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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Science at Sundance

Science at Sundance

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, April 3, 2018/Categories: video, space science, art and design, environment, adventure

             Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine, Sundance New Frontiers, 2017 (credit: SWP Media)

Most people know the Sundance Film Festival for its decade's long support of independent filmmakers and their film projects. Many have gone onto receive major recognition and awards when the movies reach general viewing audiences. Dramatic films such as Blood Simple (1984); Little Miss Sunshine (2006); and Whiplash (2014) and documentaries including A Brief History of Time (1992); Restrepo (2010); and Meru (2015), just to name a handful, all had their first screenings at the annual festival in Utah. The festival has launched the careers of many actors and filmmakers since its founding in the early 1980's.

What is far less appreciated about the January gathering in the Utah mountains, is the support Sundance gives to science and technology-related projects at the Festival. New technologies have had their own showcase since 2007 in the Sundance The New Frontier program. Everything from experimental light-weight production gear and editing software, to virtual and augmented reality, and AI tools, the intersection of art, design, and storytelling all converge in actual demonstrations around the Festival.

The New Frontier has become so popular that it now requires attendees to make scheduled appointments to attend each demonstration of interest. For example, last year Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine was an augmented reality hologram that allowed a pair of interactive users to understand the evolution of the human brain and manipulate its components with glove sensors. This year, Awavena, a virtual reality tour of a tropical rainforest narrated by an indigenous shaman who knew the trees and plants and their uses, was totally 'sold out' for the entire 10 day festival, while Spheres: Songs of Space-time, that took an observer on a 14-minute journey into a black hole and peered back at the universe outside, was sold for the highest amount ever for a New Frontier project. The actress, Jessica Chastain narrated the story that incorporate the latest understanding of space-time physics, mathematics, and cosmology of the all consuming gravity of black holes into the storytelling. It was thrilling.

New Frontiers is not the only science-related Sundance initiative. Working in a long-term relationship with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, grants to filmmakers are provided for projects that incorporate scientific subjects in their storytelling. Sundance and Foundation has said:

How we see science and its place in our world has a lot to do with who we see doing it and what’s being done. As science reveals new visions and dimensions of nature, storytellers are exploring different ways of seeing, bending those perceptions through fresh stories and innovative approaches to narrative, style, and performance.

This year a Sundance scientist and filmmaker panel, support by the Foundation, consisted of Darren Aronofsky (SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime); Kevin Hand (Planetary Scientist/Astrobiology and Project Scientist for NASA's Europa Lander Mission); Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, Shape of Water); and Shonte Tucker (Systems Engineer at JPL) who gathered together and discussed the intersection of science and film. The entire conversation has now been released.

Expect even more exciting filmmaking and science collaborations to emerge from Sundance in coming years.



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