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Dreaming of Potatoes and VR

Potato Dreams - VR Today Magazine
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This week Mechanical Dreams VR held an open house at their home base, the University of Washington’s VR/AR startup incubator, CoMotion Labs. This was just the latest example of Seattle’s techie and cinephile cultures coming together. It’s starting to become harder to distinguish who belongs to which tribe, which tells me that cinematic VR is moving in the right direction.

Most people outside Washington State don’t realize how passionate Seattle is about film. The city boasts an international film festival known for its broad and extensive programming, the world’s biggest video rental store, and myriad theaters and nonprofits that feed the city’s appetite for cinema.

When I viewed a Mechanical Dreams production-in-progress called “Potato Dreams,” by director Wes Hurley, I felt as though I was getting a glimpse at the future of the medium.

Mechanical Dreams Open House, CoMotion Labs, October 4, 2016

Mechanical Dreams Open House, CoMotion Labs, October 4, 2016

“Potato Dreams” is a short narrative mostly focusing on the director’s mother, who moved to Seattle from Russia as a mail-order bride. It’s a simple story of immigration with voiceover narration, which helps tie together the tableux that are arrayed around you.

I experienced this 360 film seated in a swivel chair, wearing a Gear. At times the tableux verged on the Lynchian, with menacing men in tighty whitey underwear fighting, and a ring of larger-than-life heads shrouded in what appeared to be gauze or burlap fading in and out of view. Tilting your head back to look straight up brought into view a glowering bust of Vladimir Lenin, as if he was a malevolent spirit overseeing this family’s origin story.

Voiceover narration, which is of course a standard technique of flat film, worked remarkably well in 360 as a binding element. While the little scenes around me varied, the narration was constant, which underscored that the scenes were all part of the same story.

Most of “Potato Dreams” takes place in a darkened mind space that reminded me a bit of a theater set with parts of a stage lit by spotlights. At the conclusion of the film we’re treated to a panoramic shot of the Seattle skyline from Alki Beach, the same stretch where Angelina Jolie once went jogging in a forgettable romcom. This transition from dark interiors suggesting inner thoughts to a very real, very beautiful outdoor setting was surprising and felt right for the story. It underscored the sense of happiness and relief that Hurley conveyed through his narration.

I pulled off the headset wanting more. It occurred to me that this is the moment when your cool, quirky friends who are working on a creative project start to get really good.

Mechanical Dreams VR, which recently placed another short, Tracy Rector’s “Eagle Bone,” in the Toronto International Film Festival, is working to define the grammar of 360 cinematic VR. Every clip of theirs that I’ve seen has spurred my imagination into speculating about what works and what’s possible in this new medium.

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