Sundance festival views tech through wide angle

More than ever, Robert Redford's independent film festival will focus on technology, particularly in the area of emerging media.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
5 min read
Ian Calderon, who heads up digital initiatives for the Sundance Film Institute, sees technology as an independent filmmaker's paintbrush, a tool that helps the artist tell a story.

That toolbox, however, has expanded well beyond digital cameras and editing software. It's full of evolving media technologies such as mobile video-playing devices with bigger screens and better storage, social-networking and video-sharing sites, and even virtual worlds.

Ian Calderon
Credit: Directors Guild of America
Ian Calderon, director of digital
initiatives at the Sundance Film
Institute, says independents
embrace new technologies.

"These kinds of things are getting closer together instead of further apart," Calderon said. "The possibilities and permutations of distribution are expanding so rapidly...these developments are good things for artists."

Such developments will share the spotlight in coming days as the Sundance Film Festival--Robert Redford's annual independent film showcase--also pans in this year on emerging and converging technologies and their implications for the filmmaking world. The festival takes place January 18 to 28 in Park City, Utah.

Most notably, the festival has renamed its media center "New Frontier," which is also the name of a category of films showcasing the intersection of art and new technology. The New Frontier center will be a venue for films, as well as related media installations and performances, and panel discussions.

Panel topics will include the business of Web 2.0 as it pertains to user-generated media, and independent video gaming as a new medium for film artistry.

"Independent filmmakers were the first to embrace digital technology, then Hollywood caught up," Calderon said, adding that likewise, independents will be the ones pushing the limits of new technologies. "The technology and the creative community need to rely on each other. They need to coexist with mutual respect."

In an example of what the industry calls "media convergence," Lynn Hershman Leeson will be the first filmmaker to screen a feature-length film in the virtual world of Second Life. In her documentary, Strange Culture, actors interpret the legally touchy subject of artist Steve Kurtz, whose work led the FBI to detain him as a suspected bioterrorist. Avatars of Leeson, Kurtz and actress Tilda Swinton will be present for the premiere.

"The technology and the creative community need to rely on each other. They need to coexist with mutual respect."
--Ian Calderon, Sundance Film Institute

Also taking place at New Frontier will be a daily casting of "soapisode," jointly scripted and shot by mobile phone users at the festival. And in another area at the New Frontier center, makers of Chasing Ghosts, a documentary tracking the arcade superstars of the 1980s, are bringing in old-school games like Tron and Pac-Man.

Meanwhile, the festival continues to expand its online options, which allow viewers to enjoy content without having to fight crowds and the cold. Not only will a sampling of the 71 short films selected for screening be streamed free of charge on the festival Web site, 32 will also be available for download at Apple's iTunes Store for $1.99 a pop. Last year, Sundance became the first major film festival to premiere films on the Internet in conjunction with their live premieres.

That option gives viewers a choice between watching films as a community experience on the big screen, or downloading them to view on-the-go or in the comfort of their homes. Calderon says this move is in response to consumer demand and a viewing experience reshaped by the likes of YouTube.

"They want content on demand, when they want it, where they want it, and they want to be able to take it with them," he said.

On the big screen
Technology will also play a major role in the screening rooms, which are located in the snowy resort town's multiplex, library and racquetball club. More than half, or 69, of the 123 feature-length films screening at the festival were filmed using a high-definition camera and will be shown on Sony HDcam, the festival's video format of choice. (Sony Electronics is a festival sponsor, along with tech brethren Hewlett-Packard, Adobe and AOL.)
David Sington
David Sington,
director, In the
Shadow of the Moon

For filmmakers like David Sington, who shot some 60 hours of interviews for his documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, on the surviving crew members of each Apollo mission, using film would have been "prohibitively expensive" and impractical. By shooting in video, he got "stunning" visual results while not having to interrupt the astronauts mid-interview for film changes or making them sweat under hot lights, he said.

Sington's film is without narrative, relying solely on the astronauts talking about their Apollo experience, what it means to them now, and what they would like to impart upon the next generation as it works to get back to the moon.

"Narration is fine, but it does stand between the viewer and the people in the film," said Sington, who spent 12 years making documentaries for the BBC before starting his own production company. "This way, you get to make up your own mind about what kind of people they were...at the end of the film, you've gotten to know them as people."

Producers on the film spent weeks in the NASA film library in Houston looking through cans of film unopened for 30 years and remastering shots in high definition. That entailed the tedious job of lip-syncing 16mm rolls shot in mission control with audio recordings from the mission controllers' voice loop that are now available through NASA's Web site.

The aforementioned Chasing Ghosts, the documentary on the golden age of the arcade, is another Sundance film that relies on high-definition video to keep costs down and allow for longer, uninterrupted interviews with top scorers.

First-time filmmakers Lincoln Ruchti and Michael Verrechia said complications arose in post-production, when they were trying to reassemble all the older video formats. Still, film was never a viable option for them, and the HD video "looks sweet."

Film artists have always had to contend with new technologies--TV, VCRs, DVRs and now mobile video players, to name a few--considered a threat to the film medium, Calderon said. But, he adds, those fears have never been realized. If anything, technology is making it easier for the everyday person to film, edit and distribute a movie, Calderon said.

"A camera you can buy now for under $5,000 would cost $100,000 five years ago. The burn rate of technology is so rapid. As soon as we have it home and unwrapped, they've got a new one out," he said. "You've just got to get out in front of it."