#003 - Liz Rosenthal: Film Industry, Venice Biennale, and New Social VR Experiences
An interview with Liz Rosenthal, curator of Venice Biennale’s International Film Festival's Official Selection and Competition program Venice VR
Welcome to episode #003 of the FuturePerfect Podcast where we talk with compelling people breaking new ground in art, media, and entertainment. This podcast is produced by FuturePerfect Studio, an extended reality studio creating immersive experiences for global audiences. Episodes are released every two weeks, visit our website futureperfect.studio for more details.
The text version of this interview has been edited for length and clarity. Find the full audio version above or in your favorite podcast app.
This week Wayne Ashley interviews Liz Rosenthal, curator of Venice Biennale’s International Film Festival's Official Selection and Competition program Venice VR.
We first met online back in 2020 when we participated as international jurors for the TAICCA immersive grant. And since then I've been following you and impressed with how fully you participate in this expanding field of VR and immersive content production. You're a curator, executive producer, mentor, incubator, CEO, and an international speaker, but you actually started out in film. How did you arrive at VR from your experimental practice in filmmaking?
Liz Rosenthal: I got involved in cinema in my late twenties. I started making short films with an ex-partner. Then I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland where the most important film festival in the UK used to be, the Edinburgh Film Festival. And I got a job running the project finance market for the festival and I had to learn everything about the film business.
At that time I was watching screeners of British films to include in the marketplace I was running and I found a film by a director called Christopher Nolan that had been made on no budget, and it was brilliant. No one knew about it. I then met somebody who was working with ultra low budget filmmakers in the US as a part of the independent film channel. He'd just met Chris [Nolan], literally hadn't seen the film and was asking me what great films are you seeing? He was running a finishing fund helping first-time and second-time filmmakers to make their first features.
His big thing was talking about using digital video instead of using super 16. And thinking about how we could use available tools like these new prosumer cameras and later editing systems, which people weren’t using at the time, like Final Cut Pro and Premiere. So I got involved in working with them and we hit it off obviously. We bonded over Chris' first film and we were very much at the forefront of using digital production tools.
Then in the beginning of the 2000s, we got interested in what the internet and digital tools were going to do in terms of engagement, distribution, and new forms of creativity. And that's where I took off. When the company got shut down by the film channel we had done 13 feature films. I was excited about this area, because I thought, wow this was the place where it's going to get exciting.
You and I talked about how important the internet was to both of our practices. The internet for me changed my whole trajectory. What effect did the emergence of the internet as a public media space have specifically on your practice?
LR: Well, I think you'll probably get a clue from the name of my company, which I set up in 2006, called Power to the Pixel. I've always been someone who's interested in working with producers and artists and how they can get their work supported and out into the world and use the best tools, and the best ways to do that from a creative and a sustainability perspective.
I was seeing the film business, like many businesses and sectors as they develop, get more and more fragmented and you get people siloed into different parts of these sectors doing different jobs. The relationship between the maker, the producer and the audience is completely distanced. And that's a real problem, both in terms of return-on-investment or impact for the producers, and also in terms of how the form develops. You've got to be in touch with the user and the user experience, or art forms kind of slow down or become irrelevant.
So that really changed my practice. Suddenly you've got all these available tools, prosumer then, and now consumer tools. And I was thinking, how is this going to change the way that we make things and engage with audiences? Of course, being someone who's very much a producer and artist focused, I'm always looking at how new ecosystems have to be developed around these things. I take my hat off to people who start experimenting in this area and are curious.
In the past, you've discussed VR as the result of a complex stream of influences, most specifically film, theater and video games. How do you see these influences come together in VR?
LR: VR and immersive content or XR is the area that I'm now working on that completely consumes me and I don't have enough time to follow all the developments. VR has the cinematic qualities of a big screen in certain circumstances, and that can be both live-action shot 360 video, or it could be animation. The immensity of being in a whole space relates in some way to film. Filmmakers in the film community say: you've gotta see a film on a big screen. With VR it’s way beyond that.
And then there's a participatory, spatial, and free roam aspect of immersive theater. When you’re in a virtual world and characters can interact with you in realtime. If you're designing realtime characters that are going to be interactive in terms of what you do as a player or a user then you're going to have to understand that realtime interactivity. There’s also the influence of the interactivity and agency of games, and of course there are people from the visual arts, sound, and all types of interactive designers and UX experts.
I'm conflating VR and XR. And I know that VR is only one set of technologies and creative practices within a much larger field. Can you briefly lay out what XR is so that our audiences understand that this is actually quite a complex range of technologies and practices?
LR: XR, which often gets mistaken for the environmental movement [Extinction Rebellion], stands for extended reality. I would break XR into three different types of realities. The first type is AR or augmented reality, which you experience on a flat screen like phone or a tablet. This is 2D digital information that's layered over the real world.
The second type is MR or mixed reality, that’s 3D holographic information that has to be viewed on special mixed reality glasses. So for MR it’s really only B2B solutions or enterprise, there’s the HoloLens by Microsoft and the Magic Leap, both are very difficult and expensive devices. I've seen beautiful MR projects shown at festivals. With MR you have 3D information that you can move around and interact with, with your hands, and pick things up. It's very exciting, but you need a controlled environment to make it work. New smart glasses are starting to come out, the first big company that are a kind forerunner is Nreal who are doing deals with telco companies. I don’t know if it’s in the US or Canada yet, but it’s in the UK and launched in Germany, Spain, Korea, and Japan. Those are consumer versions of the HoloLens, they're about $500 as opposed to about $2,500 or $3,000.
And then the final type is VR or virtual reality, which completely dislocates you from the real world.
Many people are going to assume that VR is confined only to a headset and involves a mostly private and singular experience, but you have really opened up quite an expansive range of ways that audiences can encounter this new medium. Layout for us the many forms and contexts that audiences might encounter VR at, for example, the Venice Biennale.
LR: Amongst the other things I do, one of my main roles is curating Venice Immersive together with with a dear friend and colleague Michel Reilhac. We handle the immersive content competition section and official selection for the Venice International Film Festival, which is one of the four or five A-list film festivals. We are very lucky that the Venice Biennale, who also run the art and architecture events, but also the film festival, are very excited about embracing the medium. We have our own section and our own island where we can build up an exhibition and show all types of immersive experiences.
I'll run through what that means, because I think a lot of people get a chance to see one VR project and they go, that's VR. We are talking about a set of many tools and technologies where you can create all kinds experiences and worlds. VR can be put into kind of two different categories, there’s three degrees of freedom (3DOF) and six degrees of freedom (6DOF).
In 3DOF, you're basically contained in a sphere. So you put on a headset and you can look around, but the field of distance between your eye and that sphere doesn't change. You kind of have no agency. Sometimes there's a bit of gaze interactivity with eye tracking or head tracking, but let's say you have no agency to change the world. You can't really interact with the what's happening. It plays out in the same way a film would. You have a subsection of 3DOF experiences that are live action. The creator shoots with a 360 camera that's fixed and you stitch together the images in postproduction.
We've had some amazing 360 documentaries shown in Venice. For example, one work that’s a big hit on the Meta Quest store is called Space Explorers: The ISS Experience by Felix and Paul. They make a beautiful live action documentary that's shot in the International Space Station. It’s the biggest media project ever in space, it's quite remarkable. There are four episodes and it is extraordinary. It's 360 video, amazing quality and a moving experience.
Moving on to 6DOF because a lot of people say 3DOF is not real VR. With 6DOF you are in a space where you have agency, you can move around the world, interact with things in the world, and be with other people in that world. You feel immersed and have a sense of presence. This is the most powerful thing about this medium is the sense of embodiment and presence.
There’s a wide range of different kinds of 6DOF experiences. You have single person experiences that have very little interactivity or agency, but you’re in a spatial world, like the project Gloomy Eyes. This features beautiful animations and a kind of Tim Burton-esque type story between a zombie and a little girl in an incredible sort of diorama world. There's no agency, your eye is led around and you’re in a spatial environment.
Then you have things that are very complex, long hybrid kind of narrative games that feature hours and hours of gameplay. One of my favorite projects is Down the Rabbit Hole, which is made by a Swedish studio called Cortopia Studios. It's kind of a prequel to Alice in Wonderland and you’re in this unbelievable animated world where you are moving this girl through the environment and she's meeting characters and it's just so much fun. It's puzzle game and it’s so beautifully designed.
Then the final category I’ll go into is multiplayer social VR. This is what I’ve been doing over the last couple years and for Venice we had to make a completely virtual edition. My favorite platform is VRChat because it's closest to where people imagine the metaverse or this next spatial version of the internet is going. There’s live theater performances and live music performances where you’re there as an avatar with other people. And there are games, extraordinary art worlds, and performance worlds that can exist on social platforms or you can make a multiplayer standalone app where you can have multiple people in an experience.
That's where I'm really excited about VR. When people say, especially cinema people, but it's a singular experience, you’re trapped, and dislocated from the world and it's a solitary experience. I always find that weird. I think watching any piece of media that’s not interactive is a solitary experience because it’s you engaging with the medium. When I go to the cinema I'm not talking to someone asking what are you feeling? What are you doing? What are you feeling now? It's a solitary experience, I happen to be with other people. But in these virtual worlds you are with other people, exploring with them, collaborating, doing incredible things together in amazing avatars of your choice.
Can you talk a bit about two other contexts: installation experiences and live motion capture for a virtual audience.
LR: In Venice, the great thing is we’re showing works that can only be shown on location. They can't be shown through a remote virtual platform. We've shown a number of these types of works that involve building complex sets and having complex technology where people can go into experiences together on site. The way this works is you have a VR headset connected to a backpack which is its own computer. This referred to as free roam, meaning you’re free to move around the space and can see other people and interact with them including maybe actors, dancers, and performers. In Venice, I’ll give you some examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Our biggest production was called The Horrifically Real Virtuality by a French group called DVgroup. They make these incredible experiences which involve actors and haptics and sets. The first experience by DVgroup we showed was called Alice, The Virtual Reality Play. DVgroup invited me to see the work at Cannes Film Festival and didn’t tell me anything about. I went to this beautiful park and went through these red curtains into this beautiful room and put on a headset and few minutes into the experience I realized I wasn't talking to an animated character. I was talking to a real person who was represented by an avatar. What's happening is they are being realtime motion captured into a virtual environment that I'm in at the same time. And I'm realtime as well, you can full body track your participants.
The second work was The Horrifically Real Virtuality where they led you into the world of American black and white B-movies where you met Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi shooting the last movie they did together. And it was a crazy descent that started in the real beautiful set and they captured images that you were capturing that you then went into through into a theater. We had three physical sets and we put on the VR headsets and then we went crazy down the rabbit hole into these different layers. There were six audience members and three to four actors. It was an hour long and was pretty astonishing.
There's another experience I can tell you about called VR_I, it's a dance experience by a Swiss choreographer called Cie Gilles Jobin and Artanim. It was actually the first multiplayer live motion capture experience I tried and he is exceptional about experimenting with this medium. He motion captures his dancers and then there are avatars for six audience members. So what happens is you go into the experience with with a backpack that's connected to a VR headset. You realize you have your own avatar and there are dancers that are not in the same space, but you're not quite sure. You’re in the same space with the other audience members and he's playing with scale and embodiment and it's incredible seeing what different audiences do.
The dancers are in environments where they’re the same height as you then there's moments when they're giants. And they're kind of almost playing with you. And it's an incredible experience. Suddenly being embodied and seeing other people you can interact with. People start dancing together in the scene. He has even the avatar for wheelchair users. The best way to explain these experiences is having a split screen where you’ve got footage of the person with the headset on and footage of what they see in the headset.
In our previous conversations you've mentioned at least two critical reasons why VR and in particular world building is so important to you. One, it's potential for turning taken-for-granted narratives upside down and disrupting commonly held perceptions of our world. And two, the ability to embrace a kind of in-betweenness, this magnet for drawing together practitioners who just don't fit into any single category or role or skillset. Can you say more about this?
LR: I came kind of late to this business and it seemed kind of crazy and dysfunctional and was kind of locked in. I could see these [digital] changes happening and how it was gonna blow apart how we engage with each other and how we communicate. So my natural inclination was to say hey everyone, look, this is coming, how can we adapt what we're doing to this? I have always been somebody who gets excited about the new and how it's gonna change and some people aren't. It took me a long while to realize this, that I like things that change. And change is kind of terrifying for some people. I'm not like that. I love the idea that we can adapt as human beings and change. And that's what makes me curious.
I feel knowledge is fragmented into silos. And in a way we have loads of things that we can find out now because they're supposedly all online. But in way I sometimes think we've become dumber as human beings because our knowledge is fragmented. When you study now, it tends to be very specific and narrow. You can see that in computer science and also in medicine. When you look at medicine, you go to a doctor and they look at one part of your body. We are a system and we are connected to the outside and everything we do connects. And depending on your philosophy, some people will think, and I very much think this, we are connected to the universe.
With world building, we're starting to build spatial environments that we can exist in, and embody, and be present in. We need all kinds of skills to do that. We talked about cinema, immersive theater and games being the three pillars. But we also want to think about how does this affect us? What is it gonna do to us? There are neuroscientists, psychologists, and people thinking about quantum physics, and there's people in healthcare and therapeutics.
When you step out of your sector, you get labeled as somebody that doesn't really fit anywhere. I've seen it in people. The digital person at a TV company, or the digital person an arts organization or cultural organization or a big media company or studio, they're always the person who nobody really understands what they do. And they generally aren’t given the IT and the operations to do anything creative. When there's a staffing cut or there's a strategy change, they are the first people to go. Or they get so fed up with having to explain things or find a reason to be in a company that they leave. Those in-between people are really needed. Because they help us adapt and view things in a bigger perspective.
There are incredible disciplines that have been developed over decades and centuries that we need to respect and lines of thought and social and cultural commentary that is really important that needs to come into this environment. But it's about not seeing these people as peripheral people, but seeing that they are key to any practice or business.
20 years ago, I began working with a variety of cultural institutions in the US who were seeking to expand their audiences through selective integration of new technologies into their programs. I experienced a profound resistance, almost a resentment, toward having to contend with these new technologies and creative processes. Have things changed? What are the points of contention that continue to circulate after all this time?
LR: I think there's always this fear, fear is one of the things that drives people to do unfortunately, desperate things in the world. Fear of change is always difficult. We don't put these in-between people and really deep and strategic people who have an overview on where things are going culturally, technologically and socially, in the forefront of organizations and support them. It's still not happening because people are still in their media silos. And often what happens is people ask “what’s the business model?” And you go, come on, this is the point! What you’re doing is going to be severely hampered by not having the foresight and the strategy to develop your organization and practice. They’re going to help you define that.
I ran a big conference event that was a project finance market, a think tank for commissioners and financiers with leading artists and speakers, and people used to go, why should we fund that? What's the business model? I used to go, well, what's your business model? Because I came from film, I said, that's a destroyed business model. You cannot tell me that it’s not. And you know, I'm not going to tell you what the business model is or you’ll pay me loads of money, because people always expect you to just, in a networking event, suddenly explain the business model.
What happens is obviously things crumble and people get scared. Then when there's money put into something, they generally rush towards it. There's always these hype curves of things and then suddenly traditional sectors go, oh god, we should be doing that. And then they may, but then it's usually a hype for a while and then they go, oh, well that was the load of rubbish, and let's forget about it. So that's what happens, they never give enough longevity or support.
Are you experiencing these kind of challenges at the Venice Biennale?
LR: The Biennale was amazing to support us in the first place. And that was the president who left a couple of years ago, Paolo Barata, he's a visionary in a way. And Alberto Barbera, who's the director of the film festival, who really listened to Michel and I about where this was going. And Paolo really understood philosophically what this meant and he wanted to be the person getting behind this new exciting art form. At the same point, the Biennale is an incredible organization, but divided into silos as well. I think in every organization it's really hard to do the new thing that kind of fits in-between so many things. We're in the film festival, so a lot of it rotates around the cinema industry.
I've worked with a lot of film institutions, and it’s always been hard. Outside of the US, in countries that have subsidy (government or soft subsidy for culture and media), it tends to be the film institutes who hold the purse strings. The government gives them their ministry of culture, gives the money to them, and some of them are further along than others, but most of them are thinking in film still, so it's quite hard.
Can you discuss any projects, ideas or development that our audiences need to know. Can you tell me about any projects on the horizon that will be critical to this field?
LR: It's incredible looking at these studios and artists who are making work, they're using new technologies, which are evolving the whole time. There's no standard business model for them to get financed or distributed or exhibited. And they’re working so hard on all these different fronts and it's new creative practice they're developing. You know, it's hard enough making a film. And getting money for it. It's tough because you are putting together support from different sectors.
So I’ll talk about some areas where there have been some interesting things. I'm mad about social VR and VRChat. And I think it's an incredibly exciting space for people to get involved in. I know this is a very weird analogy because it sounds a bit basic, it's kind of like the YouTube of VR in a way, or the social of VR I should say, because you’re on a platform where you can upload a world that you've designed in Unity. Or you can start building your avatars in a selection of different software and there's so much information in groups and the community.
You can start by just visiting and getting into it because if you have PC you can go on desktop, but if you have a headset, obviously it's better. And a headset connect to a PC is even better. The world builders are kind of people who wouldn't consider themselves artists, but are doing these spectacular adventures. So now, pioneering artists are watching or starting to work with these mediums. So I'd say the live performance projects in the club scene in VRChat are amazing.
Can you tell me about some of the live performances that we should look at or be aware of?
LR: There was a work that won one of our main awards, our Lions back in 2020, it was called Finding Pandora X by Kiira Benzing, an amazing pioneering director based out of New York. This was pandemic led, so she'd done some amazing experiments and the year before we had something called Loveseat, it was a live performance for 50 people watching actors who were motion captured into a virtual world that was screened around us. So it was already combining live performance and virtual words. She went a step further with Finding Pandora X, it was a reworking of the myth of Pandora in VRChat in worlds they created. I think there’s about 15 audience members and 3 actors who play the gods, so there's Zeus, Hera, and Pandora, and it was just exceptional.
I tried it at the beginning of the pandemic and you learn to fly, they have a mechanism for flying. Because there's all kinds of things you can do in VRChat and they have all these plugins that people design and release into the community. So I was stuck in my flat, it was the first awful months in April 2020, and I was flying in VRChat above this amazing world. So we showed that and it was brilliant and won an award.
Then something you may be able to see again because it’s replaying, is one of the actresses who was in Finding Pandora X, Deirdre Lyons and her partner Stephen Butchko, did this project called Welcome to Respite. It’s another performance set in VRChat that may have different runs still. We showed it in Venice last year, it’s another beautifully designed world in VRChat.
I want to talk about another thing that I love that we had in our events program last year, it was called Mycelia, and it is an incredible performance by a Canadian artist Nanotopia who makes music with mycelia or mushrooms in her studio in Canada. She was performing live into a VRChat world that was designed by an amazing community, it was five people from that community, the Meta Crew South Africa, who designed this incredible crystal light mushroom cave world. And she's performing in this incredible stage in the middle of this cave. They give you mycelia avatars and when you come in the she's performing live in an avatar with her mushrooms and mycelia through a very special MIDI system. And you’re there in your mycelia bathing in this incredible world and it’s one of my favorite things I've ever seen in VRChat.
We talked about world building and I didn't answer that question about how this is really important. What kind of worlds are we going to build? And obviously a lot of what happens in these spaces is driven by dystopic visions from science fiction books and movies. And so many people who are in VR are, you know, huge fans of Snow Crash or Ready Player One. Or there’s many dystopic visions we've seen of what's happening in the media, and they're so negative, the views of who we are as humanity. And I sometimes wonder, is our dystopia, the way we are now, have they been designed by artists [laughs]? Have people created them because they've seen them in books and movies? And in a way the architecture that's built, what's happening in the world, the pandemics, all these things, we've seen all these things. I think, why can't you have it a different way? The importance of what kind of worlds you build is so essential, that we think about what kind of virtual spaces we’re going to be in.
I’m not a technologist at all, my main reason for going into this area is because I was thinking, wow we're going to engage and communicate in such different ways. And it's really important to think ethically, environmentally, aesthetically and therapeutically how that's going to affect us as humans. These spaces are going to be really important. And there's spaces where they have all kinds of uses that help us think out ideas in spatial settings, solve problems, and embody to a certain extent, what it feels like to be in a situation, and give you some kind of insight, or they have therapeutic benefits that are really powerful. And so this is a really exciting space, the space between art and technology, our minds and bodies and the wellbeing of our minds and bodies and the world is really important.
I think this is a great place to stop, with some very hopeful words. And Liz, thank you so much for meeting with us and I look forward to a lot more conversation with you.
LR: It's a total pleasure. Thank you so much for the great conversation and looking forward to more, this is the beginning of many.