With a nod to improved artistry and tech, Cinequest embraces virtual reality

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Watching the space adventure “Asteroids!” is not exactly a relaxing movie experience. Put on the chunky three-pound Samsung headset and earphones and you are blasted into space, quickly becoming part of the starry trek, twirling around to watch the planets’ trails as they zoom past. By the time the three-minute film is over, you’ve even made pals with a chirpy little bot who keeps beeping behind your head.

“Astroids!” is just one of more than 42 virtual reality short films to be discovered at the annual film extravaganza opening Tuesday. In fact, virtual reality has arrived as such a force this year the 27-year-old, nationally recognized event has been renamed Cinequest Film & VR Festival.

Virtual reality gear and software have been has been available in some form to public for more than two decades. But, organizers say, only recently did the artfulness and technical sophistication of the emerging medium become strong enough to sit beside the other programming — 224 films in all, including 129 premieres — at the festival running Feb. 28 through March in San Jose and Redwood city that more than 100,000 people are expected to attend.

“We felt that if we are serious about VR it should be included in our name rather than as an afterthought,” says Cinequest co-founder Halfdan Hussey. “We feel this is a significant industry that will have major impacts.”

In addition to the films, Cinequest will host workshops, discussions and a “VR Canteen,” where participants can indulge in immersive, 360-degree content, then chat with others about how it feels.

“It’s an intense experience,” says Kendall Stevens, VR project manager at Cinequest. “It’s hard to describe because there’s nothing else like it. It takes 3-D to a whole new level.”

Other notable VR films coming to Cinequest include the Oscar-nominated road trip tale “Pearl,” which takes place entirely inside a car, and the horror flick experience “Burlap,” which digs deep into the twisted psyche of a serial killer.

For the record, the first head-mounted augmented reality system, dubbed The Sword of Damocles, dates back to 1968. Videogame-makers were employing the technology in the early 1990s. In the filmmaking world, Stevens points to the Oscar nod for “Pearl” as a sign that VR is coming into its own. A-list film festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca in New York are also offering VR programming. Of course, purists still have reservations.

“The effect is cool at first, but then it never helps me enter the story. In fact I find it alienating and distracting,” says filmmaker Amy Glazer. “So I think it’s experiential and has a greater potential in the world of video games where you are moving through environments, then it has in narrative storytelling.”

However, Caroline von Kühn, director of artist development at the San Francisco Film Society, says her views on VR have shifted dramatically of late.

“I was a skeptic from afar but seeing what the thought leaders in the field are doing has been truly fascinating,” she says. “There’s a lot of exciting exploration happening right now. I don’t think of it as a replacement for traditional film but rather I see it as an art form of its own. VR can put you directly inside someone’s head. You can be inside someone’s body.”

The films may be short, but they’re intense.

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“Ten minutes can be a very long time in the virtual reality world,” notes Stevens, “because it requires a lot of the viewer. You feel like a much more active participant in the experience.”

Vertigo and other motion ailments can be a factor for some but Cinequest officials say that the latest developments have almost eliminated the motion sickness effect of early iterations.

Von Kühn confesses that her first few forays into VR were a little unsettling.

“The first few times I tried it, the gear made me claustrophobic. It can be clunky and there’s also the nausea factor,” she says. It wasn’t until she experienced a truly gripping VR movie, “Notes on Blindness,” that she “got completely lost in the new geography.”

It’s impossible to predict exactly when or to what degree VR will be an everyday occurrence at the cineplex. Some question whether it will truly catch fire outside of the gamer world. But Hussey thinks the technology is advancing so rapidly that it may only be a few years before virtual reality will be de rigeur among movie fans.

“It’s too early to tell where this industry will land, but there’s a ton of investment in it from divergent sources,” hen said. “And you’ll see a lot of exciting content at Cinequest.”


When: Feb. 28-March 12

Where: California Theater, Hammer Theatre Center, San Jose Stage, Yosh Uchida Hall at San Jose State, Fairmont San Jose, Century 20 Redwood City.

Virtual Reality content: Screenings take place 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 2-5 and 9-12; the VR Canteen will be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on those same dates

More information, tickets: www.cinequest.org