Sundance 2015: Virtual Reality & the Future of Storytelling

Image from Chris Milk's "Evolution of Verse"

Give yourself a moment to consider the possibilities of Virtual Reality — the opportunity it presents to grow and expand and deepen our understanding of, and relationship with, the Universe — and you might just find your head dizzy from the technology’s prospects. For me, it’s a “mind = blown” moment every time I dip my proverbial toe into the vast ocean that is the future of VR.

This year, Sundance’s New Frontier Lab screened eleven virtual reality experiences (up from last year’s four), in addition to teeing up a slate of panels and talks with VR’s most prominent names, who shared with audiences the current state, challenges and potential of VR.

While many questions remain to be answered — from how we should best experience VR (Google distributed 6,000 cardboard boxes at Sundance that assembled over the iPhone and Android) to how involved the consumer should, and will be, in the narratives of the experience —  filmmakers are getting excited, because these unknowns offer opportunities to shape and fashion the landscape.

Rose Troche, whose break-out film, Go Fish, debuted at Sundance in 1994 and gave an insider’s view of lesbian life in the nineties, is making waves again twenty plus years later with Perspective; Chapter 1: The PartyPerspective presents the provocative, live-action story of a sexual assault at a fraternity party, enabling the viewer to experience the assault from both the man’s and woman’s points of view. Collaborating with visual effects supervisor, Morris May, Troche commented on the project:

To me, this is where social consciousness and narrative film can…interact.

Chris Milk, who created one of Sundance’s much talked about projects, Evolution of Verse, a magnificent tale that takes the viewer on a idyllic journey through nature and concludes in the womb, face-to-face with an unborn child, said it best in describing the challenges of storytelling (and branching narratives) through VR:

“It’s difficult enough to tell one story with a compelling ending; it’s that much harder to tell 37 narratives, each with a compelling ending.”

And Yelena Rachitsky, who moderated the panel, A New Language in Filmmaking: Virtual Reality, echoed that while the most exciting aspect of VR is presenting more impactful experiences, “The challenge lies in creating beautiful, interesting worlds while still telling a compelling story.”

Impact is exactly what Nonny de la Peña’s “Hunger in LA” had in 2012 when it debuted at the New Frontier Lab. De la Peña, dubbed the Godmother of Virtual Reality, introduced her brand of immersive journalism with Hunger’s true story of a starving diabetic’s collapse while waiting in line at a food bank in Los Angeles.

“I was really kind of a nightmare because I was so nervous, right?” De la Peña said of her VR debut. “It was the first one. I was so scared to go in the world. And then the opening night, when the first people to take off the goggles started crying, I think it blew all of our minds.”

* * *

While the groundbreaking has only just begun for VR, Sundance is helping filmmakers forge a path and lead the way in what’s certain to be the future of storytelling, where only our imaginations are the limits. To steal a phrase from Dr. Emmett Brown:

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Steven Mandzik tests out the Google VR Viewer

About Amy Senger:
Amy Senger is an L.A. transplant by way of Washington, DC, and co-founder of 1X57, named to Washingtonian’s Tech Titans list with her partner Steven Mandzik. Follow her on twitter @sengseng and follow the Pacific Punch @ThePacificPunch or email amy@1×57.com.
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