Exploring Virtual Realities at the BFI London Film Festival 2021

At this year’s LFF Expanded programme, we played virtual pianos, travelled through melting doors and spoke to director Asif Kapadia about his VR animation Laika, the story of the first dog to be launched into space.

Laika (2021)
Laika (2021)
  • Reported from BFI London Film Festival 2021

Set among the railway arches of graffiti haven Leake Street, The Expanse, an exhibition space which showcases innovative works in the nascent medium of virtual reality, is suitably positioned on the sub-cultural fringes of the more traditional film festival. The Expanse is home to eighteen VR works by filmmakers and visual artists (some household names, some emerging), and presents an ambitious programme that’s by turns daring, emotive, and experimental. Housed in a concrete labyrinth of low-lit tunnels, headsets rather than communal screens are the order of the day, and there’s an air of intrigue about the place that’s decidedly different from the easy familiarity of the movie theatre.

In a space where material borders are being broken down by the digital realm, works sit adjacent to one another in booths marked only by banners announcing the artist and title – there are no auditoriums here. Mushroom-like stools are dotted around to accommodate visitors. Technicians calibrate Oculus Quest 2 headsets. At one end of the exhibition, a stage is beset by curious, almost-recognisable, objects. With just a handful of VR experiences under my belt (most on a Google Cardboard headset in my living room), I have no sense of etiquette. How do I sit? What do I do with my hands? Will I understand how to navigate the virtual worlds presented to me? It’s all quite unnerving.

Fortunately, while some of my anxieties resurface at disconcerting moments (at one point in Asif Kapadia’s Laika I almost fall off my stool during a gravity-defying space scene), the programme is absorbing enough that I soon feel at home.

­­­­­The Expanse is curated to offer something for everyone, mixing as it does animation and live action, and pieces suitable for children (Fuana, in which animals appear via augmented reality) and adults (Museum of Austerity, which evokes the ghosts of disabled people who have died as a result of austerity measures). Within the seemingly broad programme, though, there are recurring themes: the environment looms large (Atomic/Ghost in the Atom), as does crisis (Adult Children, Container), memory (A Life in Pieces: The Diary and Letters of Stanley Hayami), and technology (Samsara). Together, the works showcase the role of technology in helping us to understand, and even resolve, cultural anxieties about our collective pasts and futures.

For people transitioning from film to VR for the first time, Laika and Missing Pictures: Tsai Ming-Liang (Clément Deneux and Kuan-Yuan LAI) are good entry points. Laika tells the story of ‘the most famous dog in the world,’ who, in 1957, became the first living being to travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere (and the only one not to have a planned return) as part of a Soviet project to prove the possibility of space travel. It’s an absorbing tale that interweaves animation and archival footage as Laika becomes attached to a laboratory assistant (Sophie Okonedo) before being jettisoned into space by a government official (Tobias Menzies).

Missing Pictures (2021)
Missing Pictures (2021)

In its use of locations, Laika does offer a familiarity of sorts, for scenes on Earth set you up as an in-universe editor with the ability to cross-cut between a meeting space (reminiscent of the war room in Dr Strangelove), and the dog’s enclosure. But there are plenty of surprises, too, as sequences shot from the canine protagonist’s point of view allow you to rise up from your stool and lean forward or back to reveal new details about the story world. You’re encouraged to perform and to wonder ‘what would Laika do?’

It’s the space sequences, though, that make most effective use of the medium. One shot divorces you from your material surroundings as the Earth looms large below; in another, I found myself reaching out unprompted to pet an animated dog that wasn’t really there. To say that the experience was unnerving would be an understatement, and while it’s grounded in the cinematic, Laika gestures in its second act toward VR’s otherworldly potential.

Based on a graphic novel by Nick Abadzis, Kapadia originally conceived of the adaptation as an animated short film. However, when he was commissioned by the BFI to create something in VR for the London Film Festival (production took place during pandemic lockdowns and was realised virtually), it presented an opportunity to reinterpret the story in a new medium.

Speaking to me in an interview, he’s eager to trace the connections between the dog’s journey into space and our ability to enter into virtual worlds through VR headsets. “You can only do this because of Laika,” he points out. “Because of the space race, we have satellites. Because of satellites, we have the internet, we have TV signals, we have mobile phones. Everything that you need to watch a film using that technology, would not exist were it not for that dog!” With hindsight, it makes the film’s subject matter all the more powerful.

Nevertheless, working in a 360-degree immersive environment and with new technology was, he says, a challenge. “Twenty-five years of making films and I was unlearning everything I know. Doing something where I had no control over the frame was hard, really much harder than I thought it would be. We were pushing the technology much further than any of the production team had ever been aware of – you want to push the boundaries.”

Laika (2021)
Laika (2021)Passion Pictures

I ask whether film language was a useful frame of reference for viewers in the unchartered territory of the virtual realm. “I would say film language, part VR language, part theatre, part graphic novel.” He goes on, “It’s as much using the frames of a comic book as it is of using film language. We’re in the West so we read left to right; something has to catch your eye to the right of the frame [to encourage you to look around].”

Missing Pictures, meanwhile, relies more on the visual iconography of the cinema screen and auditorium. It’s the second in a series of VR documentaries offering filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories that, says the BFI website: ‘they were never able to bring to the screen.’

Situated in an old movie theatre, Missing Pictures invites participants to experience moments in Tsai Ming-Liang’s childhood as he reminisces about trips to see films with his grandfather, the treats that his grandmother would give him for the shows, and his upset about going to school. Interweaving glorious, paint-like animation in subtle hues of red and orange with CGI footage of the acclaimed director, it makes for an emotionally charged experience that, like Laika, encourages you to edit your own experience of sound and image.

Where Missing Pictures self-consciously juxtaposes cinema’s history and realist tendencies with the evocative, dream-like and hyper-modern world of VR, interactive piece Eternal Return (ScanLAB Projects and Lundahl and Seitl) asks you to step through the looking glass and leave the cinema behind.

Unlike other works on the programme, Eternal Return cannot be experienced by multiple people at the same time and relies on a performer to guide you through the work. Defying the conventions of mass media, it’s a physically participatory exploration of memory and sensory projection that catapults you into the interior world of a fossil and plays with your expectations about the material and virtual worlds. Physical doors melt into nothingness when you walk through them, while reaching out to touch a virtual grand piano conjures up the sound the keys would make. It’s a beguiling and strangely emotive experience.

Speaking to me at the exhibition, artist Christer Lundahl describes how Eternal Returns is an attempt “to understand what it means to enter into something, to be embedded in the work.” Exploring how we use our senses to fabricate realities and project ideas onto time and space, it’s a project that for me reconnects us with the elements of touch that have been missing during periods of lockdown isolation and increased reliance on screens. Lundahl is also excited about the experiences that the medium will open up to us in future. “Virtuality is a potential that everyone has,” he says. “Everyone can close their eyes and imagine something.”

Eternal Returns
Eternal Return (2019)

Of course, what happens when we try to imagine something depends on our unique sensory and cognitive engagement with the world. Not everyone will picture images; not everyone will be able to wear a headset or move around a stage. With accessibility issues still prevalent in the almost century-old exhibition format of sound cinema, it seems like VR might have its work cut out in terms of opening up the experience to some disabled people.

As the technology develops and becomes more affordable, though, it may yet follow in the same footsteps as cinema, television and video games to become another mass medium of the moving image. Indeed, Kapadia sees real potential for VR headsets in the home, as they allow people to watch even traditional audiovisual media in a space free from distraction. “It’s impossible to be in it and on Instagram – you cannot be in a VR film and be on your phone.” But beyond its capacity to help viewers focus on films, Kapadia is also excited by the medium’s potential to entertain on its own terms. “When done well,” he says, “it is equal to any other art form.”

Following my visit to Leake Street I head back to one of the main festival sites at BFI Southbank, and pass graffiti artists touching up their work on concrete canvases and videographers setting off smoke bombs for makeshift shoots. I’m reminded of early cinema’s humble beginnings. It, too, had something of a sideshow status. It was a temporary amusement located under railway arches, and a spectacular – if second-tier – entertainment in theatres. It also, so the story goes, caused people to fall out of their seats with shock at the new sensory experience on offer (indeed, Kapadia tells me that some viewers jump with fear when a van drives toward them in Laika, just like those audiences of the Lumières’ train film in 1895). Well, we all know how things turned out for the cinematograph. If you’re invested in the future of the moving image, I’d be paying VR some serious attention.