Every year the movie industry descends upon the small town of Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, a nearly two-week long independent film showcase of everything from documentaries to art-house. This year however, some of the bigger hits didn’t take place in any one of the little town’s 15 theaters, but rather in the side rooms where critics and other industry types hooked into an Oculus Rift to experience VR at its finest.
A host of VR experiences could be found in various installations throughout the Sundance Institute’s ‘New Frontier’ program, a space “created to identify and foster independent artists working at the convergence of film, art, media, live performance, music and technology.”
Lost by Story Studio
Story Studio is the recently formed in-house content provider from Oculus VR, and is producing at least five 360 cinematic experiences to help catalyze the new medium. In their first publicly-shown offering, Lost takes you deep into the forest to confront an “unexpected creature.” The film explores the possibilities afforded by rendering the experience in real-time, as opposed to a set of pre-recorded sequences. This frees the creators from some traditional limitations of movie making, and allows scope for compelling interactive experiences. Real-time rendering seems to be the path that Oculus’ Story Studio is headed right now, it’ll be interesting to see if this form of storytelling gathers momentum in the wider film-making community.
There are some spoilers out there, and we can guess what the “unexpected creature” might be from the short film’s theatrical poster, but we’re waiting to see this one for ourselves before we say anything more.
Story Studio has snapped up Pixar’s Saschka Unseld, who directed the 4-minute film intended to be used on Oculus’ latest prototype VR headset Crescent Bay.
Evolution of Verse by Chris Milk
Chris Milk received critical acclaim for his 360 degree film at last year’s Sundance, a collaboration with the musician Beck called Sound & Vision. Milk is back this year with Evolution of Verse, a photo-realistic CG 3D cinematic experience that forges its message by showing a series of beginnings, culminating in a wide-open feel that plays so well on VR headsets. It was also released simultaneously on Google Cardboard.
Like other VR experiences at Sundance this year, Evolution of Verse can’t force you to look at any specific point in the 360 degree space around you, but does tempt you with visual cues that draw you in the right direction—an important distinction for storytellers working in the new medium. Blasting through the expectation-shifting space, it becomes clear that creatives like Chris Milk have understood the profoundly intimate spaces VR has to offer.
Project Syria by Nonny de la Peña
Broken into two parts, Project Syria is a documentary from journalist Nonny de la Peña, and aims to show the real after-effects of war by following Syrian refugees as they journey to far-off displacement camps.
“In the middle of song, a rocket hits and dust and debris fly everywhere. The second scene dissolves to a refugee camp in which the viewer experiences being in the center of a camp as it grows exponentially in a representation that parallels the real story of how the extraordinary number of refugees from Syria fleeing their homeland have had to take refuge in camps,” says de la Peña.
de la Peña has long been a pioneer in what she terms ‘immersive journalism’. Previous projects have involved VR re-creations of real-life incidents, with 2012’s Hunger in Los Angeles, a piece highlighting 3rd world style food supply problems brought about by poverty in first world American cities. The project was brought to life on an early Oculus Rift prototype, supplied by de la Peña’s then intern Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus.
Three Experiences from Félix and Paul Studios
French-Canadian visual artists Félix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphaël have created three cinematic experiences currently on show at Sundance: Herders, Strangers with Patrick Watson, and recently debuted Wild – The Experience.
Gear VR owners ought to recognize the homely Mongolian yurt in Herders, and the messy studio apartment from Strangers with Patrick Watson, both of which were commissioned by Samsung to feature on the mobile VR headset. The films aim to give you a fly-on-the-wall perspective of daily life, and although there’s that niggling feeling of voyeuristic taboo to overcome, the films demonstrate just how private these experiences can feel when done right.
Wild – The Experience is a short ‘VR extra’, giving a 360 degree look into the upcoming 2D film from Fox Searchlight. The short film, which initially debuted at CES 2015, follows Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) and an apparition of her deceased mother Bobbi ( played by Laura Dern) on a hike through the Pacific Crest Trail.
Among the multitude of VR experiences at Sundance this year, they are also offering a free Google Cardboard and instructional class for visitors that want to get their hands on an entry-level VR headset, which is a nice touch to help spread the word that cinematic VR is here to stay.