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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Science at Sundance

Science at Sundance


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


Most people know the Sundance Film Festival for its decade's long support of independent filmmakers and their projects. Many a Sundance film has gone on to receive major recognition and awards when released to general viewing audiences. Dramatic films like Blood Simple (1984); Little Miss Sunshine (2006); and Whiplash (2014) and documentaries including A Brief History of Time (1992); Restrepo (2010); and Meru (2015), all had their first screenings at the annual festival in Utah.

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 with the New Frontier program. Everything from experimental light-weight production gear and editing software, to virtual and augmented reality have all shown the intersection of art, design, and storytelling in actual demonstrations set around the Festival.

The New Frontier has become so popular that it now requires attendees to make scheduled appointments to attend each project demonstration. 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. Awavena was a virtual reality tour of a tropical rainforest narrated by an indigenous shaman who knew the uses for all the trees and plants in his forest. It was totally 'sold out' for the entire 10 days in Park City.  Spheres: Songs of Space-time, carried an observer on a 14-minute journey into a black hole to peered back at the universe outside. The demonstration sold for the highest dollar 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 visual 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, development grants to filmmakers are provided for projects that incorporate scientific subjects as part of their films. Sundance and Sloan have 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.

A Sundance scientist and filmmaker panel was also convened with support by the Sloan Foundation. The panel included: Darren Aronofsky (SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime); Kevin Hand (Planetary Scientist/Astrobiology for NASA's Europa Mission); Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, Shape of Water); and Shonte Tucker (JPL Systems Engineer) who gathered to discuss the intersection of science and film. The entire conversation has now been released. 

You can expect even more exciting filmmaking and science collaborations to emerge from Sundance in the years to come.


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