Virtual reality—when done right—can transport viewers to another world. Artist and director Arjan van Meerten’s newest film made specifically for VR, which debuted last week at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade, takes viewers to the edge and beyond—literally. Apex, which is van Meerten’s highly anticipated follow-up to his 2015 virtual reality music video Surge, puts the viewer right smack in the middle of the apocalypse, as it unfolds. Or at least that’s what it felt like to me when I gave a whirl, on what was only my second time using a VR headset.
The director’s new title, which was created separately from his more commercial animation work, was a partnership with his Amsterdam-based digital animation studio House of Secrets, Los Angeles VR company Wevr and Portland’s Kaleidoscope VR. Venturing into VR “was a logical thing to try to experiment with it,” he told me by phone. VR, he said, allows viewers to “see animations in a whole new way.”
Van Meerten spent his youth entrenched in the Metal scene, he tells me. The energy that the audience experiences at concerts, coupled with the fact the genre still makes up the “core of his musical tastes” served as the foundation of both Surge and Apex. But while the music for Apex, which van Meerten composed himself, is not Metal in the traditional sense and leans more towards Electronica, there’s still a furious, rapturous energy that’s palpable when paired with his arresting visuals.
His inspiration for those visuals came from many places. but creating a new kind of music video was his primary goal. He cites music videos by Aphex Twins and Radiohead as inspiration. In van Meerten’s fiery world, a cityscape is engulfed by an exploding sun, fire tears through the urban landscape’s streets and tunnels as creatures big and small scurry for cover, and a giant figure takes a walk like Godzilla above burning buildings. The, a dark, amorphous form envelops the viewer, passing through and eventually swallowing you up entirely. Apex is more than just a 360, 3D animation; it’s a full-body experience that pushes the bounds of what’s possible with VR.
While Apex features predictably familiar apocalyptic tropes—fire, explosions and darkness—van Meerten also throws a heavy dose of more abstract forms into the mix. “I tend to stay away from global symbolism,” he said. “[I] try to speak to the imagination of the viewer…I wanted to choose images that are familiar (the deer, blocks figures) but also slightly abstract and symbolic.”
While I had the fortune of experiencing Apex firsthand at the festival, VR headsets have yet to become popular with the mass market as tech like smartphones or smartwatches. “At this moment its [VR] still really inaccessible and expensive. Eventually it will be more accessible, as mobile phones are getting better and stronger,” says van Meerten. The director hopes that as interest grows in the technology, there will be more opportunities for his work, and that of his peers, to be viewed almost anywhere. “At this moment Apex won’t run on any phone because it’s too heavy on the graphics side. But it be won’t be long before phones can run this and you can walk around with a small headset and daydream in VR.”