Sundance Report: How Filmmakers Are Using Virtual Reality to Promote Social and Environmental Awareness
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Sundance Institute's influential artistic program, New Frontier, a milestone which is being feted with the most extensive programming yet. Described as “a revolution a decade in the making,” the 2016 celebrations began at the Sundance Film Festival (January 21–31) with an exhibition of over 30 virtual reality pieces alongside 11 artwork installations, a performance work, and three feature films, and continues later this year with events at MoMA in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Recognizing that film, art, and technology sit together at a highly creative intersection, New Frontier was created in 2007 as a platform for independent artists working across diverse media, dedicated to pioneering new methods of storytelling. With a focus on promoting emerging technologies, the development of virtual reality and immersive cinema has been central to growth of the New Frontier program and in recent years works of this genre have dominated the annual exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival.
Nomads: Sea Gypsies (Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël). Credit: FelixPaul Studios
Notes on Blindness - Into Darkness (Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe, Peter Middleton & James Spinney). Credit: DR
As technology makes exponential leaps and bounds year to year, the possibilities of its application are unfolding, seemingly infinitely. Some artists are choosing to highlight socially, culturally, and politically charged subject matter through documentary works and immersive journalism while others are advancing the purview of video games through thrilling experiences and flawless evocations of other worlds. From a day in the life of the Maasai in the Great Rift Valley or the Bajau sea gypsies in Borneo in Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël's transfixing live-action series Nomads; to an interactive universe of cosmic calm in Ben Vance’s Irrational Exuberance; or a world beyond sight in James Spinney and Peter Middleton's feature length film and a VR experience for Notes on Blindness, the ability of these artists to bring their audience to other places and into people’s lives is extraordinarily powerful.
TheBlu Encounter (Jake Rowell, Neville Spiteri, and Ben Vance). Credit: WEVR
One persistent theme at Sundance is that, as a medium for storytelling, virtual reality has a capacity to promote empathy. As such, artists, activists, advocates, and film- and documentary-makers alike are adopting immersive media like VR as a means of addressing subjects to which we may have become desensitized. Environmental as well as social and humanitarian issues featured heavily in New Frontier 2016 programming. Among the works promoting environmental awareness, TheBlu: Encounter (Jake Rowell, Ben Vance) brings you eye-to-eye in a moving encounter with an 80-foot blue whale; Condition One (Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally) parachutes you into the wilderness of the jungle, the solitude of the ocean and the vastness of the plains alongside endangered species; and the 360-degree virtual reality film experience In the Eyes of the Animal (Marshmallow Laser Feast: Barnaby Steel, Robin McNicholas) lets you experience the world through the eyes of four different forest creatures. Barnaby Steel, co-creator of in the Eyes of the Animal, explains how using VR as a first person perspective medium is “the ultimate way to hack someone's senses,” and that using it to “immerse someone in the sights and sounds of animals creates empathy by simulating the way that others sense the world.”
Kiya (Nonny de la Peña)
This year artists and advocates chose to bring social and humanitarian issues to the fore in powerful ways. New Frontier regular Chris Milk collaborated with Gabo Arora, senior advisor to the UN and an award-winning filmmaker, to produce the live-action documentary Waves of Grace, with the aim of raising awareness about ongoing conditions in Liberia and combatting donor fatigue following the Ebola crisis. A number of documentary works fall into the category of immersive journalism, a reportage phenomenon which uses virtual reality and 3D environments to convey the sights, sounds, and feelings of news, documentary and non-fiction as though it were first person experience. The term was initially coined by New Frontier veteran Nonny de la Peña, who has pioneered the user of new media to tell real stories in a way that will engage a young audience. This year De la Peña continues her exploration into immersive journalism with Kiya, a harrowing reconstruction of a real-life domestic abuse event captured on a 911 call, and Across the Line, with Brad Lichtenstein and Jeff Fitzsimmons, which employs a montage of real audio and video footage to immerse us on the frontline of extremist anti-abortion demonstrations. Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton of The Guardian created 6 x 9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement combining a shocking list of facts with VR storytelling techniques to explore the psychological damage of solitary incarceration. With the New York Times jumping into the arena, as it did last fall by distributing one million cardboard virtual reality devices as part of the launch of its VR content, more widespread adoption of immersive journalism is not unimaginably far off. The fact that New Frontier has been a launch pad for works such as those by de la Peña and The Guardian prove its influence as a platform for generating ideas about documentary and journalistic communication.
6 x 9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement (Francesca Panetta, Lindsay Poulton, and Carl Addey) Credit: The Mill and Alex Purcell
Other vital topical issues addressed at Sundance include racial discrimination and police shootings, both of which are the focus of Janicza Bravo's Hard World for Small Things, set in a tight-knit community of South Los Angeles, and Rose Troche and Morris May's Perspective 2: The Misdemeanour. Both works drop the viewer into the scene of a police shooting, where they experience powerlessness and confusion as seemingly mundane everyday events escalate into violent acts and potentially loss of life. Covering some similar subject matter, Kahlil Joseph's two-channel film Double Conscience delivers us into a fervid dreamlike state of uncertainty in contemporary Compton, California, accompanied by a soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar. Where a work like Through the Eyes of the Animal cites the power of the first person viewpoint to promote empathy, Bravo and Morris and May instead use multiple perspectives to capture our fallibility and the ambiguity of reality. By allowing us to experience multiple perspectives, these works question the authority of narrative, and the notion of any single truth: the fact that we are present is not a guarantee that we see what really truly happens.
In the Eyes of the Animal (Barnaby Steel, Robin McNicholas). Credit: Luca Marziale
With the question of how artists are choosing to tell stories also comes the question of how they reach their audience. Many of these VR works are accessed via Oculus Rift, a headset that combines audio and video creating a navigable 360-degree world. The team behind Eyes of the Animal offered an alternative experience, creating a custom all-enveloping, sculptural headset. In terms of effectiveness, the headsets can feel cumbersome, while the act of tracking back and forth to see your full range can be dizzying, the perspective can be off, and you can hear the crowd around you, which can be distracting. Yet, once you are immersed it is genuinely possible to suspend disbelief. Works such as The Leviathan Project (Alex McDowell and Bradley Newman) and Real Virtuality: Immersive Explorers (Sylvain Chagué and Caecilia Charbonnier) go a step further and are fully interactive, tracking your movements via sensors on your hands and feet; they set tasks involving 3D objects (glorious on screen, mundane in reality) for you to pick up as you navigate your way through their brightly imagined worlds. Whether you love or hate an experience, the impact is often forceful: people laugh, smile, call out—one viewer even dropped to the floor in apparent shock when watching Across the Line. As an audience we are becoming less inhibited, more confident in how to interact with the experiences.
Across the Line (Nonny de la Peña, Brad Lichtenstein, and Jeff Fitzsimmons). Credit: Jeff Fitzsimmons
The question, however, of how to democratize VR and allow people access on a wider scale is key. Most people have never had the opportunity to even try it. In a huge move to make the New Frontier works accessible, a number are accessible via an app and, bypassing the need for expensive headsets, Google cardboard headsets to which you attach your own smartphone were also handed out to allow you to view cinematic virtual reality anywhere you choose. The viability of this, as with the New York Times campaign, as a means of bringing VR experiences out of the traditional museum or cinema environment and into our own homes is still unclear, but it will be interesting to watch progress. With so much energy directed towards the world of VR it is probably a fair assumption that the technical solutions for access to this kind of material will get better and better.
Collisions (Lynette Wallworth). Credit: Pete Brundle
Sundance Institute and Jaunt Studios recently established a cinematic virtual reality residency program designed to fund and showcase artists on the cutting edge of technology and storytelling. Jaunt explain that unlike cinema, photography and other media, “there is still no established language for virtual reality,” and the residency will allow artists to work directly with Jaunt to navigate the technical hurdles and devise solutions specific to their stories. Lynette Wallworth was the first artist to receive support through the residency for Collisions, a work which examines the clash of Aboriginal and Western cultures in rural Australia, and between traditional world views and cutting edge technology. In keeping with the Sundance Institute's ethos of independent thinking, this program will ideally provide a haven from commercial incentives, where technical innovation can be driven by artistic, creative, or narrative ideas.
The progress sought by the artists of New Frontier may just be the next logical step forward both in sensory understanding and creative departure. Honoring that the program is couched in a tradition of change, the New Frontier anniversary celebrates storytelling as “an ancient practice that continues to reflect and shape the way we experience our world” just as it has done throughout history: “from oral traditions and paintings on cave walls to radio transmissions and film.” This point is beautifully referenced in Chris Milk's Treachery of Sanctuary, one of the biggest crowd-draws on display this year. A large-scale interactive triptych inspired by the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, the piece parallels the universal human experience with that of the creative process and references age-old themes of rebirth and redemption. As participants move through the three phases of the triptych finding freedom of expression and realizing their own transfiguration, the work “picks up where we left off dancing in caves 40,000 ago, cultivating primal human experiences with new technology.”
Treachery of Sanctuary installation view at Sundance Film Festival (Chris Milk). Credit: © 2016 Sundance Institute. Photo by Abbey Hoekzema
The 10th anniversary of New Frontier is powerful testament to how artists are using new media to make a more direct connection between subject matter and audience, and to engage today’s pertinent social, political, and environmental issues. Interactive media and virtual reality have a profound capacity to implicate the viewer, introduce us to new worlds, widen our perspectives, inspire empathy and compassion, and create a call to action. Their pursuit just might be the next logical level of artistic and scientific enquiry, vital to understanding how we perceive and think in relation to others and the rapidly globalizing world around us. Despite expected growing pains, the language and the technology continue to evolve, and as the adoption of storytelling forms like immersive journalism and VR grows, there is great promise that these works will find a means of reaching a wider audience.
The New Frontier 10th anniversary program continues with Slithering Screens at MoMA in New York, opening in April, and an exhibition organized with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as part of Northern Spark in June.
(Image at top: In the Eyes of the Animal (Barnaby Steel, Robin McNicholas). Credit: Luca Marziale)