One hundred years ago the film industry was just getting started, with early experiments that led to such innovations as editing and close-ups. Someone had to actually come up with the montage, the establishing shot, the cut-away, the fade to black. These innovations became standardized through trial and error by fearless early filmmakers who produced as many short films as they could crank out.
The same work ethic applies to today’s pioneers of cinematic VR. One such outfit is Mechanical Dreams VR, a five-person cinematic VR company headquartered at CoMotion Labs, led by Lacey Leavitt and Mischa Jakupcak. Mischa and Lacey met over a decade ago while working on an indie film called Cthulhu, and have been producing films in the Pacific Northwest ever since. Lacey and Mischa are joined by Mara Auster, Joe Jacobs, and Chris Mosson. Together they’re charting a path into cinematic VR, learning from their many mistakes in order to chalk up a growing list of victories. These include an invitation to screen one of their shorts, Eagle Bone, at the Toronto International Film Festival on a bill with just five other VR films, all of which boast budgets that dwarf their own.
Eagle Bone is the vision of director Tracy Rector. Shot on the shores of Puget Sound, the experience is a meditation on Native American heritage, with scenes that transport you from a marshy glen to a beach where you hover over a campfire. The short communicates the relationship between identity and geography better than any art I can remember. The indigenous voices of Ken Workman and Nahaan combined with the sensation of presence in this ancestral homeland left me feeling profoundly connected to history. As one scene faded into the next, my attention was both pleasantly guided and allowed to roam.
In another Mechanical Dreams short, the absurdist “Power,” by Lynn Shelton, drag performer Cherdonna makes a surprise appearance in the apartment of bewildered philanthropist played by Matt Smith. Cherdonna’s vampy entrance made me feel discomfort similar to how I feel when I witness a public outburst. I want to emphasize that this had everything to do with Smith’s reaction. As Cherdonna riffs and writhes on the furniture, the philanthropist is stunned into silence. I found myself taking cues for how to react by observing him. In a way it was like being in an audience and looking around to gauge everybody else’s reaction to something on the screen. Except in this example, I existed inside a 360 space with the performers and could take my cues from within the experience itself.
The sheer variety of 360 films Mechanical Dreams is working on is impressive. They’re shooting everything they possibly can, taking on as many projects as possible with slim to no budgets and volunteer crews. One night I was working late at CoMotion Labs and Mischa was heading out to shoot a 360 werewolf film. Other projects include a documentary about a black dominatrix, a series of portraits of the LGBTQ community, and a dreamlike drama about a young girl who meets a stranger.
This company led by two ambitious women wants to create great art and champion populations underrepresented in traditional, “flat” film. Coming from the world of cinema, Mischa and Lacey witnessed how century-old sexism is ingrained in the technical language of film production itself. For example, on set, certain lighting rigs are commonly referred to as “blondes and redheads.” While their default mode is to shoot anything and everything they possibly can, they’re dedicated to expanding the scope of whose stories get to be told in this new medium.
I’ve observed Mechanical Dreams for the past month as we’ve settled into CoMotion Labs together. They sit across the aisle from me, and when they’re here in the office they’re heads-down, eyeballs deep in editing software, planning shoots, and launching their Kickstarter campaign. Eagle Bone’s inclusion in Toronto is proof that their resourcefulness and bias for action is paying off. One of the other VR experiences on the bill in Toronto cost a million dollars a minute to make. Let’s just say Mechanical Dreams got Eagle Bone into the festival for much, much less.
Anyone interested in the future of this medium would be well advised to keep a close eye on Mechanical Dreams VR. Lacey is blunt about the team’s ambitions, “We want Mechanical Dreams to be the world leader in cinematic VR content,” she says.