Category: Spotlight

I first saw Ethan Shaftel’s “EXTRAVAGANZA” (yes CAPS) at a summer BBQ at a private home somewhere up in Mount Olympus near Laurel Canyon. Ethan and I got talking by the swimming pool where it was a little quieter and away from the amazing crowd of artists, poets, musicians and technologists chattering away under the buzz of drone-mounted cameras zipping around over the banister and through the canyon. I tell him I’d love to see what he has been working on even as he snaps his Galaxy into the matte-finish GearVR. There is a black screen. Then a letter, and another, and they spell Extravaganza. Suddenly I am in a clockwork penny arcade, a participant in a strange world being observed by Paul Scheer. What came next made me gasp out loud and laugh at its audacity. I told Ethan I had a platform where this sort of provocative, self-conscious and daring work might fit just fine. But I had questions…

FIVARS: Tell us about your creative background prior to creating EXTRAVAGANZA?
Ethan Shaftel: I have a background both in games and traditional film, and for a long time created content for screens in a live setting — big pop concerts, theme parks, art installations. In those spatial settings, directing attention to the viewer and immersing them in an environment become a very primary concern, much like in VR. So when VR started to be buzzy again about 2 years ago, I felt like it was a perfect fit for my background and jumped in with both feet.

What inspired you to create a piece like Extravaganza?
Two central issues (maybe THE two central issues) in VR are point-of-view and agency. Basically WHERE the viewer is in this world, and WHAT kind of effect they can have on the world around them. The idea of making the viewer an animatronic puppet in someone else’s puppet show was really a way to address those two issues in an interesting way, a way to put the viewer in a place they’ve never been, and then also allow their body to be outside of their control, but yet very active with the world around them and the other characters. Someone else is pulling the strings, but it makes sense.

I also wanted to satirize the optimistic view that VR will somehow inherently bring positive change and greater understanding between people by creating a VR puppet show — the show-within-a-show that the viewer is forced to perform in — that is demonstrably NOT positive. It’s offensive, mean, and does nothing to make the world a better place. The puppets have to break out in order to stop it, now free to make their own choices at last.

EXTRAVAGANZA_3

Talk about the production process, how you found funding, how you handled post-production?
My team had been using Cinema4D animation software to create previz and placeholder shots in VR, not as an end in itself, but as prototyping and planning on the way to doing a live action 360 shoot. But at some point we realized that we had to stop prototyping and make a complete, standalone 360 movie to get into festivals. Doing something that was largely animated in the same software we’d been using for so long was a great way to do it cheaply, and by ourselves without having to hire or bring on many more people. By making EXTRAVAGANZA mostly animated we were able to do a traditional shoot with a non-360 camera for the small part of the screen that is live action, and thus avoid a lot of the cost and difficulty that goes into most 360 projects right now — the specialized cameras, the stitching, the visual effects fixes to visual problems, etc.

What would love to try next?
We’ve been writing and developing other VR films and interactive experiences using some of the lessons we learned with EXTRAVAGANZA — both roomscale (6 degree of freedom), volumetric, and linear 360. Right now is such a great time to experiment and play.

Do you feel there is a need/value to festival like FIVARS? Or will they eventually become a part of the regular entertainment landscape?
I love film festivals in general and am a big fan of going out to see movies that aren’t yet out on the market, or that maybe never will be publicly available outside of festivals. With VR, these festivals are even more relevant, because the audience needs to congregate in a physical space simply to have access to the right equipment — the headsets or whatever immersive technology your film utilizes. I think VR festivals and arcades will be the route that our culture takes to these platforms being more widely adopted as a storytelling and art medium. Maybe in the future we all have standardized VR contact lenses, but for now, you’ve got to come to FIVARS, or Tribeca, or Kaleidoscope to see what’s out there in the immersive art world.

FIVARS 2017 Runs September 15th-17th at House of VR in Toronto, Canada. It is a production by VRTO and Constant Change Media Group, Inc.

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I have always believed that VR or its cousin 360 videography do not have to be full of bombast to make their entrance into the broader audience. In fact it is often the quieter, more nuanced experiences that truly underscore the power of this medium and it relationship with presence. Shivani Mulekar’s “Sanctuary” is one such piece – exploring the conditions of life for a refugee family in Canada and the simple day to day life living in a Church awaiting their fate.

These spotlights are designed to not only accquaint you with the stories themselves, but also the people making them, whose journey often as interesting as their work. Shivani Mulekar is a researcher and talent scout. She works independently sourcing stories and developing TV show concepts. Prior to being a VR filmmaker, Shivani worked with TV networks in India creating award winning TV series. She holds an MFA degree in Documentary Studies from Ryerson University. Sanctuary is her first project in VR.

Marie-Espérance Cerda is an award winning video producer (NextMedia DigiAward, Montreal Remix NFB-INA Prize Winner) and an accomplished photographer. She completed Ryerson’s Master of Media Production program, where she produced two immersive and interactive 360-degree virtual reality video journalistic reports. She has worked in West Africa with organizations such as Abode Youth Projects and throughout Canada as a video journalist for The Canadian Press, exploring the stories that make up cultures.

FIVARS had to opportunity to interview Shivani in advance of the world premiere of Sanctuary at FIVARS 2017:

Shivani Murekal

Shivani Mulekar

Tell us what inspired the creation of your project?
Shivani Mulekar: Being an immigrant myself and living in Canada for nearly 10 years, I strongly believe in the issues of immigrants and refugees. When I learnt about the Juhasz family and the issue of sanctuary, it piqued my interest. The concept of sanctuary was new to me and I wanted to create awareness about the issue of undocumented immigrants. The use of 360-camera gave me an opportunity to immerse the audience right into the centre of the story. 360-camera gave me an effective tool to create spatial storytelling.

Tell us about how the production came together
Sanctuary was self-funded. It was made on a meagre budget and Vinit Rajan provided complete funding in-house. My friend Marie-Esperance generously supported me by sharing her camera as well as agreed to be the cameraperson for this project. I managed post-production independently. I learnt to stitch and used AutoPano to stitch the images. Editing was completed using Adobe Premiere.

What did you discover in the process of making this piece?
The biggest discovery during this process for me was realizing the importance of VR and its impact with spatial storytelling. 360-cameras change your complete perspective and take you way beyond the traditional rules of filmmaking. This filmmaking process was such an eye-opener in terms of what a technology can do to your storytelling and how it can impact in immersing your audience.

What would love to try next?
I would like to merge VR with AR to present my next documentary. I was exposed to the AR world of holoportation. If given an opportunity, I would like to develop my next project in VR and merge it with AR for its exhibition.

Do you feel there is a need/value to festival like FIVARS? Or will they eventually become a part of the regular entertainment landscape?
I believe festivals like FIVARS have a strong value in today’s VR market. The festival not only creates a breeding ground for upcoming VR artists to collaborate and exchange ideas but it also offers an opportunity to share each other’s work. Exchange of ideas is key for the future of VR.

FIVARS Runs Sept 15-17 2017 at House of VR in Toronto, Canada
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I still remember when I first heard from Blake and Maira – who were still out in the jungle shooting the project that would become Songs of the Vine. I was very happy to see it accepted into the festival as I had just been reading The Cosmic Serpent – a study of ayahuasca and its history in the ancient cultures of South America. I was excited about the opportunity to ask some questions of these intrepid storytellers whose interests intersected my own in sacred ritual and spherical photography and its power to create a palpable sense of presence.

Maira_Blake_Director_Headshot FIVARS: Tell us about the journey that led you to this subject?
Maira and Blake (directors of Songs of the Vine): The journey began in 2014 when Maira’s sister first visited the Temple of the Way of Light, a world-class ayahuasca healing center located in the Amazon Rainforest outside of Iquitos, Peru. After her profoundly positive experience, she returned to the Temple in 2015 with Maira, who underwent a similarly transformative and healing experience. Maira then introduced Blake to ayahuasca when the two of us returned to the Temple in January 2016.

After Blake experienced the medicine himself, together we decided to pitch a multimedia project to the Temple, which included a series of virtual reality films focusing on the traditional healing modalities of the Shipibo (an indigenous group native to the Peruvian Amazon who’ve been working spiritually and medicinally with ayahuasca for centuries). After they accepted our project proposal, we returned in the summer of 2016 and spent ten weeks living in the jungle, regularly participating in ayahuasca ceremonies, filming educational VR videos, and recording an album of the Shipibo curanderos’ (healers) ikaros (medicine songs).

FIVARS: Have you tried the ceremony yourself?
Previous to filming this project, we had both visited the Temple as guests seeking healing, and participated in a number of Shipibo-led ayahuasca ceremonies. Our experiences in ceremony inspired us to propose this project and build a new platform to spread the message of the medicinal power of ayahuasca. When we returned to film in the summer of 2016, we participated in ceremonies weekly. Our personal transformations with ayahuasca, under the invaluable guidance of master Shipibo curanderos, deeply informed the mission and process of the projects we’d been commissioned to create at the Temple.

Shipibo elder reviewing a 360 Video experience in the Amazon

FIVARS: Do you see a correlation between psychotropics and VR as a phenomenon in the culture?
Many believe entheogens have been a part of human culture since before recorded history, so we don’t see their use as a current “phenomenon,” just a continuation or evolution of their role in society. However, there is definitely a correlation between the states of consciousness that VR and psychedelics can induce, in a sense that both can enable shifts in perspective that can radically alter an individual’s perception of themselves and the world around them.

In some respects, the psychedelic state of consciousness induced by ayahuasca and other entheogens can be thought of as an advanced, neurochemically activated augmented reality, which pre-dates human technological advancements in virtual and augmented reality by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In this way, humanity has a tremendous amount to learn from the plant kingdom about augmenting human consciousness and perception to facilitate personal and spiritual growth.

FIVARS: What is your background in documentary, filmmaking, storytelling and/or spherical video?
Maira’s background is in sound design, acousmatic music composition, animation, and multimedia video art. Blake has been working in the VR filmmaking space since early 2015. We felt that VR was an especially fitting and powerful medium to immerse viewers in the Amazon Rainforest, to learn about ayahuasca from Shipibo curanderos and experience their medicine songs.

Maira in the Amazon filming Songs of the Vine

FIVARS: Talk a little about the making of and behind the scenes. Audio, Color correction, editing…:
Making Songs of the Vine was one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives, largely because it was inextricably intertwined with very personal and transformative healing processes that we underwent over the ten weeks we spent together living and working in the Upper Peruvian Amazon. It was also an extremely challenging experience, as we took on all the roles and responsibilities of a very ambitious and technologically intensive project, while also embarking on spiritual journeys that transcended the day-to-day work we had been commissioned to do. We literally put our sweat, tears, and vomit into making Songs of the Vine – and grew so much in the process.

There was something strangely dichotomous about crafting a film about such ancient and natural forces with cutting-edge technology, but somehow, we managed to find a balance in the creative process, and miraculously, all of our equipment survived two and a half months in the extreme conditions of the Amazon Rainforest.

Since returning to the Bay Area last September, we’ve been working together through the post-production process. Blake focused mainly on the visual side of the project, working through the stitching and color correction, while Maira focused more on sound design and mixing the multitude of audio recordings she captured. However, we very much shaped the film together through the editing process, and continually refined the film until it became the final piece that it is today.

FIVARS Runs Sept 15th-17th at House of VR in Toronto, Canada. Get ticket now.