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A stunning look at the future of immersive entertainment and a thought-provoking story, “The Tent” is a standout of SXSW’s XR showcase.

Last year, one of my favorite experiences of SXSW was spending time exploring the XR Experience Competition Showcase, where I was immersed for hours in a world of interactive virtual, augmented, and mixed reality that completely blew my mind. This year’s event was no less impressive and memorable.

One of the highlights for me was a project called The Tent, a mixed reality cinematic tabletop narrative and experiment in traditional film and theater narrative, told through the emerging medium of Spatial Immersive Entertainment.

This USA/UK co-production of Mercantile (USA), L D Presents (UK), and Doye Mosse Productions (UK) tells the story of a woman who discovers a mysterious tent that has appeared in her front yard. This startling discovery causes her to begin to question the meaning of activism and our shared humanity.

A modern fairy-tale set in Los Angeles, The Tent interrogates the nature of activism and asks the viewer, “What does it take to live a life according to your deepest held values? Why is it so complicated to be a good person?”

It’s a drama. It’s a satire. It’s a petite bourgeoise fever dream and a fable for society.

Directed by Rory Mitchell and written by Martha Marion,  this 21-minute experience in two parts for iPadPro allows the audience to explore a miniature world from any perspective. Built with volumetric video, it draws upon 2500 years of Acting and Storytelling that is at the core of our shared humanity.

Mitchell describes it as the sort of XR story he’s been dreaming about since he first started producing 3600 VR for headsets back in 2015.

Director Rory Mitchell

It’s meant to open a conversation about ethical activism and issues of interpersonal dynamics, power, and privilege at the heart of how and why we try to help the unfortunate.

Born and bred in Los Angeles, XR director Mitchell was inspired by the ever-worsening crisis of the unhoused he’s witnessed and the failure of activists, non-profits, and government agencies to counter the crisis effectively.

The Tent utilizes many clever techniques to make the viewer feel like they are a part of a fully realized world, including revolving sets to move between scenes. Custom shaders and particle effects, generally specific to game engines, serve as a sort of VFX pass that helps objects materialize in the space with a flash of fairy dust.

In traditional film and television, our perspective is determined by the camera angle chosen for us by the filmmaker.  In spatial entertainment, however, scale allows us to suggest proximity, but the viewer is the one who will decide if it’s a close-up or a wide shot, a two-shot, or a drone shot.

Mitchell explains:

One of our early viewers described it as “exhilarating” to be freed from the directorial point of view and felt as though he was eavesdropping on this woman’s life.

One of the most consequential decisions made by the team was to build for iPadPro before the VR headset, which aims to broaden the potential market by bringing the magic of spatial entertainment to an audience that has yet to purchase a VR headset.

Mitchell hopes The Tent will turn viewers on to the power of Spatial Entertainment and help them understand that we’re on the verge of an entirely new way of experiencing stories — one that is more fluid and engaging than anything that has come before.

He believes this evolution in entertainment will be as big as the leap from radio to television or from still photography to motion pictures.

Beyond the medium, Mitchell hopes the story itself resonates with viewers, prompting them to interrogate their own activism and consider how we can collectively solve the unhoused crisis.

The Tent begins with a stunning opening tracking shot, which allows the user to float through the neighborhood, approximating a sweeping crane shot used in cinema but which took considerably more work to achieve in an immersive XR environment.

As we explore the neighborhood, a narrator (Greg Mosse) sets the stage and introduces us to our main character, a woman named Anna (character comedian Maddy Wager, also known as their Drag King persona Greasy Bouffanti) who owns a nonprofit organization, lives alone in a home in a quiet suburban neighborhood, and feels a deep connection to her local community.

At the end of the neighborhood tour, we are dropped in the front yard of Anna’s house, where Anna has just made a startling discovery. There’s a tent in her yard that wasn’t there before. Loved ones encourage her to call the police, but she insists that’s not the kind of person she wants to be.

After much deliberation over how to handle the situation, she approaches and decides to initiate contact, only to discover that a woman is living in the tent — a woman she never sees and never opens the tent to interact with face-to-face.

Anna begins to bring the woman food, which she leaves outside the tent. For much of the story, the two women do not interact. The Woman in the Tent (Jet Eveleth, Animals, AP Bio) remains nameless and faceless — to Anna and the viewer. She’s nothing more than a concept, and Anna is able to “help” her without ever having to truly interact with her in a real way.

This is specifically designed to reinforce the way so many of us engage in our activism — as distant observers who never have to face ugly truths head-on or look into the eyes of those who are suffering. 

For a while, Anna basks in her role as heroic protector and pride of the neighborhood, patting herself on the back for being such a “good” person. Eventually, however, she’s forced to confront a harsh reality and rethink just how far she’s willing to go and what she’s willing to sacrifice to truly help someone in need.

It ends in a beautifully surprising, poignant, and thought-provoking way.

Without giving too much away, it’s the point where the film becomes the most immersive and where we, as viewers, are really forced to put ourselves squarely in the shoes of someone trying their best to survive on the fringe of society, alone, frightened, and unsure of their safety and survival from one moment to the next.

It’s a potent and poetic story that forces us to consider how easily the roles in the story — the homeowner, Anna, who survives due to the generosity of her parents, and the homeless Woman in the Tent.

The filmmakers confirm they intentionally left some of the story pieces open to interpretation to allow the viewer to probe their own privilege and consider the plight of those less fortunate.

Screenwriter Martha Marion explains her inspiration for the story:

“I wrote The Tent as a dialogue with myself following a series of profound encounters with people living unhoused in my community. These experiences were full of real human connection but also deeply challenged my idea of who I think I am. The story that followed flowed from the nexus point of those lived experiences and challenging questions. I am excited to have been able to apply my immersive theatre practice to the thrilling new medium of mixed reality in order to make The Tent come to life, and I can’t wait for SXSW audiences to experience innovative storytelling that is still firmly rooted in the heart of the human experience.”

The Tent makes its World Premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival, showing in the XR Experience Competition Section. Attendees can explore this and other inspiring, immersive projects on the cutting-edge of future technology during one of the following time blocks at the Fairmont Austin, Congressional Ballroom, 3rd Floor:

Mon., March 11, 11:00 am – 6:00 pm; Tues., March 12, 11:00 am – 6:00 pm

Learn More:

Website: https://TheTent.xyz
Instagram: thetent.mixedreality
Facebook : facebook.com/thetent.mixedreality

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