Sundance Film Festival Diary Day Six Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Curious about the reimagined 2021 Sundance Film Festival? Read my festival diaries. You’ll feel like you’re walking along Virtual Main Street.

Filmmaker Natalia Almada takes audiences on a beautiful journey into nature and tech via her Sundance documentary ‘Users.’

The reimagined Sundance Film Festival is close to wrapping its seven-day schedule. It’s a shorter event compared to the classic ten-day festival. Sundance veterans know that many attendees exit Park City after the opening weekend. Perhaps a shorter Sundance will become a new normal in the after-Coronavirus economy. I know a seven-day Sundance delivers additional values around affordability. Seven days feels right to me and a step towards new appreciations around work/life/travel balance.

What I’m Watching:

‘Users’

Filmmaker Natalia Almada takes audiences on a beautiful journey into nature and tech via her documentary ‘Users,’ making its premiere in U.S. Documentary Competition at the reimagined Sundance Film Festival.

Sounds and visions of motherhood, nature, and technology merge beautifully and thoughtfully in ‘Users.’ Almada directs and edits a rich movie experience with layers of soft-spoken narration and sound supporting extraordinary photography from ocean waves to raging forest fires. There’s not a dull moment in the movie. From an early image of Almada’s newborn baby falling asleep in a smart crib, a core question drives storytelling throughout the film. Is my baby going to love tech like a smart crib more than me? Late in the movie, an old oil man looks at his desert wells and questions his prospects. 

“I can look into the future, and I don’t see myself in it,” he says, speaking to the camera. It’s similar to the questions you’ll find yourself asking after traveling through the indoor farms, massive container ships, and raging forest fires throughout ‘Users.’ What is our world becoming? What’s my place in it? ‘Users’ is the rare film sparking these philosophical questions. Click here for my full review of ‘Users.’

Meet seven-year-old Lucy, a virtual being created by Fable Studio using generative AI tools. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What I’m Learning:

‘The Power of AI & A Virtual Being named ‘Lucy.’

Team members of Fable Studio, the XR content creators behind the 2018 VR adaptation ‘Wolves in the Walls (Chapter One),’ return to Sundance for an impressive refresh of their storytelling. ‘Wolves in the Walls,’ based on a work by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, tells the story of seven-year-old Lucy and her adventures discovering the mysterious creatures living behind the walls of her house. For her Sundance return some three festivals later, Lucy steps out of the VR experience as a virtual being via generative AI tools. Sundance Festival attendees interact with Lucy via her IG account, sharing ideas for the Sundance short she’s making. It’s inspiring to experience a returning New Frontier character in a new way. It’s also exciting to interact with a virtual being that’s far more than an AI chatbot.

“Lucy is perceived as a person and not an AI tool or a game,” – Phillip Mass, Director, Fable Studio

What’s New:

A reimagined Sundance that connects with artists virtually is shorter than the classic, 10-day, onsite festival. Wrapping Sundance in seven days may turn out to be a COVID-19 trend that continues in the after-Coronavirus economy. A seven-day Sundance certainly promotes values of accessibility, affordability, and inclusion.

What’s the Same:

A seven-day Sundance continues to emphasize opening weekend premieres, acquisitions, and events. By the festival’s final days, virtual attendees talked about audience favorites’ CODA’ and ‘Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’ and risk-taking films like ‘Mother Schmuckers.’

Behind the Screens:

I remember first experiencing ‘Wolves in the Walls (Chapter One’ at The Ray and enjoying Third Rail Projects’ interactive choreography. I remember following seven-year-old Lucy through her house and helping her discover the mysterious creatures living behind the walls. XR creators like Felix & Paul Studios grow and return with new work to Sundance. Lucy is the first virtual being to return to Sundance and connect with us more interactively.

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