In the early 90s, virtual reality (VR) was all the rage as it was brand new. In 1991, two years after the Berlin Wall fell, I was filming a video in that historically famous German city when one of my colleagues said we had to play a VR game. VR game? I had read about virtual reality, but there were no such outlets or game centers in NYC then. I stepped into the unknown world, donned a helmet with glasses, stepped onto a stage, and swung a sword midair to capture my rivals.
Decades later, Meta Quest 2 and its competitors have produced worlds within the VR universe as films, games, and shorts in various genres. Yet, VR’s popularity hasn’t quite taken over the masses. Perhaps it’s the clunkiness of the headset, the expense involved, or insufficient content. Whatever the reasons, producing a short film for VR is a complex process, akin to creating claymation. It is laborious in detail and time-consuming to create each frame. I applaud creators working in this field.
Wonderspaces hosted Paper Birds as part of their monthly VR series, with showings every Sunday. The venue for this series was supposed to be DadaLab, an immersive art studio and event space. I couldn’t find the venue after driving around DadaLab for twenty minutes in the triple-digit heat. They probably relocated at the last minute. Finally, I found it around the corner. Had I turned right instead of left, I would’ve missed it.
The staff was kind enough to allow me entry at 11:20 rather than 11:00. I strapped in and watched Paper Birds, a 2-part 30-minute interactive story about a young musician searching for inspiration. It was written by German Heller and directed and produced by him and Federico Carlini. Narrated by Edward Norton, Joss Stone, and Archie Yates, Paper Birds was nominated for a Children’s & Family Emmy 2022 for Outstanding Interactive Media.
Perhaps the headset was too large because my nose was too small, but I could see the ground while watching the VR film which was slightly annoying as the light from below shot up into the headset screen. The story could have been more explicit in many places, although I read the plot beforehand: Toto is a young musician searching for inspiration. Still, his musical talent opens portals to a hidden world. Toto dives into this darkness to save his sister, who is taken by the shadows.
The setting looked like an old haunted town typical in B/W movies of the 1940s (this film was in 4/C). We have Toto, the boy, and his grandfather, who have different accents; even though the grandfather is supposed to be Italian, he speaks like a thug New Yorker. It sounds like Carlini just chose an accent he thought to be Italian-American. It missed the mark.
Discordant music was going on in the background of the accordion – Italian style and then modern, which needed to be clarified. I couldn’t grasp what period this film took place in. During several sequences, the proximity to the surroundings, water, a boat, land, and a crossing were right in my face, and I tried removing the headset. It shouldn’t have been that close to the viewers’ eyeballs. After a bit, I just closed my eyes when the surroundings were in my face.
The story could have made more sense to me. As I followed Toto’s adventures, I learned his grandfather was a musician/pianist who gave up on his dream and stole the talents of others, then turned them into caged paper birds. Why was Toto’s sister taken? She wasn’t a musician. I also missed the reason the grandfather released all the paper birds at the film’s end. It wasn’t a proper release, as the birds were still caged. It wasn’t apparent if Toto got his own shadow back or not. Maybe I must see Part Two to entirely grasp what the film is about. I left the room perplexed.
Wonderspaces will hold VR Sundays throughout the year and in 2024. Here’s the VR schedule:
- September: Paper Birds by Frederico Carlini and German Heller
- October: Gloomy Eyes Fernando Maldonado and Jorge Tereso
- November: Spheres by Eliza McNitt
- January: Madrid Noir by James A. Castillo
Tickets for the first four films will be on sale starting August 30 at