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Inside Canada’s first virtual-reality film festival (Includes interview and first-hand account)

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying VR films will be a mainstay for filmmakers beginning this week. But FIVARS, which I experienced first-hand before it’s available to the public this weekend in Toronto, is a glimpse into a future that may increasingly rely on innovative tech to immerse filmgoers.

At UG3 Live off King Street, I tried out several films, using both the Samsung Gear VR headset and the well-known Oculus Rift. I was asked if I regularly experience motion sickness or a fear of heights, since I was going to be so deep into the film with my headset I wouldn’t be able to see anything but what was in front of my eyes.

I first watched Dismember, a horror short where a team of ghost-hunters wander around an abandoned building to look for paranormal activity. Being so immersed in the film amped up the tension in those short three minutes, and I was truly startled when the surprise ending came right into my face.

What I quickly learned about VR films is that you control where you want to look. Instead of being forced to watch a certain actor or setting based on where a traditional film camera trains your eye, with VR you can arch your head, swivel on your chair and look at any spot in the 360-degree environment. That kind of flexibility allows you to see a greater range of the film landscape, perhaps uncovering clues or spots of detail you would’ve missed otherwise.

Next I opted for a more light-hearted film with Happy Birthday, created by Norwegians Hans Kristian Bergen and Bendik Krause. What stood out for me here was a scene where I as the first-person central character was walking down an icy sidewalk, and turning my head in real life let me see various characters in the neighbourhood, such as a guy falling off his bike. I would’ve missed that, though, if I craned my head backwards to look behind me. That experience enveloped me in the scene, implored me to concentrate more on what was happening left and right, and forced me to be an active participant in the film.

I ended my FIVARS preview with a tour of the Apollo film, a documentary based around the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, complete with commentary from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. This is where the fear of heights would’ve kicked in, if I suffered from it, thanks to an animated journey from the tip of the Saturn V rocket to the base. I also got to sit in the cockpit of the rocket as we blasted off and soared across space, a journey that truly felt real despite some of the blocky animation.

I can see how documentaries especially can benefit from the VR treatment, as you’re placed directly in the environment where the filmmakers are focusing their lens. There’s no escaping the situation unless you turn off the headset.

My assessment of FIVARS echoes how I’ve always viewed VR: If the cost of the tech comes down, if there is enough content to justify the headset adoption, virtual reality can truly change the realms of entertainment, gaming and even PTSD therapy. When you can be placed so completely in a setting, without being distracted from anything else, your attention to detail heightens immensely. It might be hard to go back to 2D films after a VR experience.

But until Samsung, Oculus Rift and others mature their technology to the point of widespread usage, expect festivals like FIVARS to a harbinger of things to come.

FIVARS is running Sept 20 and 21 at UG3 Live (77 Peter Street) in Toronto from 11am-7pm. Advanced tickets $10, door price $15. This is a 19+ event.

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