The "Birdly" flying experience for Oculus Rift, part of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival New Frontiers section.
LOS ANGELES — As gadget geeks wait for consumer-ready virtual reality sets to get around their heads, a few filmmakers are just getting their heads around how to tell stories with them. To see how far they've come — and in a very short time — look no further than next month's Sundance Film Festival.
No less than 12 installations for the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard will be on display this year in Park City, Utah, up from just four last year and none in 2013. They're part of the New Frontiers section, the new-platforms showcase that has been running for nine years but only recently has come to be dominated by VR, with a dozen of its 17 installations from 15 artists falling under the immersion mask.
Sundance announced three major pieces of its virtual-reality lineup Monday, including a feature about a family of Mongolian yak herders, a visit with musician Patrick Watson in his Montreal studio loft and a feature connected to the Reese Witherspoon film Wild, all by visual artists Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël.
Free and open to the public, the New Frontiers section started at a small space at Sundance HQ, briefly moved to the Gateway Plaza downtown and this year takes up residence at the Claim Jumper, a larger Main Street venue. Sundance was the first film festival to showcase virtual-reality filmmaking in 2012, when Palmer Luckey — founder of Oculus VR and inventor of the Oculus Rift — was an intern for VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña.
"That was when the simulator he made for her was remarkable, but it was really heavy and clunky," Sundance senior programmer and New Frontier curator Shari Frilot told Mash. "I remember going to her studio back then to see it. The experience was so remarkable, but it required three people to operate it."
What happened in the three years since is the stuff of Silicon Valley lore: Luckey's Kickstarter campaign to found Oculus Rift later that summer was a $2 million success, and less than two years later, Facebook threw down $2 billion to acquire it. Not a bad return on investment.
Meanwhile, filmmakers and visual artists of all stripes have been tinkering with the technology, and the many ways it can tell stories.
"This year we're looking at a massive quantum leap in the field," Frilot said. "Not only are we looking at the tech about to come to market in a muscular way, but the storytellers is another story. They're not just focused on games, they're looking at how it's going to affect and expand the practice of filmmaking."
The 12 works by nine VR artists range from full-body immersive experiences — the Birdlyproject, (pictured at the top of this post), allows you experience avian flight — to live-action documentaries and website interaction.
Trans-media star Chris Milk is back with a CG installation for Cardboard, while Fox Searchlight Studios commissioned Lajeunesse and Raphaël to create an immersive experience around the Reese Witherspoon film Wild (below).
But it isn't just the digital avant-garde who are creating with the medium; Sundance directors past and present are starting to dabble, too. Rose Troche, a 1994 Sundance grand jury prize nominee for her film Go Fish, has created an experience exploring date rape called Perspectives(pictured below) that uses a 180-degree field to keep the user focused on gestures and body language in a college party environment.
Journalist and documentary filmmaker Danfung Dennis, whose Afghan war docu Hell and Back Again premiered at Sundance in 2011 and was nominated for an Academy Award, will be showcasing Zero Point, heralded as the first 3D, 360-degree movie optimized for the Oculus Rift. Its subject: the pioneers of virtual reality.
"All approaches are different," Frilot said. "You can almost see how their craft is informing their approach to this technology."
And this year, you can also see how this technology is informing the craft.
Tags: ENTERTAINMENT, FILM, OCULUS RIFT, SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, VIRTUAL REALITY