At the 90th Academy Awards held in March this year, the Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárritu – winner of best director Oscar for The Revenant in 2015 and for Birdman in 2014 – collected a special award for a virtual reality installation.
Special Oscar awards are rarely presented, but the Academy said Iñárritu was being honoured for Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible) because the six-minute experience was “a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling”. It marks the first Oscar awarded to the medium of VR.
The director, writer and producer, whose other acclaimed films include Rudo y Cursi, 21 Grams and Babel, created Carne y Arena to look at the plight of migrants crossing the Sonoran desert of Arizona and California.
Guests put on their VR headsets to become completely immersed in a refugee’s journey, based on real-life accounts, with the solo experience made all the more realistic through the use of cool temperatures, breezes and sandy floors.
“During the past four years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees. Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project,” Iñárritu says.
“My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame, within which things are just observed, and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”
It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, before spending six months at Fondazione Prada in Milan, Italy, followed by six months at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in California. Carne y Arena is currently open to the general public at a location in Washington, DC.
In an interview with Variety magazine, Iñárritu discussed the potential and challenges of VR as a medium, saying it has elements of theatre, documentary and physical installation. “It’s many different arts combined.”
“VR has the potential to change the landscape of museums and galleries because you can go into the mind of an artist. I think great artists will be able to create amazing pieces where you will really walk into their brain, and that will be life-changing. The experience is huge,” he says.
“Narratively, I think it will require the new generation to bring a new way to approach it. We should not be contaminating this with old narrative arts of theatre or cinema. I think this is its own beast. This requires a new way, and I don’t know if it’s anti-narrative, but it should be much more unexpected – a new way with a new language. That’s what I think is exciting about it. What I call it is a ‘narrative space’. There’s a narrative but it’s more of a spatial, atmospheric narrative than a traditional narrative.”
He comments that the drawbacks include the quality, the weight of the headsets and that it tends not be a collective experience, but that the medium is being developed to overcome these.
He adds: “VR is really amazing. It challenges your conception of time and space in a way that nothing does.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey explained the reason for the special Oscar statuette: “Iñárritu’s multimedia art and cinema experience is a deeply emotional and physically immersive venture into the world of migrants crossing the desert of the American southwest in early dawn light. More than even a creative breakthrough in the still emerging form of virtual reality, it viscerally connects us to the hot-button political and social realities of the US-Mexico border.”
Iñárritu worked with longtime collaborator and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, producer Mary Parent and ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s VR entertainment laboratory.