Inside The Massive VR Intersection At Sundance Film Festival

Lauren deLisa Coleman

We're about mid-way into the power-packed Sundance Film Festival currently taking place in Park City, Utah, and certainly, one of the biggest buzzwords on the ground is Virtual Reality (VR).  The creativity and discussion and behind the intersection of this tech plaform and film is even bigger this year than last Festival.

Sundance Institute curated a collection of cutting-edge independent experimental media works by creators who have leveraged VR, AR, mixed reality (MR) and/or AI.  Naturally, competition is stiff when it comes to be included at Sundance, no matter what the medium. In fact, the Festival received over 13,000 submissions from both offerings in both the traditional and new tech categories.  A mere 24 of those were selected as documentary and narrative virtual reality works that would be included in Sundance 2018.

Robert Redford, President and Founder of Sundance Institute, stated in a press release, “Technology-enabled storytelling continues to develop into a thriving industry. It’s essential to protect the creative spaces where creators can develop work and reach audiences independent of commercial pressures. The work that we showcase at New Frontier sets the agenda for the year in creative cross-media storytelling.”

Indeed, the works were experienced at either New Frontier Exhibition, held at  Kimball Art Center or at The Ray. Filmgoers and techies are able to view not only innovative  VR and MR works at this location but also immersive dance, as well.  As a companion offering, The New Frontier extends to a site called The Ray where works ranging from VR, MR, and AR to AI and new media technologies are also currently on display.   Of particular note is an area called The Box which is a 40-seat mobile VR cinema showcasing a number of various film projects and was created by an experiential entertainment company called Two Bit Circus for Sunance. A number of break-through projects are being shown at the sites.

For example, Awavena, a film about an indigenous Amazonian people called the Yawanawa. The project tells the story of  Hushahu, their first woman Shaman. The technology renders visible the luminous world this tribe has always known.  Rosie Lourde, Investment Manager Online Production, Screen Australia which provides grants for digital series and immersive and which partially funded Awavena, was on hand for the film's debut at Sundance.  She also noted that the film has been invited to European premiere and the World Economic Forum at Davos in order to help key decision makers to experience the journey of Hushahu becoming the Yawanawa's first female shaman. The team hopes to influence global policy around indigenous land rights and broader issues of gender parity. Such is the power of new technology.

In addition, Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made by Many reimagines Shelley’s seminal work to examine the cultural ramifications of pervasive, ubiquitous technology. Participants interact with an artificial intelligence, co-creating a shared narrative around the implications of unleashing this naive, intelligent "monster,” both mythical and imminent, into the world.

Dinner Party is  short virtual reality thriller that dramatizes the incredible story of Betty and Barney Hill, who in the 1960's reported the first nationally known UFO abduction case in America, and was created and written by Charlotte Stoudt whose writing and producing credits include Homeland  and House of Cards.  "This process is very challenging but exhilarating, " Stoudt told me. "Because VR can be so intimate and yet so alienating at the same time, we knew that it was the perfect platform for such a story. It's simply ideal since the medium lends itself so well to something that continues to bewilder and perplex us."  Dinner Party, which is produced by Skybound Entertainment, RYOT, and Telexist, is actually a pilot for a proposed upcoming series called The Incident.

Many members of the teams from the above, rubbed shoulders with those from the traditional theatrical filmmaking work during the packed opening party for the Festival which was held at Sundance TV HQ, further signaling the rise of the tech-infused filmmaker.

Once the celebration was over,  a whopping 63 panels kicked off the official programming, and much of the focus of such panels provided an even deeper dive into the current state and future of VR and film. For example,  Mozilla and Sundance Film Festival presented, VR the People: The importance of open access to tools for creators and publishers. The panel focused on how artists and creators can explore ways in which technology can be used to push the limits of storytelling.

With the proliferation of virtual reality in almost every entertainment vertical, the field is exploding for storytellers, game designers, narrative filmmakers, visual artists and beyond, and growing into a multibillion-dollar industry, and Artificial Intelligence is a major factor within this explosive opportunity.