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The sound of VR at Sundance and Slamdance

By Luke Allen

If last year’s annual Park City film and cultural meet-up was where VR filmmaking first dipped its toes in the proverbial water, count 2016’s edition as its full on coming out party. With over 30 VR pieces as official selections at Sundance’s New Frontier sub-festival, and even more content debuting at Slamdance and elsewhere, festival goers this year can barely take two steps down Main Street without being reminded of the format’s ubiquitous presence.

When I first stepped onto the main demonstration floor of New Frontier (which could be described this year as a de-facto VR mini-festival), the first thing that struck me was, why was it so loud in there? I admit I’m biased since I’m a sound designer with a couple of VR films being exhibited around town, but I am definitely backed up by a consensus among content creators regarding sound’s importance to creating the immersive environment central to VR’s promise as a format (I know, please forgive the buzzwords). In seemingly direct defiance of this principle, Sundance’s two main public exhibition areas for all the latest and greatest content were inundated with the rhythmic bass lines of booming electronic music and noisy crowds.

I suppose you can’t blame the programmers for some of this — the crowds were unavoidable — but I can’t help contrasting the New Frontier experience with the way Slamdance handled its more limited VR offering. Both festivals required visitors to sign up for a viewing time, but while the majority of Sundance’s screenings involved strapping on a headset while seated on a crowded bench in the middle of the demonstration floor, Slamdance reserved a quiet room for the screening experience. Visitors were advised to keep their voices to a murmur while in the viewing chamber, and the screenings took place in an isolated corner seated on — crucially — a chair with full range of motion.

Why is this important? Consider the nature of VR: the viewer has the freedom to look around the environment at their own discretion, and the best content creators make full use the 360-degrees at their disposal to craft the experience. A well-designed VR piece will use directional sound mixing to cue the viewer to look in different directions in order to further the story. It will also incorporate deep soundscapes that shift as one looks around the environment in order to immerse the viewer. Full range of motion, including horizontal rotation, is critical to allowing this exploration to take place.

The Visitor, which I had the pleasure of experiencing in Slamdance’s VR sanctuary, put this concept to use nicely by placing the two lead characters 90 degrees apart from one another, forcing the viewer to look around the beautifully-staged set in order to follow the story. Director James Kaelan and the post sound team at WEVR used subtly shifting backgrounds and eerie footsteps to put the viewer right in the middle of their abstract world.

VR New Frontier

Sundance’s New Frontier VR Bar.

Resonance, an experience directed by Jessica Brillhart that I sound designed and engineered, features violinist Tim Fain performing in a variety of different locations, mostly abandoned, selected both for their visual beauty and their unique sonic character. We used an Ambisonic microphone on set in order to capture the full range of acoustic reflections and, with a lot of love in the mix room at Silver Sound, were able to recreate these incredible sonic landscapes while enhancing the directionality of Fain’s playing in order to help the viewer follow him through the piece (Unfortunately, when Resonance was screening at Sundance’s New Frontier VR Bar, there was a loudspeaker playing Top 40 hits located about three feet above the viewer’s head).

In both of these live-action VR films, sound and picture serve to enhance and guide the experience of the other, much like in traditional cinema, but in a new and more enchanting way. I have had many conversations with other festival attendees here in Park City in which we recall shared VR experiences much like shared dreams, so personal and haunting is this format. We can only hope that in future exhibitions more attention is paid to ensure that viewers have the quiet they need to fully experience the artists’ work.

Luke Allen is a sound designer at Silver Sound Studios in New York City. You can reach him at luke@silversound.us

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