VR storytelling matures to a new level at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

VR makes a big splash at one of the most important film fests of the year

Film festivals are fertile environments for trying out new ideas. Movies of all sizes and scopes often make their grand debut, and in recent years, virtual reality has started to edge in as well.

In what can only be described as perfect timing, just as film festivals begin to properly celebrate VR filmmaking, the medium seems to have started maturing in ways fans have only dreamed of. Not only are filmmakers and studios experimenting with just what you can do with VR films, but they're also beginning to tackle more and more serious subjects.

Read this: What's next for VR filmmaking

VR filmmakers have begun to wield empathy to create more powerful experiences, bridging gaps to cultures and stories we might not have known about – or experienced – in quite the same way. The best showcase for this has been the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

VR storytelling has matured to a new level at the festival, and these are the experiences that prove it.

Fable Studio and Wolves In The Walls

Fable Studio is a new VR studio built from the ashes of the Oculus Story Studio. That is, the team moved on and created their own studio with their own mission. Its big debut is a VR adaptation of Neil Gaiman's The Wolves In The Walls.

You take the role of the imaginary friend of a little girl named Lucy, who hears noises in the walls and thinks that they're wolves. You two slowly figure it out together in a series of vignettes. Wolves In The Walls also got Fable started on something it calls The Lucy Project, which is essentially a way to create a believable character in VR.

Fable Studios wants Lucy to be your friend. It wants you to truly interact with her while you go through Wolves In The Walls, and wants her to remember your actions and interact with you, too. It's an experience that can only be created in a medium like VR.

This is a good example of a studio trying to push VR filmmaking forward. It's taking something unique about the medium, its interactivity, and realising that creating a believable AI character that you interact with can help immerse you better than realistic graphics ever could.

All three chapters of Wolves In The Walls will be out later in 2018. The studio is also working on a number of other VR stories and is even looking into telling stories with augmented reality, like ARKit and the Magic Leap One.

Space Explorers: A New Dawn

Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios has been making VR documentaries and films for Gear VR for quite a while now, such as the Cirque du Soleil videos. At Sundance the studio debuted its new experience, which is all about space.

With Space Explorers, it's partnered up with NASA to give you an inside look at how a group of astronauts are training and preparing to go to space. You'll also get a sneak peek into NASA's plans to travel to Mars.

No one's better at pumping out VR documentaries than Felix & Paul Studios, but with Space Explorers it looks like it's got something that can help galvanise people toward space travel. It's hard not to get swept up in the excitement.

Space Explorers is coming out for Gear VR and Rift only, and is being timed to release alongside the Oculus Go in early 2018.

Spheres: Songs Of Spacetime

Remember Interstellar? Remember how cool it was to see a visual representation of a black hole on the big screen? What would happen if you got to actually go through a black hole using the power of VR?

Because that's what Eliza McNitt's Spheres: Songs Of Spacetime is aiming to do. Executive produced by Darren Aronofsky, the experience wants to give you an up-close look at a black hole, with the sounds of gravitational waves to complete the experience.

It was difficult enough for Christopher Nolan and his crew to depict a black hole in the passive experience of a movie, so it's certainly ambitious to create an immersive black hole and to simulate (to Eliza McNitt's best guess) what it's like to actually travel through one. When you combine actual sounds of gravitational waves and narration from Jessica Chastain, you've got something truly trying to push the boundaries of what experiences can be created for VR.

The Sun Ladies

Virtual reality can be used to tell personal stories – and not just any stories, but traumatic and important ones. That's exactly what The Sun Ladies aims to do.

After ISIS invaded the Yazidi community of Sinjar, it killed all the men and took the women and girls as sex slaves. A few women escaped and formed a fighting force called The Sun Ladies.

Since ISIS believes that being killed by a woman sends you to hell, The Sun Ladies like to head for the front lines and start singing so ISIS knows what's coming. This VR documentary from actress Maria Bello allows you to personally experience the stories that helped form The Sun Ladies.

The Sun Ladies understands how to use the personal nature of VR to tell you stories you need to hear, and how you need to hear them. You're put up right next to the ladies, you're in their environment, and you're learning their stories first hand.

Masters Of The Sun

Black Eyed Peas and Marvel Comics previously teamed up on a comic book called Masters Of The Sun, about a battle for the world where zombies are trying to take over. Although everything is delivered with a hip hop twist.

At Sundance, Black Eyed Peas debuted a VR version of the comic. It's a full on 13-episode, 90-minute experience that'll debut for Gear VR. The big new thing here is that you can control the story – you literally choose what happens next as it shuffles you from one scene to another.

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories have long been around in the world of books and video games, but they're right at home in virtual reality, giving you full control over your experience. It'll be interesting to see whether viewers will be able to withstand all 90 minutes of what essentially an interactive comic book – and 90 minutes of the Black Eyed Peas too. At least Hans Zimmer is involved as well.

It also seems like a trial run for the Black Eyed Peas' larger ambition of becoming a VR studio that helps artists like Rihanna jump into the VR game, as will.i.am. told Forbes.

Zikr: A Sufi Revival

Director Gabo Arora tells Engadget that he picked up a lot of negative ideas about Islam after his Hindu family was forced to flee Pakistan when it gained its independence. He later visited Sufi shrines and was able to overcome his prejudices.

Now he wants to help other people do the same with his new VR experience, which aims to educate people about Sufism, a misunderstood sect of Islam. Since the sect's religious practices are often experiential, it made a natural fit for VR.

Part of the goal of the experience is to invite users to start dancing and singing along with the people they're watching. VR has long been thought of as a vehicle for empathy, to put people in situations they normally wouldn't be in. What better way than to engage them in something they probably know nothing about?

Arora hopes to make this a mainstay at museums and other possible exhibition areas.

The Isle Of Dogs VR Experience

All the VR goodness of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

There's a new Wes Anderson movie hitting cinemas this year, and he's decided to use virtual reality as a way of taking you behind the scenes. The celebrated director has teamed up with Felix & Paul Studios to take you behind the making of Isle Of Dogs and, more importantly, into just how stop motion animation works.

When you put on a headset to experience Isle Of Dogs Behind The Scenes (In Virtual Reality) – yes, that's the real title – you'll be treated to interviews with animators and voice cast, which is par for the course for behind-the-scenes docs. But while you're listening to those interviews, you'll also be treated to a unique view of stop motion animation.

You'll see the dogs move around and talk in real time, but you'll also be able to look around at the stage and beyond the camera, where the animators are hanging out and working. While the dogs will move in real time, the animators and everything around the stage will be moving like a time-lapse. The goal is to show you how much real world time it takes to make a few seconds of stop-motion animation.

This is a brilliant way of bringing something new to making-of docs. You're not just watching a bunch of talking heads intercut with footage of people laughing and working; you get to have a proper snoop around the set. That, too, while someone gets to visually explain how methodical and painstaking stop-motion animation is.

The full experience will debut on Google Daydream next month, so get your Pixel phones ready.


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