The Oscar-winning director of ‘Feast’ and Google Spotlight Stories project group team up on a heartfelt story created specifically for leading-edge 360 mobile and VR viewing.
Last month’s Academy Award nomination for director Patrick Osborne’s animated short, Pearl, is a welcome and well-deserved industry acknowledgment of the leading edge of creative storytelling innovation being incubated within Google ATAP’s Spotlight Stories group. Produced by former Pixar CG supervisor David Eisenmann, Pearl tells the story of a young girl and her father as they travel across the U.S. chasing their musical dreams. The animated work is available as a 2D short film, an immersive 360-experience shown on a host of VR devices including mobile and tethered systems like the HTC Vive, as well as in special projection venues.
Osborne, the Oscar-winning director of the animated short Feast, joins a list of distinguished artists and filmmakers such as Shannon Tindle, Glen Keane, Justin Lin and the folks at Aardman Animations and Nexus Studios, who’ve teamed up with Jan Pinkava, Spotlight Stories’ Oscar-winning creative director, and veteran animation producer Karen Dufilho, the team’s executive producer, to explore new technology and new production pipelines needed to expand traditional animated storytelling beyond 2D/theatrical. Pearl, along with the group’s other films such as Rain or Shine, On Ice and Duet, was created specifically to see where, and how, existing animation production methodologies could be mapped, migrated and expanded to support brand new entertainment mediums such as mobile 360, mobile VR and room-scale VR headsets.
According to technical project lead Rachid El Guerrab, the group started out life within Motorola’s ATAP (Advanced Technologies and Projects) before moving to Google. “We were a game development group. So, it really started with Regina Dugan, who used to head ATAP, saying, ‘You guys do some pretty graphics. Can you do something emotional, something that gets a different attachment from people to this mostly utilitarian device, with films or stories that can only be seen on a mobile phone?’”
El Guerrab continues, “That was the first objective. The first story we did, Windy Day, with Jan Pinkava, was really the fruit of that idea. How would a storyteller use the sensors and graphics technology to tell stories that are made specifically for your mobile phone, unlike other films made for theatre that you might watch on your phone? That first project was seen by millions of people, and they loved it. But we knew, this is a new medium, this is very interesting, it can go anywhere, but we can’t do this all ourselves.”
The group’s initial focus on real-time graphics and CG animation, a natural jumping-off point from their game development foundation, was by no means their sole creative direction. They embarked on a 2D animation project, Duet, with Glen Keane, as well as Help, a live-action project with Justin Lin, determined to see if this new medium and format could support different styles of filmmaking. From there, they broadened their efforts, not only expanding how they distributed and through what devices people could consume their Spotlight Stories, but embracing the idea of making tools that allowed other studios to make their own films.
Explains El Guerab, “That led to the collaboration with Aardman on Special Delivery and Nexus on Rain or Shine. It’s more R&D, as we moved a step further towards making this a new platform. That evolved into this whole idea of can this be distributed as a new, accessible video format? That led us to integrate into YouTube, proving we can package this in a way that will be easy to get to and as approachable to people as clicking on a video.”
El Guerrab goes on to describe that it’s like a game engine in your YouTube app that’s distributed in about 2 billion devices. “It’s an interactive show, things are playing in real-time, there’s camera AI, there’s all sorts of stuff, but it’s still for people to just watch and say, ‘Okay, this is just a video I can interact with.’ And in the meantime, there was this thing called VR that happened to fit in nicely too because of how we created the technology.”
Dufilho emphasizes the point by noting the success of Pearl, the team’s first project showed publicly in VR. “Yes, it’s R&D and we’re in this luxurious place to do it. And while the currency is the technology that everybody can get, you can’t just put it out there. What’s been great is our little group in ATAP has brought art, story and emotion into the mix. They’re all best mates. Like in Pearl.”
On one hand the Spotlight Stories are big productions, but in reality, they’re a series of incremental proof points, each short pushing their technology development forward based on the actual results achieved and practical lessons learned working side by side with such a talented group of filmmakers. “In order to have the right technology, in order to change how you go about building that technology, you need a driving application. Storytelling is the biggest one we see,” Dufilho says.
El Guerrab concurs, noting that “We’ve been trying to drive how the technology should be constructed based on this idea that people need to be able to make a great piece of content, a great story, which is, at the end of the day, all that the general audience cares about. It’s the experience that they will remember. People won’t necessarily remember what platform they were on, or what they were doing, but they’ll remember, ‘Oh, that was a great story.’ And in order to get that right, we need to build the right technology, which is very hard to figure out.”
Despite the R&D pacing of the project, it still presented an enormous challenge for the Spotlight Stories team. “Pearl was a huge risk for us,” El Guerrab notes. “Patrick wanted to try cuts which were, in general, a big ‘No-No.’ But we said, ‘Let’s try it. How will we know if we don’t try?’” Dufilho agrees, noting, “Never mind the film’s scope. There are so many assets being used. He [Osborne] pushed our technology, and we had to figure out how to handle that much data and make sure everything looked the same no matter the size of the file.”
Dufilho also goes on to note that while animators are used to their own particular filmmaking pipelines, mapping their methodology to the 360 environment pipeline her group is developing makes the process that much more difficult. It also requires a great degree of trust on everyone’s part, because unlike in a regular short film, where you can render and see your film’s progress quite quickly, a 360 medium film often takes months to compose the final elements to even know if the piece works. “We’re certainly all used to writing and rewriting, iterating and reiterating, and that at the end is where it all comes together,” she explains. “Here, it’s a whole other process. A whole other level of patience is required. We debate internally, ‘We should tell the filmmakers about the limitations, about what they should do.’ But then we push back, saying, ‘No, no, no. We are trying to discover what the limitations of this pipeline are. Let people get hurt. Let’s see where it hurts.’ We want to know their pain points. Because they’re so many of them.”
The team conducts long postmortem sessions following each project, listing problems that weren’t able to be addressed. “It’s not just 360. 360 by itself is hard. Just doing 360 video is hard. This also is interactive – it’s that interaction that makes the immersion work. The art of it all,” El Guerrab insists. “How do we make the concepts approachable to everybody on the team,” Dufilho adds, “from the animator who now doesn’t have a fixed camera point to animate to, to the artist who now has to create stuff that runs on mobile as well as still looks good when you’re really next to it in VR? How do I plan this?”
A simple survey of the trades shows the creative community’s rush to embrace and develop in VR is in full force. But the challenge to create compelling experiences is tremendous. Notes Dufilho, “A lot of people are running now straight into, ‘I’m going to create in VR,’ which sounds easy. But isn’t. Everything is brand new. It’s very exciting and there’s a lot we can do. But success like Pearl will only happen through the sheer will of doing good work, with the space and protection to do it. We were surprised when we starting going to VR events and people would say to us, ‘Oh, this is an actual story! This looks great!’ I’d say to myself, ‘Well, what did you expect? Why were your expectations so low because ours are really, really high!’”
And Pearl is an example of what a group of top group of professionals can produce when they push to create with untested tools in brand new mediums where there are few if any established methodologies or guidelines. Osborne brought the narrative style he used so effectively in Feast into Pearl – we switched our affections from a cute little Boston Terrier to an old car crisscrossing the country. Dufilho explains, “As a viewer, you go from moving the phone around, to now being in Cardboard, to now I’m in this big VR space. Patrick settled us into using the car as an anchor. You need a minute. You need a minute to figure out, ‘Okay, here’s where I am.’ We’re learning. All the directors are learning themselves, because they’re all asking new things of the people they ‘re telling stories to. You’re asking for a whole different level of trust, right? A whole other level of engagement, to make people care, make them hold up their arms, to make it worth their time.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.