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‘Hunger in LA’ makes its mark at Sundance

‘Hunger in L.A.’ Makes Its Mark at Sundance
A woman experiences immersive journalism through the "Hunger in Los Angeles" project.

In Nonny de la Peña’s immersive journalism piece “Hunger in Los Angeles,” the participants experience a dramatic incident at a local food bank, where a man collapses in line while awaiting his turn. The project marks a major push forward in the field of immersion, which the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) has been at the forefront of for years.

“Cinema technology has progressed from black and white to color to widescreen, now to stereo and so on,” said Mark Bolas, associate professor in the Interactive Media Division of the SCA and director of the Mixed Reality (MxR) Lab at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). “In our quest for more sensory immersion, I’ve long pondered the question: What happens when we finally get there?”

In “Hunger in Los Angeles,” recently on display at the Sundance Film Festival, participants wore a head-mounted display, enabling the user to place himself or herself inside the scene. The sounds they heard were recorded on location when the actual incident took place. In a visceral response, some participants were brought to tears when they went to help the person who had collapsed.

“We’ve pushed immersion to the point where users expect or assume a certain amount of agency,” Bolas said. “The feeling participants had when they turn to help the victim and found they could not is profound.

“Immersion has a stigma in the world of cinema because it can be seen as technology driven and not story driven,” he explained. “With ‘Hunger in L.A.,’ the people were immersed because of the story. The technology put them inside with no way out, and I believe that their desire for agency can motivate them beyond the confines of the story itself. The fact that immersion will be used for social causes in the future is inevitable.”

“Hunger in Los Angeles” was a collaboration between the SCA, the ICT, the MxR Lab and the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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