How virtual reality ate the Sundance Film Festival

The future of independent film may not be film at all

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The most buzzworthy feature of 2015’s Sundance Film Festival isn’t a film at all, but a pair of virtual reality goggles you strap to your head. Three years after VR made its debut at Sundance, the technology has fully established itself. An entire section of the festival is now devoted to VR experiences, many of them more interactive than what we’ve seen to date. Talk to filmmakers and they’ll tell you they can’t remember being so excited: some say it’s like they’re present at the dawn of a new medium.

Take Birdly, a full-body VR experiment that turns you into a bird flying above the streets of San Francisco, soaring higher with every flap of your arms. Or Project Syria, which throws the viewer in the middle of a harrowing rocket attack. Or, perhaps most darkly, Perspective; Chapter I: The Party, which lets you see the world through the eyes of a man, and then a woman, as an encounter at a college party turns into sexual assault. All are on display at New Frontier, Sundance’s annual showcase for works at the intersection of art and technology. And they’ve quickly become the talk of the festival.

filmmakers say they can’t remember being so excited

Virtual reality debuted at Sundance in 2012 with Nonny de la Peña’s Hunger in Los Angeles, which used an early head-mounted display to place viewers in the middle of a food line outside a church. That project was developed by then-19-year-old Palmer Luckey, and the success of Hunger spurred him on to build a consumer version of his VR headset. He called it Oculus Rift, and launched it successfully on Kickstarter; last year, Facebook bought his company for $2 billion.

In the wake of Oculus’ success, and under the direction of curator Shari Frilot, VR dominates New Frontier this year. "I think what’s behind the explosion is the marketplace embracing it," Frilot says. Of the 14 projects in the showcase, 11 are enhanced by virtual reality. Most are independent art projects, but not all: Fox Searchlight is also here with Wild — The Experience, putting users in between actresses Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in a scene inspired by the recent movie of the same name.

Unfortunately, several of the experiences at New Frontier replicate the problematic types of VR we’ve seen for years: static scenes, devoid of interaction. And others demonstrate how many of the tricks and techniques that have worked in movies for decades need to be thrown out entirely; Kaiju Fury!, which jumps between a monster fight and a heroine trying to intervene, is an object lesson in how conventional editing can cause VR experiences to collapse almost instantly.

VR Sundance Yak

Samsung Gear VR's Mongolian yak herder presentation

But exhibits like Birdly demonstrate how powerful VR can be when it actually lets you do something: in this case, take to the skies with thrilling ease. There’s not a narrative, exactly, but its creators at the Zurich University of the Arts have considered adding one.

Hollywood’s recent investment in VR is apparent outside Sundance as well. This week Annapurna Pictures, producer of films like Her and Zero Dark Thirty, announced it is creating a VR division in partnership with artist Chris Milk. Meanwhile, VICE said Friday that it is making forays into VR news documentaries, and 20th Century Fox plans to release several more experiences this year as part of its Fox Innovation Lab.

"It really starts this year," says Fabian Troxler, a co-founder of Birdly. "People realize you can do so much more than gaming stuff. You can also tell stories." Which isn’t to say that VR has fully arrived: "It’s still new and there are still a lot of troubles we have to solve," he says. Birdly is highly immersive even for VR: fans blow air on you as you fly, and headphones simulate whooshing noises dependent on your movements. Troxler’s team is currently working to insert smells into the simulation — anything, he says, to further the suspension of disbelief.

Fox’s Wild — The Experience was created by the duo of Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, better known as Felix and Paul. In addition to Wild, the directors brought two other pieces to New Frontier this year designed for the Samsung Gear VR: one in which Montreal musician Patrick Watson gives an intimate performance in his loft, and the other depositing you in a series of scenes featuring Mongolian yak herders. (Of course Samsung would sponsor a VR yak herding experience.)

Sundance Paul and Felix

Paul Raphaël and Félix Lajeunesse

Raphaël offers a variety of reasons for the proliferation of VR at Sundance this year. "People are just finally getting comfortable with it," he says. "The hardware is starting to get more accessible; people are feeling a looming commercial release. There’s more incentive: a lot more studios and companies are investing in the technology. And with more people seeing it, there’s more word of mouth. And it’s an amazing medium."

Just before Sundance opened this year, investor Chris Dixon wrote a blog post predicting that after many false starts, VR-enabled cinema was about to become a reality. "What’s happening now  — because of Moore’s Law, and also the rapid improvement of processors, screens, and accelerometers, driven by the smartphone boom  —  is that VR is finally ready to go mainstream," Dixon writes. He predicted a period of great experimentation. "The next few decades of VR will be similar to the first few decades of film," he writes. "Filmmakers had no idea what worked and what didn’t: how to write, how to shoot, how to edit, etc. After decades of experiments they established the grammar of film. We’re about to enter a similar period of exploration with VR." Raphaël agrees with that sentiment: "There’s no road map," he says."

At Sundance, visitors to New Frontier can take home Google Cardboard: the company is giving away up to 8,000 of the do-it-yourself VR kits, while a new app from artist Chris Milk lets both Android and iOS users experience his latest work. And everyone else can watch as VR, slowly but surely, encroaches on territory that was once exclusive to film and TV. "The medium itself is just so sexy, and so alluring — it captures a general audience’s imagination," Frilot says. "And I think that’s really fueled this hyperspeed at which the industry is developing."

There may even come a day where VR graduates from the experimental New Frontier showcase to a permanent category at Sundance. "We’ve been talking in our programing meetings about the possibility of potentially building a platform, like we build a platform for documentaries, for feature films, for premieres," Frilot says. "We may need to do that with VR."

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