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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, Spring 2016

By Tom White

Dear Readers,


Symptomatic of the digital era is the rapid evolution of new products into must-have commodities. Smart phones and tablets, introduced in 2007 and 2010 respectively, already claim two-thirds of US households. These are tools of communication and community, efficiency and effectiveness, versatility and virtuosity.

And over the past four years—after a tentative manifestation in the late 1990s—virtual reality can justifiably proclaim itself as The Next Big Thing to hit the mainstream. First came Facebook's multi-billion-dollar acquisition of Oculus Rift—the brainchild of Palmer Luckey, former intern of the widely acknowledged Godmother of VR, Nonny de la Pena. Then The New York Times, Google Cardboard and the VR company Vrse combined forces to make the Times' first venture into the virtual frontier, The Displaced, available to 1.5 million subscribers of the print edition. This year, Oculus Rift has hit the consumer market to vie for pre-eminence with the likes of HTC Vive and Samsung Gear, and festival programmers worldwide have factored VR presentation into their overall palettes. In April, IDA presented a three-day deep dive into VR, with a panel discussion on creative collaborations in documentary and VR, and a VR documentary workshop and installation, led by the team behind Across the Line, at Impact Hub in Los Angeles.

So, we take a look at this fast-growing direction in the documentary form. At this year's Sundance, VR was in full bloom at the New Frontier strand, companies like Condition One and set up shop, and docmakers like Lucy Walker, Gabo Arora, James Spinney and Peter Middleton showcased their first bold steps into the VR space. Casey Freeman Howe talks to pioneers and newbies alike about the process and pleasures of this new territory.

Like so many new ventures in tech history, VR had its incubation stage in academia. The USC Institute for Creative Technologies, the MIT Open Documentary Lab, the Media Design Practices at Art Center College of Design—these are a few of the leading institutions that are testing out behind the ivied walls where this new form is going. Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson sits down with some of the prime thinkers in these academic milieu.

The short documentary form has been with us since the analog days—Night and Fog and Land without Bread are among the early gems—but the Internet has opened up many opportunities for shorts. It doesn't seem that long ago when the few places to see short docs were festivals, POV, HBO and the National Film Board of Canada. Over the past five years or so, the Internet has afforded a plethora of portals—The New York Times Op-Docs, The Guardian, Conde Nast Entertainment and a host of mainstream, general interest publications with online video divisions. In addition, there's Vice and Vimeo and relatively new players like Field of Vision and Cinelan. Matthew Carey talks to some of the prime movers in the short doc space about the economics, curatorial aesthetics and distribution challenges in an increasingly crowded landscape.

For the filmmakers themselves, the short form presents creative challenges of the good kind—the kind that expands your artistic palette and challenges your sensibilities. Like creating a song, a sonnet or a short story, producing a short doc forces you to maximize your power in a minimal space. Suz Curtis contacted several filmmakers to share the joys and strictures of the short form.


Yours in actuality,


Tom White