The Sundance Film Festival is all about the shared experience of the theater, so imagine the surprise of realizing that one of the most moving films at this year's fest is something that can only be seen inside an Oculus Rift headset.
"Dear Angelica" is a 12-minute illustrated story about memory, movies and grief that is premiering at the festival, which runs through Sunday. In the film, a girl, voiced by Mae Whitman, lies in bed writing a letter to Angelica (Geena Davis), a famous movie star who we also discover was her mother. We swirl around in her memories of Angelica, shifting between real life and images from movies she's been in and back again. The viewer spins around, taking in all the environs with Angelica, whether she's in a shootout car chase or drifting into space. More than a few viewers shed some tears into the headset by the end.
It's the first animated experience created entirely in VR.
Writer and director Saschka Unseld, also the Oculus Story Studio creative director, wanted to tell a story about how family and films help shape you as a person.
Unseld, who'd wanted to do illustrative VR for a long time, had always struggled with the coldness of computer animation.
"It's really hard to keep the human touch and texture in it," he said. "If something is directly illustrated, you feel more human touch, you feel more hand, you feel more character."
It's why he settled on illustrator Wesley Allsbrook to create the hand-painted images. They had a coder develop a custom system so Allsbrook could draw directly into the program.
"In VR it's important to counter that tech coldness with artistry and the human touch," Unseld said.
"Dear Angelica" is already available for free for those who have Oculus headsets. For everyone else, it'll be a little more difficult to see, but not impossible.
"It's important to us to always be in places like Sundance or Tribeca or other place where we can show these things to people who haven't had interesting VR experiences yet," Unseld said. "It's still early times and there's a lot of preconceptions about what VR is and isn't."
"Dear Angelica" proves that VR is not just a cool immersive experience — it's also art form that's capable of pulling at your heartstrings.