The medium of virtual reality has just taken a big step forward towards being recognized as a legitimate form of storytelling. The Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it’s awarding a special Oscar to director Alejandro González Iñárritu for his VR experience titled Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), part of an exhibit that aims to explore “the human condition of immigrants and refugees.”
Iñárritu — already a two-time Oscar-winner — and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are being presented with the award “in recognition of a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling,” the Academy says. This marks the first time a work in the VR medium has been given an Academy Award, and it’s the first of such special Oscars to be awarded since Pixar’s Toy Story in 1996.
Carne y Arena is designed to let people feel what it’s like to make a small part of the journeys made by global immigrants and refugees. The six-and-a-half-minute experience combines VR imagery via the Oculus Rift with physical spaces like a sand-covered floor and cold waiting rooms. Participants take part in a group of immigrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border, and experience the fear and uncertainty of encountering the US Border Patrol. The installation concludes with videos of undocumented immigrants telling their own true stories.
In a statement announcing the award, AMPAS president John Bailey said the following of Carne y Arena:
“Iñárritu’s multimedia art and cinema experience is a deeply emotional and physically immersive venture into the world of migrants crossing the desert of the American southwest in early dawn light. More than even a creative breakthrough in the still emerging form of virtual reality, it viscerally connects us to the hot-button political and social realities of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Carne y Arena is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As a director, Iñárritu is widely known for helming the films Birdman and The Revenant, which together won seven Academy Awards.