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Pixvana’s Julia Fryett on what Sundance 2018 means for VR.


“Technology-enabled storytelling continues to develop into a thriving industry. It’s essential to protect the creative spaces where creators can develop work and reach audiences independent of commercial pressures. The work that we showcase at New Frontier sets the agenda for the year in creative cross-media storytelling.”

– Robert Redford


VR was everywhere at Sundance 2018: it dominated the festival’s New Frontier program (a curated collection of experimental virtual, mixed, and augmented reality), as well as a myriad of brand and sponsor pop-ups throughout Park City. Sundance has become a beacon for immersive media, comfortably situated at the helm of a growing number of top tier festivals that herald XR (an umbrella term for VR, AR and MR) as the inevitable future of film.

I attended the festival with Beverly Vessella (Pixvana Product Manager) to meet creators, check out the New Frontier program, and better understand the quickly changing market for XR at film festivals. Pixvana was thrilled to support An Artist At The Table, the opening night fundraiser that enables Sundance Institute to discover, support, and develop diverse and groundbreaking new artists throughout the year at labs, residencies, and workshops. We sat with Shaandiin Tome, an emerging filmmaker from Albuquerque premiering Mud at the festival, along with Shirely Manson from the band Garbage. It was exhilarating to talk with these artists about the possibilities for VR to transform the way we experience both film and music.

Fryett Vessella Sundance Pixvana


A Brief History of VR at Film Festivals

First introduced at Sundance in 2012, virtual reality and 360 video are now ubiquitous at major film festivals. The medium has come a long way in just four short years. As my colleagues working in the XR industry know, we can often feel that progress is crawling at a snail’s pace. We default to the safety zone of explaining that VR will happen “five years from now”. Thanks to a historical moment at Sundance this year, that’s no longer the case. VR is indeed happening now. But first, how did we get here?

Sundance invites Nonny de la Peña (AKA The Godmother of VR) to present a new project at the festival, which prompts de la Peña’s intern (a fellow by the name of Palmer Luckey) to create a mobile version of the VR headset he was developing at USC which would later become the Rift.

The first major VR program at New Frontier debuts with eleven works. This was a breakthrough year in VR that led to the creation of the Sundance VR Residency Program.

Cannes includes VR for the first time with over one hundred works in the Marché du Film, including the very first VR experience in the official festival competition: Carne Y Arenafrom Alejandro González Iñárritu. Venice launches a VR program on a dedicated island. A VR island? Top that.

For the first time, New Frontier VR works are acquired for distribution at Sundance.


VR Meets the Market

The historical VR distribution deals this year at Sundance year signal that there is a market for XR. To give some context, the function of most large festivals is to act as a marketplace where films are bought and sold. Content owners premiere their new work and – finger’s crossed – it’s acquired by a traditional film distributor (Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Paramount, Lionsgate, IFC Films, etc) or a brazen disruptor (Amazon, Netflix). Not all festivals host a market (for example, many regional festivals or programs that are focused on public education like the Seattle International Film Festival), but players like Cannes, Sundance, Berlinale, Venice, Tribeca and Toronto all have markets that are hubs for the worldwide film business.

Similar to fine art, a film is worth what a buyer is willing to pay. Acquisition deals at festivals are key touchpoints in the same way that auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s are essential for the art market. These public sales set benchmark prices for content and bring transparency to a sometimes opaque industry. For VR, the acquisitions signal that distributors are taking this new medium as seriously as traditional film. This is an industry tipping point – VR adoption is growing and consumers are demanding exceptional content.


SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime

SPHERES from Lead Arist Eliza McNitt was acquired by CityLights (a mysterious VR distribution company based in LA) for $1.4 million. Produced by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel with support from Oculus, Intel, and Kaleidoscope, the first episode of the three-part series premiered at New Frontier. McNitt created a spellbinding, interactive look at the music that results when black holes collide. Marking the largest deal brokered out of New Frontier, this acquisition is terrific news for 360/VR creators, distributors, and consumers.


Zikr: A Sufi Revival

Zirk Sufi Sundance VR

Dogwoof – a documentary distributor based in the UK – purchased Zikr: A Sufi Revival, directed by VR veteran Gabo Arora (if there is indeed such a thing as a “VR veteran”, he qualifies). Following the success of the Iñárritu presentation at LACMA, Dogwoof plans to distribute an online version as well as installations in festivals, theaters, museums, and art venues. Using 360 video, the social VR experience allows participants entry into ecstatic Sufi rituals.


Sundance VR Highlights

What began in 2012 as uber-experimental experiments at festivals has now evolved into sublime stories that employ significant uses of aesthetic immersion, non-linear interactivity, spatial audio, volumetric capture, and presence. VR has transitioned from a state of becoming to one of arrival. 

The 2018 New Frontier program included twenty-four works at three different venues: experimental exhibitions at an art center, room scale VR installations, and a 40-seat mobile VR cinema. Beyond the official festival program, a series of VR panels, pop-ups and workshops abounded. Following are a few of my highlights.


Intel Tech Lodge: Immersive Media Industry Panel

Intel is investing heavily in VR and host events that prove it. Their fantastic panel featured Paramount futurist Ted Schilowitz; Mettle Founding Partner and current Director of Immersive efforts at Adobe, Chris Bobotis; creator Eliza McNitt; and Intel Studios head Diego Prilusky. The panelists focused on the significance volumetric video holds for virtual reality experiences, emphasizing the need for tools that combine live capture, interactivity, and animation. Urging aspiring creators to ignore consumer limitations and innovative storytelling, the panelists highlighted the extent to which young artists, such as Eliza, are driving XR.


Our Seattle friends Haptx premiered their haptic gloves at New Frontier. Their hardware makes grabbing a virtual object in VR actually feel real. And that’s not easy.


Lead Artists: Gilles Jobin, Caecilia Charbonnier, Sylvain Chagué

Choreographer Gilles Jobin combines dance with cutting-edge virtual reality technology in this work that lets five people inhabit full-body avatars. You interact and communicate with each other while engagnig a troupe of giant – and tiny – virtual dancers in various landscapes. The best part? When you take off the headset, you feel as if the strangers are now old friends.

VR 1 at Sundance


Lead Artists: Martin Allais, Nico Casavecchia

These artists built an impressive site-specific installation at New Frontier that recreated Patti Smith’s New York City apartment, graffiti, library, and all. Battlescar skillfully layers street art, graffiti, and audio tracks to transport you into an animated enivironment where a teenage Puerto Rican girl, Lupe (voiced by Rosario Dawson), is discovering herself at the dawn of New York City’s punk scene. She meets Debbie, a badass runaway kid living in the city, and together they wander the underground worlds of the Lower East Side of the late 1970s. The experience ends abruptly and turns out to be a teaser for a forthcoming full-length experience.

Battlescar at Sundance

The Sun Ladies VR

Lead Artists: Maria Bello, Celine Tricart, Christian Stephen

This virtual reality documentary follows uses a combination of 360 video footage and Quill illustrations to represent the challenges and victories a brigade of Iraqi women, comprised of former Yazidi sex slaves, experience on the front lines.

Dinner Party

Directed by Charlotte Stoudt, Laura Wexler, and Angel Manuel Soto

This thriller tells the story of Betty and Barney Hill’s reported 1961 alien abduction. At the New Frontier Opening Party, the film was staged around a dinner table set up an even more lifelike experience. Dinner Party is engaging, multi-layered, and a masterful use of the 360 space to create an immersive, uncanny environment.

Dinner Party at Sundance

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