How and Why Documentary Filmmakers at Sundance Are Using VR
"You can't stand with your own two feet next to a river that was made of ice melts, right next to Al Gore. You just can't do it on screen, you have to do it in VR."
When VR first sprung out of New Frontier back in 2012, it was largely coming from the work of documentary filmmakers. There's been a legacy for doc VR at Sundance, and the promise of VR to convey real places is one any doc filmmaker would be interested in.
According to Senior Programmer and Chief Curator of New Frontier Shari Frilot, this is a big year for VR at Sundance, and now is the time for doc filmmakers to join in. "Honestly, we had an open call this year for VR and it seems like pretty much everybody, narrative or documentary, has been exploring this medium," says Frilot. "In documentary in particular, filmmakers have been exploring VR, perhaps because of the way that documentary is often shot. The concept of reality is something that documentary filmmakers are intrigued with. What is reality and what is real? What's the truth?"
Sundance programmers have been seeing more and more documentary filmmakers discovering how this medium can amplify the sense of reality in their stories. This year, two projects in New Frontier exemplify the power of VR, and how combining it with documentary storytelling can go beyond what you can achieve with a flat screen.
Chasing Coral: The VR Experience
A still from Chasing Coral by Jeff Orlowski, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Caitlin Seaview Survey.
The Chasing Coral documentary comes from the filmmakers who brought you Chasing Ice. Now, they set off to capture the bleaching of coral in the ocean to show people what's actually happening. Chasing Coral is also the companion VR piece by the same name. Frilot explains it as a profound additional experience to the companion film. "They went to the locations and they took photographs, got footage, and they also shot VR," says Frilot. "That's what we're showing with the Chasing Coralpiece. It is just profound when you're there, your body is in the environment. It’s very different than being at a theater and seeing it."
"...you may actually understand these environments that you otherwise wouldn't experience."
According to Christophe Bailhache, a developer of the underwater panoramic cinematography of Seaview 360 who created the VR film with Jeff Orlowski, having the VR companion is way to bring your audience directly into the environment you're showing them.
"In the VR piece as well as the feature documentary, we are looking, literally, at the state of the ocean right now," says Bailhache. "In particular, we’re looking at coral bleaching, which is a fatal event that unfortunately happens when the ocean becomes too warm. Not many people dive around the world, so combining visual imagery with immersive VR content makes it a very interesting combination and brings people into the environment that 1) they don't know about because not many people dive; and 2) after you go for a virtual dive without getting wet, you may actually understand these environments that you otherwise wouldn't experience."
A still from Melting Ice by Danfung Dennis, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experience program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Danfung Dennis.
Melting Ice is the VR companion to this year's Sundance opening film An Inconvenient Sequel. As Frilot describes it, "You can't stand with your own two feet next to a river that was made of ice melts, right next to Al Gore. You just can't do it on screen, you have to do it in VR. To be able to do it is incredibly powerful and really affecting. It's very emotional."
"It's actually less about 360, and much more about the visceral presence the audience gets."
According to Danfung Dennis, the founder of VR production company Condition One and lead artist for Melting Ice, this piece along with other VR work that documentary filmmakers will create as companions to their features will be a stepping-off point. "I think as this becomes its own medium, we'll find experiential storytelling taking different paths," says Dennis. "It still takes following the tradition of a documentary and bearing witness, but not necessarily trying to make documentary films into VR."
Dennis continues, "When filmmakers initially think of a VR film, they think, 'It's 360 degrees, let me use that.' It's actually less about 360, and much more about the visceral presence the audience gets. VR has the ability to invoke a sense of presence, that you're actually there. So it’s more about how to use that presence, and how to transport someone into a place and have them have a direct experience of that story. And they become the storyteller in a way. When the viewer comes out of the headset, when they tell someone about it, they are essentially the storyteller. It can be a great thing to let the viewer have their own unique, individual experience through it, and then they formulate the story to tell someone later."
"It can be a great thing to let the viewer have their own unique, individual experience through it, and then they formulate the story to tell someone later."
Elevating the Conversation About Virtual Reality
From "Scientists Have Found A Way To Make Paraplegics Move Again, by Michael Tabb, Ananya Bhattacharya, Alberto Santos, and the Dumont Association for Research Support. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
In addition to documentaries with VR projects mentioned above, there's also a curated documentary about VR titled Scientists Have Found A Way To Make Paraplegics Move Again. It's a documentary about a research group using VR with exoskeletons to help paraplegics move. The surprising thing about the research is that once patients were outside of the exoskeleton, laying in bed, they actually started to be able to move their feet again.
Frilot hopes that festival goers will think about the power of story and what we tell ourselves is real. "Virtual reality is this industry that's exploded," says Frilot. "Goldman Sachs issued a white paper predicting the medium will be about a $20-billion industry by 2020—a quarter of that is medicine."
"Is it going to expand the conversation beyond just the commercial? I'm dying to find out."
"Virtual reality allows us to tell stories to ourselves in ways that almost disrupt what we actually consider reality to be," continues Frilot. "These paraplegics thought the reality for them was that they were never going to walk again. After the therapy, they're moving their feet and legs. What they thought was real is not real anymore. I'm very interested to see if people catch on to this. Are people going to be provoked to take on a different attitude and different kinds of responsibility for the medium? Is it going to expand the conversation beyond just the commercial? I'm dying to find out."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.