Postcard from Cannes #2: the rising potential of immersive cinema

By Ollia Horton - RFI
Europe  RFI / Ollia Horton
© RFI / Ollia Horton

The Cannes Film Festival has rolled out the red carpet for immersive cinema and, for the first time, its own competition. With evolving techniques in virtual, augmented and mixed reality, storytelling is being taken to a whole new level.

The Cineum, with its steely grey Guggenheim-like shape emerging on the horizon, is just 20 minutes from downtown Cannes in the beachside suburb of La Bocca.

Opening in time for the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, the cinema complex is this year home to the festival's immersive cinema program – with 14 international interactive projects, eight of them running in a brand new competition.

A goal for organisers is convincing spectators that the immersive experience is not simply for gamers.

For creators like Romanian Ioana Mischie, the technology has exponential potential, not just due to its technological innovation, but also for its human elements.

The viewer can step into someone else's shoes and “be immersed” in the story, allowing for a deeper message. 

Mischie's Human Violins is a virtual reality multi-player project: several people wear goggles, connect to the experience and interact with each other.

Art in dark times

Mischie sees the technology not only only as a way forward but a form of bridging past and present.

Human Violins explores the story of Alma – a 15-year-old sent to a death camp with her Jewish family during the Second World War. She took only her precious violin with her, which can be "played again" thanks to VR handsets.

"What we did was archive a story of the past in Virtual Reality (VR) and it actually has turned out to be a manifesto for the future," she says.

"It's the power of art in very dark times. Immersive creations allow us to express humanity in completely new ways," she explains, adding that the project originated as a tribute to her father, a violin music lover.

"It's a playground, a room for innovation, a room for visionary thinking and ultimately a huge revolution," Mischie says.

But challenges remain on how to sustain a rapidly evolving art form. For Jeremy Sahel, French co-producer of Human Violins, "the future is already the past".

"In one year, the technology we used for this will need to be updated," he tells RFI.

"Sometimes, we have to work for ten years after doing a piece to continue to make it available to the public. That's the main difficulty for our industry." 

Someone elses' shoes

Nearby is Noire (Coloured) – an augmented reality, location-based experience by French collaborators Stéphane Foenkinos and Pierre-Alain Giraud based on French writer Tania de Montaigne's essay.

Set in the United States' 1950s segregated south, the audience follows 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who is thrown in jail after she refuses to give up her seat for a white woman on a bus.

The mixed reality project combines a variety of techniques. Unlike Human Violins, its goggles have clear lenses with real set décor visible alongside projected images.

"It's as if you are traversing the film, you are able to walk through it as if the actors were ghosts," visual supervisor Giraud explains, adding that the pre-filmed actors are projected as holograms.

As de Montaigne's narrative evolves, landscapes and interiors materialise with lifelike characters appearing at an intimate distance. 

From sitting on the bus with Claudette to hearing her trial, the physical immersion makes for a poignant and memorable experience.

Joining body and mind

For Emil Dam Seidel from Denmark, immersive techniques are a way of exploring a cinematic experience by engaging the body alongside the mind.

Telos I, designed by Seidel with dancer Dorotea Saykaly, is a holographic, mixed reality film and dance installation projected through a glass pyramid in a dark room accompanied by a mysterious soundtrack.

"We're looking at something that is fake but it feels real," Seidel says.

"It's a new beginning. We are taking cinema back to its roots and becoming experimental again, like the Lumière brothers." 

Opening up

"We want to demystify the notion of immersive cinema being a purely individual pursuit for gamers," says Elie Levasseur, project manager for the Immersive Competition, adding that it is also a "collective experience" for up to 25 people.

Levasseur says that immersive cinema will not replace classic cinema but develop parallel while borrowing from cinema, theatre, art and dance.

"The invention of photography didn't wipe out painting," he says.

"On the contrary, it forced it to explore new levels of expression."