By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance New Frontiers Review: BattleScar

When you walk into the physical installation for BattleScar, a new virtual reality (VR)  project by filmmakers Martin Allais and Nico Casavecchia, you find yourself in a room that resembles a rather clean, well-decorated squat. Slip into the headset and you’re in 1978 New York City where you’ll follow Lupe, a Puerto Rican-American teen and her tough-talking fellow runaway Debbie, through their adventures navigating the ‘70s punk scene in Alphabet City. Debbie dreams of forming a punk rock band but can’t write lyrics, and she finds a connection in Lupe, an aspiring poet; together, the two of them explore New York’s Lower East Side, punk rock and poetry together.

Storywise, that’s pretty much it for this demo of BattleScar at Sundance New Frontier – the first of what’s intended to be a three-episode series exploring the year in Lupe’s life when it intersects with Debbie’s, using an innovative combination of animation and the immersiveness of virtual reality, with some creative explorations of the use of scale within VR and animation to guide the observer through a virtual story.

BattleScar doesn’t use controllers, a trend in VR content. Conventional wisdom of interactive VR design would dictate that no controllers equals no interactivity, but here the creators overcome that with some very creatively constructed design elements that guide you through Lupe’s story, taking you back-and-forth between fully immersive 360 scenes, and scenes in which a miniature diorama stage and characters appear in front of you, suspended. You can walk right up to it, peer closely at the miniature characters acting out their scene, examine it from different angles. Imagine you’ve stepped inside a graphic novel and it’s sprung to life around you, and occasionally there are call-out frames in 3D in which parts of scenes play out, and you’ve kind of got the idea here. It’s very cool and impressively imagined in spite of the lack of interactivity one tends to expect from room-scale VR.

I wouldn’t call BattleScar ready for primetime in this iteration, but I do consider it an exceptionally strong pilot episode for an immersive episodic series that shows tremendous promise. It may seem an odd choice for two male filmmakers to choose to write a story focused on two strong female characters (one of the filmmakers told me that production designer Mercedes Arturo, who has a “Story by” credit on the project, consulted with them to ensure that the story and characters felt authentically female). Rosario Dawson’s on-point narration further lends both credibility and a sense of who these girls are. The team also put a tremendous amount of work into the period authenticity of the piece, and the overall result feels very much like stepping into a graphic novel set in that time and place.

BattleScar eschews use of controllers in this iteration, which is a good choice for demonstrating how someone might be likely to experience it in a 360 headset like the Samsung Gear or the upcoming Oculus Go, hotly anticipated by 360 filmmakers for its significantly lower price point of $200. On the other hand, as someone who is super familiar with the ways in which one can interact in VR, there are also ways in which I’d love to see the filmmakers expand upon the interactivity of this iteration as they build it out. This story world is set among punk street kids in 1978 NYC and graffiti, while it may be thought of more as related to hip-hop, was also pivotal part of NYC’s hardcore punk scene. It would be cool to delve more into that and to tag graffiti alongside the characters. There’s also more that could be done with both Lupe’s journal and with the story’s references to “Howl” that are begging to be more fleshed out, and now that they’ve solidly nailed this iteration on a tight Sundance deadline, I hope to see the filmmakers build on what they’ve done and keep thinking outside the frame in exploring and pushing not just how to tell their story in immersive 360 space, but why they’re telling their story in 360.

BattleScar was co-produced by new VR production company Atlas V, which was formed late last year by VR veterans Arnaud Colinart (Notes on Blindness), Antoine Cayrol and Pierre Zandrowicz (I, Philip) and Fred Volhuer (Shuttershades); Kaleidoscope and 1st Ave Machine, and  the technical support the filmmakers had in realizing their storytelling vision is evident here. I was surprised to learn in talking to the filmmakers after I experienced BattleScar that neither Allais nor Casavecchia are actually VR developers – they are filmmakers who had this project they’d come up with, and one of them had a friendship with someone who made an intro so they could pitch it, and now here they are at Sundance.

This may seem like a minor side-note to this review, but for someone who works within the VR space as I do, BattleScar heralds an important shift in the pattern: Up to and including last year’s Sundance New Frontier and the 2017 SXSW Virtual Cinema (for which I served on the inaugural jury), I would say the vast majority of content we were seeing was being developed around the technology first, with story second. Atlas V in particular was founded with an intent to support the creation of content by filmmakers who don’t necessarily have VR development chops, but who are highly creative storytellers; if they succeed at this model, it would be a huge and favorable shift for other filmmakers looking to transition into the wide-open immersive storytelling frontier.

 

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The Atlantic: You saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech. Did you have a reaction?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.” Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley, Ang or Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super-relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge. I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.
~ Steven Soderbergh

 

“I have made few films in a way. I never made action films. I never made science fiction films. I never made, really, very complicated settings, because I had modest ambitions. I knew they would never trust me to have the budget to do something different, so my mind is more focused on things I know. So they were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. Working for cinema with no – not only no money, but also no ambition for money. I was happy and proud [to receive the honorary Oscar] because of that, that [the Academy] could understand what kind of work I have done over 60 years. I stayed faithful to the ideal of sharing emotion, impressions, and mostly because I have so much empathy for other people that I approach people who are not really spoken about. I have 65 years of work in my bag, and when I put the bag down, what comes out? It’s really the desire of finding links and relationships with different kinds of people. I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people. about nobility. My choices have been to show people that are, in a way, more common and see that each of them has something special and interesting, rare and beautiful. It’s my natural way of looking at people. I didn’t fight my instincts. And maybe that has been appreciated in the famous circle of Hollywood.“

Agnes Varda