Sundance 2016: VR, Slamdance & Newtown

Posted By Audra Coulombe on January 29, 2016 12:28 pm | Permalink
Day 2.5 of Sundance started off with a visit to the Condition One VR installation on Main Street. I was on my Martian VR Experience high from the night before and wanted to go to other cool places in the world (or, you know, out of this world...right?). Luckily, there's no shortage of VR experiences at Sundance this year, and C1's VR exhibit was conveniently located in the middle of town. I started off saying hey to some wild animals in the "In The Presence of Animals" experience. 
Darlene at the exhibit told me that the creators set up a GoPro rig in the middle of several natural habitats, which was awesome for me because a jaguar pretty much came up to my face and then brushed against my leg. You can hear a grizzly sniffing you. Years of evolution told me to be a little timid, and I was surprised (then embarrassed) when I turned around and screamed because a giant bison was standing right behind me. The experience had a deeper, conservation-based message; at the end of the video, all of the animals that you were just standing with disappeared.

And then there was the factory-farming VR experience, and I was feeling brave, so I said okay, let's do this. About 10 minutes in though, I said NOPE. Nope, nope, nope. 

Here's the thing about VR documentaries: if a documentary-maker's goal is to make the viewer feel empathy, then VR is an extremely effective tool. I was sad when the animals on the frontier disappeared, and may have been motivated to take action should information be readily available. I wasn't ready for the Factory Farming experience, though. Creator and animal rights-activist Jose Valle (below) filmed from the animals' points of view, so the viewer is literally in the cages with them, even as they die. I didn't want to insult Jose, but that's when I took off the headset. His Factory Farming experience was well-executed and horrifying, and it satisfied his goal of showing the nature of factory farms from a very fly-on-the-wall perspective. I just wasn't ready to be so close to that particular story. VR puts you right next to your subject, seeing the world from their level, for better or worse. 

Next! I went up to the Slamdance portion of the festival for an animated shorts screening. There was roughly an hour's worth of animated pieces from all over the world. Two of the directors, James Siewart of "The Past Inside the Present" and Becky James of "Worm," came up to discuss their creative processes, and I was glad they were there to explain the stories behind their animations, and also the years of work that they put into those beautiful few minutes. Those two shorts were impressive, and you should definitely see them for yourselves when you can.

I loved Slamdance. It felt like a small, tight-knit, supportive family within the larger Sundance community. Highly recommend.

Finally, I went to see Newtown for my last event of the day. Newtown is the town right next to my hometown in Connecticut, so I was very apprehensive to see it. The events of 12/14/12 were literally very close to home, and I was nervous that it would be overly political or sensational. But it was done with a lot of sensitivity, and director Kim Snyder clearly took her time gaining the trust of a very devastated community. I cried the full 85 minutes, but please don't let that deter you. Just don't plan any picture days or job interviews for the next day. My eyes are still sort of swollen shut.

Below, filmmakers with Nicole Hockley (second from right), mother of Dylan Hockley, one of the victims of 12/14.

Audra Coulombe is Marketing Manager at The Molecule (, a VFX, MGFX, and VR studio based in New York City, with an office in Los Angeles too.