Over the past twenty years, each cinematic return for Wes Anderson has been a welcomed one. Reexaminations and celebrations of his filmography are written. Books—like Matt Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection—are sold. Praise is hurled. However, the release of Isle of Dogs has received an extraordinary response, both good and bad, for the Texas auteur. Critics have praised the movie but lashed out against its cultural insensitivity. Perhaps better than anyone, Justin Chang, in a review for the LA Times, articulated the ambivalence many have felt towards the movie when he asked the question, “Does this white American filmmaker's highly selective, idiosyncratic rendering of an East Asian society constitute a sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity?”
For me, it’s the latter that rings more true. That’s why I was looking forward to the Isle of Dogs VR experience, showcased at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and which promised a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on Anderson’s latest film. However, I was disappointed to find that the project, created by artists Paul Raphaël and Félix Lajeunesse, neglected to shed light on the movie’s Japanese influences or its appropriation of the culture. Despite its importance, there isn’t much conversation about the film’s adoration for Kabuki theater or sumo wrestling or the filmography of Akira Kurosawa. Anderson’s style is always indebted the auteurs that came before him and a behind-the-scenes examination of those influences would have been both interesting and a welcomed addendum to the movie.
Instead, the focus of the VR experience remained squarely on the actors standing in front of a green screen talking about their voice work in the film. This is mostly tolerable because Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, and Bryan Cranston, waxing poetic about their dogs is delightful. But there isn’t much insight to be gained from these segments. Watching, you can’t help but shake the feeling of a contractual obligation.
The most intriguing part of this behind-the-scenes look is when you “turn around.” This is virtual reality, after all. In the background, the crew of Isle of Dogs works tirelessly to shape the stop motion animation. This is where Anderson’s trademark attention to detail comes into effect. In these brief snippets, you can see various crew members constructing each dog, each a wonderfully designed piece of art. Those folks don’t exactly get to say much—or at least not as much as the actors—but they’re what draws the eye.
One of the joys of Anderson fandom is to indulge in the minute details of his world building. It’s why Matt Zoller Seitz’s book, The Wes Anderson Collection, became a New York Times best seller. Seitz’s exploration oscillated between a picture book and essays, chronicling Anderson’s films with such specificity that it left readers with a better understanding of the fantasy universes that they, perhaps, wish to inhabit. But this dissecting of his work seems to run counter to Anderson, who is a believer that “the movies should speak for themselves.” Unfortunately that attitude is antithetical to a VR project like this one.
Where The Wes Anderson Collection succeeds, the behind-the-scenes Isle of Dogs VR feature fails. Despite their best efforts, the piece felt more rooted in advertising than engagement. The joy of an original VR experience is the interaction between program and user. It can envelop the audience in ways that watching a movie can’t. It can consume you, swallow you whole. Before the experience began, I looked around at my fellow VR voyagers and could sense their excitement and anticipation. It was palpable. The breathless whirlwind of the festival had taken its toll, and everyone seemed to want something “different.” Basically, they wanted an experience that they couldn’t replicate at home. However, once the experience began the excitement quickly waned.
Going forward, where does something like a behind-the-scenes VR experience stand in relation to movies? Where does it fit? I remember back when DVDs popularized revealing features like director’s commentary—it felt like a game changer, a new insight into understanding my favorite movies. VR feels like it could be the next step in that same vein, a way of “accessing” the actual studio where the movie was shot, watching the crew (like the animators in the Isle of Dogs VR experience) work to craft a scene. The idea of such an experience excites me with possibilities. Unfortunately, the Isle of Dogs VR Experience misses the mark in not using the technology to address the issues of appropriation and influences of the movie. But with the advent of VR, the possibility of that special behind-the-scenes experience remains. And it’s just a matter of time before a filmmaker or artist seizes the opportunity and uses the technology to amaze us.