The Sundance Film Festival feature garnering the most buzz this year is not a masterful movie or an enlightening performance, and is moving audiences in a completely different way. The 2015 version of the Utah festival’s New Frontier section is now devoted almost completely to virtual reality (VR) experiences. It took only three years for VR to become fully entrenched as a part of the annual gala’s showcase of the merging of technology and art, and in that time, filmmakers have embraced the possibilities of the new interactive technology.
Some of the experiences available at the Sundance Film Festival New Frontier section include Project Syria, which takes the viewer inside a dangerous rocket attack, and Birdly, in which strapping on the goggles converts the wearer into a bird flying through the skies above San Francisco – how high the user flies depends on how fast he can flap his arms. The technology is not on display solely for action or adventure applications. Perspective; Chapter I: The Party turns the wearer first into a man then into a woman as their meeting during a college party becomes a sexual assault.
The first VR showcased at the Sundance Film Festival was Hunger in Los Angeles by Nonny de la Peña. The 2012 offering consisted of a display which was mounted on the viewer’s head, leading the viewer to experience a church food line. The developer of the project, Palmer Luckey, rode the success of Hunger to construct a consumer-friendly version of the user-mounted headset, which the 19-year-old called Oculus Rift. A successful Kickstarter campaign led to Facebook purchasing Luckey’s company for $2 billion. Samsung has developed its own version of VR headwear it calls Gear VR.
Curator of New Frontier Shari Frilot believes that the all-out acceptance of VR in the marketplace has led to its domination of the Sundance Film Festival section this year, in which 11 of the 14 projects showcase the technology. Not all of the experiences are independent, however. In conjunction with the movie Wild starring Reese Witherspoon, Fox Searchlight has created a version of VR which allows users to “co-star” in a scene inspired by the movie in which actresses Laura Dern and Witherspoon appear.
VR technology, much like cinema, is only as good as the creator’s gift in using it. Some of the experiences at Sundance Film Festival are being criticized for their lack of user interaction and scene movement. The use of conventional techniques for making digital movies is not readily transferable to VR and can cause some of the offerings to fall flat.
With VR so accepted at the United States’ largest international film festival, Hollywood is beginning to take notice. Film production company Annapurna Pictures has announced the creation of its own VR division, VICE is planning to use the technology for VR news documentaries and the Fox Innovation Lab division of 20th Century Fox is busy working on the production of even more experiences to be released this year.
In an effort to bring VR into the homes of consumers, Google is giving away as many as 8,000 do-it-yourself VR kits to visitors of the New Frontier section of the Sundance Film Festival. Chris Milk, an artist with whom Annapurna has partnered to create its VR division, has created his own app which allows iOS and Android users to try out his newest work. The rush to make VR as accepted a subset of cinema as documentaries and feature films today may bring about never-imagined-before inspiration for filmmakers, upon whose shoulders will rest the responsibility of building the new medium to appeal to widespread audiences.
By Jennifer Pfalz
Image by Sergey Galyonkin cropped and edited for size as featured image – License