Off-Piste Lab VR-Hackaton 2021 Text: Hanne-Lovise Skartveit

On Friday October 29th to Tuesday November 2nd, filmmakers and game developers gathered for five days of VR-Hackaton and intense creative innovation in Lillehammer. This second edition of the Off-Piste Lab is a collaboration between the Norwegian Film School's Centre for Excellence CEFIMA and NFI, with support from Innlandet Fylkeskommune, VRINN, Viken Filmsenter, Østnorsk Filmsenter and Høgskolen i Innlandet.

Off Piste 2019

Participants at Off-Piste 2019 (Photo: CEFIMA)

At Off-Piste Lab, Norwegian filmmakers come together with developers, artists, musicians, animators and other storytellers to develop original VR experiences and create a community that will help shape the future of Norway's creative VR production.

In this second edition of the laboratory, a group of experienced international mentors led by Mark Atkin and Tom Millen from Crossover Labs will provide participants with in-depth knowledge of the current VR landscape and the developing language of VR storytelling. The participants were selected through an extensive application process and were placed in interdisciplinary teams to develop project ideas into a working prototype. During the lab, participants learn about the VR production process from idea to financing and to finished product.

For many of the participants with a traditional film background, Off-Piste Lab is the first encounter with the VR medium. In the first part of the lab, which took place online in August this year, they developed project ideas with guidance from the international mentors who have extensive experience with VR and immersive media. This weekend, they will meet for the first time in an intensive Hackaton in Lillehammer where they will turn the ideas into prototypes in collaboration with hand-picked game developers from Hamar Game Collective.

Off piste idea board

Brainstorming at the last Off-Piste Lab on Lillehammer Winter 2019. (Photo: CEFIMA)

Off-Piste 2019 was an immersion into a new field to the participants

Off-Piste Lab was arranged for the first time in 2019 and started as a collaboration between the Norwegian Film School's CEFIMA (Center for Excellence in Film and Interactive Media Arts) and the Norwegian Film Institute, with support from Oppland and Hedmark county municipalities, VRINN and Østnorsk Filmsenter. This year's event is also supported by Innlandet Fylkeskommune, VRINN, Viken Filmsenter, Østnorsk Filmsenter and Høgskolen i Innlandet.

Ellen Lande was one of the experienced filmmakers who participated in the first Off-Piste lab to try out what was then a new medium for her. At the lab, she was placed on a team that developed a first prototype for the VR project "As the Lillies Bloom" based on Theodor Kittelsen's famous painting of the mythological creature "Nøkken". The VR project was later selected for the Cannes XR Development Showcase during the Cannes Film Festival and has received development and production funding from the Norwegian Film Institute and the regional film centers Sørnorsk Filmsenter and Viken Filmsenter.

After Off-Piste, Lande has continued to explore the virtual format through the projects "Munch's digital garden AR" and "The Story of The Sick Child VR". Both "As the Lillies Bloom" and both Munch projects are produced by Kristian Mosvold in Substans Film, which she met through Off-Piste. "The Story of The Sick Child VR" has received support from Viken Filmsenter and is in the development phase, while "Munchs digital garden" was launched through the "Cultural Schoolbag" educational program in August this year and can be experienced at Munch's home in Åsgårdsstrand. The project will also be presented at the interdisciplinary conference Nordic VR Forum in Hamar November 17th-18th.

Lande believes that the VR medium provides the opportunity to tell completely different kinds of stories, as she now does in Munch's universe.

- It's the three-dimensional experience and being immersed that is the essence of VR. It allows you to engage people in a different way and it lets me tell you something completely different about Munch. With VR glasses or with AR, you have to move around and be active both with your mind, but also in relation to the body. That's what's so exciting and why you feel like you're inside Munch's gaze and can share his perspective on the world he lived in.

At Off-Piste, Lande had to learn a new language and a new understanding of what coding is, an insight she has benefited from in her further work.

- It was an abrupt learning curve. The developers sit and build with building blocks, you do not see the whole until you are done, while in film you can see scenography and actors during the shoot and see that it's working. In VR, you feel more blindfolded during the process, so I just had to stay with what I'm good at, the emotional journey and what I know about engaging an audience in themes and stories. And then I discussed with the team, "if we want to go there, what do you think?" What can be coded and what is too complicated? I probably arrived somewhat prejudiced from the film industry, but I have learned that someone who builds code is like an architect, one builds the Eiffel Tower, while another builds the Hennie Onstad Museum. Building code is not always the same thing, it depends on personality and taste. Code is also an expression.

As the Lillies Bloom Substans Film

"As the Lillies Bloom" invites you to immerse yourself in the universe of Theodor Kittelsens. (Photo: Substans Film)

Another award-winning filmmaker who made her first experiences with VR during Off-Piste 2019, is documentary director Hilde K. Kjøs.

-I had just started to be curious about the possibilities of VR and wanting to find out more when I heard about Off-Piste, and it was a fantastic opportunity. Off-Piste became a direct gateway into a world that may seem a bit closed and difficult to get a grasp on. We had excellent mentors who knew what was going on internationally, while here in Norway there is no great tradition for storytelling within VR, which was what I was interested in. This door into the VR universe gave me the opportunity to connect with Stargate, the production company which produces several of the VR projects that I'm now involved in.

After Off-Piste, Kjøs, Fabrice Schnoller and Stargate developed the poetic VR documentary For the Barefooted Children Playing by the Sea, which sprung from a desire to create an emotional story in VR about humans' encounter with the sea. It is the first VR project to receive support from NFI.

Kjøs also directs screenwriter Cecilie Levy's VR documentary "Finding Frida" produced by Stargate. Levy is a research fellow at CEFIMA and came to Stargate with the project about the art nouveau artist Frida Hansen. The project received funding for a first development phase from CEFIMA and for further development from Viken Filmsenter and then won the pitching forum at the European animation market CEE. It will now be presented at the prestigious documentary film festival IDFA's DocLab Forum in Amsterdam to get international partners on board.

Kjøs highlights working in teams and the meeting between professionals with different backgrounds as one of the most valuable things about Off-Piste.

- You got a great understanding of how important all pieces in a VR production are and how many different skills are needed. Making connections across very specific different disciplines is central to VR. At Off-Piste there were people from all fields; artists, developers, and composers. Developing a language where technology meets art and storytelling is crucial.

Finding Frida bibel

"Finding Frida", VR-documentary by Cecilie Levy and Hilde K. Kjøs, currently in development. Kjøs participated in Off-Piste 2019 with a different project and has continued to work in VR after the lab (Foto: Stargate Media)

Building a VR network in Norway

CEFIMA's strategic project manager Darshika Karunahara has been a part of Off-Piste from the start and is looking forward to follow the projects of this year's Hackaton in Lillehammer. She has extensive experience with the VR medium and with working closely with artists from different artistic practices at the intersection of art and technology.

- We wanted to create more awareness around VR and give filmmakers who had not previously worked with the medium a base of experience that they can later build on. We experience that through the lab the participants get a new perspective and open their eyes to new ways of storytelling. Off-Piste is an important initiative because resources and knowledge in the VR field are still limited. There is a need for more people to explore and push the boundaries of the format so that we are forced to develop technology to meet the needs of storytellers or creators.

For Fredrik Graver, head of CEFIMA and vice dean at the Norwegian Film School, Off-Piste Lab is a central arena for sharing the experiences they have made in CEFIMA with exploration of the artistic and narrative potential in new technology and new platforms.

- For the Film School, further education of the industry and development of the film medium is a key task. By creating a sandbox where filmmakers, together with other artists with different artistic and technological backgrounds, can explore new digital platforms and their potential for storytelling, we can help start an interdisciplinary dialogue and create a new common language where storytellers, artists, and game developers can meet each other.

Amund Haugen Steinbakken, advisor for art and culture in Innlandet Fylkeskommune, says that the event is very important to the County Municipality and is part of a larger investment in VR.

- The county municipality has invested in helping the budding VR industry in the region to flourish, we support the immersive learning cluster VRINN, among other things, and we want to help facilitate meeting places. We are interested in developing also the cultural part of VR and that storytelling through VR is explored, and we hope that actors both locally and from outside can come to the Inland region and learn from this. I am impressed with the mentors that Off-Piste has, and I think that very exciting projects came out of the first edition of the lab. I look forward to seeing the results of this year's lab.

The first results from Off-Piste Lab 2021 and a selection of the prototypes that this year's participants are developing is presented at Artistic Research Cafe at the Film School's premises at Myrens Verksted in Oslo, Monday 29th of November.

Off Piste 2019

Participants at Off-Piste 2019 (Photo: CEFIMA)

Off piste idea board

Brainstorming at the last Off-Piste Lab on Lillehammer Winter 2019. (Photo: CEFIMA)

As the Lillies Bloom Substans Film

"As the Lillies Bloom" invites you to immerse yourself in the universe of Theodor Kittelsens. (Photo: Substans Film)

Finding Frida bibel

"Finding Frida", VR-documentary by Cecilie Levy and Hilde K. Kjøs, currently in development. Kjøs participated in Off-Piste 2019 with a different project and has continued to work in VR after the lab (Foto: Stargate Media)

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