How VR Has Changed Sundance Forever

Filmmaker Sam Macaroni discusses his time at Sundance, and the affect VR has had on the festival.

Sam Macaroni, a virtual reality (VR) film maker who’s previous experience include projects with Jaunt VR and Disney, recently took part in a panel at the Sundance Film Festival 2017. While Macaroni’s new projects, currently in development at his own studio, Thundership, remain a closely guarded secret, he was more than happy to discuss his appearance and the lessons learned with VRFocus.

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Despite being deeply involved in a career that is still to find meaning amongst a core demographic, Macaroni is not one to shy away from respecting his peers when deserved. In the interview below, Macaroni discusses the panel he appeared on at the Sundance Film Festival 2017, the noteworthy commentary of his fellow panellists and the affect VR is having on the annual motion-picture event.

VRFocus: You recently appeared on a panel at Sundance. Could you tell us about the theme of the panel and how it relates to your previous work?

Sam Macaroni [SM]: The panel was called “Creative Storytelling in VR” and was hosted by Nokia OZO. I was there to speak about innovation in VR. I spoke about some of the complicated rigs that I’ve built through my company Thundership in order to capture moving shots in my action films. I’m currently working on an action piece that uses four custom camera support rigs, a two-minute drone shot and multiple cuts. A year ago I would have called myself nuts, but it’s turning out pretty awesome. I’ve achieved some things that have never been done before.

VRFocus:Can you tell us who else appeared on the panel? Did you have any previous relationship with these speakers?

SM: Other panelists were Hal Kirkland (Kids), Josema Roig (The Argos File), Tim Dillon (Suicide Squad, Heroes), Melissa Painter (Heroes). The panel was hosted by OZO and moderated by Csilla Kozma from OZO. I had never met any of the panellists but I was impressed with all of them. After the panel I was talking with Kirkland who directed the OneRebublic VR experience for the song kids. He said, “The thing I like most about the panel was the diversity of the VR filmmakers and their approaches. Each of us came from such different backgrounds and are currently exploring unique sections of this new frontier, and yet we’re all united in the single minded purpose of pushing this medium as far as it can go.”

Likewise, Roig said, “it is an honor to be surrounded by creators that want to push the envelope, and are willing to fail miserably if need be. And it will need be. These are the good old days of VR, and they’ll look simpler one day… in the meantime there’s a good amount of “you can’t do that” and “hey y’all watch me.” I’m honored to be with these guys as part of the latter.”

Sundance 2017 'Creative Storytelling in VR' Panel

VRFocus: What were the key messages of the panel? Did you agree with the takeaway from other panelists?

SM: One thing that was stressed many times by all of us was that there are still no rules in VR. You hear people all the time say, ‘you can’t do this in VR, you can’t do that…’ but it’s way too early to have a VR rulebook. My rule is ‘try anything’. That’s not to say I don’t obsess and plan each shot carefully, but if I think something might make someone sick I’ll try to figure out why and find a solution that works. We need bold choices in VR in order to learn from each other. Roig directed Argos Files which won a Proto award last year. When I saw it, I was amazed because it’s a fast paced exciting piece filmed first person style and he’s moving the camera all over the place. I was thrilled and actually learned a lot from it.

VRFocus: Outside of the panel, was there any innovation in VR storytelling that caught your attention at Sundance?

SM: Going to Sundance this year was amazing because the VR buzz was overwhelming. Everywhere I went people we talking about it. The New Frontier program has grown to become a major presence at the festival in just a few short years. We really are at the beginning of a new media form. The morning that I showed up in Utah was the morning that the Academy Awards announced the nomination for the VR experience, Pearl. You can imagine how excited the VR crowd was. We were all clinking glasses, going: “We’re in! That’s it… you can’t ignore us now!”

One of the VR projects that caught my attention was Chris Milk’s Life Of Us experience. It blew my mind because you and a friend are in separate dark rooms and you both get strapped into HTC Vive headsets and are thrust into the experience together. Throughout the entire three minutes you can talk to one another as well as help each other through the adventure. When I took my headset off, I completely forgot I was standing in a dark room all by myself. I had just had this totally amazing shared experience with my friend.

Afterwards, I was talking to Milk about Life Of Us and I was telling him that he opened my mind to the fact that two people from different parts of the world could literally hang out in VR and go on an adventure together. VR doesn’t have to be a solitary experience, it can be shared in a really exciting way. He said that’s exactly what he was trying to do with the piece. I was really impressed.

Life of Us logo

VRFocus: VR is a very fast moving medium, and many are predicting a rapid increase in the quality of VR storytelling throughout 2017. What are your expectations for VR at Sundance next year?

SM: The New Frontier team is amazing and I expect big things from them next year. This year, they had a lot of installations that used VR, AR and also an interactive element. One piece put you in a room where amazing animations were projected onto the walls while actors interacted with them and told a spectacular story. It was truly VR without a headset.

While we’re still in the nascence of VR and headsets, we’re really talking about VR, AR and mixed reality. As technology evolves it opens up new way for consumers to enjoy immersive experiences. This opens up new avenues for IP owners, tech companies and illustrious filmmakers to jump in.

I think VR will be even bigger next year at Sundance as more and more storytellers experiment and create. Someone told me that when the New Frontiers first launched it was in a very tiny room. This year it was in a massive three-story building with lines outside while people tried to get in. Maybe ten years from now, you won’t even have to go to Sundance and brave the cold to be a part of it… after all, it is VR.

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