VR at the Sundance Film Fest is on a mission to challenge the traditional models of filmmaking and storytelling, by emphasizing location and perspective. Storytelling has become more than just presenting a story rather VR filmmakers are using immersive technology to place the viewer in one. WIth no standard way to do things, directors and filmmakers have had to push the boundaries of both their art and the capabilities of immersive VR tech.

We sifted five films from over 20 VR films featured at the festival that not only used these same elements of VR storytelling but also expanded and pushed further what a director could do with the medium.

THE SUN LADIES VR

Calling themselves the Sun Ladies, an army of about 2,000 self-trained Yazidi women are fighting back against ISIS in the sands of the Middle East. This immersive documentary takes the viewer deep into the heart of the conflict, utilizing VR to place the viewer face to face with the brutal reality these ladies live with and fight for, every day. Each fighter is a former captive of a brutal ISIS conquest in 2014, taken from their homes and forced into sex-slavery. They now take on their former captors in the name of human civility and decency.

Beyond being an emotional story, The Sun Ladies VR explores new boundaries for a VR documentary. The film blends live action 360-degree video and animation. Wesley Allsbrook, the artist behind Dear Angelica, recreated scenes in Quill that filmmakers were unable to capture. The end user is seamless and purposeful, adding another dimension of immersion.

MASTERS OF THE SUN

A 90-minute creative venture by the Black Eyed Peas, Masters of the Sun is an unprecedentedly complete usage of VR in storytelling. By giving the viewer control over the pace of the comic book-themed animated experience, it gives the viewer a sense of agency over the project.

The Black Eyed Peas did not simply decide to dip their feet into the VR entertainment waters but are instead trying to start a movement within the entertainment industry. “We need new ways of monetizing in the industry, and artists also need to be in control of those new business models,” will.i.am said in an interview with Forbes. More plans are in the works to collaborate with well-known musical artists to create new VR experiences in an attempt to change the industry standard and allow for their artistic expression to find new mediums.

The film explores two areas that are often debated amongst creatives: audience control and film length. At 90 minutes, Masters of the Sun far exceeds the 15-minute short VR films that are commonly available today. User agency has also been a discussed feature as filmmakers can no longer control where the viewer looks in a VR experience, and there is a creative possibility of adding interaction. The film has an appropriate amount of agency for the experience, as its viewers set the pace of the comic book VR experience.

ISLE OF DOGS (behind the scenes)

In promotion of his upcoming non-VR film, Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson experimented with the story-telling medium, filming in VR to create a behind-the-scenes experience on the film’s set. The viewer is shrunk to the size of the dogs of the film, allowing the viewer to hear interviews from the actors playing each dog as the character, and walk about the miniature set of the film. As the film itself is created using stop-motion (a favored technique of Anderson's), the experience feels like a person is another prop in the movie. In front, the imagination of Anderson's set, while the crew seems to move in fast forward to make the stop-motion elements possible.

WOLVES IN THE WALLS

In a stylized blend of artistry, storytelling, and VR, this film tells the quaint story of eight-year-old Lucy who believes there are wolves living in the walls of her home. Based on the highly acclaimed 2003 book, the film expands the fly-on-the-wall VR experience by handing the controls to the viewer. The viewer plays a role in the film itself, as Lucy’s only confidant.

This goes beyond a simple shattering of the fourth wall with Lucy speaking directly to the viewer. The viewer truly interacts with Lucy, developing and sustaining a relationship with her, and otherwise playing an active role in the story being created before them. By playing the role of her imaginary friend, Wolves in the Walls takes the critically-acclaimed children's book and brings it to life in a beautifully crafted adventure that turns the viewer into a character.

SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime

In a tale about the collision of two black holes, this 360-degree film explores the expanses of space in the first of three installments of the film series - the rights to the name were acquired for an unspecified seven-figure amount. CityLights, a new company focused on film distribution, announced it is acquiring Spheres to distribute the film beyond Oculus Rift, as already planned for its premiere.

As the first major acquisition of a VR film, this is indicative of growing support for the medium and the consensus that 360-degree film has a place in the entertainment industry. Whether it will replace traditional filmmaking is impossible to say at this point in time, but the creation and acquisition of stunning projects like this show that immersive filmmaking is definitely here to stay.

Article by Andrew Wei, an associate analyst with Greenlight Insights.