The Sundance Film Festival has long included documentaries that tackle hot button issues, but this year some of those films included virtual reality companion pieces in the New Frontier section. In addition to longstanding issues regarding technical, ethical and narrative complexities of telling stories with new technologies, these VR additions raised serious questions about the capacity for the medium as an agent of change.
Environmental issues were at the forefront of this year’s festival, and two of the most prominent climate documentaries, “An Inconvenient Sequel” and “Chasing Coral,” presented VR shorts as well. “An Inconvenient Sequel” shows how grave the climate change crisis has become since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted a decade ago. In the companion piece, “Melting Ice,” Gore and the film’s creator Danfung Dennis take us on a 360-degree tour of how rising temperatures have wreaked havoc on the climate of Greenland.
The VR short opens with the viewer peering up as Gore’s small plane noisily descends onto the barren white landscape. After observing a brief conversation between him and the scientist stationed there, who explains how dire the situation of melting ice sheets and rising sea levels has become, the film mostly dispenses with any narrative. The viewer is instead placed below collapsing glaciers, alongside gushing muddy rivers and inside boats languidly paddling through bodies of water strewn with ice melt detritus. The long, uninterrupted shots of the expansive landscape are beautifully rendered — so much so that, were it not for the intermittent voice-over narration by Gore warning of an imminent climate refugee crisis, the film might feel like a well-executed tourist video, rather than environmental horror tale.
In Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral,” the VR companion to the documentary of the same name, scuba diver and researcher Zackary Rago welcomes the viewer to Lizard Island in Australia.
After explaining how rising water temperatures have devastated the coral of the Great Barrier Reef, the viewer is submerged under the sea to witness firsthand the phenomenon of coral bleaching, or how coral responds to the stress of these changing conditions by turning white. In the feature film, the director captures how the film’s characters sought to use underwater time-lapse photography to capture irrefutable visual evidence of the marine destruction. The six-minute VR piece is a condensed experiential portrait of the devastation.
Both of these films utilize the much-discussed ability of VR to place viewers “right there” and give them an immersive experience of a situation that might remain otherwise emotionally elusive. The relative successes of these films to do that suggests that environmental films might be best suited for the technology, though the overwhelming nature of the experience risks overpowering deeper messages.
If the feature films employ investigative methods and the presentation of collected evidence—visual journalism as it has long existed in documentary film—to further these arguments, their VR iterations drop the viewers directly into the middle of the action and hope they will step away with similar conclusions. Enjoy these natural wonders now, the thinking goes, because if we don’t act soon they might disappear. The medium is the message, and in immersive VR, experience is the medium.
But that ethos faces different challenges in more abstract pieces, including one of the most narratively complex pieces in this year’s New Frontier section, “Zero Days VR.”
“Zero Days” is a companion piece to Alex Gibney’s 2016 feature documentary of the same name, which investigates the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus discovered in 2010 that disrupted Iranian nuclear facilities. The feature film begins as a thriller that seeks to reveal how the malware spread and who was behind it—likely the United States and Israel—and ends with a denunciation of our hyper-classified society and the lack of public debate around the future of global cyberwarfare. In the film, an NSA whistleblower (in reality an actress playing a composite figure of anonymous sources interviewed by Gibney) reveals critical insights about the program.
During the making of the film, Gibney sought to depict his anonymous source in a way that felt native to the digital world of the film, rather than with the traditional shadows and silhouettes of cinema. He approached the immersive media studio Scatter and, with the use of the reality capture tool DepthKit, captured the gestures of the actress who delivered the testimony of the sources in 3D. Then, he rendered her in the film using the pixelated aesthetic of glitch-art. With that as a launching pad, Scatter’s creative director and new media artist Yasmin Elayat created “Zero Days VR” as a stand-alone piece that depicts mostly the same narrative but with the language and ethos of VR.
Unlike the overpowering landscapes of the environmental films, Elayat and Zananiri grappled with how to visually portray the imperceptible path of spreading malware and the inherently invisible concept of secrecy. To that end, they slyly disrupted the notion of embodiment in VR by making the viewer’s POV be that of Stuxnet itself as it winds its way through the ominous, pitch-black landscape of cyberspace, wiggling in and out of computer systems and watching centrifuges spin out of control.
In a final segment, the viewer shakes off the coil of code and is seated in the role of interviewer at the table with the NSA whistleblower. At the conclusion of her testimony, the camera turns to reveal the viewer’s own reflection, rendered in the same distorted, volumetric aesthetic. The segment burrows inside the traditional techniques of documentary filmmaking, planting the viewer within the confines of the camera.
There are other relics from the film world that appear as the viewer floats through the non-physical landscape, including snippets of news footage overlayed on vertical columns and excerpts from the documentary’s interviews playing in voice-over. Divorced from any specific context—the interviewees are not identified and thus testimony from a journalist is indistinguishable from that of a former NSA and CIA chief—they feel less evidentiary, however, and more ambient. The project’s creators sacrificed interactivity, VR’s most cherished characteristic, for the sake of maintaining the factual rigor of the piece, but viewer are less likely to walk away from the piece with a deep understanding of the mechanics of autonomous malware and more inclined to remember how frightening it felt to be that malware.
Can that immersive sensation serve a journalistic purpose? As the technology advances, can we imagine a future in which investigative exposés are made as stand-alone VR pieces without their linear counterparts? What would it mean to responsibly and ethically “experience” fact-based reporting in virtual reality in the era of “fake news”? The answers may not be here yet, but in light of the developments taking place around the world during this year’s Sundance, the questions took on new urgency.
Sara Rafsky is a freelance journalist and researcher at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.