Immersive group experiences are being incorporated into New Frontier, a showcase for virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other new media.
(Isara Chen | courtesy Sundance Institute) Taiwanese performer Ctwo (center) is the star of John Hsu’s “Your Spiritual Temple Sucks,” which will appear in the New Frontier VR Experiences program of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Eyes and ears aren’t enough for the New Frontier program, the most experimental part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
“New Frontier’s always had an interest in immersive storytelling, storytelling that engages the body,” said Shari Frilot, the Sundance programmer who curates New Frontier, whose slate of 27 programs was revealed Wednesday.
Many of the works in New Frontier are virtual-reality programming, which require headsets that seem to surround the viewer with image and sound.
One work, an animated adaptation of author Neil Gaiman’s “Wolves in the Walls,” makes the viewer a participant in the story, Frilot said. The work’s creators, Pete Billington and Jessica Shamash, workshopped the piece with an immersive theater troupe, Third Rail, to figure out how to make the characters move in relation to the viewer.
This year’s programs also include augmented reality and mixed-reality, which use a smartphone to incorporate computer-generated objects with real images taken by the phone’s camera.
The New Frontier will be on display in three Park City locations during the festival. The Kimball Art Center, at 1401 Kearns Blvd., will play host to immersive dance and VR, mixed-reality and AI works. Mobile VR programs will be shown at the VR Bar at the Music Cafe, at 751 Main St., after the concerts are done. And The New Frontier at The Ray, downstairs in the former Sports Authority storefront in Holiday Village, will be home to a full range of new-media works.
The location at The Ray will also feature The Box, a mobile VR cinema that seats 40 people on swivel chairs — a bridge between the solitary effect of wearing VR goggles and the communal experience of seeing a movie.
“It brings a warmth and a new meaning to the experience,” Frilot said.
Two of the projects dabble in artificial intelligence. Perhaps the most arresting example is “Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made by Many,” which takes a cue from Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel “Frankenstein,” which will celebrate its 200th birthday in January.
The work invites a group of people to meet a machine intelligence that asks questions. “The questions it’s drawing out from the audience are about their hopes and their fears,” Frilot said. “Those are the qualities that are feeding the artificial intelligence.” Those answers are processed, along with pre-programmed knowledge of Shelley’s novel, to explore age-old issues of creative and scientific boundaries.
The works in New Frontier, Frilot said, are made by “artists who are wanting to tell stories in certain ways, and as a result creating new technology to do it.”
Frilot cited the work of Australian filmmaker Lynette Wallworth, whose new work “Awavena” takes viewers into the lives of an indigenous Amazonian people. As she was working on the film, Frilot said, a headset manufacturer approached Wallworth about partnering on the project, providing technology to match the story she’s trying to tell.
Some of New Frontier’s titles are one-of-a-kind events that meld film with live performance. One of the highlights will be “A Thousand Thoughts,” a film portrait of Kronos Quartet, the legendary classical music group. The film is narrated live by co-director Sam Green, and Kronos Quartet performs the soundtrack live onstage.
The 2018 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 18-28 in Park City, and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort.