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CIFF 2022 media hub blurs line between cinema and games

Outside of the Calgary International Film Festival media hub room at Eau Claire, an unusual set of buildings was taking shape on the big screen that overlooked the red carpets.

One by one, small blocks of architecture were added to the game Townscaper until “CIFF” was rendered in bucolic seascape.

The town builder, and indie smash hit from last year, was just one of the video games and interactive VR experiences that CIFF was demoing as part of the interactive media hub at this year’s festival.

“Our marketing slogan is ‘this year’s movies and so much more,’ so this is part of the ‘and so much more’ with four games,” said Brian Owens, artistic director for the Calgary International Film Festival.

In addition to four games being demoed at CIFF—three from Canada and one from Sweden—there are five virtual reality experiences for people to try.

“What we’re hoping to demonstrate to our audience is the sort of artistry and vision that goes into creating these types of events,” Owens said.

All of the games and experiences are free to try throughout CIFF after 6:30 p.m. They’re located at next to the red carpets at Eau Claire Market.

On display this year are The Cluckening about a chicken out for revenge, Cult of the Lamb which challenges users to build a cult of woodland creatures, Insurgency: Sandstorm which is a team based first person shooter, and Townscaper which is an instant town builder full of joy.

The VR game experiences include Gorn, which is a gladiator simulator, and Tentacular which has a tentacled beast finding its place in the world.

Cinematic VR experiences available are Jordan Jones Dies in Space. It’s a cinematic space experience about a interstellar cruise ship maintenance worker. The Orchid and the Bee presents an uplifting vision of an evolutionary future for the planet. This is Not a Ceremony is a cinematic exploration of what it means to be indigenous in Canada.

“CIFF” is drawn in the game Townscaper and shown on the big screen at the CIFF Media Hub launch at Eau Claire Market in Calgary on Friday, September 23, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Indie hits present crossover opportunity to film lovers

Owens said that while Townscaper, and another one of the games on display called Cult of the Lamb, have their followings amongst the gaming community. That following doesn’t always translate into the film-going public.

“We chose those two specifically because of the artistry that they present,” he said.

“They show that like animation and creativity, and when you watch someone playing Townscaper, even when you’re not doing it, it almost presents as a video art installation.”

He said this year was an experiment for CIFF. They tried more outreach to gaming communities to try and draw in that audience.

“We hope to obviously see them turn around and maybe take part in the films and enjoy the films,” Owens said.

“Simultaneously, we also hope that our regular audience that comes to sit every year takes a fresh look at the opportunities that the industry Interactive Digital Media Hub provides.”

One of the goal for future years at CIFF is the introduction of pre-release games. They envision a prize for creators in the vein of the RBC Emerging Artist award. That given out to emerging filmmakers at the festival.

“Ultimately the dream is to be a stepping stone, or a step in the ladder for young creators, young developers, young companies, to get the recognition that they can then take out in the world and hopefully turn theirs into a cult hit,” Owens said.

A still from Colin Van Loon’s cinematic VR experience This is Not a Ceremony, playing at CIFF on September 30 and October 1, 2022. COLIN VAN LOON/NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

This is Not a Ceremony premiering on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

Colin Van Loon’s Not a Ceremony is being shown by CIFF for two days only, starting on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30.

His cinematic VR experience explores what it means to be Indigenous in Canada. It comes after the death of Brian Sinclair. He was ignored by hospital staff in a Winnipeg emergency room for 34 hours.

“That was such a frustrating story to hear. It was something that always bothered me because that could have been any of my relatives,” Van Loon said.

“I think you could watch the videos of Brian in the hospital and see him moving about from a security camera. But if you are in VR, you can you can actually understand how close he was to the desk, how close he was to doctors, and ultimately how close he was to help he didn’t receive.”

Van Loon called VR a powerful storytelling medium. It’s an appropriate one for getting audiences closer to the storytellers within the experience.

“The sort of underlying and guiding theory was if we can bring people closer to the storytellers, then they can have a better understanding of these people, and maybe they’ll feel something different.”

Experience has a dual meaning

He said that Not a Ceremony has a dual meaning. For Indigenous audiences its a way of presenting strong examples of resilience in the face of racism. And for non-Indigenous audiences, a “cold shower, wake up call.”

One of the reasons to use VR as opposed to traditional documentary film making techniques, is that the experience never fades from viewing, said Van Loon.

“If you watch a scary movie, and the ghost or the boogeyman or something jumps out, there’s a jump scare. The effect dissipates after a period of time.”

“In VR we don’t have that, it’s kind of this sort of hacking of the mind and body.”

The experience is being presented in part through the National Film Board of Canada.

For more details on This is Not a Ceremony, and all of the CIFF interactive media hub experiences, see www.ciffcalgary.ca.