Off the Mountain: A Peek Inside the Sundance Institute’s Digital Summer Labs

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Fellows, advisors, and Sundance Institute staff gather for a digital Directors Lab session over the summer. | © 2020 Sundance Institute

Dogfight, A Dry White Season, The 40-Year-Old Version, El Norte, Reservoir Dogs, The Wood, Pretty Woman—these are just a few of the memorable independent films that have gone through the Sundance Institute’s summer labs over the past four decades. Bringing together established mentors and exciting talent from a wide range of artistic disciplines, the labs have been a core part of the nonprofit Institute’s mission since the very beginning.

From 1981 up until this year, most of these gatherings have taken place high in the mountains of Utah at the Sundance Resort, an idyllic backdrop that allows participants from all over the world—among them directors, screenwriters, XR artists, actors, playwrights, composers, and editors—to shut out the demands and pressures of the outside world and really focus on their craft.

In between sessions with creative advisors like Kasi Lemmons, Mary Lampson, Allison Anders, Rick Famuyiwa, Alfonso Cuarón, Lynette Wallworth, Sterlin Harjo, Kathryn Bigelow, and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford, fellows at the resort get to relax in the meadows, take rides up the chairlifts, and swap stories at the Owl Bar—all IRL experiences that would be tricky to re-create online.

As you might imagine, then, when it became apparent this year that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would not allow for us to safely gather our lab fellows in person this year, we had our work cut out for us. A few key questions emerged for our lab team and advisors: How would they reimagine these gatherings in a way that would be safe, productive, and meaningful, keeping in mind the distractions and stressors that come with working from home, especially amidst the backdrop of a global reckoning around systemic racism and inequality?

The team worked quickly and nimbly to adapt the summer labs on Sundance Co//ab, and while we could tell you how it all unfolded, we thought it’d be more engaging to let you see for yourself. Over the next couple of weeks, via a series of blogs we’re calling Off the Mountain, we’ll be taking you inside the 2020 summer labs, introducing you to exciting emerging talent you’re going to want to have on your radar, and talking about important issues facing independent storytellers.

Watch a short introductory video below, and come back next week for an hourlong look at the 2020 Directors Lab.

PS: Interested in learning more about applying to the Sundance Institute's labs and other artist opportunities? Right this way.


Lead photo:

Fellows, advisors, and Sundance Institute staff gather for a digital Directors Lab session over the summer. | © 2020 Sundance Institute