Sundance Film Festival and the Rise of Indie VR

How a community of New York pioneers are pushing the virtual ball forward


Floating in the cold void of space, I look down at my disembodied self. All that’s left is my hands, which have become two fiery stars burning in the dark. I wave them around, reveling in my cosmic scale and consciousness. Then, sensing a more powerful presence, I turn and find a black hole looming. The inky hulk winds me closer over bands of spinning gas and stardust. I am paralyzed, unable to escape as it pulls me over the thin line of the event horizon. The laws of space and time no longer apply. All matter bends towards a singular black dot below, a one-dimensional point where gravity becomes infinite. I am stretched into long strips of light, sucked down into that point as it devours my starry self. Around this same time I discover a tightening sensation around my neck, which, on further inspection, turns out to be the Oculus tether strangling me where I’ve been rotating on the spot. Apologizing to the attendant, I lift up the virtual reality headset and unwind myself.

Spheres,” an ambitious journey through spacetime, was written and directed by 26-year-old Eliza McNitt as a follow-up to her first VR experience “Fistful of Stars,” which saw 6,000 people witness the birth of a star accompanied by a live opera. McNitt built a name for herself by using VR to alter people’s perspective and impart a sense of cosmic awe. “Science is something you think about, but with virtual reality, for the first time you can feel it,” McNitt tells me. “I didn’t just want to show you a black hole. I wanted to take you there, so you feel the vertigo of falling inside. For me, there was no other medium.”

When it comes to the perennial question — how and when VR will get mainstream adoption — McNitt represents a new wave of creators who might shape the answer. Technology is not what will ultimately hold back VR; the next wave of cheaper, higher-end hardware is already on the horizon, including Oculus’ new headset Santa Cruz. It is content that will be key. Gaming has so far outstripped other forms of VR consumption, but the industry will only take off when it pulls in a broader audience. As the popularity of Tilt Brush demonstrates, the insights that will help crack the medium are likely to come from a cross-fertilization of disciplines and skills — artists, filmmakers, technologists, UX designers. Whatever McNitt is doing, it seems to be working. “Spheres” just made history as the first VR piece to be bought at the Sundance Film Festival for close to $1.5 million, a sum that an indie film commands. “It was a surreal moment for my team,” she says. “It made us realize there is a market or this. VR is going to captivate audiences in the same way as films do. Now we are a part of a bigger conversation.”

One thing is certain — the conversation at festivals continues to be dominated by VR. Despite long lines, sweaty headsets and rumors of conjunctivitis, the New Frontiers track at Sundance was sold out all week. “Spheres” was just one of the 18 VR pieces showcased. Another hit was “Battlescar,” an animated story highlighting the role of women in 1970s punk that captures the spirit of Patti Smith and the Bowery movement. You follow a year in the life of Lupe, a Puerto Rican-American teenager voiced by Rosario Dawson, as she is arrested for vagrancy and forms a rock band. The creators, Nico Casavecchia and Martin Allais, both Latin American immigrants, use VR to explore questions about identity and belonging.

The gritty animated punk of “Battlescar” and cosmic awe of “Spheres” could not be more different. But they share two things in common — New York roots as well as the backing of Atlas V, the only studio to have two entries accepted at Sundance. The New York and Paris based immersive studio was founded just a month ago by the producers behind the award-winning “Notes on Blindness” and “Alteration.” Where San Francisco VR is driven by tech and a bias towards platforms and eyeballs, and LA is dominated by Hollywood filmmakers who tend to build off existing IP — think the Hobbit, Game of Thrones and The Mummy VR experiences — Atlas V embodies the scrappy, experimental approach of the New York VR community. The studio has not raised significant capital. Instead, they identify compelling ideas then bring talent and financing together for each project.

On the west coast, meanwhile, animation studios like BaoBab and Within hired dedicated teams and raised over $30 and $50 million respectively. With large capital increases, the cart often comes before the horse; NextVR and Jaunt both raised over $100 million, initially to capture, produce and stream real-world 360 footage. As it turns out, the feeling of sitting in a fishbowl is not that compelling, and Jaunt is now exploring more immersive, volumetric 6DOF content. Corporate and venture funding is not a bad thing — many projects would have been dead in the water if it weren’t for sponsorship. The industry owes a lot to Oculus and parent Facebook, who has poured hundred of millions into content and co-funds pieces with studios like Atlas V. But the rise of independent studios is critical to figuring out the medium’s potential. Not least because corporate funding can come with editorial constraints — nipples and cursing are a no-no.

“There’s something that everybody forgets about — the European way of thinking about culture — giving artists the means to express themselves, regardless of the tech marketplace and Hollywood IP models,” says Atlas V’s CEO Fred Volhuer. “We didn’t want to go raise VC money for a technical platform. It didn’t seem logical that that is the way to produce interesting pieces.” Instead, Atlas V strives to have a viewpoint. They seek creators who make experiences native to VR, and who don’t necessarily come from traditional tech or film backgrounds. They also gravitate towards raw narratives over family-friendly and gamer content. One of Atlas V’s secret weapons is the French public institutions and cultural funds which provide grants. This allows them to prove out prototypes before bringing projects to larger pools of capital and private investors. The studio is also testing different distribution models — with “Battlescar” they licensed out supplemental 360 material to Youtube. The editorial voice, lean model, and creative thinking around distribution bear comparisons to a pioneer in the film world — A24. It’s early days, but with ten more projects in the pipe, there will soon be more material to judge. Certainly, their approach is compelling for artists like McNitt. “What excites me about Atlas V is their belief in the creators and the freedom that artists get to envision strange worlds and bring them to life,” she says. “If I was working with a bigger studio I’m not sure I would have had the same creative freedom.”

Atlas V also embodies another trademark of the New York scene — a spirit of collaboration and co-learning with other studios that have popped up, many of which are in Brooklyn. “Battlescar” was co-produced with 1stAveMachines, Kaleidoscope and Fauns. “Spheres” was co-produced with Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures. One institution in particular has been at the center of these ripples — New Inc, the incubator of the New Museum. In addition to McNitt, other names have gone on to form the heart of the New York community — from James George and Yasmine Elayat of Scatter, the studio behind “Zero Days,” to Matt Niederhauser of Sensorium and Winslow Porter, known for his experience “Tree”, where, naturally, you experience life from the perspective of a tree. Scatter and Sensorium partnered with two other groups, Superbright and Tomorrow Never Knows, to produce another piece that debuted at Sundance — “Zikr, A Sufi Revival” directed by Gabo Arora, who built his career at the UN and has advocated for using new media for social impact. “In New York there’s that punk rock, intellectual, artistic spirit. We can make our money with other commercial things, but we live for this,” says Arora. “It’s more independent, less influenced by Hollywood.”

“Zikr” certainly pushes things forward, fusing a thousand year old religious ritual with experimental technology. Standing in an intimate chamber with colorful rugs underfoot, you stand in diamond formation with three other participants and don HTC Vive headsets. You are connected to your compadres’ glowing avatars by a virtual beaded rope that responds dynamically as you move. A moment later, you are transported to the sunny courtyards of Tunisia, where you dance and sing along with the local performers — and, with any luck, transcend into Sufi ecstasy. The piece layers several technical elements. The 3D figures, volumetrically captured using Scatter’s Depthkit tool, dissolve into particles that reconfigure as orbs that engulf you and bloom into the next scene.

The hope is that once “Zikr” is released on Steam it will be accessed by users from all over the world networked through their home headsets. It was also clearly designed to be shown by museums and cultural institutions. Dogwoof, a company behind 18 oscar-nominated films, just announced their purchase of the international distribution rights to “Zikr” and their intention to show it at theaters, museums and art venues. It’s the first acquisitions of a VR documentary at Sundance. “I believe in these installations, people flock to them,” says Arora. “I’m fascinated by getting people out of their homes and bubbles and getting them to go somewhere to do these experiences.”

Given that home VR adoption is taking longer than the industry expected — consumer headsets still number in the low millions — this move towards installation content makes sense. It also follows on the heels of Alejandro Iñárritu’s success with the Oscar-winning "Carne y Arena," whose exhibit at LACMA has been sold out for months. Other top VR pieces have found their way to public homes; “Collisions” at MOMA and “Celestial Bodies” at the Museum of Sex. Museums not only get the sexy stamp by adding VR; it also draws in a new crowd and can drive ticket sales.

The trend explains the “Spheres” acquisition. The buyer, CityLights, is not your typical studio hunting for breakout films to acquire for theatrical or Netflix release. CityLights was set up by Hollywood veteran Joel Newton as a $100 million fund purposed for VR, with the intention of exploring channels including location-based licensing. And “Spheres”, with its pixie dust of big names and universally appealing subject, is a natural for museums to pick up. Installations are unlikely to be a long-term path to monetization, but for the moment the strategy works. It lets creators establish their names, test out material and fund subsequent projects. It is also a model well-suited to showcasing experimental VR.

To date, VR has mostly remained rooted in existing creative forms — theatre, gaming, film, digital art. But as “Spheres,” “Battlescar” and “Zikr” demonstrate, the medium’s strongest allure is experiences that are fundamentally different. That allow viewers to feel stories. It is the weird, visceral, interactive, and awe-inducing works that persuade them to don sweaty goggles and bring them back. And it is the independent studios and risk-taking creators that can help us look forward instead of back. As Patti Smith put it — “I don't fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future.” When it comes to VR, there couldn’t be a better time for a dose of that punk spirit.

Alice Lloyd George is an investor at RRE ventures and the founder of Flux, a podcast about builders at the frontier of technology. She is a VR for Change (VR4C) ambassador and on the board of the Current Museum, a non-profit exploring technology’s impact through the lens of art.