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Virtual and Actual Realities: The Narrative VR and New Media Works in the Sundance 2021 New Frontier Section

Secret Garden

A Remote Festival

The Sundance Film Festival, which ended February 3, succeeded remarkably well despite the pandemic, and nowhere was that more obvious than in the New Frontier lineup of virtual/augmented reality and other new media. In fact, as has been commented throughout 2020, in many ways virtual reality was made for this moment. With VR headsets reaching ever further into the consumer population it was feasible for this year’s New Frontier lineup, including several 2D browser-based works, to be shown remotely with essentially no loss in quality, especially when compared with feature films being screened on a laptop or television at home.

In fact, thanks precisely to the pandemic, Sundance found ways to make virtual reality play a larger role in the overall festival than ever before. Since New Frontier projects couldn’t be shown in a physical gallery in Park City, the team created a virtual New Frontier Gallery accessible through a VR headset or, in 2D, a regular computer browser, similar to a platform like AltspaceVR or Mozilla Hubs. User avatars were kept quite simple to ease onboarding but were effective in allowing for a sense of physical proximity with all the other users scattered across the globe, especially for those who wanted to discuss the works through audio chat. While it did add a little time to navigate the space and find the pieces compared, say, to a dropdown menu, it also added a fun aura of physicality to a virtual festival.

This actually mixed with two other ways Sundance built VR into its traditional film experience. The first was Cinema House, a virtual theater showing selected features where viewers could watch as avatars, virtually gathered in a single space; early arrivals were treated to pre-screening firework displays. Second was Film Party, a social space where the entire community of accredited festivalgoers could gather and mingle, recreating the most crucial social aspect of live festivals: the parties and conversations that take place between screenings. Like the New Frontier Gallery the Film Party included proximity audio, but it also added video chat for those who wanted to move beyond interacting as avatars. Though none of this could replicate being in a physical space together, both of these features still indicated the probable future of film festivals that want to expand their reach beyond their in-person screenings.

There were, of course, downsides to running New Frontier remotely, primary among them the exclusion of those who don’t have the equipment or skill set to access the most technologically demanding pieces. In a live event audience members who have never even experienced VR before, let alone own their own device, can use the equipment set up by the festival, with all the technical support and in-person onboarding that that requires. Going remote, in contrast, relies on the viewers to have the necessary equipment and run all IT issues on their own. This sadly included me, a semi-experienced home VR viewer, as I attempted to set up tethered VR experiences for the first time, a process that involved connecting a headset like the Oculus Quest 2 to a computer, downloading the film, and running it off of the hard drive and into the headset outside of the New Frontier Gallery experience. While this was a welcome challenge, as I hope in the future to view many VR films that are too large to stream or download onto a headset, it did mean that I spent much more time working with issues like downloading SteamVR, making room in my computer’s available memory, and trying to get films to play than I spent actually watching them, and I never was able to get Prison X to work; my computer also always froze a few minutes into The Changing Same, so I had to finish viewing it on a flat screener generously provided by the film’s publicist. (I also failed to get into a session of Beyond the Breakdown, a 2D experience which was presented live with audience interaction.)

This, of course, is more an indictment of viewers like me who are newer to VR than the filmmakers or festival organizers. And as festivals like Sundance continue to showcase the best new virtual reality films, many pieces will have file sizes far too large to run on a cordless headset. As time passes these issues should reduce in importance, both because audiences will become increasingly familiar with running VR at home and because the technology—headsets, file sizes, etc.—will improve. For now it was the cost to pay for running a new media festival remotely.

 

The Projects 

For all this talk of virtual reality, of the 14 pieces in this year’s New Frontier eight of them were in VR while the other six were accessible on a regular computer or tablet. They were bound together by a desire to push the boundaries of narrative through new digital media/tools, to tell stories in ways that are impossible through traditional means, as with second screens and Instagram in Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, augmented reality in Fortune!, immersive 2D worlds in Secret Garden and Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler, hyperdirectional audio in 7 Sounds, live VR theater in Tinker, and socially constructed narrative in Beyond the Breakdown. Even the more traditional pieces either gave a voice to underrepresented creators, like 4 Feet High VR‘s disabled protagonist and The Changing Same‘s and Secret Garden‘s focus on Black American lives, or demonstrated a broad range of the state of the art in live-action and animated virtual reality—The Changing Same, Nightsss, Namoo, To Miss the Ending, and Prison X – Chapter 1: The Devil and the Sun.

 

TWO-DIMENSIONAL WORK

For me the surprise standout was Kirsty Housley‘s and Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehranwhich began as a theatrical piece by Alipoor’s Manchester, England-based theater company and other collaborators but was transformed into a pre-recorded play when the pandemic struck—quite possibly to the piece’s advantage. Two performers, Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian, appear as themselves in two all-too-familiar Zoom-like boxes, describing the piece’s mechanics and the world of the children of Iran’s ultra-rich. The film/play would quickly become repetitive except that Housley and Alipoor open it up beyond two small frames on a monitor, primarily by incorporating a second-screen experience through Instagram on the viewer’s phone. As the performers narrate, viewers scroll through an Instagram feed (which is restricted and only populated with images during scheduled performances) to follow the story of one ill-fated couple of listless Iranian teens. A stream of photographs tonally illustrates the world of these characters while wisely refraining from simply recreating the events with posing actors. Instead we get the ambience, the decadence that makes up these teens’ world–and that eerily imitates but doesn’t quite match the feeds of Iran’s real-life nouveau rich adolescents, whose real feeds viewers can glance at through the #richkidsofiran hashtag.

This makes the piece more interactive and visually engaging than it otherwise would have been, but the producers have also structured their narrative to mirror the chronological geography of Instagram, where the most recent posts are at the top of a feed and as you scroll down you go further and further back in time, like geological strata. The specific story begins, then, with the young couple’s death in a car crash after a long night of drug-fueled rebellion and wistful hoping for love and understanding (think Rebel without a Cause), and proceeds backwards through their relationship to their initial meeting, then, when you think the story’s complete, even further back into the 1980s and 70s as Iran’s revolutionary convulsions shape the society that allowed their entire generation of wealthy mallrats to even exist. There’s a great deal of meta-commentary, perhaps even a bit too much, about the nature of time, the emerging anthropocene era, and how miniscule our normal daily perspective is compared with the vast stretches of geologic and astronomic time that have passed before us and will come eons after us. This opens up thematic resonances that enrich the individual story of a few people in Tehran to much broader meaning and universal appeal. The entire experience is topped by the moments when the show’s Instagram feed begins broadcasting live and the viewer’s handheld device and computer screen launch into a rich interplay of images and graphic animation of abstract designs, convulsing digital landscapes (here think of the tectonic convolutions of Fantasia‘s “Rite of Spring” section), and distorted, decaying digital images of the actors, as though they were corrupted digital artefacts uncovered from a longlost epoch. Synchronized dual-screen films have held great potential for years but, to my knowledge, have thus far found little success outside the gallery. By using a ubiquitous social media platform, Rich Kids has shown one potent path forward for other filmmakers who want to not only engage with two screens but do so in timed screenings that can create events just like a traditional theatrical experience.

Another stage theater production transformed for the COVID era is Jibz Cameron’s Weirdo Night. Cameron is a performance artist better known by her stage name/persona Dynasty Handbag, who has put on eclectic, raw, and raunchy live shows in Los Angeles for years. With the pandemic shuttering those opportunities, Cameron and director Mariah Garnett decided to use the empty Zebulon theater to their advantage and create a video version of a traditional Dynasty Handbag show. The result feels much lower-tech than the other entries in New Frontier, but its interest lays entirely in its content. From the uncanny opening moments as Dynasty addresses a swath of empty chairs in a wide shot from the back of the theater, the film takes its pleasure in subverting expectations and celebrating the weird, queer, and transgressive. Beside’s Dynasty’s monologues and costume changes there’s a series of guests with contributions like avant-garde music and, most interestingly, experimental films that transport the viewer outside the theater for strange smash cuts and nonsensical visual constructions. This is not an avant-garde of erudition, but a physical, almost manic celebration of how weird cinema can be. While certainly not to everyone’s taste, Cameron’s and Garnett’s piece will be a welcome break for viewers tired of missing live experiences and ready to experience something strange or transgressive.

Digital artist Stephanie DinkinsSecret Garden (pictured above) replaces such manic energy with a delibrative experience, giving viewers all the time in the world to proceed through its content at their own pace. A simple concept, Secret Garden places viewers in the middle of a digital garden filled with mammoth flowers looming overhead, overshadowed by a vast black void. By navigating through the space via an internet browser—the world is displayed in 2D—viewers pass within earshot of first-person voices recounting the life history of various Black women throughout American history. Approaching a woman—live-action actresses rendered into this virtual space (though the voices remain as voice over)—the voices become louder and clearer. These intermingling narratives obviously are not a contemporary oral history but nevertheless represent a documentary record dating from a slave boat journey in the 1600s to the aftermath of September 11, 2001—and on into the realm of artificial intelligence constructing a future history. The visuals and mechanics are attractive, but the power of the piece comes from its audio recordings, a diverse collection of Black female voices, each coming from a vastly different sphere but always  describing their struggles to fit into a world that was not built for them. As one narrator describes her upbringing in postwar suburban America, her grandmother planted a meticulously manicured garden of marigolds, begonias, and petunias to “seduce” the white neighbors, to make their family’s blackness more palatable to white folks. In Secret Garden, Dinkins is creating a garden not to present Black women to white society, but finally to tell their stories for themselves.

This is similar thematically to another browser-based experience, Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia ButlerDrawing its title and inspiration from the African-American science fiction author, this piece provides a space for a group of artists to each present a work on the “interstitium,” which the Sundance program describes as “the liminal space where reality shifts, challenging us to harness the power of our radical imagination.” What this means specifically is a chance for world building in a digital sandbox. There are no narratives here, just a central hub from which viewers can access various worlds where Black artists have created their own small interactive universes.

The included artists are Stephanie Dinkins again in a second work, Sophia Nahli Allison, idris brewster, Ari Melenciano, and Terence Nance. Navigation through these experiences is completely user-guided, and even the individual worlds invite someone to spend as long as desired. Brewster’s “Quantum Summer” is a digital world featuring an island with various people and, especially, soundscapes and musical accompaniments. Viewers navigate around weightlessly as in a video game to approach different characters and hear their musical motifs, usually centered around hip hop. The piece could have benefitted from being rendered in VR, but it still created a lovely world where exploration was rewarded. Allison’s “Pluto” is a 2D film—no interactivity—featuring an audio dialogue between two Black women about what they as a people have gone through: “I remember, we are a constant and ever-expanding universe, a living breathing archive.” The images are cosmic, with Pluto, Saturn, the Earth seen through an array of meteors. The film is cyclic, “starting” again where it leaves off, and thus like Secret Garden illustrating the recurring pattern of Black women forging their identities in whatever new context confronts them. Dinkins’ “When Words Fail” is an interactive website in which viewers can record their answer to the question, “What do you need to release to move forward?” These answers are recorded and will be used in future installations of the projects, but this iteration, in which the player moves through space in order to find locations to orally record their thoughts, plays like an ambient video game, granting both the space and time to ponder such an existential question. Nance’s “99 Frames per Millennia” features a pulsating gray tunnel accompanied by a mock radio production interviewing a director about her film of the same name. As the talk show signs off it’s replaced by Flying Lotus’s ambient music in the vein of Brian Eno—perhaps today more identified with “lo-fi hip-hop mix-beats to relax/study to”—and the viewer is left to contemplate this music and slowly changing visual. This could yield a meditative state, but if there was anything more to this piece I was unable to discover it.

One of the most unique pieces to encounter at a film festival was 7 Sounds, an audio piece created by documentary filmmaker Sam Green and musician J.D. Samson. At Sundance prerecorded broadcasts of the piece on YouTube took place at scheduled intervals, but as an audio documentary there’s no reason this might not be available in the future on demand, more or less as a podcast. It begins with an initial recommendation to use headphones and even lay down in the dark to block out all other stimuli, then like Rich Kids the video is initially split between frames on Green and Samson, the former providing commentary while the latter produces the accompanying music. Green, who has been featured in Filmmaker many times for his documentary work, begins by describing the newest developments in audio recording technology and how these have allowed for more sensitive and hyperdirectional recordings than have ever been possible before. A segment from a previous film where he visited an anechoic chamber and realized there is no way to convey such silence to viewers sets the stage for the current recordings, where Green and Samson guide listeners through seven recordings that demonstrate the breadth of the aural world that can now be mechanically reproduced.

The specific recordings in question include a demonstration of binaural sound through the lighting of matches all around the listener; the 1983 mating call of a Hawaiian bird that was the last of its species; a massive 2012 protest march in Málaga entering a tunnel; a foghorn that Green recorded in San Francisco years ago shortly after the death of his brother; Samson’s breathing accompanied by his wave-like music; samples from an archive of audio recordings of orgasms; and the crickets in the rural New York backyard of composer Annea Lockwood. In all cases the sounds are meant to be internalized, physicalized—to synchronize your breath with Samson’s, to feel the embarrassment and interest in others’ orgasms, to situate yourself in the San Francisco fog or the darkness and the gathering darkness of a suburban neighborhood. The sonic vibrations connect to a broader world, from the foghorn connecting us to a “part of a community with the turning of the earth,” as one local described it, to the vibrations in our bare feet affecting the worms buried beneath Lockwood’s yard. As she says, “So you’re not so much listening to it, which suggests separation. You’re not separate from it; you’re entirely part of it.” Where 7 Sounds falls short is in its reliance on a mechanical reproduction to mimic the organic experience of hearing these sounds in person, but it acknowledges this openly and therefore seems like something of a plea for listeners to go out and listen to original sounds with their own ears. Even more than Rich Kids, 7 Sounds is highly self-referential, where the topic of the piece is by and large the piece itself and the technology that created it. But while recordings may take us back to the mating call of a now-extinct bird or other scenarios, the piece overall seems quite content to acknowledge its limits when compared with the actual physical world.

 

THREE-DIMENSIONAL WORK

The pieces created in three-dimensional virtual or augmented reality include a few live-action pieces while the majority are animated. While I was unable to see Prison X – Chapter 1: The Devil and the Sun, an important animated film by Violeta Ayala that uses Andean mythology to document conditions in a Bolivian prison, here’s my summary of the others, beginning with those produced (primarily) in live action.

One pleasant surprise was 4 Feet High VR from Argentine directors María Belén Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan. This four-act, 38-minute film follows Juana (Marisol Agostina Irigoyen), a teenage student adjusting to a new school and fighting to own her sexuality despite being disabled and in a wheelchair. While beginning as a remarkable individual portrait immersed in disability rights, the story pivots to broader social issues as it addresses the legalization of abortion (which was achieved in Argentina just last December 30, merging the film with current events) and a group of students protesting for proper sex ed in public schools. While the viewer can’t move about the space, 4 Foot High VR shows that the 360-degree film is anything but moribund, especially in live action—although whimsical animated flourishes occasionally enrich Juana’s journey. The “VR” of the title is to distinguish these four episodes from six others that were filmed for television and showed in Sundance’s Indie Series Program. This multiplatform approach makes good use of virtual reality while also ensuring that the social message could reach a broader audience than VR can currently access. There are some stilted moments in the supporting roles, but the principal actors, Irigoyen especially, are remarkably real and relatable, performances which are only enhanced by their virtual three-dimensionality. Being at her eye level—four feet high—and actually seeing the full 360-degree view of what the world looks like from a wheelchair evokes more understanding and empathy than any two-dimensional film could.

The Changing Same is the latest film to use the unique qualities of VR to explore the African-American experience. Co-directed by Yasmin Elayat and the wife and husband team Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, it’s also the first episode of a longer series that’s currently in production. The paradox of the title is apparently drawn from Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous 1849 statement, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” here referring to the history of racism and oppression against people of color in the U.S. (and thus touching on a similar theme as both Secret Garden and Traveling the Interstitium). Leaps through time and space allow the viewer to see parallels between historically separated periods: in episode one it’s an innocent Black man walking at night being profiled and arrested by police then, at the precinct, getting sucked into the penal system contrasted with a free Black man in the antebellum North arguing with authorities that he’s free but being accosted and moved into slavery anyway. Multiple time jumps make clear how racial prejudices in policing and courts today have roots well predating the Fugitive Slave Act. It will be interesting to see how future episodes expand on similar connections in other areas of African-American life.

Technologically The Changing Same is equally accomplished, with live-action actors, apparently recorded through volumetric capture, placed into a near-photorealistic animated space. Viewers can move fluidly through a portion of these scenes with six degrees of freedom, allowing for autonomy in how to observe the action and increasing the sense of presence over a 360-degree, or three-degree-of-freedom, film. (The VR terms come from either the ability to pivot around the x, y, and z axes or, doubling that mobility, actually move along them.) The imagery is well made, and using live actors increases the documentary realism of the story in a way that would have been less effective with animated characters—despite elements of magical realism and an animated flight sequence during the first moment of time travel. When finished, The Changing Same will join pieces like Traveling While Black as one of the essential virtual reality films about struggles for justice and equality in America’s racist past—and present.

One surprise in the New Frontier Gallery was the addition of the first episode of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience from the Montreal-based Felix & Paul Studios and TIME Studios. Though not listed as one of the official selections of New Frontier, festival programmers apparently decided to make it available partway into the festival, despite it being available since last fall. A four-part series of short documentaries shot aboard the International Space Station, this is the largest film production ever shot in space, and this first episode “Adapt” details the training, mental adjustments to living in space, and daily life of the eight-person ISS crew. There are small personal adjustments like thinking in an environment where there’s no up and exercising several hours a day to not lose muscle and bone mass, as well as daily research, maintenance, and other duties. The comraderie of the small crew is a major theme—the astronauts obviously shot the film themselves, under Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael’s earth-bound direction—and viewers come away with a greater emotional appreciation of what it means for us as a species to have expanded into a permanent residency in space, beyond the ISS’s political and scientific accomplishments.

The initial moments of watching crew members move in zero gravity are disorienting to the inner ear, but I soon felt like I was floating in the space along with them. In fact, as a static 360-degree film, all that was missing was the mobility to float about the ISS compartments myself, flipping my own perspective around as easily as the astronauts. But even though the film’s up and down remain constant, it doesn’t mean Felix and Paul didn’t make use of VR’s vertical axis: the most breathtaking moments in the film are when the Earth glides past a huge observation window directly below you. Gazing down on the planet’s surface like this made me feel perhaps like the first viewers of the famous Earthrise photograph did in 1968: seeing the beauty of our planet, its isolation in the immensity of space, and the bond that unites all living things that make the Earth home—all through the latest visual recording technology. I’d been meaning to see Space Explorers for some time now, and I’m glad Sundance gave me that opportunity.

In the field of VR animation, one of the most deceptively simple pieces was director Erick Oh‘s VR debut Namoo, produced by the prolific Baobab Studios. It shows the entire life of an artist from infancy through death, accompanied by a tree—namoo is Korean for tree—that grows and accumulates relics of his life journey. I interviewed Oh and Baobab’s Head of Content Kane Lee during the festival, discussing the film’s inspiration in Oh’s grandfather, his approach to using the virtual painting tool Quill, and how they set up a remote production even before coronavirus made that workflow necessary. Namoo is a beautiful short poem of a film, which Baobab will hopefully make available with the rest of its growing library soon.

The augmented reality film Fortune! seems somewhat akin to Namoo in its humor and whimsical animation, but the technology in use makes for an entirely different experience. The National Film Board of Canada has been expanding the boundaries of immersive and interactive cinema since at least the multi-screen In the Labyrinth in 1967, and recently NFB Interactive has become one of the most innovative producers of VR films. And while augmented reality has been a slightly more difficult technology to crack for narrative storytelling, with last year’s East of the Rockies and now Fortune!, the NFB is showing how it can be done. The entire project, led by Brett Gaylor, Nicolas Bourniquel, and Arnaud Colinart, is an upcoming series about the material, social, and cultural ramifications of money, with this first episode featuring the autobiographical narrative of Frank Bourassa, arguably the greatest counterfeiter in history. His bright commentary on his criminal career (he later began working for the government) combines with brightly colored animation to make for a fun and breezy commentary not just on counterfeiting but, more broadly, on money’s value stemming from social convention: it’s Econ 101 clothed as a cartoon. The animation is viewable through a smart phone or tablet, where it can be mapped onto any tabletop or flat surface: Bourassa’s hideout appears as a roughly one-foot square building in front of you, that you can move around and view from all angles as the action proceeds. As animated documentary goes it’s well done, though you could argue the same message could be conveyed through a traditional cartoon or even a live-action doc. But as with other NFB documentaries that pioneered forms like animation, still photographs, and verité footage, Fortunewill surely be seen in a few years as one of the pioneering early works in the augmented reality film.

Both Nightsss and To Miss the Ending create their animated virtual reality in completely different styles. The former is a Polish production from co-directors Weronika Lewandowska and Sandra Frydrysiak, and it goes beyond Namoo‘s sense of visual poetry by literally being structured around a poem written by Lewandowska. Rather than a linear narrative, the effect is akin to an aural tone poem expanded out into the visual sphere, especially if you opt to listen to the original narration in Polish. While this may reduce literal understanding for English speakers, the sound of her voice mixes into the wind and other sounds to create a quiet ASMR-like aural experience. Likewise, the visuals, which allow the viewer to move about a small clearing surrounded by trees and other foliage, are dark and ethereal, featuring a shimmering sheet that billows and flows above and around you, and a beautifully animated storm in the distant treetops. Physical haptics are built into the experience through vibrations of the handheld VR controllers, particularly when the sheet flows down around you or a glowing wireframe dancer, reminiscent of Bill T. Jones’ 1999 film Ghostcatching, passes through you. The Sundance website even recommends turning on a fan before starting, which would increase the physical component of this multisensory/multi-disciplinary film. Again, as technology continues to improve it will be interesting to see what artists like Lewandowska and Frydrysiak continue to produce.

To Miss the Ending, from co-directors Anna West and David Callanan of the digital art company idontloveyouanymore in Manchester, begins as an animated documentary as well, with a series of clips from apparent vox populi/man-on-the-street interviews about personal memories of a city: “here’s the river where I used to walk with my fiancé,” “this is the road where I commuted to work.” The physical space is a dark void, and as the interviewees describe what they used to see the images are recreated using colored cubes that stack together or flow past as a river or a stream of automobile traffic. The blocks are transitory, coming and going as required, except for one solid grey cube at the viewer’s feet which contains the epitaph about the loss of nature. After a few minutes it becomes apparent that the entire setting of this film is in the future—who knows how long?—and that these are “memories” of what could happen to us as we increasingly rely on manufactured environments and digital tools to create our common life experiences. This culminates in various speakers choosing to upload their consciousness into the cloud, losing their bodies entirely in order to reach a purer existence, and by this point the cubic blocks, reminiscent of Atari-era video game graphics (or, for younger viewers, a Minecraft world run amok), become menacing, a poor substitute for the beauty of the natural world which has obviously longsince been supplanted with this digital simulacrum. The film moves through a compelling climax then allows viewers time at the end to ponder their own memories while visualizing the amount of hours they’ve spent in certain tasks—sleeping, talking to loved ones, daydreaming—as different-sized cubes that lay scattered about. While a beautiful and engaging digital experience, To Miss the Ending thus ends as a silent call to action to re-engage with the physical literal world.

That should also be said of Tinker, a live VR theatrical piece from Seattle-based immersive director Lou Ward. In its most personal permutation, Tinker allows one viewer to interact with a character played by a live actor, speaking and working together to create an individualized experience. At Sundance a few other viewers in VR were able to watch these timed performances as disembodied observers, and demand was high enough that the last performance was even streamed on Twitch. The story is one of a grandchild—the viewer—growing up over the course of various summer visits with their grandfather, a VR avatar played with avuncular charm by immersive actor Randy Dixon. The setting is the grandfather’s workshop, where the two tinker on various projects like remote controlled cars and rockets. As the piece progresses the grandfather starts to lose his memory and increase his commentary on the rapid passing of time, wistfully lamenting lost moments and the inability to make it all stand still. The result is an existentialist meditation on the value of the present, of our personal relationships, and of making the most of each day as it passes.

The interactive elements of this piece work well, making Tinker another fine example in the burgeoning field of live VR theater; other recent examples include The Under Presents: Tempest from Shakespeare and Finding Pandora X based on Greek mythology. Much of the DNA of these type of pieces comes from live immersive/interactive theater that one might recall from pre-pandemic days in productions like Sleep No More. Indeed, the No Proscenium Podcast just put out a deep-dive three-part series (one, two, three) on such productions and how (immersive) theatrical skills can translate into virtual productions. But filmmakers should take note of the field as well: as Tinker‘s presence in a film festival shows, boundaries are blurring between formerly distinct forms—what’s the difference between a live-streamed film and a live-streamed play?—and live films/VR represent an entirely new outlet for innovative filmmakers anxious to make the most of today’s tools.

Far from being impeded by the COVID pandemic, New Frontier was able to find ways to open its festival up to a broader (if homebound) audience than ever before. What festival goers missed in terms of a live shared experience was made up for by admitting new viewers like myself who had never been able to journey to Park City before for the in-person festival. Ironically, from my apartment in New York City I was able to take a much greater part in Sundance than I ever did in the 25 years that I lived in Utah. This constellated community of viewers like myself certainly expands the reach of previously localized festivals, but there’s still a missing human connection, showing how film—and virtual reality and other media—are often just means to bring physically proximate viewers psychically closer together. All of New Frontier’s pieces—about time, community, memory, relationships, equality, dignity, society—bridge a portion of the space that currently divides us, and in the end they remind us that at its best virtual reality serves to remind us of the actual reality that we so often take for granted.

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