How a queer black filmmaker made virtual reality a reality at Sundance

When Shari Frilot first kicked off New Frontier, an exhibit that pushes the boundaries of traditional storytelling through art and technology, at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2007, the attending press didn't quite know what to make of it or the works on display.

"People came and they had no idea what we were doing, but they thought it was really cool," says Frilot of that inaugural exhibit. "And people were calling it 'art at Sundance.' So we had to fight that in the press. We're decidedly not doing an art show."

New Frontier may not be an art show housed within the grander show that is Sundance in Park City, Utah, but it certainly welcomes the convergence of that world with those of technology and cinema. The exhibit, now in its ninth year, even attracts the participation of bold-faced names. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Franco are just two examples of the high-profile Hollywood talent Frilot, the exhibit's curator, says have sought out New Frontier as a venue for their work. "[2010] was a big corner turn where we started to see major players in the film world looking to New Frontier for opportunities. That was a big shift. It brought the profile that they bring to it," she says.

This year, although Hollywood is once again paying attention and participating in New Frontier (see: Fox Searchlight's Wild - the Experience with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern), it's not the star attraction. Virtual reality is. Eleven cinematic works, which run the gamut from the immersive journalism of Nonny de la Peña's Project Syria to the sensory simulation of bird flight in Birdly to the point-of-view and gender shifts of Perspective, will all be on display and freely open to the public. And all will feature a VR twist.

Inside the New Frontier exhibit in 2009.

"This year's show is the beginning stages," says Frilot. "We're going to see the very beginning engagement of storytellers from all different walks of life -- from media-science labs to straight-up filmmakers to journalists to performance artists [to] installation artists. You'll see nine different approaches to telling the story with [VR]. It just really speaks to what may really lie in the future for this."

You can thank the rise of YouTube and the likes of artists Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and Matthew Barney (The Cremaster Cycle) and the works they were producing in the early 2000s for inspiring Frilot to create New Frontier. "We started to see a lot of film coming out of the art world into Sundance that was just ready for the close-up," she says. "That's where New Frontier came from. These two important things were happening that were so relevant to the festival ... this major advance in moving-image culture on the internet and what was happening in the art world."

"People were calling it 'art at Sundance.' So we had to fight that in the press. We're decidedly not doing an art show."

Beyond seizing upon the zeitgeist, Frilot's background as a filmmaker and, in particular, the frustration she experienced when making the festival rounds with her first film also contributed to the genesis of New Frontier. Seeking to break her work out of the "black gay section" where it would inevitably wind up and foster a larger conversation around it, Frilot decided to organize a festival of her own called Mix. And it was there that she began to experiment with the inclusion of technology in festival work. In 1994, Frilot held Mix's first digital showcase, which featured CD-ROM works. "It is a direct line from that work to what I'm doing at New Frontier," she says.

Shari Frilot poses with Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Frilot eventually moved on from Mix to Outfest, where she created Platinum, a festival section dedicated to highlighting experimental work. And then within that came a "racy" multimedia performance art subsection called Platinum Oasis in 2000. It was then that Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper, whom she'd worked with at Outfest, tasked her with creating something similarly inventive in Park City. "Cooper was like, 'How can we bring Platinum to Sundance?'" Frilot says of New Frontier's beginnings.

"I was also very convinced that if we bring [together] these three siloed areas [film, tech and art], then something larger than the sum of its parts would come out of it. VR culminates that dream," Frilot says of this year's lineup.

"My relationship with Oculus is from the cradle. Palmer was an intern when he was at New Frontier. There was no Oculus."

New Frontier is also somewhat of an incubator for new technologies. Just three years ago, in fact, a plucky, teenaged Sundance intern teamed up with a journalist (de la Peña) to tell her stories using prototype equipment. That intern was none other than Palmer Luckey -- founder of Oculus, the billion-dollar virtual reality startup acquired by Facebook last year.

Of New Frontier's early involvement with Oculus, Frilot explains, "My relationship with Oculus is from the cradle. Palmer was an intern when he was at New Frontier. There was no Oculus. It was just what Nonny was doing and this incredibly talented teenager and what he had made. And it was me tracking an artist that had been at a festival. I had no idea two years later it would be a billion-dollar company. I really didn't know that. I just believed in the technology."

New Frontier Press Preview - 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Nonny de la Peña demos her virtual reality project at New Frontier in 2012.

You could call it an extremely providential case of "right place, right time," but Frilot insists that it's merely a product of New Frontier's pioneering spirit. That's the nature of her show and her accidental curation. "It's more of a subjective process," she explains. "It's different from art curation for a museum. [It] doesn't start with a show that I'd like to put together. I come up with a curatorial statement ... after I see the body, after I get down to the shortlist."

"I feel responsible to find ways to present this VR which can be very isolating a social way; in a way that then encourages people to come out of the goggles and talk to each other."

What's more, submissions to exhibit at New Frontier work differently from the open-call process of the greater Sundance Film Festival. "It is more of a solicitation process," she says. Frilot actively researches and networks at different events and festivals, and then requests works from artists she's interested in. And, occasionally, those artists may even gain entry into Sundance's New Frontier creative workshop or "Story Lab," as was the case for this year's 1979 Revolution, a documentary-cum-videogame about the Iranian Revolution created by former Rockstar developers.

Given Frilot's organic approach to curating New Frontier and its progressive foundation, it's understandable that she's hesitant to describe the exhibit as a showcase for virtual reality. Even Frilot's curatorial statement for this year's show skirts around that particular wording, opting instead to emphasize "the new forms of immersive media." Still, VR is undeniably the main thrust of the exhibit, a fact best evidenced by Google's participation in giving away 8,000 units of Cardboard.

Cardboard, Google's DIY approach to virtual reality.

"It really makes VR super accessible and DIY. And I love the DIY aspect of it," Frilot says of her decision to give away Cardboard. "It's really in line with Sundance and a lot of filmmakers and how they make their films. ... I'm interested in other classes being able to touch this stuff."

For all its accessibility, Frilot's aware Google's VR tech can still be somewhat intimidating to the uninitiated, which is why New Frontier will be holding daily workshops to get folks acquainted with it. And in the evenings, Google plans to host happy hour workshops where attendees can gather to learn how to assemble and use Cardboard, as well as engage in conversations about their VR experiences. That's Frilot's hope, anyway.

"As an exhibitor," she says, "I feel responsible to find ways to present this VR, which can be very isolating, in a social way; in a way that then encourages people to come out of the goggles and talk to each other. New Frontier has always been about that."

[Image credits: 2007 Rebecca Sapp/WireImage (lede image); 2009 Jemal Countess/WireImage (festival shot); Kim Raff/Getty Images (Shari Frilot and Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Getty Images (Nonny de la Peña)]