VR Takes Over Sundance Film Festival as Oculus Launches Studio


As Wired puts it, there’s a revolution going on in Park City, Utah. That’s where the Sundance Film Festival is putting virtual reality filmmaking in the spotlight as part of the New Frontier program, and the 3D projects being screened are making Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Digital artist Chris Milk is helping lead the charge, unveiling his new production company VRSE.works at Sundance with projects including Rome, a Chrome experiment with Google, and Vice News VR: Millions March, a short documentary with director Spike Jonze about last month’s police brutality protests in New York that’s being called the world’s first VR news partnership.

Facebook-owned Oculus VR is also getting in the game, announcing a VR filmmaking initiative at Sundance called Story Studio that wll focus on developing animated/CGI films.[more]

Led by a team including Pixar vets such as Maxwell Planck, the goal is to reimagine filmmaking. “We really look at this as something that’s going to be—a decade or two from now—like going from theater to 2-D film,” CEO Brendan Iribe told Wired. “It’s going to be completely new and transformative.”

“It’s the beginning of a seismic shift in filmmaking—one that, from the look of conventional cinema, might be well overdue,” Wired comments:

“Ticket sales at multiplexes are down, we’re just as inclined to wait for a streaming or VOD release as we are to hit the theater, and filmmakers themselves are looking to get into the prestige cable game as much as they’re looking to get into Sundance. Audiences are still interested in great storytelling, but the way they consume it—and where—is very much in flux. And now that Facebook has acquired Oculus, Samsung is offering Gear VR, and Google has Cardboard, it’s very possible VR could be the thing that brings the excitement of those first silent movies back.”

Oculus Lost VR film

The Oculus Story Studio not only will create film content for virtual reality but also advise others wanting to try the technology. The studio’s first VR movie, Lost, is debuting at the Sundance Festival as a real-time, computer-generated VR experience.

It runs about five minutes in length, but changes according to actions taken by a viewer. “It could be three-and-a-half minutes and it could be 10,” observed director, Saschka Unseld, former Pixar animator, to the Verge. “It all depends on you.”

“We knew how to get started with games, but we didn’t know how to get started with film, with Hollywood, with cinema,” added Iribe. “How do you create content? What’s the tools, the pipeline? Is it even possible to make a cinema experience that is compelling and rich?” 

Oculus Story Studio logo

As Engadget notes, “If it sounds like Story Studio is the beginning stage of Oculus VR pivoting away from a focus on gaming, that’s because it’s partly true. Iribe admits that without a solid input solution for VR, there’s still more work to be done to perfect the gaming genre and get it consumer-ready. As the technology currently stands, the viewer’s main entry point and point of control in the VR space is Oculus’ headset. Given that, he says that a near-term shift to entertainment makes sense for the company.”

“In the last year Hollywood is getting more and more excited and aggressive in all different ways to figure out how they can interface with the technology,” says Bryan Besser, the agent who represents VR creators Felix & Paul, which brought three live-action pieces to Sundance, to Wired. “The most common question from that community is, ‘When can we do a movie? When can we have a 90-minute narrative in VR that is interactive, that is choose-your-own-adventure?’”

The VR projects at Sundance this year include Birdly, a full-body VR experiment that turns a user into a bird flying above the street of San Francisco; Project Syria, which throws the viewer into the middle of a rocket attack; and Perspective; Chapter I: The Party, a dark depiction first through the eyes of a man, then a woman, as a college party meeting turns into sexual assault. 

Also on show at the Chase Sapphire-sponsored interactive suite: “Zero Point First Look”, a 3D experience inspired by Zero Point, a non-fiction film that’s described as “the world’s first 3D, 360-degree virtual reality documentary” from Oculus Rift and Academy Award-nominated director Danfung Dennis.  

VR creator Milk arrived at Sundance having garnered attention for the Clouds Over Sidra VR experience, which invites festival-goers to don Samsung Gear VR to experience life as a 12-year-old girl in a Syrian refugee camp (in partnership with the United Nations UNHCR).

Now he’s demonstrating his VRSE app to other interactive filmmakers, Wired reports, inviting them to participate in a “collection of ventures designed to create an entirely new ecosystem for VR filmmaking [that also includes] production company VRSE.works, which will serve to connect creators with studios; VRSE.tools, which makes cameras and other gear; and, finally, there’s VRSE.farm, which is doing R&D for VR storytelling. That last venture is a partnership with Annapurna Pictures (American Hustle, Her) and Megan Ellison (daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison).”

“It’s a partnership to develop the language of narrative storytelling in virtual reality,” Milk says. “We’re going to help filmmakers—some of them well-known, some of them not well-known at all—explore the medium and try to figure out how to tell a compelling story to human beings. It’s a big challenge and it’s going to take a lot of trial-and-error, but that’s the goal.”

As for his partnership with Vice, which owns a stake in his company, Milk—whose other VR projects include an interactive concert film starring Beck—added that virtual reality has the power to change news as well as Hollywood.

“My hope is that VR is the tool we need to stir more compassion for one another,” said Milk. “I think VR holds the potential to fundamentally change journalism.”

However, a Wall Street Journal reporter at Sundance struck a cautionary note, commenting that “for all of the advancements in virtual reality, it’s clear that no one in the room has it all figured out yet.”

“After two hours of soaring through the skies, strolling through the streets of Syria, and dining with Yak herders, this reporter walked away feeling excited about this medium—yet incredibly nauseous.”

More on Oculus and filmmaking below:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *