Long before Mark Zuckerberg presented himself to shareholders last fall as an avatar and declared Facebook’s new investment in the virtual reality industry known as the metaverse, Sundance was all over it. The festival’s forward-looking New Frontier section has curated immersive and interactive work for 16 years, allowing artists working in VR and other new technologies to incubate their craft while the industry gradually started to pay attention.
Now, with billions of dollars invested in interactive online media and Zuckerberg rebooting Facebook as Meta, the festival can take plenty of credit for showcasing innovation that led to this moment. The pitch for the metaverse — a loosely defined network of digital environments where people can work, socialize, and create online — has the potential to employ many of the tech-savvy creatives in Sundance’s orbit. But some of the stalwarts of that community aren’t exactly thrilled about it.
“Until we find ways of extending access through cost and opportunity in this space, the metaverse is not meta — it’s a mono-verse,” said Lynette Wallworth, the Australian filmmaker and artist who has been working in virtual reality since Sundance chose her for its first VR residency six years ago. “I am disinterested in a world where there is some monopoly on perception, what we understand our world to be, what we understand human experience to be, and what we understand our reality to be.”
Conversations about the metaverse and its implications resonate across Sundance this year, even tipping into the traditional aspect of the festival. “We Met in Virtual Reality,” a documentary in competition, was shot by first-time director Joe Hunting exclusively in VRchat, one of the more prominent social platforms in VR. Hunting recorded hundreds of hours’ worth of material in VRchat over the past two years, and the result is a staggering window into the complex socialization taking place in the headset. The movie follows a wide-range of individuals interacting as colorful avatars in homegrown digital worlds, where they find a greater sense of belonging and companionship than anywhere else. Those unfamiliar with VRchat might mistake the footage for animation, but it was all captured in real time.
I met Hunting ahead of this year’s Sundance in the same context where his movie takes place: He invited me to his private world in VRchat, where our avatars stood in the middle of stunning yellow-green field, surrounded by distant mountains and a blue sky. “The biggest limitation of VR is the awareness of what the experience is like,” Hunting said, as his virtual cameras hovered nearby. “I think that will change as this platform becomes more accessible in a more community-driven context.”
While working on the project, Hunting found his own professional footing in VR as a virtual events photographer. “A lot of my knowledge comes from real-life filmmaking that I transferred to this space,” he said, noting that there was a significant learning curve involved in finding his subjects. “They’re all in Discord servers and the underworld of third-party softwares,” he said.
Using a remarkable naturalistic camera style that often veers into the cinematic, Hunting follows everything from dance instructors to sign-language educators to show the sheer complexity of the virtual society he came to know up close. His central characters, a couple who go by the usernames Dust Bunny and Toaster, fell in love in VRchat during the pandemic even as travel restrictions made it impossible for them to connect IRL. Their poignant story is a notable contrast to the clichés about a metaverse dominated by trolls and teenagers.
Between the two of them, Toaster’s arc is particularly notable because he started his VRchat life “on mute,” before overcoming his social anxiety and finding love entirely within a metaverse context. “They both just spoke so well about their relationship,” Hunting said. “VR is affecting people’s social lives in a very profound way.”
Like Wallworth, though, Hunting was skeptical of Meta’s big moves. When we spoke, I was sitting behind the goggles of my Quest 2, the consumer-friendly headset that is gradually becoming Meta’s signature project (Facebook bought Quest for $1 billion 10 years ago; two new editions of the headset are expected later this year). Hunting, however, was using a tethered headset from another company. “The thing that does frustrate me with Meta is that a lot of their campaign is speculative,” Hunting said. “We actually have so much to draw upon in understanding what this experience is like. I think Meta will be the Facebook of VR, and that’s OK. I don’t think I will spend a lot of time there. We want to have creative freedom. We want to be ourselves and be in worlds of our own creation.”
However, just as Sundance has catapulted emerging filmmakers into studio careers, the festival has become a pipeline for talent pipeline for the metaverse. The most prominent example is Chris Milk, the VR creator who has presented 13 projects at New Frontier over the years and participated in the festival’s labs. In October 2021, Meta announced the acquisition of Milk’s VR production company Within in a deal reported as over $400 million. The company, which Milk co-founded with Aaron Koblin in 2014, developed the popular VR workout app Supernatural — which engages users in immersive core workouts, stretching, and meditation while surrounding them with natural splendor. (As a subscriber, I can attest to the cardio intensity of the boxing workouts.)
That financial windfall is a far cry from the insular world of museum installations and festivals that Milk found with his earlier work, including VR music videos and documentaries. In a recent phone interview, he explained his unlikely trajectory. “I look at Supernatural as totally an extension of everything we were doing at New Frontier,” he said. “When you go to art school as I did, you’re taught this module of thinking, which is that high art — cinema and installations — is the ultimate plane of artistic accomplishments and the highest plane of creating something of meaning for other people. … If you keep going with that, what is the ultimate version of meaning? It’s actually changing or transforming someone’s life in a positive way. That’s the ultimate service you can do for the world as a creator.”
Milk connected the early days of New Frontier with a popular Sundance myth. “Once VR took off at New Frontier, it was like the way Fox Searchlight would go to Sundance and buy a bunch of movies,” he said, adding that his own original iteration of Within, a VR distribution app called Vrse, allowed him to focus on acquisitions as well. (Searchlight actually premiered its own VR project, a spinoff of the Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild,” at New Frontier in 2015.) “It became a lot of different things over the years,” Milk said, “both a place to meet likeminded souls and to find projects we could bring to larger audiences.”
Nevertheless, Milk said that his insular experiences at the festival made it clear that he needed to alter his approach to the medium. “We were always a little frustrated by how people were seemingly having these transformative experiences at Sundance, but they didn’t go home and continue to watch that sort of content on a regular basis,” he said. “If our goal is to make meaning in people’s lives, and give them transformative experiences, you can actually do that a lot more powerfully through a product than an art installation.”
Milk encouraged others to consider his path. “I think the world needs more artists building products for people,” he said. “It’s a matter of both convincing the artists they can do it and convincing the investors to back those kind of founders.” (Within was supported by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in a number of VR entities.)
New Frontier programmer Shari Frilot can take a lot of credit for seeding the metaverse — whether she wants it or not. Companies from Intel to Google have scouted talent from the festival, and Milk credits her with his early progress, though Frilot insisted that kind of outcome wasn’t her goal as a curator. “I’ve seen a lot of works and technologies being bought by companies,” she said. “Sometimes, that makes me sad. I’ve definitely seen filmmakers make their first feature and then they climb up and get chewed up in the studio system, and you see the same thing happening with New Frontier visions who create these miraculous innovations in storytelling. It turns them into workhorses.”
Frilot used to advise companies about talent to watch in advance of the festival, but begged off once they started asking to sign NDAs. “We’re talking about large brands working with experimental artists,” Frilot said. “These companies pick them up and then they become the company’s work.”
For Wallworth, who joined Sundance’s board of trustees two years ago, the corporatization of the metaverse exists in opposition to the medium’s potential. “What Shari was trying to do was to bring artists together so we could continue a trajectory that might not otherwise exist,” she said. “It’s a continuing issue of this field, the diversity around who’s actually developing and experiencing the technology. That’s why I’m so wedded to Sundance in terms of what they support.”
Her work includes the Emmy-winning “Awavena,” which was produced in collaboration with the Yaganawa people of the Brazilian Amazon. This year, the festival is showcasing her theatrical experience “How to Live…”, in which she revisits her upbringing in a radical Christian community. These aesthetic and cultural endeavors are a far cry from any Silicon Valley agenda. “We don’t know where the technology’s going to take us,” Wallworth said. “This is what happens when you really are at the cutting edge. All of this stuff is just a tool. What becomes interesting is when those tools can be shaped into a different way of actually seeing the world.”
But sometimes, the old-fashioned approach works best. As the virtual edition of the Sundance 2022 took off, Hunting traveled to Park City with his “We Met in Virtual Reality” subjects to hang out in the ski town despite the cancellation of the physical festival. They left their headsets at home. “It’s quite ironic,” he said. “We could not resist the fact that we were going to be together.”