I learned from my father how to be kind,” says Danfung Dennis, CEO and cofounder of Condition One, a virtual-reality film studio located in Park City. “My quest now is to make us a kinder and more compassionate society.” Endangered species, wars, PTSD, factory farms, and melting ice caps are just a few of the issues Dennis has shined a light on through his work. But it’s through his latest endeavor—into the brave, new world of VR—that he hopes to reach people in a way he’s never been able to before.
Born in Ithaca, New York, to a mother from Singapore and a father who worked for the United Nations, Dennis spent his childhood living in Southeast Asia, Laos, and Switzerland. His international upbringing eventually influenced how he began his career: as a photojournalist covering the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2006. Dennis’s striking images depicting the harsh realities of war were featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, and many other national and international news outlets. However, Dennis says, “I was frustrated with the impact my images were having. There seemed to be a numbness towards them. It was like people had already seen this before.”
He decided to convert his still camera, a Canon DSLR, to shoot sound and video. PBS’s news program Frontline opened its 2009 fall feature program, “Obama’s War,” with footage Dennis shot while embedded with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The footage, which includes an intense scene of a firefight with the Taliban ending in a Marine’s death, prompted a flurry of media comment and inquiries from the Pentagon, the White House, and veterans’ groups. The program was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2010.
Next, Dennis set his sights on capturing war as he saw it with longer-format storytelling. The result was his feature-length documentary film, Hell and Back Again, which won top honors at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and, in 2012, an Academy Award nomination. Still, Dennis continued to be disappointed. “The film didn’t fully capture the horrible violence I saw. It was just a glimpse of the suffering and pain, and it didn’t generate the compassion I was hoping it would,” he says.
That’s when Dennis discovered VR, a video technology where, by wearing a headset, the viewer is enabled to move through different spaces within a stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree video environment in ways that naturally match up with his or her head and body movements. Dennis describes the VR filmmaking medium as “an immersive space with no limits. We experience it like we are actually there, almost.” VR drew Dennis in because “it generates true empathy and exposes what it’s like to be this person or animal who is suffering and is in pain,” he explains.
Dennis moved to Park City to be with his girlfriend, Casey Brown, in 2012. Together they own and operate Condition One. Their current projects include developing original documentary series in the VR format and “building Condition One into a leading VR studio,” Dennis says.
Clearly Dennis considers what he does to be much more than simply his profession. It’s his calling and his genuine lifestyle, and it’s evident he’s investing everything he’s got, heart and soul, into VR to create a whole new language and art form. But focusing so much energy on such weighty subject matter is not easy. Living in Park City, Dennis says, helps him maintain a much-needed connection to nature. “Spending time in these beautiful mountains grounds me,” he says. “I was disoriented in bigger cities, but Park City is rejuvenating and healing.”