VR Watch: Can a new gathering be the Sundance of virtual reality?

Clara Valenstein tries out the Oculus virtual reality headset.

Clara Valenstein tries out the Oculus virtual reality headset.

(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)
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Whatever its other virtues, the burgeoning realm of virtual-reality cinema is not exactly known for its communal experiences. Users don a headset, stand in solitude even when in the middle of a crowd and generally try not to flail their arms in the direction of unsuspecting bystanders.

A film festival, then, would seem like a left-field eyebrow-raiser. These are places where hundreds gather in rooms to talk about and react to movies at the same time -- exactly what VR doesn’t lend itself to.

But it’s precisely that solitude that has inspired a new VR group to seek out a fest ethos. René Pinnell and Michael Breymann, proprietors of a start-up outfit called Kaleidoscope, have founded the Kaleidoscope Film Festival. Together with the VR platform Vrideo, they are launching a traveling show of sorts that they are billing as the first VR film festival.


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“We want to add a social layer so it’s not just people watching by themselves in a room,” Pinnell said in an interview. “We need to move away from the tech-demo style of VR,” he added, referring to how much of VR content is currently consumed by denizens of trade shows in the manner of the latest iPhone upgrade.

Pinnell and Breymann -- the former is an entrepreneur who created the iPhone app Hangtime and the latter a veteran of special-effects player ILM -- formed Kaleidoscope as a VR community earlier this year. The idea with their new spinoff is to do what most fests do: bring disparate enthusiasts of screen content under one roof.

Kaleidoscope’s seven-week tour is to kick off in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 22 and arrive in L.A. on Sept 23. At each of these spots, organizers will make available for viewing a range of films, largely in the documentary and animated realms where VR content is currently strongest. (They are almost all shorts of one kind or another; VR features are very rare, for a variety of reasons.)

Among the pieces on offer are “Surge,” Dutch artist Arjan Van Meerten’s animated mediation on evolution; Tyler Hurd’s “Butts,” a cartoon about “love, trust and learning what it means to be truly free; Vincent Morisset’s Sundance hit “Way to Go;” and “The Nepal Quake Project,” David Darg’s look at the aftermath of the disaster with Susan Sarandon doing voiceover duties.

The best description of any film in the lineup comes courtesy of a piece called “The Archer” by American director Jessica Kantor. “A man visits a female archer, and chaos ensues,” is the totality of the log-line for the VR movie, in a turn of minimalism that stands in contrast to the resplendence of the medium itself.


The initial aim, Pinnell said, is to focus the Kaleidoscope festival on an insider crowd, from writers to engineers to entrepreneurs. Audiences will have an opportunity to watch ‎films, then gather to talk about them and the medium generally -- much the way that Sundance ‎parties allow industry, artists and media to gather to hash out the latest trends.

“Our goal is to bring people together so they can learn from each other and think about how to make their next VR film,” Pinnell said. The goal is a noble one: There are, after all, numerous issues still confronting VR filmmakers.

If the idea takes off, Pinnell and Breymann hope that future iterations will attract early-adopter consumers as well. Those efforts will no doubt get a boost from consumer VR headsets as the devices start to hit the market, including the Oculus Rift in early 2016.

Of course, part of the idea of VR is to transport a user to a place without them ever needing to leave their bedroom. That might undermine the notion of a physical-world film festival; why hop a plane to Sundance if you can slap on a headset and import Redford & Co. right into your home?

Kaleidoscope founders recognize the irony in of a real-world confab, but have no plans to hold their VR festival virtually -- yet.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT