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.
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.