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Virtual reality bursts through the movie screen at Sundance

What if watching a movie was more like being inside the movie? With virtual reality, your brain can be tricked into believing that you’re flying or in a different country -- a powerful creative tool for storytellers. Jeffrey Brown visits the Sundance Film Festival to witness how filmmakers are beginning to use the burgeoning technology.

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    Finally tonight: the power and appeal of virtual reality and what it could mean for storytelling. It's long been discussed in video games and other media. Now its moment appears to be arriving in the world of film. It's getting a lot of buzz at one of the country's major film festivals this week.

    Here's Jeffrey Brown.


    I am flying through San Francisco.

    Yes, it's true. I'm a bird soaring among the buildings of the city by the bay.

    I crashed.

    Well, I sure felt like I was flying. But I'm actually stretched out somewhat awkwardly on a contraption called Birdly. And I'm in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival, where one of the main attractions this year is an exhibition called New Frontier, showcasing a new world filmmakers are now exploring, virtual reality.

    Shari Frilot served as curator.

    SHARI FRILOT, Curator, "New Frontier": In terms of what's coming out of the storytelling community, we're really starting to see the first steps, the first baby steps of what is to come, but I do think it's going to grow very big.


    One of the leaders is Chris Milk, who's made a name for himself as a director of music videos that push the envelope of technological effects.

    Here's how he describes the virtual reality, or V.R. difference.

  • CHRIS MILK, Filmmaker/Founder, VRSE.com:

    We always are watching the visual stories, the moving picture stories that we watch through these frames. It's always a frame, it's always a rectangle, whether it be your television set or your computer screen or a movie screen.


    Right, it's a screen of some kind. Right?


    Yes, but it's always — it's always a window that you're looking through.


    V.R. technology, Milk says, bursts through that window and takes you along.


    It's tricking your brain into believing what you are seeing is truth. So, even the…


    Tricking my brain?


    Tricking your brain.




    So, it is essentially hacking your audio and visual system.


    Now, I'm not sure I want my brain hacked, frankly, but I did strap on the headset, and first entered Milk's fantasy film "Evolution of Verse," and then his nonfiction film, "Clouds Over Sidra," which took me inside a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

    It's hard to convey on your screen, but the sensation is one of being in the camp as a young girl talks about life there. It was shot with a 3-D 360-degree camera system, using eight different cameras. The Middle East, in fact, was the focus of several projects here.

    NONNY DE LA PENA, University of Southern California: For most Americans, the story of Syria is so far away. They don't really understand what's happened to the millions of people. I think that you're able to understand the impact for people just going about their daily business when a bomb hits.


    Somebody walks right past me.

    And that's what happens in "Project Syria," created by filmmaker Nonny de la Pena, who approaches virtual reality as a journalistic tool.

    Here, I walk down a street in Aleppo. This is animation made from video of an actual street, when a bomb suddenly exploded.

    Whoa. An explosion goes off. Smoke's everywhere. People are yelling.

    An actual event, experienced virtually.

    And now I'm in a refugee camp.

    De la Pena, a former print and TV journalist, thinks the visceral impact of V.R. could bring new audiences to the news.


    Younger audiences are growing up now very comfortable with digital environments, with having avatars, and they may not be reading the newspaper or watching television. And I think that these are environments that are really important to think about how do we do news stories, nonfiction and documentary.


    Now, there's reason for skepticism here. Much of this can feel like you're merely playing a high-level video game.

  • WOMAN:

    How does that feel?


    But the technology is improving for V.R. creators, and opening up to the public.

    There was much talk here about the potential impact of Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift, makers of one system of headgear and software, for $2 billion. It's also getting cheaper for consumers. Google Cardboard uses your smartphone as the video player and sells for just $20.

    The real question, it seems, isn't so much technology as storytelling. For now, V.R. is good at immersion, putting you into situations, into a horror film, as in "Kaiju Fury!"

    In "1979 Revolution Game," you take part in a street demonstration during the Iranian Revolution. But more intriguing, and more difficult is how to use V.R. to tell complex stories.

    Another top innovator, Felix Lajeunesse, explains.

    FELIX LAJEUNESSE, Felix & Paul Studios: I originally come from a background of traditional filmmaking. And I migrated towards virtual reality. So, it's a fundamentally different medium in the fact that, first of all, the viewer is there. The viewer is no longer an abstraction, but he is part of the experience.

    So you need to think of how you will articulate your story or the moment that you create, considering the fact that there is a subjectivity at the heart of it. There is someone there.


    That someone is you, or, in this case, me.

    The traditional filmmaker directs the viewer's eye through shots picked, edits made, and so on. But what happens when you control the movement? How can a story be told? And who's telling it? Lajeunesse drew from the recent film "Wild" to create a fully immersive environment for the viewer, again, impossible to convey here, but I found myself sitting on a rock, looking around the woods as Reese Witherspoon walked down the path, sat down, and looked right at me.

    She's looking at me and I wanted to talk to her. I mean, eventually, will I get to talk to her in a virtual reality film?


    Well, it's — you will have to give us maybe 10 years for that to be actually possible.



    But I think for now, it just brings you in that place where, if she looks at you, it engages you emotionally in a very special way.


    But you think in 10 years?


    For a proper piece of storytelling that was pre-recorded to be sort of interacting with whatever you're saying, it feels complex, but probably not impossible.


    Not impossible. But will we want it?

    Chris Milk, who's thought deeply about the evolution of story-telling, sees V.R. as a logical future step, one not so far removed from that very old-fashioned technology, the book.


    You read a book and there is print, ink on a page, and your brain reads those words and it says, these two people are standing in a field, and you imagine the two people standing in a field.

    And there's a suspension of disbelief that your brain goes through to put you inside of the story. Same thing with all — basically all other forms of media, whereas, in virtual reality, you actually have to remind yourself not to believe. You look this way, you see that way. You exist within the world. And existing within the world is a very powerful thing.


    Indeed it is.

    It was the poet Wordsworth who wrote, "The world is too much with us."

    But if you want even more, look out. Virtual reality is coming right at you.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Sundance Film Festival for the PBS NewsHour.