360 VR Media: Immersive Storytelling Hits a Film Fest for the First Time

As someone used to being surrounded by tons of fellow media in the photo stalls, I didn’t expect to be the only one of my kind this year. Instead of blending in, I was an anomaly: the sole journalist on the Zurich Film Festival media scene, green carpet and beyond, armed with a 360 camera. It made the experience that much richer, because I was not only covering the Festival, I was telling a story of others’ reactions to a new and somewhat disruptive form of technology.

Setting up for the Green Carpet nighttime action: ZFF2016 crowd in anticipation. All photos by Caitlin Krause (left), unless otherwise noted.

Regardless of the equipment you use, covering a film festival as a journalist never fails to deliver both excitement and surprise. I started out writing about film, theater and music because I love the subject matter. Then, I involved photography, combining it with my written stories, using the two mediums to highlight and accentuate each other. Adding to this, I incorporated a mix of field journalism techniques, aiming to capture the spirit and energy of the festival scene, beyond the movies themselves.

I’ve covered ZFF for the past five years, and each time, a new angle emerges, illuminating even more about the city, its culture, and the universal stories that bind us.

Director Jan Gassmann, whose film “Europe, She Loves” won the Emerging Swiss Talent award at ZFF2016. Jan is featured in the “Humans of Zurich” ZFF storytelling project.

Introducing a “Humans of Zurich” component of coverage, I include portraits and micro-interviews from people gathered around the festival tent, lounging at the Operaplatz, lingering to before or after a film. Its aim is to capture more of the ambience, and the smaller, often-untold stories that are going on all around us.

Interviewing Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the green carpet for the premiere of “Snowden” (we’re in great company, with YouTube’s Erik Conover, A Todd Smith and Greg Hamilton from Movie Maker Magazine)

To many, that’s the nature of theater — a dynamic between the medium and the audience, and the viewer becomes an active “player”, too.

Enter the world of immersive media, including VR and 360 filming.

By combining coverage of the carpet events, premieres, interviews, scenes, and man-on-the-street/woman-on-the-platz “Humans of Zurich” snapshots, the aim is to create a full tapestry of shared experiences, in an interactive form that a user can jump in and out of, exploring as he or she may wish.

YouTubers and Social Media bloggers on the carpet — A. Todd Smith, Billy Mann, Erik Conover and Greg Hamilton

There’s nothing like a film festival to match this theme — the film itself is a VR device, arguably the most popular one of the 20th century. Now, integrating VR and 360 into our own personal spaces creates an amplification of these immersive abilities, in a personalized way. This is essentially why I believe it’s guaranteed to be the human experience of the 21st century — because it fits our human desire (which we’ve had ever since the age of Icarus) to transcend both reality and our own human limitations.

Crowd gathered with Woody Harrelson on the green carpet
Woody (far right) giving interviews to the SRF team

If I initially said I began to write journalism pieces about film because I love film, that could be too recursive. What I mean to say is, I love to create, to dream, and to be immersed in magic. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” A magical experience is what we crave; it’s why cinema can be so powerful — it invokes dream and wonder.

And, it’s not about fooling anyone. That’s not it at all — it’s the magic of something deeper; much like Coleridge’s “invoking the temporary suspension of disbelief.” We have this ability, now, to jump into these new media forms and “ride the ride”, suspending our own disbelief and instead viewing from another’s eyes; seeing from new perspectives.

That’s what VR and 360 were all about, with my coverage of Zurich Film Festival this year. It was exciting in many different ways, and it created a way of seeing an environment that’s otherwise impossible to capture — those little “chill moments”.

Chilling with Kristen Vermilyea (@ktenvermilyea), Erik Conover (@erikconover) and friends by the fountains.

To break it down, here are my Top 7 Takeaways (7 is my favorite prime, to match a prime event) from Serving as the FIRST and ONLY 360 Journalist at the Zurich Film Fest:

1) It was hard to be everywhere.

It was a challenge to cover all parts of the festival, which also made it a joy, There were early-morning press screenings, chances to meet and interview filmmakers and actors, green carpet events and photo-calls, casual conversations at the festival tent or on the Operaplatz, and all sorts of celebrations. There was never a dull moment, and the focus of my storytelling applied to all of it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Oliver Stone and Shailene Woodley at the Snowden press conference
I’m selfie-photobombing this 360 press view of the Snowden scene.

2) It was great to be everywhere.

This made the immersion extra-special for me, because I had the chance to shift from one zone into the next without any transition time. My modes were always shifting, and I had the chance to “do it all” as a “triple threat” form of the media.

Enjoying the Operaplatz between screenings — the fest tent is perfectly positioned for a rich community atmosphere.
Armed with four lenses, three cameras, notebook, tripod, etc., I was on-the-go, with gear in tow.

3) The white ball scares adults and attracts little kids.

The 360 camera I was using is called a “Samsung Gear 360”:

Samsung Gear 360 with tripod mount

Check out these images; see any similarities to Samsung’s look and feel?

Auto from WALL-E

I noticed that certain adults seemed to recoil when they saw my camera, which does in fact resemble a dancing eyeball; perhaps they were picturing Auto, the WALL-E villain, or the homicidal AI machine, HAL, that Kubrick made the most famous cinematic computer of all time.

HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey

Samsung’s relatively innocuous 360 camera actually opens doors of a different, creative kind. Kids (and certain kid-like adults) flocked to it, danced around it, and wanted to talk with it. When I would take a still-frame shot with the 360, some wanted to immediately jump into the surrounding frame (so expansive it’s everywhere), and create some sort of scene that would somehow be different than a static pose. It was fascinating, to see the range of reactions.

In any case, the camera doesn’t blend in at the moment. This might lead people to think the medium is more of a gimmick than a bona-fide journalistic tool. The subjects could become performers instead of behaving naturally; that’s a risk. I think, in time, we will meet in the middle — more journalists and consumers will use 360, and the cameras will look less alien.

So, I’m choosing to embrace this period of deepening awareness, this beautiful time in which the medium and its gear are considered strange, beguiling and exotic. I consider this is a precious and maybe ephemeral time; one in which those involved in producing 360 media can enjoy the experience of serving as witness to the surrounding culture. At ZFF, I could see who would be the “early-adopters” — those already comfortable engaging with a new machine that might look like HAL, but is a lot of fun.

In the media area, armed with my Samsung 360 (photo by Patrick Frischknecht)
Tripletasking, shooting with Samsung 360, FujiFilm X-Pro1 and cellphone

Personally, I think it resembles the ZFF mascot the best, which they simply call, “the Golden Eye”. ZFF is already embracing 360 in emblem:

ZFF GoldenEye Mascot and Emblem

4) People forget they’re on-the-record.

When I start filming 360, I don’t need to look at the lens to feel engaged with the scene. I look directly at the people and the scene in the frame — the camera serves as an immersed witness. Because I’m listening and fully present in the conversation, and the lens is relatively small and away from us, I’ve had many experiences where, after the first 15 seconds or so, it seems people forget about the camera. This is great, and creates a natural atmosphere, ideal for the goals of the project.

Many people wanted to stop and chat on the Operaplatz, and soon forgot about the camera. Marina gives it a closer look.

5) We need new journalism terms.

I discovered that Film Festivals, and perhaps all events, want to separate journalists into categories, thus segregating the media. There are designated “photographers” for still frames; there are “film interviewers” for film; there are “print media” journalists who cover interviews and written material (no photos; no film); there is even a separate section for “bloggers”, which is now blending and merging with “vloggers” and morphing to include “social media influencers”, as the industry begins to recognize the clout and influence of vehicles like YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and the like.

There’s a ton going on in this social media 360 selfie: YouTuber-Instagrammer @dancejujudance (Julie Zhan) is checking out the camera, Snapchatter @billymann demurely poses (in blue tshirt), and YouTube vlogger Erik Conover (@erikconover) creates some daily magic.

What about those of us who incorporate all of these mediums into our storytelling?

I know it’s hard to merge the categories, yet I use every one of these tools, combining them in my storytelling, in order to reach audiences in an interactive and profound way.

I understand that the traditions of naming serve a purpose; in fact, Voltaire said, “before you wish to speak with me, define your terms.” Establishing terms for what we are doing and how we are accomplishing it, for what audience and purpose — this is undeniably important.

I would simply caution: don’t let the terms segregate the media, in this new era of discovery and interactivity. The most ambitious and creative projects might be the ones that are integrating forms and formats, and there needs to be a place for them; a fun place for the artists who are breaking ground.

Hanging out in the ZFF Tent with Courtney Forbes and media friends — this atmosphere is what makes the festival so festive!

That’s part of the reason I love ZFF — for its innovation and its celebration of all different forms of film. It’s what co-founders Nadja Schildknecht and Karl Spoerri dedicate themselves to — giving the community a full range of cinematic stories.

6) Empathy rules. Story is king.

Ultimately, the films at ZFF shine because they are well-chosen, blending emerging cinema with screenings of the year’s biggest films, right on the heels of Cannes and Toronto. It’s well-timed, pushing into the fall premiere season, serving as a standout hybrid of classic and contemporary — honoring all types of film, and giving audience a chance to taste the range, too. This year, the Festival even included the “Pavilion of Reflections” floating platform on Lake Zurich, where festival-goers could watch free screenings in a remarkable atmosphere. This is part of the ethos of the community: open to all, with a range of stories that reflect our own complexity and dynamism.

ZFF afterparties — the dancing and music are part of the action.
Grand Finale: Awards Night at the Operahaus. I’m here with director Jero Yun, whose film “Mrs B., a North Korean Woman” won the top prize in the International Documentary category.

Underneath it all, the empathetic experience, on and off-screen, is what binds us. I can’t say it better than Roger Ebert did:

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” — Roger Ebert

7) A final Analogy: Home: Dorothy :: ZFF: Me.

There’s no place like Zurich Film Festival.

The 360 interactive coverage simply helps to showcase why.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Stadelhofen Fountain: Arthouse Le Paris, background right, screened some of my favorites this year, including “Dancer”.
It’s all about how the magic serves to help tell the tale.