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Interview: XR & Immersive Programmer Ulrich Schrauth on the 64th BFI London Film Festival's inaugural LFF Expanded

Image credit: 'DAZZLE: SOLO' at LFF Expanded

For 2020, the organisers of 64th BFI London Film Festival have announced the launch of LFF Expanded, the festival’s new dedicated strand of XR and immersive art. Using cinema as a jumping off point, LFF Expanded will be an expansive space for programming, featuring virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and including live immersive performance.

LFF Expanded will feature bold, innovative creators from around the world who use a range of creative techniques to ensure audiences are not in front of a work of art, a film or a performance, but in the middle of it.

Leading LFF Expanded is Ulrich Schrauth, XR & Immersive Programmer, who is also the creative director of the “VRHAM! Virtual Reality & Arts Festival” in Hamburg and supervises various international projects within the field of digital media as creative director.

For Run-Riot, Ulrich spoke to award-winning VR director and filmmaker Shehani Fernando. Together, they unpacked this exciting new strand to the iconic London Film Festival.

LFF Expanded will be open throughout the BFI London Film Festival (7 to 18 October 2020).  

Image credit: 'All Kinds of Limbo' at LFF Expanded

Shehani Fernado: This is the inaugural year of LFF Expanded – why now and what do you think defines your selection of VR and AR?
Ulrich Schrauth:
The BFI London Film Festival has been working on this idea for a couple of years. This year will finally mark the starting point for what is envisioned as a long-term goal to include immersive forms of moving image to the festival as a new strand, called LFF Expanded. The full ambitions for this program is to include installations using all kinds of immersive technologies: Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality, Projection Mapping, Live Performances, Award shows, Industry events etc.
Like all live events grappling with the challenges of the Covid pandemic, we had to modify our plans for LFF Expanded in 2020. The heart of this festival will be a digital first XR programme for this new strand which will give audiences a remote access through a virtual platform, The Expanse, and also a portal to access this platform at BFI Southbank for people who do not have VR equipment at home. This means that this years’ selection is predominantly showcasing Virtual Reality projects (plus one Augmented Reality installation at BFI Southbank).
The projects in this section originate from very different artistic genres like film, fine art, music, dance, animation or live performance, but all of them are combined in that they push the boundaries of what virtual storytelling can look like in the realms of moving image.
Shehani: Virtual reality experiences, especially ones that use 6 degrees of freedom, can be hard to access if you don’t have a headset – what are the different ways in which people can watch the content you’re offering?
Our aim is to make our program as accessible as possible for anyone interested. We have defined different access points for people depending on their gear at hand. Visitors without any headset can view 360 films on their mobile phone or PC browser via our dedicated LFF 360 player and access our virtual platform via a 2D browser version. For the fully immersive experience, we will have a physical installation at the BFI Southbank (Blue Room) where visitors can sign up for free and experience our social VR platform and see all the works from the program. We have outlined on our website ways to engage with our program for every visitor depending on their equipment and how familiar they are with VR.
Shehani: Many of the experiences you’ve selected straddle art and film in interesting ways – what are your personal highlights?
Coming from a theatre and performing arts background, I am very interested in the convergence between moving image and theatre/dance. We have a few projects in our program which push the boundaries of how to experience these art forms in immersive media which I find absolutely fascinating. Also I see a very strong push of creators looking at themes like social justice and a shared sense of community. I personally feel that immersive art forms like VR, AR or MR are able to shift the perspective and give viewers a new insight into social topics.
Shehani: You’re showing a preview of ‘Dazzle: Solo’ which is inspired by the Chelsea Arts Club’s 1919 famous Dazzle ball held at the Albert Hall. It sounds pretty bonkers! What can we expect from this piece?
This project is envisioned as a multi-sensory installation and live art experience and will premiere in spring 2021. It fuses so many art forms like fine art, design, choreography, fashion, film and music in an absolutely extraordinary way! Not only is it visually stunning, it also plays with interactive rooms and digital set design in a very unusual and exciting form.
Shehani: You’re also the artistic director of VRHAM! in Hamburg and this year you were one of the first to host  the festival within the Museum of Other Realities - a virtual platform that can be used to showcase exhibitions. Will LFF Expanded be doing something similar and how can the festival-going experience be more social in these Covid times?
Yes, The Expanse will be our own bespoke platform where visitors can view all the projects from this years’ program and also socially interact. We will even host a number of live events (panels, keynotes, live performances etc.) on this platform. So this gives festival goers from all over the world the possibility, to engage with our new strand of the festival and to meet and exchange with other likeminded visitors.
Shehani: Many of the works in the 360 film selection seem to tackle documentary topics that feature stories from people who are less represented on our screens – from Common Ground which looks at the effects of regeneration in South London, to Virtual (Black) Reality which features intimate stories of Black Berliners. Do you think 360 films are more suited to the documentary genre over drama?
Immersive art forms puts the viewer in the centre of the experience and have the chance to shift perspective. The viewer is confronted with other standpoints, gets a vivid insight into foreign cultures or encounters situations which catapult him out of his comfort zone. This makes VR documentaries a powerful tool to engage people with important political and social discussions in our current society.
But I wouldn't want to play one off against the other. Both art forms have their advantages, but also their limitations. The choice to tell a story in any immersive medium should always be driven by content, not by a technological consideration.
Shehani: Beyond LFF Expanded (which is showcasing some fantastic content), how else is the BFI supporting immersive creators?
The BFI is holistic in its support for XR. We support immersive activity across all of our funds, and we have active projects across all of them. In short, we want creators to know that we are an institute that is able to support them with funding.
We’re also partners of the AHRC projects StoryFutures and XR Stories, who offer significant training, research and funding opportunities for the emerging immersive sectors nationally. A couple of weeks ago we also announced Positive Realities, a challenge fund that will see creatives from across the West Midlands use immersive to promote mental wellbeing. The initiative enabled by the funds from the National Lottery we awarded Create Central (via the National Cluster Growth Fund), StoryFutures, and our partnership ambition with Coventry City of Culture 2021.


LFF Expanded at 64th BFI London Film Festival
7 to 18 October 2020

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