Still: The Last Goodbye

It’s really easy to mess up a film project about the Holocaust. The wrong tone, the wrong direction, and it can all go horribly awry. Add cutting-edge technology operated by unskilled hands to a topic as devastating as survivor testimony, and you could have a disaster. Fortunately, the VR film The Last Goodbye, which debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, gets it right.

The sixteen-minute film, directed by Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz, is one of the most arresting pieces of narrative testimony I have ever seen. In the film, the viewer is guided through the remarkably well-preserved Majdanek Concentration Camp in Poland by Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter. His twin sister, mother and father were among the 78,000 people who were killed there. He has visited the camp more than a dozen times, and says this is his last visit. Wearing an HTC Vive headset connected to a high-end PC, I felt like I was standing there with him as he recounted the horrors that still linger at the camp site 75 years later. I walked around the barracks. I looked directly into the crematorium. I was almost moved to tears.

The Last Goodbye represents a high point in VR filmmaking, proving that the format, when used correctly, is no longer just a gimmick employed as fancy advertising. VR can be used as a powerful medium for telling stories.

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The problem, of course, is that unless you visit the Tribeca Film Festival (open until April 29th), you won’t be able to experience this important film. At least, not now.

The state of VR filmmaking

Still: The Protectors

Although filmmakers have been toying with virtual reality in various forms for more than twenty-five years, the modern era of VR filmmaking is much newer. With the advent of commercial headsets such as as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, along with massive technological leaps in 360-degree cameras and video processing, VR filmmaking is having a moment.

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Tribeca has been showing VR content since 2013, as part of the festival’s Storyscapes program that celebrates the intersection of technology and storytelling. In 2016, the festival added a Virtual Arcade section to showcase even more VR projects and installations.

What constitutes a VR film experience can differ from project to project. Some films are incredibly involved narratives with interactive “choose your own adventure” structures. Many use roomscale, a VR feature that allows the viewer to move around a space the explore and see more of the virtual environment. One of the things that makes The Last Goodbye such a compelling, lasting experience is that the viewer can literally walk around spaces within Majdanek, getting a real sense of what it looks like.

Others forego the interactive elements and instead plop you in the middle of a 360-degree environment you can look around. Even without the interactive elements, the 360-degree video, when coupled with a VR headset, lets the viewer feel like they are some place else.

Still: The People’s House

Even in the last twelve months, VR filmmaking has made strides technologically, and Hollywood is taking notice. One of the most-discussed VR pieces at Tribeca is the world premiere of the Kathryn Bigelow project, The Protectors: Walk in The Rangers Shoes, which is designed for the lower-end Samsung Gear VR headset. Made in collaboration with National Geographic, production outfit Here Be Dragons, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, and African Parks, the eight-minute film, co-directed by Bigelow and VR filmmaker Imraan Ismail, is notable. It’s a standout, not just because of Bigelow’s big name involvement, but technically and narratively as well.

As a documentary, its first-person perspective is perfect for VR. The viewer stands in the shoes of three brave rangers who serve in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, protecting the park’s remaining elephant population from poachers. The viewer doesn’t just hear their stories, they get to follow them for a day-in-the-life close-up glimpse at the rangers who protect the park the size of Delaware with a staff of just 130, risking their lives every day. The dangerous, noble narrative and the immersive form are nicely merged together for a tense and awe-inspiring experience.

But beyond just the first person VR perspective, Ismail—who said he captured the footage with relatively low-spec 360-degree cameras—managed to get off some amazing shots and angles that are rarely seen in VR filmmaking. When the ranger walks through the brush of grass, the blades obscure the viewer’s point of view. During the most striking moment of the film, the rangers come across an elephant, dead and rotting, its ivory tusks already removed by the poachers. There is an aerial shot that depicts the sheer size of the elephant, while the rangers’ voice-over describes the magnitude of their loss—they say when an elephant dies, they feel like it is their own child.

In addition to the narrative and the cinematography, it’s notable that Bigelow is involved at all. As an Academy Award winner, Bigelow gives credibility to the format. In 2017, at Tribeca and beyond, traditional film studios, actors, and directors are increasingly recognizing that VR is a format worth investigating. Grammy winner John Legend lends his voice and music to the VR animated film Rainbow Crow, which also features the voice of Constance Wu. At the Cannes next month, Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant) will debut Carne y Arena, which is the first VR project ever chosen as an official selection at the famed festival.

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For all the glitz of big names, right now, the most effective VR projects are those created by those directors with a deep-rooted history in VR. The major reason The Protectors is so effective is because of the skill and sensibility of Ismail, who previously directed The New York Times VR film, The Displaced.

Ultimately, for VR to be more than just a technological stunt, the storytelling needs to be best served by the format and the medium. VR shouldn’t be used to enhance a work that can stand alone; it should be vital to the piece, from conceit to presentation. The Protectors, The Last Goodbye, and The People’s Housethe Obama’s White House tour film for Samsung Gear VR—are three of the projects at Tribeca that best exemplify what can happen when the directors who understand the medium work with narratives best crafted for that medium. There is a moment in The Last Goodbye when the viewer is inside a train car that carried prisoners to the camps. Using roomscale and VR, the viewer can walk around the confines of the car, getting a true sense at the horror and fear that Gutter and his family must have felt in that moment. This image wouldn’t have the same emotional impact without VR.

“To really make people understand the reality of the Holocaust, you need to bring them there,” The Last Goodbye co-director Ari Palitz told me. And beyond just having the viewer at the camp, the addition of Gutter—the narrator and survivor—is something Palitz says is a rare experience even people who can make the visit to these sites in person. “We felt [VR] was the best vehicle to really to get a point of view from a survivor and to preserve [the testimony] for future generations,” Palitz added. After all, the survivors aren’t going to be around forever.

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But VR isn’t always necessary. One of the more technically impressive previews at Tribeca was Arden’s Wake from Penrose Studios. The film tells the story of a young woman who lives in a light house above the sea, forbidden to go into the water. When her father disappears, she finds herself deep underwater on a mission to find him. Visually, the animated film is reminiscent of the early shorts from Pixar and its 3D animations is remarkable for the current state of VR. Still, as impressive as Arden’s Wake was as a demonstration—and as good as the story was—in the five or six minute prologue I observed, it wasn’t clear to me why that story needed to be told in VR.

Distribution challenges

Image: Hallelujah

Some VR filmmaking may have moved into a medium that can stand on its own, but significant challenges still remain, especially when it comes to distribution. Right now, most VR films sit someplace between art projects and commercials: Most people won’t ever get the chance to experience these films in VR, and moreover, many of the projects are done in conjunction with tech companies as a way to showcase technology and aren’t necessarily designed to make money through typical distribution.

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At Tribeca, SXSW, and other festivals, VR films are shown in demonstration areas or in carefully designed installations. In this way, VR filmmaking is a bit like the nickelodeons that populated US cities in the early 1900s; except instead of paying five cents to watch a short film in a tiny theater, VR fans will pay for a ticket to a festival or exhibition and pop on a headset. Most people are going to see VR film at a festival.

Image: The Protectors

For now, the business model for VR films isn’t focused on making money. Most films are distributed for free with no plans for significant revenue that comes from viewers. Sure, some projects might eventually find their way to museums (where they could make back some money), but differently than many of the narrative films that are shown at Tribeca—which can garner several million dollars in acquisition fees ahead of even screening at the festival—the current slate of VR films will likely never “earn” back their budgets in a traditional sense. Even in the art world, video art (which VR is similar to) pieces sell for much less than other types of contemporary art works. Instead of traditional distribution, plans for these films depend on the producers—either slated to live on as editorial content (as National Geographic plans for The Protectors) or collaboratively with cultural institutions (The Shoah Foundation supports The Last Goodbye).

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There are some brewing plans to expand home distribution. Within, an app developed by the VR company Within (which is a sister company to Here Be Dragons, the studio that helped produce both The Last Goodbye and The Protectors), is available for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR (the app also available on iOS and Android, albeit without “true” immersive VR capabilities) and the studio sees it as a way to distribute films and projects. The teams behind platforms like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Daydream, are also working to make films available to home users. But the audience for home VR filmgoers is still very small because the best and most immersive experiences requires the user to own an expensive VR headset and a computer or video game console powerful enough to play the content back. Between 915,000 Playstation VR, 420,000 HTC Vive, and 243,000 Oculus Rift units sold, we’re still looking at under two million VR headsets across three major platforms available to potential VR film viewers. Some VR projects are working to make the content accessible on less powerful devices, including smartphones, but not every project can scale in that direction.

Take Hallelujah, a VR film from Zach Richter and Within, produced in conjunction with camera maker Lytro. The piece is a full music experience, in which the viewer is treated to an amazing a cappella rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with all five parts sung by the same vocalist. It’s truly experiential—the closer the viewer moves to the singer, the louder that particular vocal part becomes—and the use of VR and its technique of using a massive (and expensive ) 475-camera Lytro rig is technical marvel. But the file size for the five minute piece is 20TB. As a result, Richter told me he only plans for the piece to distributed at other film festivals.

Update 4/29/17 4:24pm: A representative from Hallelujah reached out to tell me that despite Richter’s comments at the festival, there are plans to bring the film to more audiences. Those details and a launch date will be “forthcoming.” That’s a good thing because the film is an excellent use of VR.

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Tim Dillon, a producer on The Last Goodbye and the head of VR and immersive content for MPC Advertising, says that he would like to get the film out, “as far and wide as possible,” but acknowledged that the film will need to be optimized to work on platforms with lower requirements than the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Moreover, the subject matter of the film, Dillon says, makes it the type of VR piece that can “credibly go to school rooms and museums,” which is one of the reasons the team behind the project aimed for “museum quality” production values.

Eventually these distribution challenges will be solved—either through lower barrier to entry with better technology, streaming services, designated VR theaters, or some combination of the above—but for now, actually seeing a film in VR is still a struggle.

The good news is that for those that do have the means to visit a festival like Tribeca, the work that is being done is better than ever. VR filmmaking is no longer just a gimmick. But unless you have a chance to visit in person, you’ll just have to trust me on that.