The Sundance Film Festival, which takes place annually in Park City, Utah, is reputed for its slate of independent narrative and documentary films. NEXT and New Frontier are two sections that present exciting work that teeters on the edges of convention.
NEXT films are distinguished by bold and forward-thinking approaches to storytelling. Search, by Aneesh Chaganty (U.S.A, 101 minutes), is a film that’s set entirely on a computer screen (it may sound gimmicky but it works well). The film was a standout in this section and snapped up two awards at the festival.
«Also new this year, the festival unveiled a 40-seat mobile VR theatre.»
New Frontier is the avant-garde section of Sundance, focusing on innovative and independent productions and the convergence of film, art, media, live performances, music and technology. I think of New Frontier as the free-spirited child of the family, that sibling who’s always off doing something curious and inventive – with no interest in conforming. The section also programs a handful of films that fit their experimental and «forward-thinking» mantra. Standout was Narcissister Organ Player (U.S.A, 92 minutes), directed by Narcissister, a hybrid personal documentary/performance film that that explores how ancestral data is stored in our bodies. The film also offers up insights into what motivated Narcissister to become the masked, provocative, feminist performance artist that she is.
I’ve attended New Frontier for years. Early on, the exhibition was housed in a mall on Main Street and there was rarely a line to enter. Now, New Frontier is spread out across three venues and ticketed programs sell out fast. A decade ago, VR (Virtual Reality) was a twinkle; this year VR was the biggest buzzword at Sundance, with more than two dozen VR, AR (augmented reality), MR (mixed reality) and/or AI (artificial intelligence) projects in the mix.
As a sign of the times, SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime (U.S.A, 13 minutes, director: Eliza McNitt) -a VR experience where you dive into a black hole – was picked up for over a million dollars. This may be the most newsworthy bit of the festival: it’s the first time a New Frontier and VR project was acquired out of Sundance. For McNitt, science captures our imaginations and demands us to think. «But with virtual reality now we can we feel it too,» she says. «Virtual reality awakens our senses…. What once was invisible to our eyes, becomes an experience that transports you to other worlds.»
«Virtual reality is known as an empathy machine, but it needs to be practiced.»
Also new this year, the festival unveiled a 40-seat mobile VR theatre, «The Box at New Frontier at the Ray», created for Sundance by an experiential entertainment company called Two Bit Circus. On my first day at the festival, I went to The Box to watch The Sun Ladies VR,-an immersive live-action documentary about a troop of female Yazidi fighters called Sun Ladies. (U.S.A., 7 minutes, lead artists: Maria Bello, Celine Tricart, Christian Stephen). For producer Maria Bello, «Virtual reality is known as an empathy machine, but it needs to be practiced.» As such, The Sun Ladies VR experience is designed to include an after-screening live performance component.
Overall, the communal aspect of the mobile VR theatre didn’t play out for me. At one point I removed my headset and observed people lost in their minds-or is it their imaginations?-swiveling around in their chairs. It actually felt a bit isolating. But I can see the practicality of a VR theatre for a group who wants to experience VR together. But I wouldn’t use the word «together». Alone together is more like it.
The next stop on my new media technology immersion tour was New Frontier at the Ray, a space right next to the VR theatre, but a different space all together. Here, you felt as if you dropped into a fun art/tech fair with hip happenings buzzing about in every corner. Experience Realistic Touch in Virtual Reality (Lead Artists: Andrew Mitrak, Greg Bilsland, Joe Michaels, Jake Rubin, Key Collaborator: Dr. Bob Crockett) showcased emerging technology by Haptx which allows users to feel the shape, texture, and motion of virtual objects.
I was fortunate to run into animator turned VR creator Tyler Hurd, who ended up being a New Frontier guru for me. When I told him some of the mobile VR experiences were disorienting for me, even nauseating, he pointed me to Battlescar across the room and explained how it used a different VR technology. He thought I’d like it better. He was right.
BattleScar (U.S.A/France, 9 minutes), by Nico Casavecchia and Martin Allais, uses VR to explore themes of identity and belonging. The story – told in part through wonderful vignettes floating in mid-air – also explores the 1970s punk rock scene in New York City. Lupe, the animated main character-a Puerto Rican-American runaway teenager-is voiced by Rosario Dawson.
BattleScar opens up conversations around fact and fiction, about real stories and imagined stories, in virtual spaces. When an environment is constructed, how do we know what the source material is, and does it matter? And since immersive experiences can be more visceral, more immediate, can they create more impact than a film? And what kinds of impact are we talking about anyway?
I loved how BattleScar was presented. With some VR experiences, you enter a room with white walls, sit on a chair, face a computer, put on a headset. It’s antiseptic. Disconnected. With BattleScar, the experience is different. You walk into a room and it’s an actual room – there’s a bed, a bookshelf, it’s lived in. Atmospheric. It sets the scene for the gritty Lower East Side where the story takes place. So when you put on the headset and look around the virtual world, you’ve already begun the adventure.
About a decade ago, I was exploring the New Frontier exhibition at Sundance with Brian Chirls, a creative developer who was involved with innovation in the independent film world back then. These days, he’s big into VR (he’s CTO at Datavized and a frequent lecturer at IDFA DocLab). I asked him about the shifts he’s seen since the time it was groundbreaking to play with a life-size Google Earth map (which was cool at the time) to today where VR experiences are being acquired for huge sums and magic gloves let you feel things that don’t exist. For Chirls, there are important issues still to be addressed. «I’d like to see the VR culture shifting in the direction of accessibility, not only how do we get good at the craft, but how do we develop a set of ethics around it-and make it widely available to diverse creators and audiences.»
What is the future of new media technology? Will virtual and immersive and augmented realities become mainstream? Who can say for sure, but money is being invested and creators are digging in, exploring, and working out technical glitches the way any artist or filmmaker would. And, importantly, technology ought serve the story. Without that, the work-the film or the VR or AR or MR experience – would ring hollow.