France’s burgeoning VR sector is exploring the hybrid territory between commercial applications, film festivals and contemporary art museums.
French producers and authorities are increasingly interested in VR and extended reality solutions against a backdrop of multiple recent developments – such as Facebook’s rebranding as Meta, Sony’s next-generation VR headset for PlayStation 5, Disney’s patents of “virtual-world simulator”tech, and an estimated 3 billion virtual reality headsets sold in COVID-19 lockdowns
One of the key French hubs for VR production is Plaine Images, a Hauts-de-France innovation park, based in Lille, in Northern France, which houses production companies, research centers, and three schools, including Le Fresnoy – National Studio of Contemporary and Visual Arts.
Le Fresnoy produced Faye Formisano’s “They Dream in My Bones – Insemnopedy II,” one of 10 VR projects screening at Sundance 2022, within the fest’s New Frontier sidebar.
Bertrand Mandico, a French helmer (“After Blue”) and philosopher Emanuele Coccia (author of the book “The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture”) were the project’s artistic supervisors.
VR360’s VR360 experience is about Roderick Norris, a dream-geneticist who extracts dreams and memories from skeletons. It is inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando,”A fascinating historical biography that spans four centuries. It was adapted to the screen by Sally Potter in 1992.
Formisano, whose background includes textile design, dance and film directing, explains that she was attracted to this new project – her first VR experience – as a means of exploring her interest in immersive fantastic environments and creating a more physical viewing experience, compared to traditional cinema.
VarietyTalked to Formisano
What do VR’s appeal to you?
Virtual reality is often associated with dematerialization. However, it provides a more tangible and tactile experience. It’s like a new set of clothes. The viewer puts on a physical headset and moves in a projected 360º space, creating a more immersive sensation of space and the body’s movement. It is important to avoid motion sickness. VR, I believe, allows us some of those visual techniques we used in silent cinema. VR is able to concentrate on gestures or expressions.
When was the first time you became interested in VR?
The 2019 VR Arles festival was where I saw “Gloomy Eyes,”Colin Farrell narrates the story, which was later awarded Best VR Experience in Annecy. It was the first time that I experienced the immersive quality of a VR project. The film begins with lots of dark space, and then we move on to different fantasy levels. There is a strong narrative and a very good voiceover. I also really liked Jan Kounen’s VR project “7 Lives,”A story about a woman who throws her self in front of a metro train. We travel between the metro and five to six dreams spaces. She explores her memories. VR has the potential to open up the subconscious, an area that I find fascinating. Another source of inspiration was the 1950s French TV series. “La Clé des songes,”Chris Marker and Alain Resnais developed the image sequences. In which viewers submitted dreams, these were recreated as image sequences.
What attracted you to Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”?
My previous short film was here “Insemnopedy I – The Dream Of Victor F.,”Mary Shelley’s writings inspired me. Frankenstein and Orlando were created by two women who were visionaries in science and technology. They also explored the human/nonhuman frontier and how it would affect our gender identities. Orlando hasn’t yet attained the mythic status of Frankenstein, but there have been important adaptations, including Sally Potter’s film, Bob Wilson’s 1993 stage version starring Isabelle Huppert, and the 2019 runway show by Comme des Garçons. I wanted to explore the dream trance of Orlando as she is visited by the three spirits – Chastity, Modesty and Purity – which are repressive forces who try to stop the transformation.
Did you film with 360º cameras?
No. We shot the images in an underground cave with a small Sony H5 camera and then created the 360º dimension in post-production. The 2D black-and-white images are projected onto suspended textiles, which we then move through as if moving through a timeline. One of the key visual challenges was when we enter the main character’s bones, entering a dream tunnel.
What’s your next big project?
I am currently working on an interactive 3D project using Unreal Engine’s real-time 3D tool. This project was inspired by an event that occurred in 2018, when the rain and river turned red in Norilsk, Siberia. It was caused by a spillage of Norilsk Nickel. I would like to discuss the climate and link it with the interior rain and the menstrual cycles. This subject has a lot of potential.
Are you positive about VR’s future?
VR can be a mixed experience that can lead to new connections. It’s a wonderful tool but can also be dangerous since it has almost a hypnotic effect.