasy, which is somehow all at once a road trip film, a body-swapping flick, and a timely and relevant portrait of race and gender relations in South Africa.

For the next generation of local filmmakers, there’s the festival’s annual Youth Media Conference, Expo and Showcase. This year’s schedule includes a talk about digital literacy (and a deep-dive in the meaning of “fake news”), a career showcase featuring representatives from the Vancouver film, television, and media sectors, a Youth Filmmakers Showcase, and more. And at just $10 a ticket, that's a darn good career investment.

The Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth runs April 8-14 at VIFF Vancity Theatre and the Roundhouse Community Centre. Tickets and schedule at

Follow @r2rfilmfestival @VIFFest @theNFB

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