AWN’s resident Miscweant, adorned in an Oculus Quest 2 headset, shares his report on Animation Nights New York’s cutting-edge webXR virtual animated shorts screening.
On the last Sunday in January, Animation Nights New York (aka “ANNY”) presented “Monsters and Me,” a virtual screening of in-competition films that animation fans could watch from the comfort and COVID-safe space of their homes.
And not just watch, but enter. ANNY constructed a virtual environment that one could simply watch on their computer screen, or with the aid of an Oculus or similar headset, seem to physically enter.
It was my first opportunity to use the Oculus “Quest 2” headset I’d been gifted a few weeks earlier… and it was an interesting experience. The moment I pulled it over my head I was suddenly, seemingly in a vast hall, with images of the films in competition on its walls like giant billboards, and a huge floating information-filled screen in its center -- the evening’s “virtual event space.” There were doorways to other rooms where I could actually “sit” in a “movie theater” and watch the competing films, or travel to another room where I could conduct a virtual interview with the filmmakers. (All together there were nine separate virtual rooms including “outdoor” meeting spaces, a gallery room and a “sketch of the month” room.)
On the way in I’d been assigned a floating avatar that looked like a pill-shaped Santa Claus doll. I was greeted by several other strangely shaped avatars and “Annybot,” a boxy, helpful critter -- the virtual form of ANNY director and founder Yvonne Grzenkowicz.
Still new at this, I made more than a few boo-boos trying to navigate this strange realm; at one point I found myself in the same hall I’d been in a moment before -- but entirely on my own, as if I’d been cast into a dimension slightly out-of-phase to the one where my fellow avatars were still congregated. At another point I somehow wound up in a virtual subway station, all white tiled and lined with massive columns. (The scary part was when I entered the train parked in the station -- and was unable to leave until I rebooted myself back to the VR space’s entryway. In hindsight the experience was even scarier, given the program’s final film The Wheel Turns, set in a subway train bound for a nightmare world.)
The program’s theme was “Monsters and Me,” and the variety of monsters appearing were as varied as a hungry alligator (capable of swallowing people bigger than it in a single bite), a woman’s finger turned slug (the aptly named The Slug Finger), or a city full of leering, sickle-mouthed ghostly figures (Hunter).
That gator was a supporting character in the evening’s first film, Iron Me, a French short that reveled in its silliness, centering on a man and his passionate relationship with his… ironing board? (He becomes a pariah to his ironing board-loving neighbors and must go on the run when they discover he’s smashed and buried his in a fit of temper.)
For sheer entertainment, the winner had to be Agent Bird. Taking the eternal “predator vs. prey” trope into the spy world, the titular avian and an ominous feline battle for a mysterious silver briefcase. (I won’t tell you who wins or how they take advantage of their opponent’s one vulnerability, but the sharp-suited characters and the film’s silvery “MacGuffin” gave the film a definite Tarantino vibe.)
Another personal favorite was Fauche Qui Peut, a CGI effort wherein a hard-luck Grim Reaper (reminiscent of Billy & Mandy’s Grim) repeatedly fails to do in an oblivious movie star. Some very atmospheric CGI effects, the various pop culture references in the star’s apartment and an unexpected ending made the film a fun experience.
Spell of the West was the goofball story of a feisty cowgirl and her talking animal pals as they go after an elusive (and environment-destroying) bad guy.
After that, the program turned dark, darker and darkest; is The Autopsy of Sven Svennson being performed on, or by Svennson -- or possibly both at once? The rabbit star of Lapse Lazuli seems to mutate as he walks, his blobby body melting and reforming as he follows a second rabbit through a desolate landscape towards…?
The Wheel Turns, the final, longest and (after Hunter) creepiest film of the program, began with a sardonic narrator recounting the “frog in water slowly heating to a boil” legend (I hope no one has ever tested that hypothesis for real!) that sets the mood for what follows: a neurotic subway motorman’s journey down the tracks and into a nightmare dimension where he’s transformed into a frogman -- and not the scuba-diving kind.
In a later Email, Grzenkowicz filled me in on ANNY’s involvement in the brave new world of virtual reality:
“Animation Nights New York has had a foot in the VR space since our first annual festival in 2016. We present a robust VR showcase of over 30 unique 360 and Roomscale projects. We also include a VR competition as part of our annual festival.”
(ANNY Best of Fest Recap Video from 2018: https://vimeo.com/298058722 )
“In 2017 we partnered with High Fidelity and Artella in to present a virtual version of our IRL venue and they were onsite with us in the South Street Seaport to present a virtual 180 Maiden Lane.”
"When the pandemic first happened, I began looking at VR platforms in depth. I decided on a webXR platform after first diving into A-Frame and Three.js and then landing on the open source turnkey solution by Mozilla. It is a good fit for our audience since the platform is accessible (no headset is required, and it works on PC/Mac/Mobile). I also chose it for its flexibility. (We can add our own components.) ANNY Virtual Events Space officially on Dec 19-20, 2020. We plan on continuing our monthly screening events of In Competition films online even after we are able to hold in-person events, again. We will be integrating ANNY Exchange talent connect events and cross promotional virtual events, too."
Review: FIAF’s 2020 Animation First Festival