Venice VR Film Festival

Venice VR Film Festival: Pandemic Proofing the Future of Storytelling.

C.J. Thomas Virtual & Augmented Reality

In the late summer of 2020, we asked the question; Is it possible to put over 2,000  people through a catalog of 37 XR experiences for the first time? Furthermore, is it possible to do this safely during a global pandemic? The Portland Art Museum hired and partnered with Reflective for the Venice VR Expanded Film Festival, to do just that! 

How did we keep people healthy and use VR to guide new users through this experiential world of film for two years running?  

Read on to find out!

Reflective at the Venice VR Film Festival

A VR Film Festival in the time of COVID?

Venice VR Expanded is the official satellite event for the competition of immersive content for the Venice International Film Festival; organized by the Venice Biennale

2020 was the launch year for this new initiative. The Venice Biennale realized they needed to take an ‘expanded’ approach for the prestigious festival to reach a larger audience.

This was the first in their 150 year history that they decided to open the festival to include satellite events. 

The Portland Art Museum was selected as the only U.S. host of the Venice VR Film Festival. In support, Reflective was hired to organizing the entire event and safely maintain attendance with a pandemic on the rise. The kicker? We had five weeks to do it!

Joshua Alan Young of Reflective Providing a COVID safe Venice VR Film Festival Experience.

The Safety Measures and the Outcome…

Our team at Reflective devised a plan. We acquired headsets, trained staff, and ensured the utmost care was taken to minimize the potential exposure to COVID. 

To start, we implemented the use of CleanBox Technology to sanitize headsets between uses. In addition, we spaced out time slots, required masks, and consistently sanitized everything.

The result? An in-person event during the peak of COVID where over 1000 people could safely experience VR for their first time! We ended up hosting arguably the largest VR event of the year. Plus, we managed to do so without a single case of COVID!

It was such a success that Venice VR decided to do it again, keeping the Portland Art Museum as a premier venue. 

For the second year in a row, we helped the Portland Art Museum be the exclusive U.S. host for “Venice VR Expanded.” This year we upped the ante by more than doubling the event’s capacity to over 2000 people multiplying the number of headsets we had running to 50 an hour.

For Reflective this meant training even more staff. We arranged the purchase of 40 headsets, bringing sponsorship from both HP and HTC Vive to help promote the event. This ensured that everything ran smoothly over the course of three weeks.

The event sold out and numerous participants marveled at the one-of-a-kind experiences they were able to try. For many, it was an exciting and successful introduction to immersive technology.

It also gave a peek into what’s on the horizon in the world of film.

Peek into the Venice VR Festival and the Future of Film!

New VR User experiences the future of storytelling at the Venice VR Film Festival.

Filmmaking has always been an immersive form of storytelling. Ideas and narratives are brought to life through the eye of the lens. With the introduction of advanced technology, artists can now create a viewing experience that’s more realistic than ever before!

XR is one of the most exciting new ways to expand the possibilities of storytelling. From one year to the next, impressive leaps have been taken in bringing users into deeper states of immersion!

Below are key examples of how Venice VR Expanded excelled in using XR to inspire and excite new users. 


Genisis, an immersive VR experience at the Venice VR Film Festival

Genesis embarks on an emotionally intense round-the-clock journey to experience the dramatic milestones in the evolution of earth and mankind from an unknown perspective. Chaos, rebirth, and catastrophes mark the history of Earth, yet mankind exists.”

Genesis Synopsis

With an immersive medium like VR, it may seem like interaction is the only way to maintain engagement. This isn’t always the case.

Genesis had the foundation of a novel experience. Users took a  virtual journey through the cycles of life on earth and got to be present with at-scale prehistoric animals – but they didn’t just bank on that alone. They proved that if you create a unique and compelling virtual world for people to inhabit, they’ll successfully stay engaged.

They were able to anchor the story within a compass that showed the scale of evolution through time. This was done using narration as a guide from one phase of life to the next.

The special ingredient was a compelling yet subtle soundtrack showcasing the implementation of spatial audio. The soundtrack subtly guided emotions while the spatial audio let viewers know when a T-Rex was approaching from behind. 

These elements combined created an engaging passive VR experience allowing first-time users to sit back and enjoy!

Key UX Takeaways from Genesis

  • Create an ‘entry-level’ VR user experience that combines high impact with low interactivity.
  • Introduce spatial audio and emotional soundtrack to fully immerse users. 
  • Take users to a novel environment that they wouldn’t get to experience otherwise.
  • Anchor the story with guidance through the use of narration.


Container, a VR 180, stereoscopic 180 film at the Venice VR Film Festival.

“Container makes visible the ‘invisiblised’ bodies enabling our consumer society. Confronting slavery through an ever-transforming shipping container, the past becomes the present, the invisible becomes visible.”

Container Synopsis

Now, we move from the world of 360 experiences into stereoscopic 180. Directors Meghna Singh and Simon Wood combined stereoscopic vision with strategic camera movements.

This technique was used to breathe into one scene and out to the next. Without any dialogue, a story was woven of several different examples of slavery and exploitation. Users got to live an experience similar to being a fly on the wall through scenes that were carefully choreographed to provide the feeling of watching moments in life play out. 

Through the Container experience, one could traverse the heavy subject matter of the evolution of exploitation and modern-day slavery. Some of these excruciating realities included- being present in a massage parlor, a sweatshop, and with a dying whipped man. Being close to those people, seeing the pain, fatigue, and discomfort in their faces – drove home a feeling that 2D cinema would have missed. 

One of the biggest strengths of this experience was that it didn’t haphazardly jump from one scene to the next. There was a clear story arc – building on each character for an emotional climax and resolution.

Key UX Takeaways from Container

  • The use of VR 180 can build a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of others; even without the use of dialogue or narration. 
  • Using subtle movement, rather than static shots, breathes life into projects and helps the user feel involved,  even when the experience is passive.
  • Implementing non-linear storytelling can be very effective in VR experiences when anchored in a clear story arc.


Goliath: Playing with Reality.the true story of a man with a troubled upbringing who loses his parents and is diagnosed with schizophrenia at the Venice VR Film Festival

“Goliath: Playing with Reality follows the true story of a man with a troubled upbringing who loses his parents and is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The project explores what it means to feel at odds with the world and through shared realities, finding one’s place within it.”

Goliath: Playing with Reality Synopsis 

Container built an understanding of a lived experience through immersing the viewer into an external environment. Goliath takes you deeper. 

The project integrated abstract, interactive storytelling with an interview-style voice over. This brought you into the mind of someone dealing with schizophrenia. The experience felt like entering a chaotic dreamscape with imprints of a familiar world abstracted into foreign shapes and sounds.

In one specific example, the user was directed to hold their controller over a stream of abstract shapes. Almost instantly, the shapes turned into words and were accompanied by narration. The user was surrounded by several of these streams and could choose which ones to hold their controller over. This gave the choice of which ‘thought stream’ to tune into and which part of the story they were hearing. 

What really impressed us were the moments of interactivity and how they didn’t distract but rather added to and built upon the story. 

Throughout the whole experience, users were invited to shape the perception of reality through their own interaction. However, it wasn’t just their own choices that directed the story. There were also moments where they didn’t affect the story and were just watching. 

The interplay between interaction and passivity provided an experience that had a clear throughline; a central storyline with interactive branches for the user to choose. 


  • XR allows users to play with the reality you are constructing for them and interact as a story unfolds.
  • Technology can meld the boundary between reality and virtual reality. It can take users into an experience that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to; In this case inside someone else’s mind.
  • Combining a simple storyline with the ability to physically choose one’s path can deepen the user experience and interaction.

The Take Away

Storytelling is what connects us to the past and drives humanity forward. The transmission of these stories is why artists create. As VR storytellers get more creative with pushing the edges of technology,  we hope to see even more experiences emerging like that of VR Venice Expanded.

Events like these give us a glimpse into the possibilities of the future! Interested in creating a similar experience for your next event?  Click here.