The legendary festival goes all-digital amid an ongoing pandemic. Here’s what you need to know.
This Thursday marks the start of the 2021 Sundance International Film Festival, a seven-day celebration of independent filmmaking, emerging storytellers, and new media projects. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the long-running event is once again returning with a fresh selection of genre-defying projects and jaw-dropping showcases.
Unlike previous celebrations, however, this years’ festivities are being conducted remotely via a dedicated social platform complete with virtual screening rooms, lounge areas, and waiting rooms. And while I’ll miss the late-night parties and bustling crowds of Main Street, this remote festival has me incredibly excited for the future of virtual live events.
Beginning January 28th, those with the $25 Explorer Pass can visit newfrontier.sundance.org on a computer or WebXR-compatible VR headset to access a custom-built social platform built in collaboration with creative studio Active Theory. Before hopping into the virtual world, attendees select their name and choose a personal photo (preferably the one you used for your badge) to serve as the head of their avatar. Once finished with customization, they are then transported directly to their very own Space Garden, a beginner world where they can find additional information on scheduled screenings, practice navigating their adorable avatar body, and sneak a peek at the International Space Station.
Chatting with other users is as simple as walking up to their avatars and accepting permission to engage in proximity chat. This creates a digital bubble around you and any nearby avatars, allowing you to engage in group conversations (up to eight users in one bubble). Some rooms (Film Party) allow those with a webcam to stream video directly to their avatar, replacing the static image they selected before with a talking head. In addition to computers, those with a compatible VR headset can immerse themselves further in the experience via a WebXR browser, such as the Oculus Browser on the Oculus Quest/Quest 2. A complete list of all users in the room can also be accessed, allowing you to locate specific attendees with ease.
Attendees can choose from three digital venues to explore: The New Frontier Gallery, Cinema House, and Film Party.
NEW FRONTIER GALLERY
The first, The New Frontier Gallery, is where attendees can find the complete slate of New Frontier projects, including VR, AR, and other emerging media. Lining the virtual walls of the Gallery are images of every project in attendance as well as instructions on how to access them. Some will require the use of specific VR hardware while others can be enjoyed straight from your computer. While most of these experiences will be available 24/7 throughout the festival, some performance-based projects will be scheduled for specific time slots, so plan accordingly. Like Space Garden, here you can audio chat with other attendees in your proximity between the hours of 11:00 AM and 11:59 PM MT.
Then there’s Cinema House, another virtual environment serving as the digital screening room for a handful of highly-anticipated premieres, including the following (as provided by Sundance):
- This Is the Way We Rise [1/29 – 8 PM MT ]
- My Own Landscapes [1/29 – 8 PM MT ]
- Tears Teacher [1/29 – 8 PM MT ]
- The Fourfold [1/29 – 8 PM MT ]
- A Concerto Is A Conversation [1/29 – 8 PM MT ]
- Station to Station [1/31 – 3 PM MT]
- Users (2021 US Doc Competition) [2/1 – 7 PM MT]
- Mother of George [2/2 – 5 PM MT]
Attendees are free to chat 10 minutes before each film, after which point the room is silenced for the duration of the screening. Once finished with a Q&A, attendees are then transported to the third and final virtual world, Film Party.
It wouldn’t be Sundance without the one-of-a-kind parties. Described by event organizers as an “interactive bar,” Film Party is the place to be after each screening. Complete with six screens hosting premiere parties for each of the feature films world premiering at the festival, here creators can chat with attendees about what they just saw, take photos, and enjoy a virtual cocktail (or a real one depending on your physical setup). Sundance has even partnered with Oculus to offer each creator their own headset, allowing them to interact more naturally with guests. Proximity audio and video chat are enabled throughout the hours of 11:00 AM MT and 11:59 PM MT.
“The main feature here in Film Party are the people; the people and the filmmakers and the films,” said Shari Frilot, Chief Curator of the New Frontier program, while speaking to VRScout. “So it’s really all about being able to catch up with folks and bring that serendipity, that community; allowing us to gather safely and build our community.”
Not sure what to check out? You can find a full list of this years’ submissions here. Below are just a handful of projects that caught our eye:
- 4 Ft High VR
- Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran (Performance)
- Traveling With Interstitium with Octavia Butler (Device: Computer)
- Weirdo Night (Device: Computer)
- The Changing Same
- Prison X-Chapter 1: The Devil and The Sun
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 28th to February 4th. Those with the Explorer Pass (available now for $25) will have access to the New Frontier areas and curated works, Indie Series, and Shorts programs. The easiest way to access the virtual platform is through newfrontier.sundance.org.
“The beating heart of our film festival, the beating heart of New Frontier, has always been the conversations and the people in the community,” added Frilot. “So that was one of the first things we went to is to try to figure out how to get the community on to the platform and then show the programming. And I’m really I’m ecstatic with how this turned out.”
For more information on this years’ offerings visit here.
Feature Image Credit: Sundance Institute