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Sundance gives immersive 3-D peek at Wes Anderson's 'Isle of Dogs'

On the set of filming “Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes (in Virtual Reality)," a five-minute VR feature showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
On the set of filming “Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes (in Virtual Reality)," a five-minute VR feature showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Institute

PARK CITY — In Wes Anderson’s cinematic worlds, no detail is left unmanaged. The filmmaker behind “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is, in a word, meticulous. Every floral couch cushion, every velvet coat lapel, every piece of sundry ephemera is perfectly placed and manicured.

That kind of precision is necessary in the world of virtual reality. VR, then, is perhaps an ideal medium for someone like Anderson.

"Isle of Dogs,” Anderson’s new stop-motion animated film, comes out March 23. Sundance Film Festival attendees can get an early peek at the film — in the form of a five-minute VR feature — at the festival’s VR Bar, which continues this week in Park City. A quickly expanding medium, VR has been part of Sundance’s New Frontier program for the past few years. Attendees can experience a number of short VR films at the lounge, immersing themselves in cinematic universes they might have never thought possible.

This is Anderson’s first foray into VR. He teamed up with renowned 3-D filmmakers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, as well as FoxNext, a new VR-focused arm of 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures. Putting on the VR glasses and headphones, audiences are dropped into a 360-degree re-creation of Anderson’s stop-motion studio. On one end, animated “Isle of Dogs” characters, voiced by Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and others, give their thoughts on the film. On the other end, viewers get a behind-the-scenes look at how each of those little vignettes was created.

“The attention to details, the sets, are absolutely magical, especially when you see them up close,” said Brendan Handler, general manager of FoxNext’s VR studio, during a recent phone interview. “And I think VR gives the viewer this very unique experience, to not only have a very intimate encounter with the characters, but also be able to get fully immersed looking forward into those wonderful and beautiful sets.”

In one set, a tiny pug voiced by Tilda Swinton waxes philosophical. Pillars of bamboo surround both her and the viewer, towering overhead. Peeking upward, viewers quickly see even larger humans standing outside the bamboo scaffolding. You’ve become miniaturized without even realizing it. It’s quite the trick.

“This is the type of first piece that you’d want to show somebody, to explain what the power of the medium is,” Handler said.

While VR films are becoming increasingly popular, Handler said this is the first one centered on stop-motion animation. That created some challenges — they couldn’t use normal VR cameras, since stop-motion is filmed at a snail’s pace — but Handler said Anderson was the perfect director for such an endeavor. They simply extended the film’s principal photography schedule by a few months, making the VR production a continuation of what Anderson’s team was already doing. In the VR short, Anderson can be seen pantomiming each character, which is exactly how the animators choreographed their motion.

Having someone like Anderson, Handler said, sets the bar extremely high for future stop-motion VR pieces.

“As a Wes Anderson piece of content, and the first one in VR, that everything you see, the level of review, the level of discussion and dialogue around every aspect of the piece, was to his standard,” he said. “And that, I think, hopefully really shines through in the piece.”

“Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes (in Virtual Reality)” will be released Feb. 16 on Google Pixel phones via Google Spotlight Stories and will be available on other VR platforms starting March 2.

If you go …

What: “Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes (in Virtual Reality)”

When: Thursday, Jan. 25, 8:30-10:30 p.m.

Where: The VR Bar at Music Café, 751 Main St., Park City

How much: Festival pass required