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Future Tense: Sifting Through the Patterns of VR Storytelling at Sundance

Future Tense: Sifting Through the Patterns of VR Storytelling at Sundance

It may seem all the buzz around virtual reality at this year’s Sundance Film Festival came out of nowhere, but it’s actually the culmination of the decade-long vision of New Frontier Curator and Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer Shari Frilot to guide the fest in evolving the section into a showcase of innovation and visionary forward thinking about how tech and story might work together. 

Back in 2007, Sundance Film Festival launched New Frontier, a new iteration of the experimental Frontiers section that had been around since 1996. If festival attendees and press have sometimes struggled with what to make of New Frontier, that’s probably part of the point. In the festival’s first press release announcing the 2007 curation, fest director John Cooper noted the expanded program was to “provide a platform not only for filmmakers, but for artists who are pushing the limits of how audiences engage with the moving image.”

Frilot said of New Frontier that first year, “We want to cultivate an artistic and social environment that disarms people when they enter the space. It’s a way of unlocking inhibitions and encouraging audiences to think about opening themselves up to the new rules and cinematic suggestions which the New Frontier artists are inviting you to consider.” 

Over the ensuing decade, the New Frontier program at Sundance has continued to push against boundaries of art and tech without being quite an art show or a tech showcase, providing that platform for filmmakers, photographers, sculptors, installation artists, scientists, deep thinkers and visionaries, art collectives and performance artists, to engage with and challenge fest attendees to think beyond preconceived notions about how images can be used to tell story and engage audiences. 

Looking back now across a decade of New Frontier curation, the path Frilot and Sundance have been forging all along seems more obvious, but in those early years of New Frontier on Main Street, much of the film journalist scene at Sundance seemed content to remain blissfully unaware that the New Frontier was even a relevant part of the fest they were there to cover, other than as a place they stopped by so they could snag a wristband guaranteeing them a seat at the opening day press conference across the street.

Meanwhile, some industry folk were starting to take notice; in 2010, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt used New Frontier to launch HitRecord.org, his online art and music collaborative. That year also saw installations exploring ideas of social media identity using augmented reality and an interactive exploration piece using Google maps to immerse participants in a sense of place; these projects and more throughout New Frontier’s history exemplify the programs support of artists in exploring ideas around how people will interact with technology and with each other in virtual spaces.

In 2012, as a part of the sixth year of New Frontier — a year in fittingly themed “Future Normal” — a New Frontier filmmaker named Nonny de la Peña unveiled “Hunger in Los Angeles,” an experiment in immersive journalism born out of Mark Bolas’ Mixed Reality Lab at USC, that aimed to put the viewer squarely in the face of a social justice issue in a way that had never been done before. When the project got accepted into Sundance, de la Peña needed VR goggles that could travel to the fest to immerse the audience into her film. With an assist from a teenaged intern who had been cobbling together virtual reality headsets in his parents’ garage, she got prototype goggles built in time (two pair, plus an emergency backup)  and took her film to Sundance.  

On August 1, 2012, nine months after “Hunger in Los Angeles” debuted at Sundance 2012, de la Peña’s teenaged intern, Palmer Luckey, launched a Kickstarter for Oculus, a company whose successful crowdfunding campaign and ultimate $2 billion acquisition by Facebook would contribute to the rapid acceleration of growth and investment in virtual reality technology in a way no one at New Frontier could have anticipated. 

“For ‘Hunger in Los Angeles,’ they had to invent the tech to tell the story the way Nonny wanted to tell it,” Frilot told me, when I caught her for a late-night phoner at the end of a long day midway through this year’s fest. “She wanted to put you right there, to make you care about what was happening. So she and Palmer worked together to tell the story in a certain way that in turn created the tech.”

It’s the kind of story of which legend is born, and the ensuing years have perhaps given the telling of the tale a slight tinge of mythos mixed with varying parts envy and grudging admiration, depending upon who’s telling the story.

Nonetheless, whatever you consider Palmer Luckey a hero, a heel, or just a bright, curious fellow who got inexplicably, well, lucky, and whether you believe immersive journalism “counts” as a first step in virtual reality or not, the undercurrent of excitement around the potentialities of storytelling in virtual reality that was generated by “Hunger in Los Angeles” at Sundance in 2012 still resonates. New Frontier as a fest program, through its history of supporting works exploring these kinds of ideas, could also be said to have earned its place within the broader world of art and tech in the VR space, culminating at this year’s fest with the 30 VR installations — some of which were also supported by Sundance Institute grants — that drew long lines to the New Frontier space every day. 

“Hunger” was more journalism than “film,” and now, four years later, the VR projects in this year’s New Frontier selection were pulled from across a broad swath of disciplines, which was very much by design. “What I love about the lineup this year is the diversity of where the content providers and artists are coming from,” said Frilot. “It’s not just about filmmakers, a lot of them are installation artists, journalists, working in cross-disciplinary media. They bring different perspectives to the art that inform the work.”

This year’s curation also boasts projects across many platforms; I asked Frilot if this was intentional. “We don’t care about the platforms, we’re not about one over the other. It’s about the content that’s created for those platforms, and about the increased capability for filmmakers to be able to tell diverse stories,” Frilot explained. “It was kind of a revelation last year, a lot of the interest has to do with the capitalization of the tech and with top artists like Chris Milk engaging in the medium. We saw this perfect storm coming and we wanted to continue to have a role in what was happening as the tech evolves.”
And what impact does Frilot think virtual reality will ultimately have on shaping the future of storytelling? “There’s not going to be just one way of telling story,” she says emphatically. “There’s going to be different artists working in different media figuring out different ways to architect in this space. It’s still in a very nascent stage, storytelling in this new medium.”

When I ask Frilot her thoughts on the biggest buzzword swirling around the, fest, “empathy,” she pauses to consider her words. “As the enthusiasm and hype fades, I hope that we’re keeping in mind that VR is an entirely new medium, that it creates a new sense of space.”

“It’s an enormous and thrilling sense of responsibility for the direction we can take with this technology and how we share story,” she added. “This medium that engages our very survival instinct, it creates an enormous opportunity for connection and understanding, and what we’re seeing here is artists’ understanding this whole idea of VR as an empathy machine.”  
Certainly many of the artists with works in this year’s New Frontier installation are exploring that idea. Unlike VR content development in the tech side of things, where much of the early content has centered around new and improved ways to virtually kill in video games, at New Frontier the focus was much more on the emotional impact of a shared experience.

The episodic narrative series “Defrost,” directed by Randal Kleiser (“Grease,” “Blue Lagoon”), which put the viewer into a story from the perspective of a woman who’s been cryogenically frozen for 30 years and has just woken up and is re-meeting her family, who have all aged three decades while she was frozen, is one of the best uses of a sense of presence and empathy in VR I’ve seen to date in this emerging storytelling format.

Installation artist Lynette Wallworth experiments with various VR storytelling techniques to create a sense of “here” in transporting the viewer into the remote Australian wilderness for “Collisions,” about the perspectives of an ancient tribal culture and modern technology. And Chris Milk’s “Waves of Grace” and “Evolution of Verse” — both available for download through the VRSE app, so you can experience them outside of the festival — are stunning examples of presence in immersive 360-doc journalism and an exploration of weaving a breathtaking visual story in VR to evoke an emotional response, respectively.

Whether the pop around VR storytelling at Sundance 2016 is harbinger of a coming sea change in the future of immersive storytelling remains to be seen, and depends greatly upon the first waves of consumer content in VR and how audiences react to the kind of stories artists want to tell. But this is the first year in over a decade of covering Sundance that I’ve heard this much buzz on the ground — or any buzz at all, really — about virtual reality. The long waitlists at New Frontier to check out VR experiences at the fest, and the domineering fest chatter around Park City about VR  in restaurants, in bars, on the shuttles, in lines, all point to a lot of interest in storytelling in VR. The presence of tech press covering New Frontier at Sundance this year is another key indicator of where the future is heading. If you missed that VR was a big thing at Sundance this year, you maybe weren’t paying full attention.
Yes, we’re a good decade or two, technologically speaking, from the kind of fully immersive, ultimate, “holodeck”-inspired cinematics experiences of which we dream, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a relevant evolution of storytelling happening within the space right now that’s worth paying attention to. Virtual reality — the story and the tech — is a field that’s evolving rapidly, almost daily, and as we look ahead to the next decade, Frilot and New Frontier will be there, showcasing artists who continue to innovate the way we tell stories in VR.
Kim Voynar owns Lateralus, a production and consulting firm focusing on biz dev, strategy and content in the virtual reality space. Lateralus is currently developing projects with avant-garde music collective The Residents, Will Calhoun (Living Colour) and other artists, consulting with VR start-ups, and working with Virtual World Society, a non-profit organization founded by the “grandfather of VR,” Dr. Tom Furness. Prior to becoming obsessed with the art and tech of immersive storytelling in virtual spaces, Voynar was a film critic for a decade, covering the film festival circuit and independent cinema for Movie City News, Cinematical, IndieWIRE and Variety. She co-hosts The Daily Buzz public radio show/podcast at Sundance and SXSW. 

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