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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Meet the artist bringing film grain to VR

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Meet the artist bringing film grain to VR

Zohar Kfir corrects herself. Her new VR project Le Temps Perdu is a film, not a video. This may seem like splitting hairs, but she’s right to make the distinction.

“Of course, I cherish film quality,” she said, explaining how the footage in her project was captured on standard 8mm film stock, then digitized using a computer. “In a way, using film in VR is a radical, radical concept.”

In contrast to the crisp, flawless sheen typical of digital video, the moving images in Le Temps Perdu are gloriously anachronistic. The interactive piece is 15 to 20 minutes of blurry, grainy, snowy film noise—a short celebration of celluloid’s place in the cinematographic method. This is an unusual choice for any film, especially a film in VR, the newest of new mediums, but Kfir prefers to see the grain.

“Using film in VR is a radical concept”

For the most part “films” today aren’t shot on film anymore; instead they are recorded with digital equipment. However, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have gone to bat for the declining format. Their issue with digital, aside from nostalgia for celluloid, is that the dynamic range and texture of actual film just plain looks better than video captured on a hard drive. This has long been a point of dispute, primarily among people who attended film school, but it’s hard to deny that using real film gives an image a distinct visual quality.

“I appreciate the [8mm] film quality much more than 4k—the frame rate and the flicker and the light shining through the celluloid. It’s physical,” she said. “Taking this and transferring it into VR almost seems as a joke. But it was a challenge that I wanted to try, to preserve the cinematic quality of film in VR.”

8mm is also conceptually important to the piece. Le Temps Perdu, translated as “lost time,” is an experimental film, consisting of a montage splicing together about 20 different clips of home videos from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

“Basically, people’s lost memories,” Kfir said.

kfir 2

She doesn’t know, or particularly care, whose memories they are. She bought the cans on eBay and at garage sales, and tends to select footage that people may have captured unintentionally: a flock of birds, an eerie shot of identical twins looking into the camera, five seconds of a burning house taken on a luxury cruise down some river. The viewer is surrounded by these images, and can flip between them with the turn of their head. 50-year-old film cycles around them.

The home videos came from all over the world—Italy, Quebec, Israel—and the amount of grain is relative to the country of origin. “You can see the difference in terms of quality. In some countries there is a lot of snowy footage,” Kfir said. However, only one audio track is available: English.

Unlike many arthouse films, Le Temps Perdu lacks subtitles—“the one big no-no in VR,” Kfir said. In her opinion, the resolution isn’t fine enough to do text justice. And besides, reading in VR tends to be distracting. Much like film grain, captions displayed along the bottom of the screen are another motion picture staple that could prove superfluous in this new medium.

with VR, the images tend to be “too sharp” 

Of course, VR has its own little quirks and visual artifacts, but Kfir is much less fond of them. “When I first put the videos in the headset, you could really see the pixels on the screen.The images are not pristine….I wanted it to look exactly the same as the way I authored it,” she said.

VR doesn’t yet live up to the visual fidelity that filmmakers are used to, but who knows: One day people may become nostalgic for the speckled resolution of early VR headsets. Kfir probably won’t be among them though. With VR, even the language she uses to talk about video seems to change: the images tend to be “too sharp” or too “low-res.” There is no talk about the “immeasurable quality” of the “light shining through the celluloid.”

Kfir’s film is an attempt to retrofit the beauty of flat projections into a 360 degree environment. Viewers can sift through images with film grain, but they can’t truly exist inside them.

Kfir is postponing the release date of Le Temps Perdu to coincide with upcoming festivals. The film was created with the help of the Made in NY Media Center by IFP in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

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