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Sundance Film Festival: storytelling using VR, AR, AI and mixed reality

The Sundance Film Festival is a gathering of storytellers seeking new perspectives, and the New Frontier program represents a pioneering exploration of new technologies available.

Sundance Film Festival: the New Frontier on VR

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival is the place to go to see first-hand the dynamic crossroads of film, art and technology pushing, as Robert Redford said, ”the boundaries of the possible”.

The Sundance Film Festival transforms Utah, every Winter, in the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives. The annual event, running from January 24 to February 3 in 2019, offers a program packed with everything from dramatic and documentary features and short films to series and episodic content. Daily filmmaker conversations, panel discussions, and live music events are also included in the program, making Utah a destination for anyone interested in the industry, both professionals and audiences.

One area of the festival, the New Frontier, is the stage for showcasing emerging media in the form of multimedia installations, performances, and films. The New Frontier lives beyond the festival days, as it has developed with own programs, with the Labs and Residency programs at New Frontier being the base to identify and foster independent artists and creative technologists innovating the art and form of story at the convergence of diverse forms of creative expression; and to build a community of collaborators across diverse disciplines to push the boundaries of story.

Sundance Film Festival: the New Frontier on VR
Sundance Institute President & Founder Robert Redford at the Day One Press Conference of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Jemal Countess.

Pioneers of the New Frontier

According to those responsible for the project, “A bold spirit of innovation has emerged among artists as they seek to engage audiences with narrative worlds that leverage new technologies, visual aesthetics, social media cultures, immersive designs, game theory, transmedia activism and shifts in the boundaries of authorship.”. The New Frontier Labs programs are created as an answer to the changes happened in the last decade, as the media landscape and storytellers are both exploring as well as constructing this new terrain, pioneering new connections with audiences and re-structuring story design.

Sundance Institute spotlights work at the dynamic crossroads of film, art and technology with the New Frontier selections announced for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. This curated collection of cutting-edge independent and experimental media works are by creators who are pushing artistic innovation across new mediums that include VR, AR, mixed reality (MR) and AI. Programmers assembled a global slate of work from a mix of invitations and submissions to an open call for VR work earlier this year.

Sundance Film Festival: the New Frontier on VR
Runnin’ by Reggie Watts and Kiira Benzing, an official selection of the New Frontier Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

VR Cinema and panel discussions

This year’s edition of New Frontier has evolved, according to organizers, “responsive to increased demand and the needs of showcased artists”. The programming includes two venues, New Frontier at The Ray and New Frontier Central, each of which will play host to a wide variety of media installations, a VR Cinema and panel discussions. New Frontier Central, a new venue located near The Ray, at 950 Iron Horse Drive, will additionally feature lounge space for Festival goers to meet and relax before and after experiencing the New Frontier program.

Robert Redford, President and Founder of Sundance Institute, said, “For over a decade, New Frontier has pushed the boundaries of the possible, illuminating the potential of technology and storytelling. These independent cross-media artists create new realities for, and with, their work — and the results inspire.”

“This year’s New Frontier is an explosion of experimentation, bearing a motherload of innovative custom tech that take us higher” said Shari Frilot, Chief Curator, New Frontier, adding that “ Biodigital loops are terraforming and transmogrifying our world.The dynamics of biodigital looping – digital platforms that begin and end by connecting with a human being who connects to that same platform – are being taken on by this year’s artists with gusto, as they pull visceral focus on what it means to be human on this transforming terrain.”

Sundance Film Festival: the New Frontier on VR
Emergence by Matt Pyke, an official selection of the New Frontier Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

VR storytelling tools

The landscape is changing, and the numbers for this edition of Sundance and the New Frontier are a sign of the times. Of the projects announced, 48% are directed or led by one or more women, 39% were directed or led by one or more artist of color, and 9% by one or more people who identify as LGBTQIA. Five were supported by Sundance Institute in development, whether through direct granting or residency Labs. The 32 projects announced include work from 10 countries.

New Frontier alumni include Doug Aitken, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris Milk, Nonny de la Peña, Pipilotti Rist and Jennifer Steinkamp. The Institute’s support extends well beyond its curated slate of Festival projects, and includes the annual New Frontier Story Lab, which offers mentorship and development opportunities for new media storytellers, New Frontier Day Labs in cities nationwide and the New Frontier Residency Program, which combines the might of partners such as Jaunt Studios to drive groundbreaking data-visualization and VR storytelling tools, training and resources to independent artists.

Sundance Film Festival: the New Frontier on VR
A still image from (antiquated) Augmented Reality by Christine Marie, an official selection of the New Frontier Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Christine Reality

Supporting the New Frontier program

For all these things to happen, there has to be some kind of support. The Sundance Institute New Frontier Program is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Cindy Harrell Horn and Alan Horn, Lyn and Norman Lear, Dell, Time Warner Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Turner, Johns Hopkins University, 20th Century Fox, Oculus, Unity Technologies, RYOT, VICE Studios, PlayStation, TIME in partnership with Felix & Paul Studios,Vimeo, and YouTube.

Here are some examples of the projects presented at New Frontier:

REACH is a next-generation VR photobooth allowing attendees to step inside the story. Users can be captured in dimensionalized video, placed into one of several “walk around” environments and automatically create a volumetric VR experience that can be viewed on any device and shared online. REACH / U.S.A.(Lead Artists: Nonny de la Peña, Chaitanya Shah, Hannah Eaves, Cedric Gamelin, Key Collaborators: James Pallot, Sandra Persing, Charles Park, Roshail Tarar).

Runnin’ is an interactive dance experience takes the player on a journey of musical expression. Play along with the music in an intimate neighborhood record store and be transported to a retro-future dance party. Show off your moves on the dance floor alongside a troupe of dancers. Cast: Reggie Watts, John Tejada, Amy O’Neal, Ani Taj, Kate Berlant, Ben Schwartz.  Runnin’ / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Reggie Watts, Kiira Benzing, Key Collaborators: John Tejada, Amy O’Neal, Ani Taj, Adam Rogers)

Emergence: enter an open-world environment, expressing the primal desire to maintain your individual identity whilst being part of a crowd. Showing 5,000+ intelligent human behaviors, this powerful VR experience is made possible by advanced graphics technology. Emergence / United Kingdom (Lead Artist: Matt Pyke, Key Collaborators: Chris Mullany, Simon Pyke, Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin).

(antiquated) Augmented Reality: Visual intimacy, ontological form, in real-time. Pioneering the use of a non-digital, reinvented, pre-cinematic stereo imaging technique, the exquisite ensemble of dancers seems to do the impossible — reach out. The vivid choreography and score leave a lasting impression within one’s psyche created by giant, stunning, “liberated” 3D shadows. Cast: Taylor Unwin, Sandra Ruiz, Melissa Ferrari. (antiquated) Augmented Reality / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Christine Marie, Producer: Nion McEvoy)

Sundance Film Festival: the New Frontier on VR
Poster image of REACH, an official selection of the New Frontier Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Final notes

Since 2007, the New Frontier exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival has provided the highest level of curation in the emerging field, incorporating fiction, non-fiction and hybrid projects to showcase emerging media storytelling, multi-media installations, performances and films. The  2020 Sundance Film Festival will take place from January 23 to February 2, 2020.

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Journalist, writer and photographer since 1979, both print and online, with a vast experience in the fields of photography, software, hardware, web, aviation, History, video games, technology, having published content in almost all Portuguese newspapers…