Tribeca Film Festival 2019: VR, AR and all the techy films and talks

Tribeca's Immersive program ratchets up your personal stake in VR stories, and Tribeca talks revel in geek TV nostalgia. Plus, Norman Reedus naked.

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Joan E. Solsman
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So you couldn't care less about virtual reality? No problem. The creators in the Tribeca Film Festival's Immersive program are hacking together new ways to make you care about something

"A lot of creators are making strides in establishing ways to really, really distinguish this form of storytelling from others," Loren Hammonds, the senior programmer for the Immersive program at Tribeca, said in an interview.

The Tribeca Film Festival, which kicked off in New York on Wednesday night, unveils its VR-heavy Immersive program to the public Friday. It's the center of all things tech at Tribeca, which will also grabble with tech on panel discussions and TV and film screenings. 

VR needs something to bring people closer. Years after virtual reality re-emerged as one of tech buzziest trends, even its most ardent advocates now concede VR's hype failed to materialize in broad consumer interest. With the masses averse to the unfamiliar format that straps awkward headsets to your face, immersive storytellers have been shifting their focus on new tactics and formats that may pave the way to popular appeal. 

"Because the headsets haven't necessarily been adopted as we've hoped, everything having to do with location-based entertainment has really started to level up," Hammonds said. "This is making the creators think in a different way about some of their work and how they're interested in exhibiting it."

Virtual threads

Whether it's amped-up interactivity in VR that makes you a central character, or site-specific experiences with social elements threaded through them -- or even new immersive tech with no headset required -- many of the pieces selected for this year's immersive program at Tribeca aim to ratchet up your personal stake in the story. If past experiences experimenting in this concept are any guide, Tribeca Immersive may nudge you to consider how your virtual choices could reflect who you really are, more so than a film might. 

Baobab Studios -- a VR animation studio that is a veteran of the Tribeca Film Festival -- heightens the pressure on you by making you the lead actor in its most interactive experience yet, called Bonfire.

Watch this: Baobab's "smart" animation gets into your head

"The real power of immersion in VR is to allow you to connect with a character -- for a character to acknowledge you exist in their world and that you matter to them," Eric Darnell, Baobab's chief creative officer, said in an interview when Tribeca's Immersive program slate was announced in March. "You can make choices that may push them away or bring the characters close to you."

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Baobab's Bonfire makes you the leading character on an unfamiliar planet. 


In Baobab's case, Bonfire is the studio's "most aggressive foray into interactivity" yet, Baobab CEO Maureen Fan said. Hunting for a new home for the human race, you crash-land on in unknown planet 300 light years from Earth. With a makeshift fire as your only light source and a robot sidekick (voiced by comedian and actress Ali Wong), you come into contact with the inhabitants of this unfamiliar place and decide how you want to interact with them. 

Hammonds noted other trends among the pieces selected for 2019's Immersive program. Some lean heavily into what's known as location-based entertainment, or site-specific performances that mean "you have to be there to truly experience it," he said.


Technology for Cave was developed at New York University.

Tribeca Film Festival

He highlighted projects like A Drop in the Ocean, a social experience that shrinks you and three other participants to a microbial level as you walk underneath a "massive and gorgeous jellyfish prop," according to Hammonds. War Remains, a piece that collaborates with Hardcore History podcast's Dan Carlin, creates a free-roaming experience on a set with haptic-like wind and rumbling floors. And Traitor is an adaption of immersive theater pieces, creating a thriller around a missing girl in which one participant wears a headset and another does not. 

Social interaction is also a recurrent theme in Tribeca Immersive selections. Hammonds called out one titled Cave, which uses a new technology called Parallux developed in New York University's Future Reality Lab. It allows 10 people to sit in a space and share a holographic VR experience, with Hammonds calling it both theatrical and social. 

Other experiences, like Bonfire, are pushing toward more creative storytelling unique to VR. Tribeca's program will include the second installment of Wolves in the Walls, a project that first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. A reimagination of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's illustrated children's book, the project introduced an improvisational, reactive character in its first installment. The second chapter at Tribeca will expand the story and take you to different places with Lucy, the protagonist. 

And then there are the ones who are using new technologies as storytelling tools. 

Stealing Ur Feelings uses augmented reality, which overlays digital images on the physical world around you, as well as artificial intelligence and facial recognition to gauge your emotions, to describe how corporations are doing already this on the sly. 

Into the Light is something of an audio scavenger hunt. The Tribeca Film Festival's headquarters will be peppered with tableaus that you discover with tech like bone-conduction glasses or headphones aided by handheld devices that navigate you around various floors of the building. 


A shaman greets you when you enter Ayahuasca. 

Tribeca Film Festival

And the team behind Ayahuasca created new kinds of digital resolution and shaders to make their approximation of a spiritual ayahuasca trip feel psychedelically real. According to Hammonds, you won't want to go in it if you have a fear of snakes or spiders.

"When you watch a piece, you wonder, 'Could this have been done as a film? Could this have been a cartoon?  Could this have been a documentary?' And the answer should be no, if you're working in this medium," Hammonds said. "A lot of creators are continuing and making strides in establishing ways to really, really distinguish this form of storytelling from others.


Some talks at the Tribeca Film Fest give geeky film, TV and gaming fans a chance to revel in old favorites and new mysteries. The early word is that some of these conversations will be posted online for anyone to see -- a few days after they happen. 

For one, Tribeca is throwing a birthday bash for The Simpsons on Sunday. At a 30th anniversary screening and panel discussion, the fest is showing two episodes -- 1993's Marge vs the Monorail and 2012's The Day the Earth Stood Cool -- before the creative team of The Simpsons comes onstage to discuss the program's legacy as the longest-running animated series in television history. 

Also Sunday, the fest is also celebrating to another geeky show with a somewhat shorter track record: The fourth and final season of Mr. Robot is expected sometime later this year, and Tribeca is bringing key cast members to look back on the first three. Actors Rami Malek, Christian Slater and Carly Chaikin joins series creator Sam Esmail to discuss what to expect when the show returns. 

Watch this: E3 2018: Lengthy Death Stranding preview revealed

On Thursday evening, famed video game creator Hideo Kojima will pull back the curtain (I mean, he will, right?) on his mysterious project Death Stranding. During a talk with game star and The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, the pair are set to discuss the highly anticipated PlayStation 4 game and talk about "pushing the boundaries of the video game medium and...how their relationship has established over working on the title together." The game, which was first announced way back in 2016, features a disturbed, naked Reedus.

The Tribeca Film Festival, of course, has a long list of talks with big names in film. The geekiest among them: director Guillermo del Toro, who "will discuss his prolific career turning horror, fairy tales, and the supernatural into world-class filmmaking."

Films and TV

Like most festivals over the last five years, movies and series from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are increasing their presence at screenings. 

This year, Tribeca will screen the premiere episode of Amazon's The Boys, its superhero satire that proposes what happens when superpowers are abused rather than channeled for good. Amazon is also bringing One Child Nation, its documentary film about China's national family planning program. 

Netflix is screening American Factory, a documentary about a Chinese billionaire opening a factory in Ohio, and Hulu has brought yet another documentary -- Ask Dr. Ruth, about the celebrity sex therapist's journey from Holocaust survivor to household name. 

Highlights among geeky and techy titles: Only is a "dreamy" apocalyptic sci-fi love story starring Hamilton vet Leslie Odom Jr., and See You Yesterday brings Spike Lee's spin to a time-travel comedy. For documentary fans, Picture Character dives into the world of emojis, and I Am Human explains an experimental brain interface treatment.