Sundance: Looking For the Tarantino of Virtual Reality

The Wasteland VR Experience Still - H 2016
Courtesy of 8i

The Wasteland VR Experience Still - H 2016

With filmmakers and other virtual-reality enthusiasts having descended on Sundance’s New Frontier program, Twentieth Century Fox is among the companies on the hunt for new talent. “They are indie filmmakers working in VR and some for which VR is their principal medium, meaning there’s a new generation that’s becoming experts in the medium," says David Greenbaum, executive vp production at Fox Searchlight Pictures and one of the directors of the Fox Innovation Lab, which is looking to grow the studio's VR offering.

“We feel like we are going to find the next Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino — and we’re looking to find them and sign them up to do a project," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We’ve already met with a few international filmmakers who we would love to bring back to the Lab and find ways to collaborate.”

VR headsets such as Oculus Rift are coming to market this year — with sales projected to reach $540 million, according to the Consumer Technology Association — and stakeholders are now looking to fill the content pipeline. "There's a game community in VR, but Sundance is more the narrative community," says Fox Home Entertainment president Mike Dunn. "There's all types of visions for VR."

Fox’s The Martian VR Experience, an interactive narrative that debuted earlier this month at CES in Las Vegas and is now at Sundance, has already been well-received. Directed by Maleficent helmer Robert Stromberg, the experience was produced by The Martian director Ridley Scott’s RSA Films, the Fox Innovation Lab and The Virtual Reality Company (Stromberg is chief creative officer and a partner in the firm).

VR content is a big part of this year's New Frontier program, including narratives such as 13-part series Defrost, directed by Randal Kleiser (Grease). Shot with one of the first models of Nokia's new OZO 360-degree VR camera, Defrost is a futuristic sci-fi adventure that puts viewers in the seat of a woman who wakes up after having been frozen for nearly 30 years. The cast includes Carl Weathers, Bruce Davison and Tanna Frederick, who also produced.

8i, a startup formed by alums of companies such as Weta Digital, is working on a VR content creation system to produce what it calls "volumetric VR" to "enable a presence and freedom of movement," according to founder Linc Gasking. The company is developing a series of short experiences, what it calls the #100humans project, that uses this technique.

Directed by 8i's Rainer Gombos (a VFX Emmy winner for Game of Thrones), four such experiences are being shown at Sundance. They are The Climb, which puts viewers on a ledge of a cliff, three miles up and looking out at the Grand Canyon; The Wasteland, which places the viewer in a dystopian sci-fi scene (pictured above); Gladiator, in which Vine star Logan Paul joins you in a CG Roman colosseum; and Message to the Future, featuring Ashley Martin Scott as she records an message for her baby.

Also featured is Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor, a narrative aimed at offering various perspectives of the same event. "The audience has the opportunity to be placed in an experience from four different perspectives, two young men and two police officers, during a routine stop that escalates into violence as neither party is able to see past their own bias," explains director Rose Troche.

"The goal of the Perspective series is to spark meaningful conversation surrounding hot-button issues such as sexual assault and police violence that really takes into account both sides of the issue," adds Morris May, founder of VR firm Specular Theory, which produced the project.

On growing the VR content space, Stromberg believes "the difficulty at the moment is that it takes specific technology, knowledge and expertise to make this happen. You can’t just go out and shoot something as you would a traditional production, but it will get more accessible. It's fun to be a part of."