Digital innovation is opening up new possibilities in storytelling, and traditional mediums are struggling to keep up. This was clear this month at the Tribeca Film Festival, where more streams of programming than ever reflected new approaches to filmmaking and narrative.

From TFI Interactive, a thought-leadership program with a virtual playground where visitors could explore different immersive projects; to Storyscapes, a film program with a focus on VR and installations; to a Virtual Arcade and more, the action at this year’s festival seemed to be moving away from the silver screen toward more diverse forms of media.

Empathy-based storytelling

Virtual reality showed up across these different tracks. Much of the work focused on raising consciousness about social issues with efforts to build empathy (a much-debated word within the VR creator community).

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6X9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement

Some of these projects could be uncomfortable, if not downright upsetting. 6X9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement, presented for the first time as an installation, placed visitors inside a small wooden booth that became a prison cell once they put their VR headsets on. The experience included testimony from prisoners who have been in solitary confinement. “These people are invisible to us—and eventually to themselves,” the artists said.

Notes on Blindness used an audiovisual VR environment to transport viewers into a world that exists “beyond sight,” based on an audio diary by the writer and academic John Hull, who became blind in 1983. The film won the 2016 Storyscapes Award, with jurors commenting that “the most powerful stories allow us to see the world and its vast array of experiences through someone else’s eyes.”

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Virtual reality “is the area that’s really rapidly gaining ground,” said Anna Higgs, creative director of NOWNESS, the LVMH-funded video and storytelling platform. “From an experiential point of view [it] really delivers brilliantly on the promise, to paraphrase Chris Milk, to be the first medium to jump the gap between media and your soul.”

For NOWNESS, “It’s also a logical follow on from innovative work we’ve done with clickable and interactive video in the past,” Higgs added.

Choose your own story

Creators this year probed the lines between gaming and storytelling, with more projects adding interactive elements.

SENS was billed as the first project to adapt a graphic novel into virtual reality, taking viewers into a maze full of shifting shapes and arrows. “In a book, you follow a character you don’t know a thing about: he’s as lost as you in this strange universe,” Charles Ayats, one of three project co-creators, told TFI. “In the VR experience, we adopted the same odd effect: during the action, you could be the character or, suddenly, stand by his side.”

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SENS screenshot

Another project to adopt a “choose your own adventure” storytelling strategy was Seances, directed by Guy Maddin and co-created with the National Film Board of Canada. The film pays tribute to early cinema, combining vintage clips into a unique series that changes every time the film is played. “Potentially hundreds of thousands of new stories are conjured by code,” said the organizers’ statement. “Each will exist only in the moment—no pausing, scrubbing, or sharing—offering the audience one chance to see the generated film.”

Experiential storytelling

Alongside all the new headset-based experiences, Tribeca also included narratives meant to be experienced collectively with other viewers.

Complessità, an interactive installation and performance by Enrica Beccalli and Roula Gholmieh, closed out the TFI Interactive track of programming. Performers wore devices that modified their sense of balance “according to the movements of an algorithm that visually simulates a flock of birds,” organizers wrote. By putting a machine in charge of human movement, the piece called into question the boundaries between technology and the body.

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The Bomb

To close out the entire festival, guests were invited to gather to experience the bomb, an immersive multimedia exploration of nuclear weapons. Eight screens were arranged in a circle displaying footage representing nuclear weapons, while the band The Acid, positioned at the center, performed. Like many of the VR films at Tribeca, it tried to raise awareness about an issue of social concern, in this case, the mistaken perception that nuclear worries receded along with the end of the Cold War.

Read our review of the Versions conference for more on the future of virtual reality and culture.

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