As the 2019 Sundance Film Festival wraps up this week, one thing is for certain- there was no shortage of excellent films, events, and panels worth showcasing. From a record number of women and minority filmmakers to new categories, some of the best media of 2019 made its debut at the world-famous festival.
Yet one undeniable theme that resonated throughout the festival was this year’s focus on technology and how it is revolutionizing the entertainment industry.
One of the most prolific forms of tech was the virtual reality/augmented reality films, exhibits, and experiences offered throughout the festival.
One of the most impressive shorts was Marshall from Detroit. Directed by Caleb Slain, this virtual reality short put the viewer in a limo with Sway Calloway and Eminem as they drove through Em’s hometown of Detroit- a ride that mirrored struggles of Eminem and the Motor City, speaking to the heart of Detroit’s struggle and it’s place in the hip hop culture. Produced by Felix & Paul Studios, Marshall from Detroit provides one of the rawest glimpses into the entertainer’s life as he reflects on not just growing up in Detroit, but his career highs and lows over the past few years.
Another excellent VR short was the ASHE ’68 Virtual Reality Experience, produced by John Legend and Mike Jackson of Get Lifted Film Co and directed by Brad Lichtenstein, Rex Miller, and Jeff Fitzsimmons. Created in partnership with Raben Group’s Impact Entertainment division, the ASHE ’68 Virtual Reality Experience is “ultimately designed to spur conversation about opportunity and inequality, empower individuals to advocate for local change, and create a positive impact in communities nationwide”- a feat enhanced by cutting edge technology.
Originally previewing at the 2018 US Open, the unique VR experience weaves together 360° video re-creations, archival material, and evocative, never-before-seen 360° sand animation to tell the story of Arthur Ashe and how in 1968, in one of America’s most tumultuous years, Ashe emerged as an elite athlete who parlayed his fame as the first black man to win the US Open tennis championship into a lifetime devoted to fighting injustice.
While each of the films’ content was impressive in its own right, the use of virtual reality, according to Lichtenstein, opens up the possibility of telling stories in a new medium, using technology to put the viewer in the scene as much as possible and capitalizing on technology to create an “immersive and transformative story experience.”
Miller, whose background is in photojournalism, began the film as an exploration into Ashe’s social activism and describes the benefits of telling a narrative story through the new medium. In the film, the viewer follows along with Ashe as he prepares for his legendary title match.
The festival also featured innovative VR/AR experiences that immersed participants with nature and integrative storytelling.
Wild Immersion, the world’s first virtual reserve, brought its VR experiences to Park City during the festival. The Wild Immersion experience, supported by Lenovo and endorsed by the Jane Goodall Institute, consisted of three 12-minute VR experiences- experiences that were the product of 120 days of filming ecosystems and animals in the Amazon, Australia, Canada, Colombia, and Sri Lanka using 360-degree VR cameras, creating a fully immersive experience. The three films are Terra, set in tropical ecosystems; Alba, filmed in polar habitats; and Aqua, which goes beneath the waves.
“A lot of urban people don’t know about nature and that’s why we are teleporting people into these environments. We want to bring people into nature, to connect with it and to connect with themselves- to raise awareness about protecting nature. Sixty percent of species disappeared in ten years. So we need to do something,” said Adrien Moisson, founder of The Wild Immersion.
Meanwhile, at Sundance’s New Frontier exhibitions, Esperpento, The Seven Ages of Man, and EMBODY all transported guests to amazing new worlds using a combination of VR technology and real-world sensory experiences. Esperpento, an installation that featured Digital Puppeteering Demonstrations, Digital Puppet Karaoke, and live performances, used AR, VR, and interactive technology to plunge audiences into a deeply altered universe in which “our placid, secure reality is exploded, and assumptions and biases are mirrored back to us as monstrous.” Created by Victor Morales, and written by Billy Burns, “Esperpento” (“monstrosity” in Spanish) is an installation housing bio-digital performances with live actors and digital avatars that draws on the war paintings of Francisco Goya (in particular his famous “Los Caprichos”) for inspiration. The centerpiece of the show was a play, “Two Black Lights and One Red” which tells the story of the last day of a blind poet named Max Starpower.
“The show is an experience of a man who goes to play this VR game and during the experience, he’s trying to have an enlightenment experience, so it’s like the popular trend of watching other people play games. But it’s ultimately a game about dying,” said Morales.
For those who thought Shakespeare was boring, The Seven Ages of Man (a collaborative effort between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Magic Leap productions) used virtual reality narration and a dazzling changing landscape to bring the literary giant’s work to life. “The idea is to find ways to take theater out of the traditional venue and present the theatrical experience in a different venue such as this. Digital technology presents opportunities for bringing some of that theatrical experience to other places and audiences,” said Chris Hebert, stage operations producer for the exhibit.
Also using technology to bring nature to Sundance attendees was EMBODY, an experience created in partnership MAP Design Lab and Lululemon Whitespace. The social virtual reality experience, which is piloted by movement, whole body engagement, and dialogue, takes two players on a shared journey of trading and transforming avatars, inspired by the practice of aikido, yoga, and dance movement traditions, using visual metaphors to prompt body reaction, allowing people to see their body as a flexible tool and reclaim their body’s full potential through ranges of motion. Creators Melissa Painter and Conrad Beilharz stress that EMBODY, like many of the more interactive experiences, is meant to “bring people together” at places where people gather such as festivals and other social events.
Yet technology at Sundance went beyond virtual reality. In Railroad Ties, a film directed by Sacha Jenkins and sponsored in party by Ancestry DNA, filmmakers documented the story of the legacy of the Underground Railroad by gathering a group of six strangers from across the U.S. at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, NY (the church was an extremely important throughway for freedom) and show the unexpected connections made possible through modern DNA testing. In the moving film, the individuals learned how their ancestors came through the Underground Railroad and were involved in the quest for freedom and that each is descendants of slaves or the abolitionist who helped make safe passage for these slaves seeking freedom possible.
While some works of art are more consumer-based and will be available in virtual reality media stores, such as Marshall from Detroit, others such as Wild Immersion, Ashe ’68, and The Seven Ages of Man will focus on museums, festivals, and experiences at other partner locations.
Overall, the tech films, exhibits, and experiences all lent well to the film festival’s overarching theme of “Rise Up,” with new artists and innovators deviating from norms and reinventing storytelling as we know it.