The cutting edge of storytelling through VR goggles will be front and center and all around at the festival, competing for attention with 120 feature-length films and dozens of shorts, representing the best of independent film from around the world.
"The technology [of VR] is getting to the point where we're creating very powerful experiences," said Dennis, a filmmaker based in Park City who's part of a team that has created "Condition One: In the Presence of Animals," a 4-minute VR experience showing bison, a grizzly, a jaguar and other endangered animals.
"In the Presence of Animals" is one of 30 VR works being shown at Sundance's New Frontier program. Those works cover nearly any genre one can imagine: comedy, horror, science fiction, animation, music videos and documentaries.
The rise of VR "has just been phenomenal," said Shari Frilot, a senior programmer at the festival and chief curator of New Frontier, which marks its 10th year at Sundance.
"At last year's festival, we showed about 11 or 12 [VR] works, and it was really hard to get all of them," Frilot said. "This year, it's 30 works, and I culled them from hundreds of submissions."
Emotional impact • For filmmakers, VR provides an immediacy they couldn't get with traditional movies.
Dennis had shot in combat situations, notably for his 2011 documentary about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, "Hell and Back Again," which won top prizes at Sundance and an Oscar nomination. But even that footage, he said, "wasn't able to convey the brutal reality of what I saw there."
Dennis co-founded Condition One, a San Francisco firm developing VR technology. The rig on which he and his team shot the "In the Presence of Animals" footage consists of 16 cameras, arranged in a sphere, each shooting in digital 3-D. The cameras' images are stitched together by software to create a seamless image no matter where the viewer looks.
Journalist Nonny de la Peña who coined the term "immersive journalism" to describe her work had her first VR experience a few years ago, in a virtual Guantanamo Bay detainment cell.
"When I did their walkaround, that was when I realized that was an incredibly impactful medium," she said in a phone interview. "It was transformative for me. … My whole life became about how to make better and more VR pieces."
In 2012, de la Peña unveiled New Frontier's first major VR installation: "Hunger in Los Angeles," which re-enacted a real-life incident at an overwhelmed soup-kitchen line. The installation employed a new type of headset, a prototype being developed by a then-19-year-old inventor, Palmer Luckey.
Though de la Peña's installation had some technical glitches when asked about the prototype goggles, she asked defensively, "Are you the guy who walked into the wall?" the emotional experience was potent.
On New Frontier's opening night, de la Peña recalled, the actor Gina Rodriguez watched "Hunger in Los Angeles." "She's taking the goggles off, and she's crying," de la Peña said. "It has that effect on people. … That emotional connection is so visceral."
This year at Sundance, de la Peña has created one VR experience and collaborated on another. The first, "Kiya," uses computer-animated figures and actual 911 calls to re-create a domestic-violence incident in which two sisters desperately try to save their sister from being killed by her boyfriend. The other, "Across the Line," re-creates the experience of entering an abortion clinic, past lines of shouting anti-abortion protesters.
Video artist Andrew Thomas Huang's first attempt at making a VR work was a spur-of-the-moment decision, while working on a shoot with the Icelandic singer Björk.
"Björk felt that the circular nature of the medium would work better for a song with a circular structure," Huang said in an email interview from London.
So, using a VR rig his producer had brought along, Huang shot Björk singing her song "Stonemilker" on the same beach where she wrote it. The VR video will play at New Frontier and is available now on iTunes for $2.99.
"VR gives you the opportunity to be extremely confrontational and viscerally direct with your viewer," Huang said. "Björk is delivering an emotion straight to you in your personal space, instead of inside a rectangular box."
Headsets at home • As more artists experiment with VR, more viewers will have the chance to watch VR than ever before.
More apps are being created that put the VR experience on people's smartphones. The New York Times, for example, made a splash last fall by releasing a VR documentary on the Syrian refugee crisis and giving away Google Cardboard headsets, which can cost around $20 each, to subscribers of the Sunday paper.
Then there's the high-end VR experience, which is where Palmer Luckey re-enters the story.
The same year Luckey deployed his prototype goggles in de la Peña's "Hunger in Los Angeles" installation, he formed a company, Oculus VR, to develop the headset for home video-game use. In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion, which Frilot jokingly called "the single most valuable acquisition in festival history."
Oculus last week started taking preorders for its first home headset, the Oculus Rift, promising delivery in the United States and 19 other countries starting March 28. The price tag: $599. (The $99 Samsung product the full name is the Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus allows owners to access Oculus' store for apps and content.)
Meanwhile, preorders for a rival headset, HTC's Vive, begin Feb. 29, for delivery later this year. Sony is expected to start selling its PlayStation VR headset in 2016. (Prices for the Vive and PlayStation VR have yet to be announced.)
Some of the VR experiences at Sundance's New Frontier to be housed in the new VR Bar in the Gateway Center, on Park City's Heber Avenue will employ either the Oculus Rift or Vive headsets. Others will use mobile-phone technology.
And while companies are preparing headsets for consumers, Oculus also has created a studio to help content creators figure out the tools of this new medium.
"It's really finding the tools where you, as a storyteller and an artist, can shape an experience," Saschka Unseld, creative director of Oculus Story Studio, said in a phone interview. "We've got to learn how to play the instrument, then we can write the songs."
As with any change in movie technology such as IMAX or the talkies there's a steep learning curve for artists to figure out what works and what doesn't.
Artists at Oculus Story Studio created a cartoon character, a hedgehog named Henry, to experiment with storytelling techniques. One of the first things they learned, Unseld said, is that the relationship with the audience is different in VR.
"With 'Henry,' we had to acknowledge the audience is right there," Unseld said. "In a movie, unless you're talking the fourth wall, you ignore the audience. … In VR, there is no fourth wall. You're actually in that world."
For Danfung Dennis, shooting in VR has meant keeping camera movements to a minimum, to keep viewers from getting nauseated. For the animal footage in "In the Presence of Animals," crews would set up the camera rig on a tripod, turn on the cameras and then go hide behind a bush so the filmmakers wouldn't be in the shot.
Huang compared VR to tapestries, "somewhat like the vast 14th-century scrolling scenes in a Bruegel or Bosch painting, where you can have an entire tableau of multiple narrative events unfolding before you. That's a bit more like how events in the world feel now and a bit more like how we process information, instead of single framed screens."
Sundance's Frilot sees VR as a natural evolution of how visual media have gone "from one that entertains to one that people use to communicate with each other." From YouTube posts to videos people exchange on their smartphones, Frilot said, "there's an immersive quality of media we hadn't seen before. … VR is kind of a culmination of this move toward immersive cultural experience."
New Frontier at Sundance
New Frontier, a home for video installation art and other experimental works, marks its 10th year at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs Jan. 21-31.
The program will be seen at three locations in Park City, running Jan. 22-30 (hours vary, check the festival guide at sundance.org for details):
The Claimjumper, 573 Main St., second and third floors.
The VR Bar, Gateway Center, 136 Heber Ave.
"Treachery of Sanctuary," an installation work by Chris Milk, at Festival Base Camp, 475 Swede Alley.