Film & Future: Q&A with Conquest’s Virtual Reality Specialist Kendall Stevens

Right: Virtual Rreality Project Manager Kendall Stevens has had the task of establishing Cinequest's first foray into VR with a multitude of workshops, discussions, and hands-on experiences. Left: Mac the alien (L) and robot pal Peas (R) in VR animated film ASTEROIDS! Photo Credit: Cinequest/Baobab Studios

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Cinequest 27, officially known as Cinequest Film & VR Festival, brings a new age of virtual content, curated by their VR Project Manager Kendall Stevens. In its first year of brining VR component to the festival, we were eager to find out from Stevens what the happenings where with the VR, including the Forums & Panels, Canteen & Immersive Experiences, Cinema Programs and workshops. Mind you, this is just the virtual reality experiences, there’s also a whole world of films to explore this year at Cinequest. So let’s get to it!

Hi Kendall, thanks for the interview. Could you tell me a bit about yourself. What was the path to getting into what you are doing with your career now as the VR Project Manager? Where you originally interested in tech? Business? Arts?

I had always been an avid fan of film, I was born in the Pacific Palisades so grew up in the spotlight, we had some great neighbors like Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise so I idolized them as a child and had thought that was going to be the path that I originally wanted but by the time I got to high school I decided to pursue a more operational, finance side and ended up getting a degree in Microeconomics and after that it took six months that I didn’t want to buy and sell I wanted to create, so I dove back into wanting to be in an industry where there is constant innovation and creation. So for VR particularly I had a friend that is part of the Facebook Oculus team and hearing their story with the Kickstarter and when they were acquired by Facebook, Palmer Luckey’s company I should say, I grew a passionate interest in TI and from there it was just studying and understanding how the technology works, where it’s going and how it can be applied across the film and entertainment industry as well as other verticals.

How’s your day-to-day here helming the VR at Cinequest?

Halfdan (Halfdan Hussey, Cinequest’s CEO and Co-Founder), who’s been amazing, hired me on to help him create and produce all of the different programs and with that your day-to-day encompasses everything. You’re working across all divisions, whether it’s marketing, distribution tech, operation, ticketing, the list is endless. The best part for me has been the content curation and the discovery of content, working with these studios, having these touch points, because VR is so new you have a chance to speak with the executives of the company where in a regular film world it’s almost impossible to, and you’ll get really lucky if you get to. So its been a fun, amazing, broad experience.

Sounds fun. Now why incorporate Virtual Reality this year? What was the reason for having it this year?

With VR it has been gaining momentum in recent years, through the acquisition of Palmer Luckey’s company in 2014, we wanted to make sure there was enough content and diversity, great quality content because for a while people in Live 360 were still trying to figure out the technology and really develop good 4k quality, the stitching, the overall production of it has been, still, a constant work in progress and with animation I think we’re really at a great point. This year we wanted to make sure that we led an amazing, world class, ‘set the platform’ form type festival. And with the lineup of artists, the type of content and the amount of content I think we’ve covered all bases.

You have spent a lot of time breathing thinking and working with VR. Any memorable experiences with thus far?

So I think one of my favorite experiences was when we received a couple of horror pieces and one of them was “Choose Your Death”, so you could either be buried or cremated, so when you put people in the headsets and they’re not a big fan of horror, let alone in VR,  and they’re just going, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’, it’s great. But then also when you watch these animation clips such as “Asteroids!”, the emotions that are evoked when you get to connect with these characters on such a level, it’s really cute. Who would know that these two little aliens, Mac and Cheese, can make you so empathetic towards them. And empathy is the driving word you’ll hear in VR time and time again.

Since you’ve been part of the curation, what VR experiences should people not miss this year?

I think trying to make sure you attend the workshops and forums, especially if you’re ever interested in creating some type of content or wanting to understand the space that is a huge highlight as well as. Come to the Canteen, grab a drink, get to see firsthand what it’s like to experience something with a VIVE (HTC VR equipment) where you’re walking around, or we have Playstation and for everybody that’s been a fan, I myself have one of these at home, it is so much fun, I probably wouldn’t work if I could just play all day. It’s such a different feeling and it’s so immersive and so expansive that to see where it is now and where it will continue to grow, the possibilities are endless for VR, and that continues to emerge with things like augmented reality and mixed reality. I imagine that a year from now it will be a complete different platform and space then what it is today, it will keep going.

Some of the VR panels have home roots in the bay area. Can you talk a bit about those?

There are [short films] like, “A Tango in San Francisco” by Jason Tang, he is local, we have quite a few of our panelists from the Bay Area. Marco DeMorose is the partner of the VR Fund, one of the largest VR funding companies, he’s one of our panelists. HTC is right in our home, Silicon Valley, and our strategic location of being based here, we have that first hand experience, to be in this hub, seeing what’s at the forefront of technology and getting to work with people like Oculus and HTC, Samsung, a lot of different providers as well as artists.

Now that the festival is in swing could you make a comment on what you see for the future of this element within Cinequest?

This being our first year a lot of it was securing the content, the relationships and really creating a presence in VR and I think going forward promoting and now that I think now that we’ve set the state we can really take off and continue to, as our theme is, elevate.