How virtual reality stole the show at Sundance Film Festival

Forget Kevin Bacon and indie films: The most interesting cinema at the Sundance Film Festival ran on the Oculus Rift.

Virtual reality isn’t just the future of games. As Oculus has been quick to tell us every time we’ve talked, games are just the beginning.
Virtual reality isn’t just the future of games. As Oculus has been quick to tell us every time we’ve talked, games are just the beginning.

Despite the attendance of Hollywood celebs like Kevin Bacon, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, and Keanu Reeves, the hottest ticket at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was the virtual reality flight simulator Birdly.

The custom-made "ride" allows anyone to lie face-down, arms-out, and--through the magic of the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD)--experience what it's like to be a bird soaring past San Francisco skyscrapers. Open to the public and part of the New Frontier program, which celebrates the intersection of art, filmmaking and multimedia technology, the two-minute-long Birdly demo had wait times of more than two hours.

"VR has been embraced by the gaming community, and now filmmakers and storytellers are just getting started," said Shari Frilot, curator of New Frontier. "Filmmakers are drawn to this medium like moths to light because of the powerful quality of immersion that VR delivers."

There were 10 other VR projects to experience at the showcase, which were spread out over two floors of the Claim Jumper building on Park City's historic Main Street. Fox Searchlight used the Samsung Gear VR to showcase Wild: The Experience, a VR sequence featuring Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon from the Oscar-nominated film.

Hollywood visual effects firm, Digital Domain, and production company, VRSE, teamed up for Evolution of Verse, a 3.5 minute VR demo that features cutting-edge effects designed by filmmaker Chris Milk. Danfung Dennis' Zero Point is a 20-minute documentary that traces the history of VR, shot completely in 360-degrees.

Oculus Rift was the HMD of choice for most the projects, which is fitting, given the unique role the Sundance New Frontier showcase played in the birth of Oculus VR.

Back in 2012, a 19-year-old intern named Palmer Luckey was at the Sundance New Frontier with Nonny de la Peña, senior research fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, to debut the VR experience Hunger in Los Angeles. Four months later, Luckey's VR prototype became a Kickstarter sensation and today he's a billionaire thanks to Facebook's $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift last year.

But the Rift has evolved over the past few years from the taped-up goggles that debuted at Sundance 2012 to the second-gen developer kit and the new Crescent Bay prototype that was shown at Oculus Connect and CES 2015.

"Thanks to Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, there are new opportunities for filmmakers to distribute their creations directly to consumers through an app," said Frilot.

Relatred: Qantas tests virtual reality headsets in flights

Branching out

Oculus used the festival to announce its new VR film division, Story Studio, which is being overseen by Pixar veteran, Saschka Unseld. Lost, the first VR short directed by Unseld, was demonstrated on Crescent Bay. The film has viewers following a hand that ends up belonging to a giant robot.

Oculus Story Studio will release three additional shorts this year, including Bullfighter, Henry, and Unseld's Dear Angelica. The VR giant's move beyond gaming sets a high bar for production, and should encourage more filmmakers to try out the new medium.

Speaking of new filmmakers, Vice News was at Sundance to announce Vice News VR: Millions March, the first of many new VR explorations of news-making events. Directed by Spike Jonze and Chris Milk, the VR segment explores the December 2014 protest against police brutality in New York City. And to Frilot's point, anyone with a VR device will be able to download the app through VRSE.

"We know it's a no-brainer to do gaming in VR, but people are just beginning to realize that this is a wonderful place to do traditional linear narrative, except that it's special," said de la Peña. "You have to think a little differently because viewers can look in any direction at any time. When you create a story, learning how to design for that is a little bit different, but in general many of the same natural storytelling principles still apply."

Jaunt VR, which partnered with Google to hand out 8000 free Cardboard VR devices at Sundance, has developed a complete toolset from camera to effects for filmmakers to create live-action content for a 360-degree virtual reality experience. Scott Broock, vice president of VR Content at Jaunt VR, said the early experiments with short film projects are showing a lot of creativity.

"Let's get some giant monsters and have them tear down a city and see if it works with Kaiju Fury!, and then with The Mission, we've dropped the camera from beneath a parachute and you land on the ground from the point of view of the camera, or we mount the camera on top of a WWII tank," said Broock.

"Everyone's approaching VR from different points of view, but they're all moving towards the middle where they're picking up best practices along the way. What's going to be really exciting is this time next year when everyone gets together and discusses what they've learned from experimenting and filming in VR."

Related: Why virtual reality is opening up a new world of engagement for brands

Shannon Gans, co-founder and CEO of New Deal Studios, which filmed Kaiju Fury! and The Mission, compared VR to IMAX. Initially, Hollywood would film 20-minute segments for the large-screen format, but now three-hour movies like The Hobbit and Interstellar are screening at IMAX theaters. She believes the short 5- to 20-minute VR films are perfect as people get used to the technology. As audience "perceptive muscles" strengthen, the content length will grow over the next few years.

A powerful method of telling stories

Sundance proved that powerful stories can be told in short format. Case in point is Perspective; Chapter I: The Party by filmmaker Rose Troche and VR pioneer Morris May, which tells the story of a date rape in two parts. The first is from the first-person perspective of a college boy and the second is from the point of view of an intoxicated college girl. The VR experience left many viewers queasy, not just from the dark subject matter but also from the woozy rocking of the camera.

"VR is an unstoppable train," said Troche. "It's so exciting to think about formatting a script for a 360-degree film with what's happening in front of you, what's happening around you, and not just doing it as a gimmick, in terms of creating entire worlds or limiting it to here or there. Having that ability to open up the world is amazing. And I don't see us going back. I see VR as a form unto itself."

Filmmakers are experimenting with making interactive films using VR. Vincent Morisset, creator of the Webby Award-winning film BLA BLA as well as Arcade Fire's acclaimed interactive music video Just a Reflektor, had Way To Go on display at New Frontier as both a big-screen video game/film hybrid that attendees could play through an Xbox controller as well as in VR form through Oculus Rift. The project blends hand-made animation with real-time lighting and shadows with filmed footage, allowing a 360-degree exploration of the world.

"I'm still trying to figure out VR myself as a director," Morisset said, "but there is definitely something really rewarding and powerful to be able suck a spectator into your world and have no distraction, especially in 2015. We're so bombarded with distractions today through second-screen experiences and mobile devices that it's nice to have a privileged connection with your spectator. In a weird way, there's something in your brain that makes you connect to the world and the environment in a really profound way."

1979 Revolution Game, by artist Vassiliki Khonsari and former Rockstar Games developer Navid Khonsari, was shown in tablet form at New Frontier. But the game, which puts players in the middle of the Iranian Revolution, is being developed for Oculus VR as well as Sony Morpheus. The episodic game will challenge players to make moral choices as they experience the uprising from the streets of Iran.

"What's interesting about VR is that it pushes our audio to a whole new level in terms of the emotion that's going to come through actors' performances," said Navid Khonsari. "That's going to engage the headset wearer to want to look in that direction. It's going to draw you into that story. You have the choice to look at everything, but that voice performance is going to draw you in. And that decision to actually connect with something will become emotional, and then you're just getting the best of both worlds."

Even the hot-ticket Birdly VR experience tells a story, according to Max Rheiner, one of the creators of that flight simulator. Man has always dreamed of flying, and Birdly enabled Sundance attendees to experience the next best thing.

VR holds the promise to enable filmmakers, game developers, and other creative artists to connect with audiences eager to explore something new. What was on display at Sundance was just the beginning.

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