Artists and filmmakers in the VR collective (from left): Daniel Crooks, Shaun Gladwell, Tony Albert, Leo Faber and Amiel Courtin-Wilson. Photo: Wayne Taylor
You're floating through space. The Earth is framed in a beautiful crescent of sunlight; stars are all around.
And then, wafting through space, a human skull. It cascades towards you, closer and closer ... and swallows you up.
This is Orbital Vanitas, a six-minute, virtual-reality film that in two weeks' time is headed to Sundance – one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.
It's the brainchild of London-based Australian artist Shaun Gladwell – who hasn't stopped thinking about skulls since he put an endoscopic camera inside one for the 2009 Venice Biennale – and a new Australian artist collective dedicated to creating great works with VR.
A new Australian artist collective dedicated to creating great works with VR is made up of some of the country's best filmmakers and artists. Photo: Wayne Taylor
BADFAITH VR is made up of some of the country's best filmmakers and artists, each of them with VR projects in development: directors Amiel Courtin Wilson and Luci Schroder, video artist Daniel Crooks, Indigenous artist Tony Albert, Samantha Matthews and Natasha Pincus, who made the video clip for Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know. (Schroder's short film, Slapper, also has its debut at Sundance.)
The collective – the name taken from Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir's concept of "bad faith", or acting inauthentically – aims to question the nature of the medium itself and push boundaries.
Besides the symbolism – gazing upon skulls, or vanitas, being a centuries-old tradition in art – Orbital Vanitas plays around with perspective in a way that would have made Lewis Carroll very happy.
"The most amazing thing about VR is you can effect a scale crisis," Gladwell says. "The skull can be the size of a planet. I really wanted that idea that you almost inhabit the skull as if you were a thought running around neural pathways of a brain that no longer exists."
The film was, amazingly, completed in just 2½ weeks to make the deadline for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and on a very tight budget too. Sydney whiz kid Matthew Jigalin, who received the top mark in NSW for industrial technology when he completed his Higher School Certificate in 2015, was the animator.
Katrina Sedgwick, chief executive of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, got the ball rolling on the film when she mentioned BADFAITH to the programmers of Sundance's New Frontier section, which commissioned fellow Australian Lynette Wallworth's Collisions as its first VR film last year.
"I mentioned them [the collective] because I just knew rather than trying to use the platform in a conventional way … these guys would be thinking, 'What will this new tool enable me to tell in an utterly different way?'.
"These new artists can get in there and create new kind of language," she says. "I wasn't surprised they were selected [for Sundance], I have to say. They're right at the forefront of this as a new tool to really push artistic practice in ways we've yet to imagine."
Australian filmmaker Kitty Green meanwhile has already had success at Sundance before the festival has begun, with Netflix snapping up the worldwide rights to her film about six-year-old American murder victim JonBenet Ramsey, Casting JonBenet.