Sundance’s New Frontier program showcases avant-garde storytellers working at the intersection of art and technology.
Each year I’m blown away by the talented creators who find new ways to defy storytelling conventions. I was extra pumped for Sundance: Social Distance Edition to launch because this year’s festival took its interactive New Frontier platform to the next level.
Sundance 2021 let festivalgoers take part in the program virtually and create digital avatars to buzz around online galleries. Participants could engage with the works, the artists, and other festivalgoers through the immersive virtual platform.
Highlights include the New Frontier Gallery (featuring live media, AR/VR, emerging works), Cinema House (a social and fully immersive cinema), and Film Party (an interactive bar with multiple screens and smaller rooms for festivalgoers to mingle).
Sundance hooked this critic up with an Oculus Quest 2 to experience the New Frontier platform from home, and here are some impressions.
Fortune is a 5-minute augmented reality documentary viewed on iOS and Android devices. Directed by filmmaker and technologist Brett Gaylor, Fortune is the premiere episode of a documentary shorts series arriving on mobile and social media in 2022.
Fortune offers viewers one-on-one time with master counterfeiter, Frank Bourassa. Billed as the world’s greatest counterfeiter, Bourassa fabricated a whopping $250 million before the authorities took him down.
Before launching the doc, you must use an app to scan a flat surface in your room. Once you’ve defined a viewing area Fortune beams an animated 3D set into your space in augmented reality (via your phone’s screen).
Gaylor delivers a quick-hit story about materialism and society’s obsession with making dough. It’s cute, compelling, and fun to look at, but it’s brief runtime keeps it from digging deep into this dangerous cultural obsession. Fortune’s colourful sets, upbeat music, and cute animation style may diminish the severity of Bourassa’s crimes – he faced over 60 years in prison – but it does make for a light a breezy watch.
As Bourassa recounted his story, I explored his environment by swinging my phone around behind him. By doing so I noticed that the building behind him was a fake backdrop. (The same kind of giant phoney background you see on Hollywood studio backlots).
The fake background looks cool, but it also adds a layer of thematic cohesion to a story about someone literally selling deception. It’s thoughtful additions like this that separate AR/VR stories from traditional TV and film. If you’re not immersing viewers into the experience and making use of the added dimensions, why not tell the story in 2D?
Namoo left the biggest impression out of all the New Frontier entries I tried this year. My first thought after experiencing it was, “I hope my Oculus Quest 2 is waterproof, because Namoo left me wrecked.”
Namoo (Korean for tree) only lasts several minutes, but it tells an epic tale. The story follows one man from birth to death while observing life-defining moments along the way. It begins with the protaganist as a baby, crawling around a small sapling in the middle of the scene.
Every few moments, the child advances in age to his next stage in life. And as he grows, so does the sapling. The tree acts like a dreamcatcher, it’s sprawling branches capture the child’s memories and hold onto them for safe keeping. It clings to childhood toys, photographs, and his early artwork.
Even though there’s no dialogue or captions, we always know what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. The tree is a manifestation of his passions, so it’s alarming when you notice his priorities shift. Softer than a whisper, his creative spark starts to wither and die.
Namoo is such a moving story because it forces us to confront life’s most uncomfortable truth. Life goes by fast and we’re all going to die. The beauty of this film is in how effectively it hammers home this difficult truth. The obvious comparison for Namoo is the wrenching prologue at the beginning of Up.
Viewing this tale in virtual reality draws you deeper into the experience in a few ways. First, you’re 100% immersed in the story. There’s no glancing at your watch, reaching for snacks, or checking texts. It demands a level of focus that we rarely commit to in daily life. You’re not a passive participant in this experience, you’re all in on it.
But there’s a meta quality to Namoo too. Standing there, only a few feet from a person who has no idea you’re watching him, made me feel like an omniscient being or some type of guardian angel. It reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge observing acquaintances in the past, present, and future. Although I didn’t experience any Scrooge-like revelations, I found Namoo no less inspiring.
Namoo didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Life is short, appreciate what you have, seize the day. But what it does so beautifully is present this message in a new context, one that’s elegant in it’s simplicity but deeply profound.
Roger Ebert famously called movies empathy machines, and who can argue with the legendary critic. Movies ask you to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but experiences like Namoo actually put you inside them.
Sundance 2021 ran from January 28th until February 3rd. Click here for more Sundance coverage.