Sundance Film Festival: Prepare to meet the challenge of the New Frontiers

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Take a run in the woods, chased by a dark figure. Cower in terror from giant kaiju monsters terrorizing the city. Or sit on a rock with Reese Witherspoon.

All these experiences and more are at your disposal at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers pavilion on Park City’s Main Street. When I first started checking out New Frontiers in 2010, much of the exhibits had to do with incorporating film projection into art installations.

Not this year. With advances in smartphone-powered virtual reality, there was little going on on the exposed-brick walls of the second-floor New Frontiers this year. Instead, most visitors at Friday’s morning press preview were sitting with VR goggles and headphones on, lost in another world.

In “Way To Go,” for example, the viewer is walking through picturesque Quebec woods. You can run, stop, look closer at objects, even fly, moving an animated avatar around. Some users manipulated the world using their VR goggles, while others used a screen and a PlayStation controller to move around.

Creator Vincent Morisset, who has made several videos for the band Arcade Fire, said he used to be considered a “web-friendly director.” But as more and more viewers migrate online, he’s becomes more interested in the possibilities on your laptop.

“It’s been this crazy, liberating journey between video games and film,” he said. On Feb. 5, the National Film Board of Canada-backed project will go online at A-Way-To-Go.com.

Meanwhile, “Kaiju Fury” allows users to experience their very own “Cloverfield,” as Google Cardboard viewers and headphones immerse the viewer in a monster attack on a major city. You can look around a full 360 degrees — looking right as a character is speaking, then up at a monster towering above you. It was a little unsettling how easily you lost yourself in the experience, and forgot that you were actually standing in a crowded roomful of people.

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Finally, the “Wild” experience was like living in a scene from the movie. Strap the goggles on, and you’re sitting on a rock along the Pacific Crest Trail, watching as Witherspoon hikes up the trail and plops down exhausted on a rock beside you. When she turned and started talking to me, I did an involuntary “You talking to me?” turn — and saw the apparition of Cheryl Strayed’s mother (Laura Dern) sitting on the rock behind me.

It was perhaps telling that most of the virtual-reality experiences were low-tech — instead of going into outer space with a fleet of robot starships, we took a walk in the woods. Stephane Rituit, the project leader on the “Wild” experience, said that it made sense for him to explore this new technology by staying grounded in the real.

“We’re back to something fundamental,” he said. “It’s a new medium, so we want to explore it slowly. So let’s start with what we know.”

As the technology keeps improving, getting closer and closer to full pixel-free viewing, what’s important is whether these VR artists can go beyond simply giving us experience and start giving us stories, ones that engage our minds and even move us. We’re not there yet, but the visit to the New Frontiers showed me we’re closer than I thought.

 

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