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Sundance 2016: Nine new VR pieces you need to know

In just a few short years, virtual reality has gone from novelty to staple at the Sundance Film Festival. Dozens of VR exhibits line the floors of New Frontier, the festival's emerging art section, to the point that it can be hard to remember a time when the space wasn't filled with people queueing for hours to spend a few minutes bobbing around in headsets.

Categorizing these VR pieces has been tricky. The festival this year divided them according to "mobile VR," "tethered VR" and "art," though an even sharper distinctions might involve "journalistic," "experiential," "interactive" and "narrative."

In any case, in its definition-defying, genre-resistant way, these pieces increasingly suggest the future of screen entertainment. Nobody knows the dominant modes, let alone the distribution models, VR entertainment will eventually settle on. But that's what makes these pieces significant. They're a peek into the people and forms that could carry pop-culture forward.

The range of artists behind them is widening — established players such as Chris Milk and Felix & Paul and newer discoveries like Milica Zec and the Swiss team of Sylvain Chague and Caecelia Charbonnier. As Sundance has become a premiere venue for these short-form works, many of these filmmakers are using the fest as a chance to unveil their work to the world for the first time.

It may not be long before Sundance, which prides itself on the cinematically cutting-edge, integrates VR into the main program of film world premieres, even creating separate juried awards for them. (The first tendrils of that began this year with "Notes on Blindness," a piece that landed both a traditional slot on the documentary slate and a VR exhibit at New Frontier.) In the meantime, these pieces run concurrent to the in-theater activities, waiting their turn.

Here, then, are nine VR pieces from Sundance that are advancing the form in some way. (A 10th, the Martian VR Experience, we already told you about.)  This is not a comprehensive list but a selective group of pieces that stayed with me after I saw them and, in many cases, after I talked to their creators. (One benefit of a nascent industry — the filmmakers are generally around to chat after you see their film. Try getting that from James Cameron or Chris Nolan.)

Some of the works will be at film-festivals and tech conferences in the months to come. And many will be available later this year on home-viewing platforms, headsets such as HTC's Vive or Oculus' Rift or mobile platforms like Samsung Gear VR.

All, though, are attempting to wrestle with a future in which VR co-exists with traditional film and television — and, in some cases, improves on it.

"Giant." (Milica Zec and Winslow Turner Porter III) Co-created by Zec based on her childhood experience in war-torn Serbia, this is the rare political VR piece that is also a fictional narrative. ‎The story concerns a young American couple, victims of an unnamed war, hunker down in a bomb shelter as the sounds of explosions rattle around them. They try to distract their daughter, and themselves, with a shadow-puppet game known as "Giant" that's also a metaphor for the conflict.

The visuals are on the basic side — boxes packed with computers and a child's toys, mostly, in a dark room where not much else is visible. But the piece is effective because it conveys a palpable feeling of fear, as the viewer spends much of the six minutes nervously waiting for the attack to happen. "Giant" demonstrates how VR can convey the horror of war in a way that an "American Sniper" never could.

"The Leviathan Project." (Alex McDowell and Bradley Newman) There's an involved backstory involving a steampunk novel and a flying whale‎. And the visuals have a colorful crispness one doesn't find in all VR work. But the real hook of "Leviathan," a first-person piece that has you conducting experiment on a spacecraft, is the way it integrates tactile physical tasks. Pull levers and pick up objects with your hands in the real world such that they match up with the more fantastical representations you're controlling in the virtual one. Plenty of interactive VR experience allow controllers to trigger movement, but this is different: "Leviathan" creates a tactile experience that matches with your virtual one.

That notion comes from co-creator McDowell, who thinks VR suffers by removing its viewer from the ordinary world. "Part of the problem of VR is the dystopian aspect — you're on the train going to work and suddenly you're somewhere else," he said. "We wanted you to feel connected to the real world."

By the end of "Leviathan," you're floating up within the spacecraft with the help of a magical creature, which beats the L at rush hour any day.

"Dear Angelica"/Quill. (Saschka Unseld and Oculus Story Studio) Story Studio, the content division of headset company Oculus, formally announced its creation at last year's Sundance. Since then it has unveiled two films, "Lost" and "Henry," that draw heavily from Pixar influences — understandable given that's where much of its creative staff comes from. The division's third film, "Dear Angelica," takes a somewhat different tack.

"Angelica" is a more dreamlike piece in which a young girl enters the memories of her late actress mother, via the movies said mother starred in. At the company's annual presentation at a hotel in nearby Deer Valley, I was able to see snippets of the film, which will be completed and released this year, when the Oculus Rift will likely be well established in the marketplace. The bits I saw suggest an impressively gauzy, immersive world fashioned out of the stuff of everyday life, such as the contents of a child's bedroom.

Equally significant is the tool used to create the piece. A little while back, "Angelica" wasn't coming together quite right as filmmakers rendered it from 2-D images on a page. So Oculus hit pause and created a tool to help illustrators actually draw in VR. Known as Quill, the program could well end up being made available commercially. It's great fun, especially if you have the, ahem, drawing skills of a tottering chicken — it allows you to create in VR instead of simply consuming in it. Think of Quill as a VR coloring book, or like that children's classic "Harold and the Purple Crayon," or even like Microsoft's Paintbrush, except you live inside the screen.  Why just engage with a pre-determined world when you can create it yourself?

This idea is the next frontier, the company believes."I think that every VR project we do needs something unique that can be explored until we run out of ideas — we need to find California," said Oculus Story Studio chief Saschka Unseld when I sat down with him after the demo. "The big question is: 'Where is California?' Because we don't want to stop and settle in St. Louis."

"Stonemilker" and "Sonar." (Andrew Thomas Huang; Philipp Maas and Dominik Stockhausen) These are actually different pieces. But both make key use of water. "Stonemilker" features Bjork, in a video for a new song about her emotional needs that she sings on a windswept beach, while "Sonar" is a sub-oceanic exploration piece a la "The Abyss."

More important, both show that VR doesn't need a big conceptual hook to work. The Bjork video is compellingly intimate, as she sings and teleports in a 360-degree way around you-- sometimes just her, sometimes, in a kind of Iceland musical mitosis, splitting into multiple Bjorks. "Sonar," meanwhile, is an atmospheric underwater exploration film in which not much happens yet the tableaux is mesmerizing just the same. Both tend more toward the experiential. Letting your mind wander as the minimalist action meanders along isn't just accepted — it's kind of the point.

"Perspective, Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor." (Morris May and Rose Troche). One of the most controversial of the VR exhibits in 2015 was May and Troche's "Perspective, Chapter 1 — The Party" in which viewers could place themselves in the first-person shoes of both a campus date-rape victim and perpetrator in an attempt to gain, well, perspective that a traditional film doesn't allow. The pair have returned this year with a new installment, this one a quartet of four films that depicts a fictional police shooting of a young black man in a New York neighborhood. With the four films, viewers get the chance to move between the two young black men and the two non-black cops during the charged incident.

The shaky, close-up visuals can be a little more dizziness-inducing than other VR films. But the underlying concept remains tantalizing — can VR, thanks to its 360-cinema qualities, help us understand a hot news topic in a way that CNN can't?

"When you witness something like this, everybody has a different story," said Troche, a veteran indie filmmaker who previously directed the A.M. Homes adaptation "The Safety Of Objects." "This allows you to see all sides."

‎"Condition One" and "Collisions." (Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown and Phil McNally; Lynette Wallworth, with the backing of Sundance and Jaunt) Dennis is a VR pioneer, having explored the medium earlier than most, and also bringing some traditional-film cred to the medium. (His war documentary "Hell and Back Again" was nominated for an Oscar a few years back.) Dennis' new collection of films, sharing the same name as his company, has an activist, animal streak.

In one, we go inside a slaughterhouse to see the origins of our supermarket meat. In another, titled "In the Presence of Animals," the film takes viewers to places where endangered bears and buffalo roam, suggesting that human development could soon many them extinct. (There's also one on a ballet company.)

The innovation here is formal: in "Animals," filmmakers have a few of the beasts come up to you and defensively acknowledge your presence. I felt a little skittish watching "Animals;" one of the main pleasures of VR, after all, is that you can be in the middle of a dangerous situation and feel invincible (and invisible). Dennis is breaking that compact. How much the medium can accommodate that fourth-wall engagement — how much VR will move away from the voyeur — will be one of the big questions it faces in the years ahead.

A similarly endangered landscape is on display in "Collisions," which Wallworth shot in a remote outback of her native Australia. The 15-minute film tells the story of an older lifelong resident who witnessed nuclear tests on his land  decades before; the radiaton wiped out the wildlife and traumatized the locals. The film's piece de resistance is an effects shot in which, running away from the attack, majestic kangaroos glow unhealthily and fall to the ground.

"The idea is empathy," said Wallworth, whose film is the recipient of an inaugural VR grant the from Sundance Lab. "Even many Australians haven't been to places like this. We wanted to use VR as a powerful tool to show what's happened, to people who would never travel there.

"Real Virtuality: Immersive Explorations." (Sylvain Chague and Caecelia Charbonnier) The mother lode of Sundance. Designed by a pair of effervescent Swiss academics (why not), "Real Virtuality" grew out of medical applications Chague and Charbonnier were working on for many years, models of bone structures and the like.

There's nothing clinical about this piece, though. In the multiplayer experience, two people put on backpacks and hand/feet sensors in addition to headsets, then move around a controlled space, the real-time engine capturing their movements. Though there is an interactive game-like element — one has to pick up what looks like a crystal in the virtual world but is a block in the real world, e.g. — it's the environments themselves that makes this piece a quantum leap forward.

From the first moment on a space holodeck to a trip through a neon city to a finale in a treacherous stone dungeon, "Real Virtuality" is crisp, colorful and startlingly cinematic. Viewers might alternately feel like they're living inside the world of "The Matrix," "Avatar" and "The Fifth Element" — all were influences. (There are blue and red pills to determine which character you'll be.)

The most daringly original VR presentation I've seen to date, the piece shows how big the medium can feel (and how much bigger even still with a studio budget). Not surprisingly, Chague and Charbonnier have had discussions with theme parks to take the project there, where it could potentially involve more players.

In the meantime they're taking it to a few  European tech conferences. The creators haven't toured the offices of Hollywood executives or producers -- yet. "But we'd like to go soon," said Charbonnier. They'd be welcomed with open arms.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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