‘The Key’ Wins Tribeca Film Festival’s Top Prize for Immersive Media

Dreamlike experience highlights a real-world issue

The VR experience competed in the festival's Storyscapes category. Tribeca Film Festival
Headshot of Marty Swant

A virtual reality experience that immerses viewers in a dreamlike, postapocalyptic world with a surprisingly powerful twist at the end has won this year’s Tribeca Film Festival grand prize for immersive media.

The Key, created by Lucid Dreams Productions, won top prize in the festival’s Storyscapes category, a curation of more than a dozen VR, augmented reality and other immersive theater entries that drew more than 400 people a day to the ticketed area showcasing the future of immersive content. The awards were announced Thursday night.

The experience was a collaboration with Oculus’ “VR For Good” program, which pairs VR creators with nonprofits around the world to use cutting-edge storytelling to shed light on some of the world’s most pressing issues.

For the 20-minute experience, viewers enter a small room where they are met by a real-life actress who smiles silently as Arrested Development actress Alia Shawkat narrates the experience on behalf of a character named Ana. Ana has forgotten memories from her past but carries a key with her. Viewers put on headsets and are transported to a colorless world while Ana attempts to understand her past filled with loss and sadness. In the end, viewers are confronted with a heartbreaking reality that millions of people in the world endure every day.

While VR has often been used to showcase global issues, creator Celine Tricart, who previously created The Sun Ladies, a VR experience about Yazidi women in Iraq who escaped ISIS to fight against their former captors alongside the Iraqi army, wanted to create an experience that told a story in a way that was more creative than simply filming scenes from another country in 360 degrees. She said viewers have become numb in a way to what’s unfortunately become all too familiar. That’s why the creators decided to take a more abstract approach with The Key.

“Let’s make a very mysterious journey where you’re given a key,” she said. “[The character] doesn’t remember where the key comes from, but you have to explore dreams to figure it out. And only at the very very end do we reveal.”

“The experience combines a real actor with fantastical, immersive visuals and achieves a rarity in VR storytelling with its use of metaphor to represent an ongoing, real-world crisis,” the jury said in a statement. “Of particular note are the superbly executed virtual reality technical details, including character design, use of color and sound design.”

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.