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Sundance: Stars, snow, and social cyborgs

Its first-ever 3D film screening is just one of the offerings creating a technology buzz at the annual indie film festival in Utah. Images: Splicing art, tech, film

Back in the early days of the Sundance Film Festival, when video was considered an emerging technology, there were independent filmmakers, and there were technologists. The two didn't typically go hand in hand.

Fast forward to this year's festival, which starts Thursday and will for the first time feature a 3D film, and indies and techies are one and the same. These days, it's near impossible to be the former without being the latter, what with the conveniences and opportunities that come with the likes of high-definition cameras, advanced editing software, and the Internet as a distribution tool.

So it's no surprise that the 2008 festival--an increasingly star-studded 10-day indie-film showcase in snowy Park City, Utah--has stepped up its technology-related programming. Amid the buzz about which films will be picked up by Hollywood studios, there will also be talk of 4K digital cameras and how to meet consumer demand for mobile content viewed on index-card-size screens.

"Over the years we've always tried to feature emerging tech and new methodology and approaches in film," said Ian Calderon, the Sundance Institute's director of digital initiatives. "This year that also includes 3D."

The film making Sundance history is U2 3D, a feature-length compilation of U2 concert footage shot using a new generation of digital 3D cinema technology in which those goofy blue and red cardboard shades of yesteryear's 3D films have been . The film's technology is the work of two companies: Burbank, Calif.,-based 3ality on the content side, and Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Real D on the exhibition side. And the Sundance premiere of the film will actually be shown in Dolby 3D Digital Cinema.

Also employing surround-sound technology, directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington take viewers on the band's South American Vertigo tour that attempts to "capture the band's relationship with each other and the resonant response of their fans," according to the film Web site. 3ality shot more than 100 hours of footage with "the largest collection of 3D camera technology ever used on a single project," the site says.

The film, which screened in May at the Cannes Film Festival, is scheduled to open in select U.S. and Canadian cities on January 23.

Coupled with the U2 3D screening, Sundance will be hosting a ticketed panel discussion on 3D technology led by BusinessWeek media columnist Jon Fine.

A couple of other 3D films were submitted to the festival this year, but U2 3D was the only one selected for screening, according to festival staff members, who expect even more such submissions next year.

The way Calderon sees it, the filmmaker's job always remains the same--to tell a story through the use of moving pictures. Advances in technology, however, continue to expand the creator's toolbox, and the festival has always been the place for conversation around such tools and shifts in the culture of film.

"The festival is really the ultimate form of social networking," he said.

Blazing the new frontier
Also in line with its spotlight on technology, for the second year in a row Sundance will feature a prominent venue called New Frontier on Main, which has become a sort of media center 2.0. Like the film category of the same name, New Frontier is meant to be a showcase of film and art and the cutting edge of cinematic culture.

To that end, the space will feature 15 installations by artists working in the moving-image medium.

"Their work is designed to physically engage the audience in a manner very different from the more passive experience of sitting in a darkened theater," said Shari Frilot, a senior programmer for the festival who curated the New Frontier installations.

"The festival is really the ultimate form of social networking."
--Ian Calderon, director of digital initiatives, Sundance Institute

The artists come from a wide range of disciplines. Some are filmmakers testing the art waters. Some are artists working in the film medium. Others still have programming or other technical backgrounds. All, Frilot said, are game for experimentation.

Among the installations, visitors will see a from which real-world jeans can be purchased on the spot; a video montage of the people and places of Oakland, Calif.; and a display of Web images tracking a man who created a network device after he was erroneously accused of terrorist activity and the FBI launched an investigation.

The large basement space will also house a slew of technology-related panels and presentations. Some of those, in addition to the aforementioned 3D panel, include "New Filmmaking Technology: What's New and What's next"; "Webolution!--Hollywood adapts to the Web"; "Alternative Storytelling for New Digital Media Platforms"; and "Social Cyborg: How Technology is Changing Us."

In another area of the New Frontier, venue sponsors Adobe Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony will show off their latest filmmaking wares, and will give presentations and conduct informal workshops to answer users' and prospective users' questions.

Film lovers don't, however, have to fight the crowds, glitterati, and record snowfall in Park City to get a taste of Sundance. Ten short films competing at the festival will stream on the festival's Web site for 24 hours after they premiere.

Also, building on a partnership established last year, 45 of the 83 short films screening--which range from comedies and dramas to nonfiction and animation works--will be available for purchase and download on three platforms: Apple's iTunes Movie Store, Xbox Live, and the Netflix member Web site. The films will cost $1.99 on iTunes and Xbox Live. Netflix is making them available to subscribers at no additional fee through its instant watching feature.

Based on the success of last year's download partnership with iTunes only, it seemed natural to expand the distribution platforms, said Todd Luoto, who coordinates the shorts program, which is sponsored by Adobe Systems. With more than half of the shorts filmmakers signed on, Luoto added that "we're excited" by the participation rate. "We didn't know what to expect."

And, of course, many of the feature-length films will be picked up for distribution, as was the case with last year's and No End in Sight, and the previous year's An Inconvenient Truth.

Festival films on CNET's radar screen this year, taking readers' techie interests into account, include U2 3D; Fields of Fuel, a documentary about a man with a "veggie van" and a plan to take on America's addiction to oil; Flow: For the Love of Water, a documentary confronting the reality of water as a dwindling resource; Downloading Nancy, a drama about an unhappy wife's online search for someone to put her out of her misery; Sleep Dealer, a drama set in a near-future, militarized world marked by closed borders, virtual labor, and a global digital network that joins minds and experiences; Be Kind Rewind, a drama about a man whose body becomes magnetized and erases every tape in his friend's video store, leaving the pair to remake the lost films; August, about an aggressive young dot-com entrepreneur struggling to stay afloat as the market falls in August 2001; and Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, the latest by Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame.

Several shorts worth noting include Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno, a series about the sex lives of bugs, insects, and other creatures; The Drift, an experimental short about the fallout of a 1960s space mission gone awry; and Gaszappers, a short animated offering about climate change in which a polar bear finds itself in a position to save its home. Gaszappers will be available for download after it premieres at 1 p.m. Friday.