Ten Virtual Reality Highlights from Sundance 2020’s New Frontier Program

Technology meets storytelling in these mind-bending creative projects

Each year, the Sundance Film Festival‘s New Frontier exhibitions, installations and screenings diverge from the rest of the acclaimed event in that they debut technological achievements as important as storytelling advancements. In its commitment to virtual and augmented reality works, New Frontier’s become home to so much more—AI, mixed reality (MR), facial-recognition, biotech, to name some of the groundbreaking crossover. The 2020 roster in particular, with its 32 projects selected from 21 countries, showcases an even more seamless marriage of technology and artistry. In the midst of it all, we are witnessing an expanding definition of film and a deeper understanding of how it can be experienced.

New Frontier steps outside of its dedicated venue spaces, New Frontier at The Ray and New Frontier Central, this year. Though the latter will introduce a new “Biodigital Theatre” for large-scale works, we are most excited for a satellite project in the pool at Festival Headquarters (more on that below). For those who will not be at Sundance, or who can’t get tickets to New Frontier, the following 10 selections will undeniably continue beyond the festival—and should be sought out elsewhere, too.

Amandla Stenberg appears in BLKNWS by Kahlil Joseph, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

BLKNWS

From LA–based artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, BLKNWS utilizes the newsreel format to intervene on the “news-industrial complex.” This 47-minute cinematic art project acts as a cultural critique, but balances seriousness with levity. Referred to as a “a fugitive newscast,” BLKNWS will  run at 11 cinemas around the country, including locations in Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Nashville and Brooklyn.

A still from Spaced Out by Pierre Friquet, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Spaced Out

A first of its kind for New Frontier, Spaced Out utilizes an underwater VR headset and snorkel (for use inside the Festival Headquarter’s pool). The nine-minute experience transports viewers into a voyage from Earth to the moon. Floating in the water during the experience imitates the gravity-free scenario. Meanwhile, inside the goggles, digital artist Pierre “Pyaré” Friquet and key collaborator Sutu‘s work melds with Apollo 11 mission archival recordings. Several Adobe technologies—including Premiere Pro and XD for prototyping when the project was interactive/real-time—helped bring it to life.

A still from Solastalgia by Antoine Viviani and Pierre-Alain Giraud, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Marine Bigourie.

Solastalgia

The first work created and screened on the HoloLens2Solastalgia (from award-winning filmmakers Pierre-Alain Giraud and Antoine Viviani) places viewers in the position of a cosmonaut exploring the ruins of a depopulated planet. This visually stunning 10-minute experience questions the role of technology in our lives, and in our futures, while ruminating on its dangers. The work is also on view at Les Champs Libres in Rennes, France and will make its way to the National Gallery of Iceland from June to September.

A still from Breathe by Diego Galafassi, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Breathe

We all breathe the same air. Breathe, from Diego Galafassi (an artist in residence at Johns Hopkins University Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies Lab) and Jess Engel (who worked on SPHERES), asks us to visualize this through mixed reality. A 12-minute communal experience, it taps into body movement to tell the story of air—and our role in its cycle—with incredible thought and beauty.

Elaine Daly, Frei Foster and Nova Scott James appear in Still Here by Zahra Rasool and Sarah Springer, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Viktorija Mickute.

Still Here

Premiering in the New Frontier program, the immersive multimedia installation Still Here utilizes interactive virtual reality, audio with augmented reality and a photo exhibit to guide participants through the narrative of Jasmine, a woman who has returned home after 15 years of prison. 29-year-old co-creator Zahra Rasool tapped into the experiences of nine formerly imprisoned women to weave together the compelling story, which is set in Jasmine’s Harlem brownstone, now surrounded by gentrification.

A still from Metamorphic by Matthew Niederhauser, Wesley Allsbrooke, Eli Zananiri, and John Fitzgerald an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Metamorphic

Produced by CH favorite Sensorium, Metamorphic is an eight-minute social VR experience created by Matthew Niederhauser, Wesley Allsbrook, Elie Zananiri, and John Fitzgerald. In an immersive environment, and through the experiential arc, participants engage with each other and their unfamiliar surroundings. Here, movement shapes both self and the world. Visually, it’s whimsical and beautifully drawn—and the entirety of it encourages introspection.

Hyoungjun Kwon appears in Scarecrow by Jihyun Jung, Sngmoo Lee, Taewan Jeong, and Cooper Yoo, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Taewan Jeong

Scarecrow

During its 12-minute runtime, Scarecrow blends gaming with thermal haptic activity, dance, painting and more. From South Korea’s K’ARTS, the immersive piece takes place in a Sisyphean world and it is the user’s role to save a scarecrow from an eternal spell that yields hundreds of attacking firebirds. An exciting, surreal work, Scarecrow delivers excitement until the end.

A still from The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson by Lynn Hershman, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson

Composed of artist Lynn Hershman Leeson‘s 40-year archive of self-recorded, diary-like sessions, The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson invites users into a dynamic, confessional experience. Leeson presents the work in a custom theater which houses something she refers to as Room #8, which contains a DNA strand onto which the film has been encoded.

A still from Persuasion Machines by Karim Amer and Guvenc Ozel, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Persuasion Machines

Produced by The Othrs, Persuasion Machines uses mixed reality and surveillance technology to ask participants to confront data. For 12 minutes, audience members learn how smart devices harvest our data, and how it is used. The experience is eye-opening and, in many ways, questions the value of technology while demonstrating its power.

A still from Narcissister Breast Work by Narcissister, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Narcissister Breast Work

Brooklyn-based artist and performer Narcissister‘s nine-minute film, Narcissister Breast Work makes its world premiere in New Frontier, where it asks audiences to consider the origins of prohibitions on women’s bodies. Wearing a mask and merkin, she pursues truth by way of art and activism. It’s a work of thought-provoking beauty.

Hero image from Scarecrow, courtesy of Sundance Institute