Since the first piece of modern virtual reality showed up at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, the medium has occupied a bigger and bigger place at the show. In 2015, there were 11 virtual reality experiences at its experimental New Frontier exhibit. In 2016, there were closer to 35 — including one that the Sundance Institute helped bring into existence. It's called Collisions, a beautifully shot film about one man's memory of nuclear bomb tests in the Australian desert. And it's one of the festival's first steps toward positioning virtual reality not as an experiment, but as an up-and-coming medium.
As we saw at Sundance, virtual reality video is one of the most accessible things to put on a headset. It doesn't require interaction or movement, it runs easily on ordinary smartphones with cheap Google Cardboard viewers, and it avoids the extant stigma of looking too much like a video game. But on the artist's side, it requires money, technological acumen, and finessing a new filmmaking language. Finding camera rigs that can capture perfect spherical video remains a daunting and expensive task. Working with a device that sees in every direction at once means changing how you think about scenes. And while artists have made progress in figuring out how to fund, sell, and show off virtual reality film in the last few years, it’s still a field full of pitfalls.
"After the 2015 festival, we'd already been supporting VR work," says Kamal Sinclair, co-director of the New Frontier Story Lab residency program. "But after the big breakthrough year for VR, we got inundated with requests from all kinds of storytellers — storytellers that normally wouldn't even be on New Frontier's radar." They were asking a big question: "How do I get into VR?" So Sundance expanded its existing artist residencies — which provide mentorship and support for categories that include feature films, film music, and episodic production — with a dedicated virtual reality section. After talking to a handful of companies, it decided on a partnership with cinematic VR company Jaunt, which produces one of the best-known VR camera rigs and appeared with the short film Kaiju Fury at New Frontier in 2015.
Sundance’s goal, as Sinclair puts it, was to find a handful of established artists who could "tell a great story" and give them as much support as possible to make the leap to VR film — from training with Jaunt to mentorship from studios like Specular Theory, known for the Perspective series. Four were selected, but so far, only one has been announced: Australian interactive artist Lynette Wallworth, who appeared at Sundance in 2013 with a deep-sea exploration film and accompanying smartphone app called Coral: Rekindling Venus.
"When I saw VR, I thought: 'This is really perfect.'"
Like so many artists eager to get their hands on the medium, Wallworth had never worked in VR film, but she knew exactly what she wanted to do with it. Years prior, while working with indigenous Martu artists in Australia's Pilbara desert, she'd mentioned visiting the Maralinga region near the country’s southern border — site of UK nuclear weapons tests in 1950s and 1960s. The wife of one of the Martu elders, a man named Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, turned to her. "You have to talk to Nyarri," she said. Seeing one of those tests — an explosion of ash and a lingering, otherworldly cloud — had been his first encounter with the non-indigenous world.
For years after, Wallworth had pondered a way to work with Nyarri to tell the story. "Then, when I saw VR, I thought: 'This is really perfect,'" she says. Seeing in all directions would help bring audiences into the vast Australian desert, where they would meet Nyarri and his family (virtually) firsthand. Collisions could follow him through his daily life as he told the story, building toward a single, unreal moment: the bombing itself, now decades in the past.
"I took this camera out on this shoot having not shot one scene," says Wallworth. Armed with a week of training from Jaunt and help from producer Nicole Newnham and executive producer Cori Shepherd Stern, she soon started figuring out the quirks of VR film. Instead of closely controlling scenes, a 360-degree filmmaker has to plan each one and let it play out from a distance. "It’s closer to directing theater than directing film," she says. "We’re kind of hiding behind a door talking to someone through an earpiece — or for us, hiding behind trees and trying to avoid spiders and fire." Afterwards, she and an editor would work with a low-resolution version of the video and send it off, not seeing exactly what they'd made until a perfectly stitched copy came back.
And the questions about how to bring a VR film to a festival don’t stop once it’s finished. The enduring appeal of Sundance premieres is their weight, a sense that you are having a singular moment for the first time with a group of similarly lucky people. But nobody has figured out how to lend virtual reality the same kind of communal gravitas. Most New Frontier selections don't appear in a single, dedicated area; visitors pick from a list and are called to one of the crowded gallery's Gear VRs or Vives, preloaded with several different options. Some feel like mini-events in themselves, but others just pop you in and out of a headset while you're sitting on a crowded couch. It creates a lot of opportunities to chat with other attendees about your favorite stuff, but not much room to simply sit and mull over an experience.
Nobody has quite figured out the VR equivalent of a premiere screening
Wallworth hoped to do something different. She wanted Collisions to have the same theatrical premiere as a traditional film, even if it was on dozens of tiny screens instead of one large one. To get it, she organized two public viewings: first in Davos, Switzerland, where she'd been invited to present at the World Economic Forum, and then at Park City's Egyptian Theater, right after New Frontier's panel on experimental storytelling. With help from the artistic engineering collective Two-Bit Circus, every audience member would don a Gear VR and Wallworth would trigger them simultaneously, making sure each one started and finished at the same time. People might not be able to see each other in the headsets, but they'd take them off knowing they'd had a shared experience.
At Davos, the plan apparently worked flawlessly. But at Sundance, virtual reality's rough edges poked through. Right before the film was supposed to start, according to a person familiar with the matter, someone accidentally unplugged the router that gave Wallworth control. Volunteers scrambled to reconnect each phone, collecting armfuls of non-working units that they'd already handed out. As the number of headsets dwindled, it became clear that there weren't enough for everyone. It was the only screening at the festival where only half the people who got into the theater could actually see the film.
The more mature a medium gets, the more the technology behind it disappears, and the technology behind VR is still right out in the open. It bleeds into how we talk about nearly every experience, including Collisions, which is only possible because of how much work Jaunt has put into its cameras and software. But it's a noteworthy leap from the rudimentary Kaiju Fury to Wallworth's sweeping desert landscapes — and a noteworthy leap from the lone VR headset at Sundance 2012 to the dozens being casually handed out at Wallworth's screening.
Even in its current form, VR headsets open up what might once have been an exclusive gallery exhibit into something that can be shared anywhere. Nyarri and his wife and grandson attended the Sundance and Davos screenings, appearing on stage to introduce the film. But one of the things they most looked forward to, says Wallworth, was getting to take it back to Australia. "We’re in the process of trying to get 20 Gear VRs that we can send back to the community," she says, so they’ll be able to organize their own viewings. "They can put them in the car and drive around and show people." Right now, Collisions is also playing on Sundance's app for Google Cardboard, the most accessible VR format available.
A lot of change in just four years
Wallworth says she hopes to continue working in the medium. "I’m interested in a work that would bring me close to animals," she says. "I’ve been doing these workshops with watching people use horses for therapy, and I’m interested in it." According to Sinclair, Sundance is still preparing to announce the three other recipients of its residency grants. Though they're all working with Jaunt on live-action films, the institute is also interested in exploring VR animation, which made a strong unofficial showing at this year's festival.
In the long term, Sinclair hopes the festival will showcase work that helps define narrative VR. "If it's just gimmicky, the novelty will wear off very quickly," she says. "And that's where Sundance is invested, at least on the storytelling side — to really catalyze the best practices, those landmark projects that will help to further the medium."
Additional contributions by Alex Brokaw.
Update February 17th, 3PM ET: Added names of VR residency producers.