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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Shorts Review: Use of Sound in VR in Animafest Competition

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- Animafest Zagreb has for the first time introduced a virtual reality competition, and we explore how sound is used in these immersive works

GoCritic! Shorts Review: Use of Sound in VR in Animafest Competition
Relationship by Zoey Lin

In recent years, virtual reality, 360° cinema, and other interactive audiovisual approaches have earned themselves their own established sections at European film festivals. The introduction of a new VR competition at Animafest Zagreb could be seen as an attempt to create an interactive platform which might eventually be attributed the same importance as the more traditional festival sections.

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The VR Competition at Animafest Zagreb consisted of various audiovisual forms – virtual experiences, short films with comprehensive narratives, music videos and video games - which could be said to reflect the major trends in VR production today. The selection included content that users could interact with, allowing them a certain freedom. However, the uniqueness of the programmer's touch stood out for the focus placed on sound in these VR works. It‘s a commendable approach, because audio is an aspect that can often pass unnoticed, given that the primary appeal of the form is the visual quality of the fictional surroundings. Noises, voices and music can all be taken for granted by users who pay scant attention to the role of sound as an aesthetic dimension of the virtual world.

EVGENIA308 by Croatian new-media artist Marta Stražičić is the virtual simulation of an otherwise impossible experience: a close-up look at the catastrophic scenario of our blue planet becoming uninhabitable for humans, followed by the evolution of fantastical, oversized arthropods. This surreal story of constant re-creation is reflected in the film’s subtle musical score and sound design, which consists of a combination of familiar and disturbing mechanical and digital noises which announce the end of the human age. As the world continues to evolve before the viewer’s eyes, we realise that there’s no risk of the human footprint ruining this new world.

Relation • Ship by Taiwanese artist Zoey Lin continues the motif of sound's affective power. By refusing to observe the universe from a human perspective, this VR piece opens the way to a different view of the natural world. Calming sounds allow viewers to experience a fictional ecosystem of interconnected relationships in an unusual form of slow motion. This lends a different quality to creatures’ movements, one that has never been seen before in nature, thereby challenging our fixed modes of understanding.

Kobold by Max Sacker and Ioulia Isserlis

The voices and musical score featuring in Kobold (Germany), a VR game by Max Sacker and Ioulia Isserlis, are responsible for the transformation of an empty house and ideal home into a haunted house. The sound, which is unrecognisable to our ears, at times comes closer and at others drifts away. It acts as a timer which allows players to gauge the speed they should adopt and plays a key role in driving the game onwards.

Sound as a form of procedural rhetoric which keeps the viewer engaged within the logic of the game is an indispensable part of Songbird (UK) by Lucy Greenwell. But this time, instead of terror, it brings joy. While the player relaxes in a virtual tropical forest, birdsong attracts and guides him or her in an expedition to find the last known Hawaii moho (or Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō): a black-yellow bird which has been extinct since 1934. The player is on a virtual island and, while we, in our harsh reality, will never get to hear the call of this particular bird, the semi-fictional approach adopted here creates a parallel, what-if version of history.

These four works use sound as a device with which to explore and understand the logic in operation in their own virtual worlds. By contrast, Accused #2 (2018, France) by Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte is a black-and-white, classically animated short film about Nelson Mandela which won the VR competition at Animafest Zagreb. Set in the courtroom of the Rivonia Trial in 1963 and 1964, the title tells of the injustice involved in the South African proceedings through the speeches of several lawyers and their biased interpretations of the events in question, and through the flashbacks experienced by the young Mandela himself. Genuine sound archive material taken from the trial - of which no visual records exist - was the basis for this animated visualisation, which helps us to better understand the legal process. The educational value of this approach is strengthened by the modern 360° cinema package.

Siffler by François Narbou

Last but not least, there are two music videos: Gaël Faure's Siffler (2018), directed by French animator François Narboux, and Kottarashky, Milenita & The Rain Dogs' Ni Lah (2018) by Bulgaria's Theodore Ushev. The possibilities offered by 360° cinema take viewers on dreamy fictional journeys, offering far more expansive, panoramic views than those permitted by the restrictive screens of smartphones or laptops, which can only display one small frame of a larger fictional realm. Its usefulness does, however, remain questionable: does replacing one boundary of perceptual possibilities with another really offer viewers a more immersive experience?

360° technology allows for a vivid illustration of Siffler's lyrics, which tell the tale of a young man who’s trying to leave everything behind him – from the city he lives in to the lunar space above. Alternatively, in the second video, it helps plunge the viewer into an abstract animation of modern classical music which can be interpreted as a revival of visual music, a genre that has been entwined with the field of animation since the beginning of the last century.

In sum, the VR competition at Animafest Zagreb, and its much-needed focus on sound, was a well-compiled introduction to the form. With luck, this Festival section will gain ground in future editions and we’ll see this new technology presented from ever fresher perspectives.

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