VR & documentary film- The challenges of storytelling. An interview with Lars Rummel

Lars Rummel on new technologies in the film industry like Virtual Reality

INTERVIEWER: PAUL RIETH

The 2019 DOK Leipzig offered a broad variety of formats to experience and discuss the new interactive ways of documentary storytelling like VR, AR, XR and 360. Lars Rummel is the curator of DOK NEULAND and took time to share some insights of the current state of the industry, it`s formats and the challenges in storytelling.

I’m sitting here together with Lars Rummel. He is the interactive programmer of this year`s DOK Leipzig. Please be so kind and let’s take the chance to walk us through your work this year. So, what happened in the field of innovative program here at the 2019 edition of DOK Leipzig?

So at this year`s DOK Leipzig we have basically two offers. We have one program section and an industry section. And for the program we have an exhibition called DOK Neuland and this shows 12 pieces each year. And it can either be AR, web documentaries, 360 degree, but also media art. And. It always depends on the curation and how we’ll put everything together. And on the other side, we do have the DOK EXCHANGE event, which is a place for all the interactive and immersive storytellers. And there we have mostly keynotes and group discussions, including “work in progress” presentations, but we’re not aiming for a pitching market yet. It’s mostly about the presentations and to share in a community and also creating a community.

Yes. I had the big pleasure to be part of both. So I followed your conference, the DOK exchange, which had lectures and as a second part: project presentations. Let’s maybe start a bit from the basics. We are talking about VR, AR, XR 360 and web documentary –  we are talking about a variety of different formats. Could you please tell us a little bit about these formats and what’s actually the core of each of them?

The core of all of these pieces is that they are not meant for the cinema. And that they are using another way of storytelling, which is mostly based on like a spacial storytelling where we put the user into the space. And there are like many different options. So this is, I think the main core of everything, how do we place someone in a digital environment and how do we enable the person to interact with the world that people are putting together?

Lars Rummel at DOK Neuland

So what this means, that coming from a documentary film festival, where a person looking at things as a viewer, now the viewer becomes a user because she or he can become active in the story. This is a major shift when it comes to taking positions in the piece, right? You can now look somewhere longer. You can create your own pace. You can create your own perspective on stories. Maybe you tell us a bit how this changes documentary landscape for you?

So, first of all, I think we can still divide into two different parts, which is on the one hand interactive. And on the other hand immersive. And immersive is supposedly a phrase for 360 degree films. This is still a linear media, that means that people are still sitting somewhere, which is not that far away from the way how we see films in the cinema. We have our seat and we have this headset, which enables us to see a screen 360 degree around our heads. So we’re not able to interact with it only with our view. So it’s still a story that we’re following. And in the beginning it has been a little tough for the directors, because when you have a flat screen film, it’s not easy. It’s a huge part of it as it is a bit easier to guide viewers view. So you do different angles, you do different sizes and then you learn different framings. And then you at least have an idea where the person, the viewer goes, the view goes, which is different in 360 degree because you have this whole surrounding around you. So this is still where you as a user are inside, but you are still kind of primed and manipulate to certain new rules that came up to follow the story. And this is like the total opposite of what we do with VR or AR because. They’re we create a digital environment where the user gets, of course, the rules of a new setting. There are controllers or different machines or mechanical devices we interact in this digital environment with. So there is still a story. It’s not that there’s nothing, it’s a huge story. And sometimes pieces are still linear where you follow a story, but you can still decide if you want to do some sideways, but there are also other pieces that don’t really follow a story at all. It’s more like a room where you can do something on your own, with your own rules and your own pace. So there’s still a huge variety. 

And what’s also really interesting, that the moment of reception of these projects is personal and it’s not collective. So, I’m in the scene myself and I do the decisions for myself without anyone actually in this room with me.  Now we have been here for a week and you saw many people at DOK NEULAND, which was full most of the time and people were entering these worlds. And came out astonished and shocked, sometimes also confused, including me, because it’s just such a new experience. What is your feeling? Did your curation and your selection for this year work?

I am not sure if I can answer this…. But of course in my head, my curation works. It makes total sense. Like in a first impulse, then you always have the second one where I think, “Oh God, it’s something very stupid”. But it’s not only how you put together the pieces. Specially in VR, it’s different. It’s not like, “okay, you have this list of pieces and then you’re done”. You think, “okay, how do they interact with each other? And what kind of day dialogues are coming up in this space?” Like between the films and in VR, it’s more because you have an extra room that gets a physical space that you put together. So there is a bit more to do because it also depends how do you put them into space. How do you divide the space and how is it actually used by the visitors of the exhibition? I think like talking to the people who have been there, they all seem to be very satisfied. I didn’t get the feeling that it was a disaster. I think it was a good decision. Yeah. Especially since I’m allowed by the director (of DOK Leipzig) to create the topic, since it’s not a competition. And the topic this year is “Welcome to the real world”. And all of these pieces have something very similar in their core. And it’s so interesting to meet people who have been in the exhibition, who get to this core and compare the pieces with each other. And that’s pretty interesting… like how deep they can get?

DOK NEULAND, happened for several years now. How does the market of interactive storytelling for inverse documentaries look like at the moment? What are the edges or is it going in a certain direction? And can you see any trends in this field?

What we see on a global level that there are more and more festivals doing these kind of interactive and immersive exhibitions, but there are also museums taking care of these pieces because it is something very valuable and there are more and more institutions jumping on board. And there also theaters, museums, institutions, labs… that are all coming together. And the main problem, to be honest, Is that in the beginning of these VR pieces we were very concentrated and very focused on the piece itself. It was about the user and the question, how do we put the user somewhere, but the way how you onboard a piece and how you exit it is a very different question. And this is something that’s coming up more and I think that’s actually a trend, that there’s another collaboration of curators and the makers now. 

Because at a certain level, we all have to think about how do we put the user into a space  that allows them to actually enter the physical space. How do we train our volunteers? How do we put the room together? Are there installations? Is it just the simple technical devices and how do we actually use them. Now It’s more like, when you leave a VR piece, it’s very impactful most of the times. And it of course depends on the user and how certain topics trigger a person. But how do we deal with the fact that someone is very emotional after a piece and come to a very busy environment. So there’s one of the trends that the makers are trying to be there, especially if there are super, super emotional pieces that they want to be there to guide the people back into their real life.

And for us, we were coming up with a relaxation area, which was, I think a very good idea, because as the volunteer puts off the goggles of someone’s head, where do you send them? If someone is kind of emotional and needs some time out for a second, they can’t really be there because there are others already waiting in the line for it. So where would they go? So we came up with this space because it still needed to be some kind of democratized. We can’t, because it’s so busy that we can’t really do individual therapies or something. It’s not even a therapy, more like exchanging. So we’re inviting our visitors to exchange with each other and interact in this relaxation area, which is mostly a very simple space. We set up a comfortable carpet where people can just lay down with a small bench to also sit down. So it’s a mixture of relaxation and meeting area.

I think I would call this process “landing”. And if the lending process is taken serious by the curator, you’re also taking your audience seriously, which I think is missing in cinema documentaries a lot. And I think that’s a great potential of these interactive pieces that you really put this into the mindset of the creators to say “Hey, what do we do with the people afterwards?” I really liked this. Talking about the audiences:  Who is actually. using these interactive pieces? Since the documentary cinema audience is very, very old, do you see that interactive pieces attract younger audiences? And if yes, could we get them back to documentary world in cinemas as well?

That’s interesting, because what we see is, that people between 20 and 35 are our own main visitors, but there are also older people. So it’s a bit divided because most of the younger people have already done it, so they know what to expect. And therefore, look at it from a different angle, because when you’ve done it one, two or three times, you start to compare it to the other pieces. And this is actually good, because then it’s less impressive, based on your perception and you can really concentrate more on the content and it’s getting deeper and deeper, like the discussions after it. 

But we also have many first users which are often older people of our society, which is quite interesting, because there’s a certain exclusion in this medium since it is expensive and you’re not going to get it everywhere. So the more tech something looks like, it’s not that easy to just get into the piece. So when we have older people in the exhibition, it’s super interesting to see how curious they are. 

Talking about the cinemas, I think it’s still very hard to compare, because it’s just a different medium. I’m getting this question quite often and I’m thinking, I don’t know if this question is a fair one, because on the one hand he wouldn’t say: “Okay, so, so, and so many people go to a museum to see paintings and let’s compare this to the cinema”. I think it is a medium on its own and I think it deserves its own audience.

So, would you put interactive pieces more into a chain of art and music entertainment? Maybe you could specify this a bit, where you would actually position these interactive pieces. Because I still see them as a part of the documentary film festival with a different way of storytelling in a different medium. But maybe it’s something totally different…

I think it’s more question of how to define a medium. Because I think the way of perception is so wildly different than in the cinema. So following the idea that it’s an own medium there, of course. You can like find relations in the ways of storytelling.There is certainly a relation. I don’t want to neglect that. And this is mostly because many VR-filmmakers in the beginning did film. So the idea of how VR has been shaped in the very beginning was from a perspective of filmmakers. And of course, since it is based in film festivals, and it has a good space there because the audience I think is very similar, even though there are differences in means of how does it make her approach to piece and how is the general thinking pattern? And as you have seen in the DOK EXCHANGE, the people are still different there because they’re coming from different backgrounds.

“I think it’s a bit more complex because people are coming from theater, the game industry and from a fine arts background. And some are filmmakers. So it’s this huge variety of people jumping on board of this VR thing.”

Lars Rummel

But honestly, I think it is too fresh to have a very clear idea of what the audience is because when VR as the medium and the shape of it is yet to be specified. I think it’s too early and it would limit the potential of it. So if that is not like 100% clear, of course, the audience is not 100% clear either. But to us, this is super fine because everything is in the experimental phase and everything is changing from each year to year. So I think we will see where it’s going.

Is that also what motivates you in your job?

I think a huge motivation of my job is it’s kind of manic chaos of what is new and what is still there from the past. So it is just something that is in development. And I think this is like one of my biggest motivations, you can’t double yourself because you are forced to do everything different each year because there’s new technology, there are new makers, the rules are new, the environment is new, the market has changed. So you have to be very flexible all the time. 

Maybe one question about these interactive experiences and the space they need.  Do you think that, we also need more exhibition spaces in cities, in rural areas, where people can actually go and experience VR and AR? Is that necessary to make this whole market grow?

I think it’s very necessary that we have mobile spaces and I don’t think it has to be necessarily pieces that are only made for VR. There are so many museums with certain topics and in there maybe then you creations that can also think, “Kkay, if we have paintings and texts and sculptures, maybe you can also include a VR piece”. So they do not necessarily have to be like pieces on its own. But I think the way how I see the development of the pieces right now is that many of them get more and more into performative Idea. That there are actors coming in, performance coming in, interacting with the users there. And as I`ve mentioned beforehand: pieces that are very, very emotional, we need some guidance. So. I don’t see that as necessarily a thing that you can do at home, just because how it is structured right now, there are many, many more pieces that get into idea of Multiplayer, and it’s about the interaction of people in the physical room. So if you would do this as an online multiplayer it would certainly work, but it would have had a different effect.

When we think about this idea of exiting the AR you would have the chance to talk about it later as a group. And this would also be possible through the internet and through team speech or whatever, but it’s still different. And the more it is bounded to physical space, the less it is possible to do it at home.

Exploring new worlds at DOK Neuland

So even though not that many people have it at home, the pieces that are coming right now are less made for this kind of market, because it’s not working yet. But for the gaming industry, it’s like a totally different field. So I certainly believe that there should be more spaces which go beyond film festivals, which goes beyond workshops. Of course, it would be great if the DOK NEULAND exhibition could be for a month, but it’s mostly within the context of the festival, but they need to be more spaces like this of course.

For all those who didn’t have the chance to come to Leipzig between the 28th of October and to 3rd of November 2019. Can you recommend something where they can see inactive pieces? Are there festival coming up, are there spaces, which you can recommend? Are there websites where people can get more information?

Oh, that’s very tricky because also that is in development. I think there’s a blog, a German one, which is from Paula Reiss. She’s starting things where she tries to visit different festivals, writes reviews, and there’s something called XR Must. That’s a collection of all the different festivals and they also have a collection of all the pieces that have been shown there. So there will also be something like international movie database (IMDB) in future. Something like a XR database is there, but it’s like by far not full yet. And, so many pieces that I know that are not in here… I would recommend mostly. check the film festivals and check art festivals. Because they more and more like VR, so it`s more and more integrated into other ideas. Even human rights festivals and the updoming IDFA in Amsterdam. Sometimes you really need to travel a bit. But I would just check the local  culture groups and even the subculture part, because there are more and more VR labs at sub-cultural levels that create amazing pieces.

Yeah. I’m really looking forward what you put together for next year`s DOK Leipzig. Things are probably going to change. The festival got a new festival director, which was just announced the other day. So I’m curious how DOK NEULAND is developing. All the best.

Thank you very much and see you next year. Bye bye.

Lars Rummel is a freelance curator and programmer for immersive and interactive content. He currently works for DOK Leipzig as a programmer for the DOK Neuland exhibition and the XR conference DOK Exchange. In his work he explores how stories can be told in various ways beyond definitions of media forms.

Image source: Sheffield Doc/Fest

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