Behind The Scene — The Visitor At Slamdance’s DIG Fest

An acronym for “Digital, Interactive and Gaming”, I attended the media preview for Slamdance’s “DIG” expo this last weekend, an event designed to showcase the blurring edges between video, filmmaking and multimedia. In total, there are ten exhibits at the fest, like the giant “TL;DR [the shape of the internet (Orgy)]”, a 40-foot motion-detection “soft noodle” that simulates colorful graphics and strange, squelching noises on a projection. There was also an LED-based video game without a video aspect. Called “Line Wobbler”, a handheld joystick controls a white node in a light string of enemy red blips.

“Line Wobbler” a handheld joystick LED game
“Line Wobbler” a handheld joystick LED game

If you’re based in Los Angeles, DIG is free and open to the public from 12 to 6pm this coming Saturday and Sunday at Big Pictures LA (2424 West Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90018). For those of you attending Sundance or Slamdance, it will be run again this coming January 22-28th in Park City, Utah. (With opener “Director’s Cut” from Adam Rifkin, Penn Jillette and Harry Hamlin, you can find the Slamdance slate of scheduled screenings at thewrap.com here.)

“TL;DR [the shape of the internet (Orgy)]”
“TL;DR [the shape of the internet (Orgy)]”

One of the more impressive exhibits at DIG, “Pry”, is a free iOS app developed by writer Samantha Gorman and programmer Danny Cannizzaro of the Tenderclaws production company and art collective. Somewhere between interactive film, video game and first-person perspective novella, the crux of the story explores the deteriorating mental state of a Gulf War vet as he loses his sight and his sanity. Video components are blended with a futuristic storytelling style that loosely follows the interior dialogue of the main character, but unlike many ebooks, the reader is not disassociated from the events as they unfold. It takes multiple times reading the app to reveal the entire storyline, and stepping through each chapter breaks the fourth wall to unlock further functions and details as the reader is required to participate. There is a chapter where a deeper story unfolds as you keep reading, for example, an insanely intricate Mad magazine fold-in style of narration where the story makes sense as you read it, but each touch of the screen uncovers extra aspects that create an entirely new story. All the more impressive, Gorman told me that not only did each line of text have to make sense with each sequential storyline, but also that the number of characters in the lines would have to fill the same exact amount of space throughout the chapters or it would cause a kernel panic in the programming.

Programmer Danny Cannizzaro with his app
Programmer Danny Cannizzaro with his app “Pry”

Perhaps the most exciting showcase was a virtual reality short film called “The Visitor”. Created by director James Kaelan with cinematographer Eve M Cohen and produced through the help of VR resource WEVR, the project was shot in in Joshua Tree at the Acido Dorado home. Thanks to the use of multilayered reflections, the mirrored complex is an incredibly effective setting that enhances the otherworldly feel of VR while adding to the surreality of the storyline. Cohen is part of the founding team of SeedandSpark (Kaelan is editor-in-chief of Bright Ideas Magazine, published by SeedandSpark), a crowdfunding and distribution website for independent film that is a crowdfunding and integrated distribution platform for independent film. They have recently partnered with Verizon and other cable providers to give filmmakers direct access to cable VOD and digital streaming in places such as iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and more. They have recently ventured into limited theatrical distribution as well for a few select projects. Cohen did a Q+A with me on the concept and tech behind the project, which you can find below.

Cinematographer Eve M Cohen setting the GoPro VR camera
Cinematographer Eve M Cohen setting the GoPro VR camera

How did you become involved in this project?

“The Visitor” was first conceived as virtual reality project for Bright Ideas Magazine in collaboration with Wevr; a virtual reality production company, community and player. The director James Kaelan and I had been very interested in the VR as related to immersive theater and the storytelling opportunities it presents for filmmaking. This collaboration was the perfect opportunity to explore VR as a mode of storytelling.

Director James Kaelan and cinematographer Eve M Cohen of
Director James Kaelan and cinematographer Eve M Cohen of “The Visitor”

What was your VR camera setup and why was it chosen for this?

We worked with a stereoscopic 8-camera GoPro array. Ultimately, we ended up just stitching together 4-cameras so the end result you see is monoscopic VR. Bight Ideas Magazine and Wevr are both very interested in how we can bring virtual reality into the independent film world, so we wanted to test out a cost-effective array with a small data footprint and this GoPro rig was a perfect fit. Because the footage size is so small, our workflow was simplified as well and we only needed to use 1 TB G-Drive evRaw drives on location.

What was your lens system? How does lensing work with VR?

Each camera was outfitted with very wide angle fish eye lenses that were custom fit by Wevr for the GoPros and then focused for each angle. Lensing is tricky with VR and very specific to what kind of array you are using; how many cameras; what angle covers what field of view etc. There has to be the right amount of overlap between the lenses so you can more easily stitch the frames together.

Writer Samantha Gorman of
Writer Samantha Gorman of “Pry” checks out VR short “The Visitor”

What was your lighting system and what were the challenges of lighting for VR?

I brought HIVE lights with us to the location, knowing that they would be perfect to pack a the necessary punch into the space and match well with the magical desert light. However, when we arrived there were so many mirrors and reflective surfaces, that I ended up not being able to use them at all. I would have loved to control some of the set up more, but we ended up only using natural lighting. We shot in the afternoon/evening and did about 10 takes starting around late afternoon into dusk, knowing that the hero shot would probably be right as the sun was setting. The take we ending up selecting was the last one we shot, right after the sun had just set.

What was the most challenging scene in the film to shoot from a technical standpoint?

Well it was only one scene; one take, one shot! And everything has to be hidden which makes it tough on many fronts. I found that most challenging aspect of VR is actual choreography and action—working within a 360 degree viewing space allows for action to possibly take place anywhere! Deciding where to stage what and when is crucial to telling your story properly. Audio was a bit of a challenge as well—microphones and sounds mixers were hidden all over the space!

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