At the Sundance Film Festival, the first thing anyone asks you—especially while shivering under a heat lamp waiting in line for free shuttles that run between makeshift screening venues—is: “What have you seen?”
There are two reasons for this. First, no one wants to miss out on the hot movie of the moment so they can say, at a later date, “Oh, yeah, I caught that at Sundance.” But mostly it’s to help them avoid films that lack “festival buzz,” are too depressing, or excessively experimental.
However, word to the wise: if you’d like a heat lamp all to yourself, do what I did: tell them you hadn’t seen any movies, and instead hung out in the VR cubes downtown.
Yes, my time in Park City was spent inside Eliza McNitt’s Spheres, which is part of Sundance’s New Frontier program. I slipped into a snug VR headset, and drifted into space as two black holes collided and gravitational waves spun out across the cosmos. The voice of Academy Award-nominated actress Jessica Chastain guided me to activate the hand controllers, zoom upwards towards the light, and listen for the celestial harmonic sounds of the universe. “Gravity is a warp in spacetime,” she told me.
With this explanation, my heat lamp companions moved swiftly to the next bus shelter. But Sundance 2018 might well be the last year anyone is surprised that attendees are there for Extended Reality (XR) experiences instead of traditional movies. Within days of the festival opening, Spheres—executive produced by Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures—was bought by CityLights, in the first-ever seven-figure distribution deal for the Frontier program. It will debut on Oculus later this year.
Made With Unity
Approximately 70 percent of interactive New Frontier projects were Made with Unity for Sundance 2018, including Spheres. At the festival, PCMag met up with Unity Technologies executives Isabelle Riva, who heads up the Made with Unity program, and Adam Myhill, Head of Cinematics. Neither were surprised by Spheres’ success.
“Her VR experience uses Unity in some really powerful ways,” Myhill said of McNitt. “From the fully 3D audio, to the scale of the universe and how it’s rendered. Plus that gravitational lensing effect was amazing.”
“We view Sundance as the start of our curation season for 2018,” said Riva. “In that it’s crucial for us, because it’s the first festival of the year, and lets us see which creators are really standing out, like McNitt, and whose work is resonating with audiences. Our purpose in being here is to support artists, and to champion those creators who are about to make it big.”
By sending executives to Sundance, Unity is going beyond the usual software evangelists road warrior trope, where sales staff do demos and keep track of key clients. Hiring former TV and games producer Riva means the tech company is serious about not just identifying future stars, like McNitt, using Unity, but in providing a film school-style online community where they can learn from each other.
“We have a SWAT team who support key productions,” Riva explained. “For example, Yibing Jiang, who joined us as tech art supervisor, after working at Naughty Dog, Pixar and Disney, is lending her eye and talent to everything we do. She’s creating her own demos internally, to share with developers, illustrating how to make magic with our tech as it goes into future builds of Unity.”
To be clear, Unity does not want to get into financing and development of projects. “We are not going to become a production studio,” said Riva. “That’s not our aim. We don’t want to compete with creatives who use Unity, we want to support them.”
To do this, Unity had a big presence at the festival, hosting masterclasses for aspiring artists where top VFX/CG and film creatives gave insider tips and shared tales from the pre- and post-production trenches. On various panels were Academy Award winner Ben Grossmann of Magnopus, Pixar’s John Halstead, Technical Director for Coco (above), BAFTA winner Habib Zargapour (Blade Runner 2049) and Wes Potter of Digital Monarch Media, who (sadly) stayed suitably discreet about the work he did on the upcoming Ready Player One.
“We’re making it clear that titans of filmmaking are using Unity,” said Riva. “Just as much as indies are. We’re in every aspect of the pipeline, depending on how Unity is used, and we really feel we’re powering the future of filmmaking.”
On a side note, as you might expect, Sundance is not just a place to catch screenings, but to see anyone who’s anyone in Hollywood, as they’re all there, so Myhill was kept busy geeking out with key Hollywood tech types.
“I’m meeting with cinematographers on my wishlist, and, in fact there were two, whose names I can’t mention, that sought us out,” said Myhill. “They came because they heard about our intelligent cameras inside Cinemachine, which give them greater power and control. Our real-time engine, which gives DPs the ability to do experimentation and rapid iteration, to build on successes, and they’re seeing Unity as a creative playpen for them to explore the future.”
Riva and Myhill’s experience at Sundance is a blueprint for the rest of the year. At last count, there are now 37 VR film festivals in the US alone, but the next big one is SXSW Virtual Cinema, where Unity will have a significant presence and be on the hunt for breakout stars, like Eliza McNitt, who are proving there’s big money (at last) to be made in XR worlds.
Sophia Stuart was a guest of Unity at the Sundance Film Festival.