The Birth Of An Art Form: How Alejandro G. Iñárritu And Emmanuel Lubezki Learned To Master Virtual Reality – Cannes

Emmanuel Lubezki

At an airport hangar on the French Riviera, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki are presenting a project that promises to birth an entirely new medium. Previous experiments with virtual reality have been promising, delivering a mix of cinema and gaming in an immersive technology that allows viewers a 360-degree field of view. But with CARNE y ARENA, an installation piece that has become the first virtual reality project to be officially selected by the Cannes Film Festival, Iñárritu and Lubezki are writing the rule book for a new art form.

The installation places viewers into the middle of the Sonoran desert, as a group of immigrants are led by a coyote across the border into the U.S. as they’re stopped by border patrol. In the space of six and a half minutes, many immigrant stories are imparted through the characters, who are based on real people interviewed by Iñárritu. And the viewer becomes a part of their perilous crossing.

I previously reported that it felt as landmark to me as the earlier Lumière brothers films must have done more than a century ago. “That’s what Thierry [Frémaux] said when he saw it,” Iñárritu tells me today on a Cannes rooftop. “It’s a great compliment. And it’s true, in a way, that [virtual reality] is an evolution. It’s a new construct.”

Iñárritu and Lubezki haven’t made the most of their time in Cannes. They’ve spent most of their days at the hangar housing CARNE y ARENA, watching as the installation previews to outside eyes for the first time. And they’ve been back and forth to the Fondazione Prada in Milan for a June 7 launch. “That’s really the opening,” says Lubezki. “This is just a smaller, unfinished version. The space is not exactly as it will be in the final version.”

“The layout of the experience,” Iñárritu says, “we had to, in a way, improvise as a last-minute decision to come [to Cannes]. It was a very challenging thing to put together in three weeks. The layout of the experience as it will be at LACMA or Fondazione Prada is very different. The first act is different, and the way you will leave the thing is very different.”

The installation runs at Fondazione Prada from June 7 through January 15 of next year. At LACMA it runs July 2-September 10, and tickets will doubtless be Rain Room scarce. It’ll also be at the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco in Mexico City and Legendary’s Mary Parent told me this week she expected more cities to follow.

When did you start thinking about a VR project?

Iñárritu: I got the idea to do this five years ago. I wanted that immersion. I wanted there to be free movement and I wanted you to feel the sand under your feet. But at the time the technology was not ready at all. It still was not, when we embarked on this thing a year ago, but we started pushing it until we arrived at where we arrived with what is available now. But I think it’s enough, to reveal another way to experience things. To not just subserve cinema.

What I was most obsessed about was how to subordinate technology to explore the human condition. Technology does not eclipse that, but technology is the key. We are trapped in our own masturbations of intellectual abstractions but I think in order to really understand ourselves—the complexity and the poetics of our existence—if technology can be used that way, that was our main interest. We explored that. This theme—immigration, which is a worldwide crisis—demands, unfortunately, to be re-created in virtual reality for this bad reality to be observed, because we have lost our sensibility.

Did it immerge out of any frustration with the limits of cinema? I think of The Revenant and Birdman, and they get as close to the psyche as it’s possible to get. But there’s still a frame; there’s still a division between audience and film. 

Iñárritu: Chivo is frustrated all the time.

Lubezki: Yeah [laughs]. I don’t know if it was a frustration, but we’ve been working on immersion for a long, long time. And obviously, there’s a big limitation to what you can do on film. It was very exciting and liberating, in a way, to be able to get the audience really into the scene.

Iñárritu: You know something very funny, Chivo, that I hadn’t realized? On the 60th anniversary of Cannes, 10 years ago, they invited me to do a short film alongside many other directors [Anna, one part of a collection of shorts called Chacun son cinéma]. Chivo and I worked, when we were young and happy, 25 years ago, doing commercials. But never on narrative. And the first time we worked together in something that wasn’t a commercial was the short film I wrote for that thing, which actually was my first one-take film, about a blind girl in a cinema watching a Godard film. And since then, we’ve collaborated a lot, and now, 10 years after Anna, we are presenting the more extreme version of that starting particle.

Lubezki: Full immersion. There was a little bit of frustration as we were doing research on VR and what was possible, and what people were doing, there were a few little gems, but mostly I agree that it was not fully used to put on a dramatic narrative piece. When Alejandro brought his idea forward I got so excited. I felt we’d finally found the way to combine narrative with technology and achieve full immersion.

Iñárritu: You know I think, in a way, that this technology speaks to two things. One, to the body—there’s a part of the brain that stops intellectualizing things and rationalizing things. It gets into emotional intelligence, which is less intellectual and radical and can see things clearly because the body doesn’t lie. Your feet touching the sand has a huge impact; your body’s telling you this is true. I could have written essays or books about it or a two-hour film about this, and it’s until you experience it in their skin in a way, that this says more than thousands of words and politics and whatever I have to say, it’s there. That is the profound thing.

I have to say something that is important: I found, personally, that VR is much more jealous of what it lets in, in its “motherhood.” If cinema is like a mother, she embraces everything. You can throw at her personal family films in Super 8, or cartoons, or documentaries, or short films. Everything. I found that VR is much more selective. Not everything needs to be in VR. Not everything is allowed. Or it doesn’t make sense, necessarily. That’s going to be the challenge—not only of trying to find the right content but not every piece of content wants or needs to be in VR.

Do you think that’s a hard and fast rule of this medium, or do you think that’s just because the medium is in its infancy?

Iñárritu: Possibly both. I feel that life is the best reality, but it’s not enough anymore. We are not present anymore. We are immersed in our f*cking phones, and we don’t get the best reality. To create CARNE y ARENA we spent a year trying to find the magic and the poetics of the language of VR. Now we have all that. If I would like to re-create that, it would take us six months to do something. But that doesn’t mean that, if I shot this interview, I would need to use VR for it, because it’s an 180-degree experience and I don’t need to see in any other direction.

We’ve seen VR that uses the language of cinema and uses the language of video games. CARNE y ARENA is the first VR project I’ve seen that has found the unique language of virtual reality.

Lubezki: You’ve seen a lot of pieces that attempt to be 360-degree experiences, but there’s no real reason for it. It’s jarring. You have to understand what you’re dealing with. You have to find the grammar. Because obviously, we come from the frame; from film. And we had to liberate ourselves from it. You have to find what are the rules and regulations of this new form. And it’s a completely different form. It’s the eighth art, probably.

Is there a fear that comes with starting out and not speaking the language?

Iñárritu: If I told you, “Write without adjectives and verbs,” you would panic and you’d have to work out a way to explain things without them. Honestly, as a director, you have to reinvent yourself, and you start by failing and trying and failing. Which is exciting; it’s like you’re a kid, painting a picture, and starting from nothing. That’s the fun of it. I have never really experienced such a joy creating something,

I have never really experienced such a joy creating something, not only because of the subject matter, which is very close to me but because the immigrants we worked with were amazingly truthful, real and inspiring. And then, you unite the highest technology, which I was exploring, with the most humble and wonderful communities in need; that combination was a privilege to have, and it normally never happens like that. Nobody invests in immigrants because there’s no profit in it. The world is so obsessed with profit that everything has to be profitable. That’s what’s misleading because the tools have to be used in a way that’s like, “OK, how are we going to make money?” But then we lose the whole point. Let’s spend the time to understand what the f*ck this is, first. Let’s build it great, and then they will come.

I was so lucky that Fondazione Prada didn’t care about the recoupment, and Legendary and Mary Parent were so generous that it allowed us to play and experiment with it. Without that, we’d have had, “Guys, where is plot point one? How will the kids have fun? Let’s give them a gun and they can kill the immigrants or police.” It would have changed everything. When things are pushed like that, and creative people get trapped in that, that’s the danger, that you can mislead this very easily. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun in this form, but I think first you have to understand other things.

Lubezki: The good thing that Alejandro did is that the procedure of making this piece allowed us to experiment and learn and create this language. We couldn’t have done this just turning up one day and saying, “Guys, let’s do this.”

Iñárritu: Even the layout.

Lubezki: The layout, the blocking with the characters, took a long time. As you go through the experience, you’re not aware that we are semi-manipulating things that are very important to Alejandro. That took a long, long time because we don’t have close-ups, we don’t have dolly-ins.

But at the same time, in trying to create an immersion, you weren’t stopped from being abstract. There are time jumps; there’s a table that appears with a small boat floating down it. When you look into the bodies of the characters, you see beating hearts. You were able to be abstract without breaking the immersion.

Iñárritu: It was a risk. I knew, in a way, that I didn’t want to be so literal. I wanted to take a pause and make my own personal interpretation of what these people must have thought and felt on the journey. What they dreamed. These things were very significant. I went to the refugee camps in Catania, Sicily, and I saw the boat that was raised, that sank two years ago. I was so moved. I interviewed a lot of immigrants from Syria, from Iraq, from Eritrea. I saw two boats arriving from Africa. Girls sold as sex slaves. The reasons for why they escaped, and what they were going through… What I learned was that the stories they told me, and the conditions, they were exactly the same as the Central American stories. The same thing. The same harrowing stories. Their oceans are our deserts; that’s it. They dissolve in the sand or in the water, and they are just invisible to us. We are overwhelmed by the amount of information.

That’s why we had this table with the boat sinking in the water. This kid watching his future and saying, “That’s where I’m going.” The girl taking water, and she could drink an ocean but it doesn’t help her. In a way, I wanted to take a pause to really go into that rhythmically, but as you said, it could have got the thing lost, so we attempted a lot of things about how to get in, how to get out, and how to thread that. Fortunately, we achieved what we were trying to do with it, which is to make you think, “Wait a minute, this is not just that. It’s bigger than that. It’s a worldwide thing.” I’m not talking about this crossing. I’m talking about immigration everywhere.

Lubezki: Honestly, I think, instinctively we felt the immersion was not going to break. We were not a hundred percent sure. But you have to take the leap. That’s what I like about working with Alejandro because you never know if it’s going to work, if people are going to get bored, or if it’s going to feel right.

Iñárritu: But we challenge ourselves.

Lubezki: You’re always walking very close to the cliff, and that’s when this stuff gets more and more exciting, at least for me.

How did you see the beating hearts, by the way?

A border control officer walked through me before I could move. I got a flash and then went in for a closer look.

Lubezki: You know, the funny thing, and one of the things we learned by experimenting and bringing friends to see it is that before we put texture on the people, it was very easy to feel you could go through everybody because you’re very aware that they’re virtual. As you add texture and weight to them, suddenly people move out of their way and allow them to go. You start to respect the characters. And we had a lot of discussions about that: are people really going to find the hearts or not?

Iñárritu: Many people don’t find them. All of them have a heart in there.

There’s a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric around, and plenty of self-delusion that we don’t have immigrant stories in our makeup.

Iñárritu: Exactly. Challenge people: “Raise your hand if you’re not an immigrant.” Everybody, all of us in the world, we come from immigrants. Immigrants are not a threat, they are an opportunity. People are ignorant of the fact that these people are not to blame. When eight guys in the world possess 50% of the world’s wealth, how do you turn and point to the humblest people and say, “These are the ones to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world”? What I’m saying is fear is ignorance. People have to understand that these guys are subversive because they expose everything that’s wrong with the systems of the world. There’s something unbalanced and that’s very clear. Just living in this little piece will hopefully make people understand that just a tiny bit. I’m not trying to solve it; I don’t have the solution. But just to understand.

Who do you hope sees this film?

Iñárritu: Young people. Honestly, I feel the same as you, that we’re in an exciting moment of the birth of an eighth art. I said to Chivo, this is like if you take out the tires of a car. There are no tires anymore, so what exactly do you have? There is no frame, so the description of cinema for me is that little hole you peer into and see life. You see 20% and you have to imagine the 80%. Now, there’s no frame, so what is that? This is a leap, for real. It’s not an extension, it’s not an improvement, it’s not cinema anymore. So it’s a new art form and for me, it will be exciting to see how the younger generation takes that and puts it at a level we cannot even imagine, in a beautiful, poetic way. I hope it makes us understand what we have lost. We have lost our reality—and the existential thing I said to Chivo in the middle of this process was just that. “We have to make virtual reality to make reality relevant.” And that’s a very difficult, complex, sad thing to deal with.

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