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Google Spotlight Stories and Chromosphere Raise the Bar for ‘Age of Sail’

Technical art leads Cassidy Curtis and Theresa Latzko keep things shipshape in their quest to take the cinematic VR Short by Oscar-winning director John Kahrs onto the high seas.

Helmed by John Kahrs, the Academy Award-winning director of Disney’s ‘Paperman’ short, ‘Age of Sail offers’ a sweeping, cinematic tale set on the open ocean in the year 1900. © 2018 Google Spotlight Stories.

Age of Sail, the longest and most visually complex project from Google Spotlight Stories to date, is a sweeping, cinematic tale set on the open ocean in the year 1900. Helmed by John Kahrs, the Academy Award-winning director of Disney’s Paperman, the 12-minute VR experience and accompanying theatrical short is ambitious on a David Lean-esque scale, using the language of cinema to deliver an expansive and truly immersive story.

Receiving nominations in four categories for ASIFA-Hollywood’s upcoming Annie Awards, Age of Sail is one of the biggest contenders for a nomination in this year’s Oscar race. It launched on multiple platforms in mid-November and is available for mobile users on the Google Spotlight Stories app on iOS and Android, in VR via Steam and Viveport, and theatrically via the GSS YouTube Channel.

As the first GSS project to employ dialogue, Age of Sail stars Ian McShane as the voice of William Avery, an old sailor adrift and alone in the North Atlantic who reluctantly rescues a young woman who has fallen overboard a passing ship. With production design by Céline Desrumaux, Age of Sail was executive produced by GSS EP Karen Dufilho and creative director Jan Pinkava, and produced by David Eisenmann (Pearl, Son of Jaguar) and Gennie Rim (duet, June, Dear Basketball) with design and animation studio Chromosphere.

From a technological standpoint, Age of Sail bravely charts a new course into previously unmapped territory. The “subtractive” visual style, employing simple shapes and a limited color palette to convey vast amounts of detail, is inspired in part by the work of illustrators like Bernie Fuchs and Tatsuro Kiuchi. The fully immersive system of waves, which delivers an exhilarating sensation of the rolling Atlantic, allows viewers to be placed directly inside the action with nary a touch of cyber-sickness.

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John Kahrs Enters the ‘Age of Sail’ with Cinematic New VR Short --

AWN recently spoke with Google Spotlight Stories technical art lead Cassidy Curtis and Chromosphere technical art lead Theresa Latzko in a deep dive into the making of Age of Sail, including the striking visual design, which was made possible by the development of custom shaders used to build a complex wave system that rendered in real-time. Read the full Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:

AWN: In terms of complexity, what kind of challenges did Age of Sail present?

Theresa Latzko: It’s definitely one of the most complex projects I’ve been a part of. Having the opportunity to work with water is always a little bit daunting in computer graphics. In any big project featuring water, it can oftentimes look awkward. And in this project, pretty much the entire thing was water! So, it was a huge challenge to figure out a way to build a water system that was both stylized and happened in real-time.

Cassidy Curtis: The ocean was really a collaboration between Theresa and me, and -- of course -- the production designers as well. We knew that this world had to feel like an illustration, and every frame of it had to feel like it was hand-painted and a like piece of art, not something real. At the same time there was this very real danger and peril that the characters find themselves in. If they fall overboard, or if the boat sinks, the audience has to feel like that danger is real. And so that was the challenge that was given to us, and the solution we ended up with was a wonderful deep ocean wave simulation that Theresa found, the Tessendorf deep ocean wave model, which was combined with shaders I wrote to make it look hand-painted.

There were some interesting challenges around how to handle texture as well, because the whole thing’s happening in VR. You don’t know in advance where the camera’s going to be, because the audience can go anywhere within the space. So if you’re trying to make the world feel like it was painted with brushstrokes, figuring out how to make that visual texture feel consistent no matter how close you get to an object was a huge feat. We developed what we called ‘meta-texture’ for that, which is basically a way of handling texture that adapts to the users’ point of view.

TL: If you’re going for a photoreal look, there are a lot of existing solutions already out there, even with real-time. But if you’re attempting a stylized simulation with very specific art direction, then it becomes hard to fall back on any of those ready-made solutions. You just have to custom-build these things.

AWN: Tell us more about the wonderfully stylized look developed for Age of Sail.

CC: Well, it all starts with strong art direction. We had Céline Desrumaux as our production designer and of course Kevin Dart, Jasmin Lai, and the whole design team at Chromosphere. Working with John [Kahrs], they found a visual style that would strike the right balance.

John talked a lot about removing information from things. There’s a sense that if you present a completely photorealistic rendering of a character it deprives the audience of the opportunity to invest themselves in that character. So that was part of the motivation for the stylized look -- that if you omit details, the viewer can fill in that space with what’s in their own head. That turned out to be a really powerful way to have people feel emotionally invested in the characters and emotionally invested in the action, above and beyond the strength of the storytelling itself.

Character designs for William Avery by Bruno Mangyoku show the simple “subtractive” visual style of ‘Age of Sail.’

TL: For those of us doing the modelling, it was really cool to see how these shader solutions that Cassidy came up with actually worked. The edges of the breaking waves, in particular, with the pretty sort of brushstrokes at the tops, really help pull everything together. You get the impression that you’re looking at a single unified painting as opposed to just a collection of different CG objects of various complexities.

CC: We’re trying, in some dull way, to make you feel like this was made by hand by an artist. Of course, it really is all made by hand by all the artists at Chromosphere, and all the animators, but we’re trying to create this illusion that what you’re looking at was actually painted there.

We talk a lot about “hiding your sins” in computer graphics, because there are a lot of ways that CG can look bad if you’re doing it on budget and there are tricks to hide those flaws. But because we’re trying to do all of this for a really wide range of devices -- everything from theater screens to mobile phones -- there’s no way to cheat. You have to be very economical and optimize all of your choices to make sure that it’s perfect from any angle.

The visual style of ‘Age of Sail’ was influenced in part by illustrators such as Tatsuro Kiuchi (far left) and Bernie Fuchs (right).

AWN: Talk about some of the influences for the visual style of Age of Sail, such as the work of American illustrator Bernie Fuchs and Japanese illustrator Tatsuro Kiuchi.

CC: We got two things from Bernie Fuchs’ paintings. One was that he would oftentimes do a painting where the shadows are full of detail and the lit areas have almost no detail in them at all, or vice-versa, and in that way he was able to pick and choose which areas in a scene get the most attention. That was something we wanted to carry into the look of Age of Sail.

The other part was really just the way that he painted, the way he worked with oils. He would paint in a way that gave the scene this real inner glow, where the edges are darker than the center of an area of color. It created this wonderful scene of atmosphere, which is a really good match for the feeling of the light that you actually experience out on the ocean. So we wanted to capture that from his paintings as well. Even though we weren’t literally imitating the brushstrokes or textures in the oil paintings, we had them blown up and printed out and they hung in our studio the whole time. They were kind of like a lighthouse that kept us oriented and focused, like “This is how good a painting can look, if you’re willing to take it there.”

Tatsuro Kiuchi’s work, on the other hand, has a simplicity and elegance to it. He’s able to work very economically with a limited palette of colors to create something that feels really warm and inviting. So that was an inspiration as well.

Wave Guide for ‘Age of Sail’ designed by art director Jasmin Lai.

AWN: Tell us more about how the wave system was developed, such as the guide paintings created by art director Jasmin Lai.

TL: For a while, when we were first beginning to develop the water, that guide painting was our North Star. We tried out a whole bunch of different techniques in the beginning, such as physics simulations that could be turned back into geometry that would somehow be feasible within the game engine.

We also tried out a couple of very graphical solutions guided by Jasmin’s art direction, like, “What if we start out with a very graphic shape for the ocean wave, what could we layer on top of that to take it to that level of a stylized painting with enough realism to really make it feel like waves?” We ended up developing a very simple visual language for the shape of the waves and the small bits of foam and white crowns at the top that really helped us move toward the sensation of water.

CC: Theresa was really the one responsible for making everything move in believable way. She and the rest of the tech team did all of the movement in the ocean as well as all of the splashes and other elements. In a way, achieving that final look was really about decorating geometry. You have the geometry that’s moving in a way that’s very convincing, and then you decorate that with all of the details, but you only put those details exactly where they’re really needed so that the viewer can fill in the blanks and produce that feeling of realism inside their own heads.

AWN: Cassidy, you’ve spoken about the “virtuous cycle of collaboration” you had working with Chromosphere. Can you please describe that process?

CC: Chromosphere is an incredible studio to work with because they’re very, very strong artistically as designers, but they’re also very good communicators, and they’re also very technical. It’s really rare thing to find all those things in one team, or in one person.

For example, Jasmin would paint these spiderweb textures in the water kit, and then I would take that painting and develop a shader that uses those textures and combines them. When I sent back my first test on top of Theresa’s ocean wave to Jasmin and Kevin to look at, it was great because Kevin came back and said, “How did you do that? How does the shader work?” Then I would be able to sit down with him and show him the different components that go into it and then he would sort of stroke his chin and say, “I see.” And then he would go back and do some new paintings or come up with some new design ideas that were informed by what he understood about how the technical details of the shader worked.

Usually, with concept art paintings, it’s a very one-directional process. You get the painting, you write the shader and render it out, and the team just takes it from there. But in this case, Céline could take the renders, move the lights around, and send them back with a note that says, “I want the shadows to go in this direction.” She’s both very strong artistically and also technical enough to be able to communicate, and it ended up making the process that much more efficient. And just really, really collaborative because it felt like we’re all constantly plussing each other’s work.

TL: Kevin had worked in real-time and game development before, so he was sometimes able to just go in and adjust the colors on the fly to see how they were changed by the lighting, which was pretty cool to see.

CC: In the ocean shader, there are these different texture maps that control all the various textures of the foam on the waves and the differing patterns of the water itself. But then there’s also this thing called the Bathic Map, which we used to visualize the illumination and color palette of the ocean. Kevin and I must have sent at least a dozen of those back and forth as we were experimenting with the scene. It was wonderful because he could paint anything he wanted in it and immediately see the results.

AWN: I know a tremendous amount of work went into the initial experiments to ensure there wouldn’t be any discomfort for viewers during the experience. Theresa, what was that like on the Chromosphere side?

TL: We were involved with putting together the first couple experiments of just super-simple boat blocks going across the ocean, testing out different versions of how the boat and horizon move around the viewer in the scene.

One thing we found out that made a lot of sense is that on a boat you will move up and down with the water, but your head will naturally compensate for the movement of the boat to keep itself steady. You have to ensure, inside the camera, that the rotation of the viewer’s head is always kept steady. Otherwise you lose the horizon, and that’s what leads to discomfort.

It really came together when we tried that version out and realized, “Yeah, this kind of feels like a roller coaster ride now, but a fun one where you just go up and down with the boat and it feels dynamic and like you’re really traveling across the waves in a way that doesn’t make you nauseous.” It was cool to discover that it actually works in same the way that your body would naturally adjust when you’re actually on a boat.

AWN: Cassidy, what were some of the things you were doing on your end to help figure out this problem?

CC: We all flew back and forth quite a bit so we could have as many of these conversations as possible in the same room. It’s so helpful to get that immediate feedback from someone when they put the headset on to test out these examples. That was a really important piece, you have to test this stuff out in the VR headset if you want to really understand the impact it’s having. And you want to make sure a lot of different people test it so that you’re not biasing yourself to what you’re already comfortable with.

Theresa was talking about what the experience of actually being on a boat. Another thing we did, early in pre-production, was to rent a boat and take it out on the Golden Gate Harbor to learn how the whole process of sailing works. That gave all of us a strong foundation and we could always go back to that physical experience and have something real to compare what we were doing to. So Theresa can speak more authoritatively about how the boat moves in the water, because she was actually there.

AWN: What are some of the things the two of you learned about non-photorealistic rendering in a real-time environment?

CC: The biggest thing I learned from this project was how much detail you can take away from the scene and how much more powerful it can become when you do that. That’s something that comes from the art direction, and from just looking at all these paintings and trying to understand what makes them work.

People’s eyes are very sophisticated these days, and even if you cover an entire character with a lot of texture and detail, they still can tell that it’s not real. but if you leave out most of the texture, and just hint at it in little areas here and there, your brain will fill in the gaps with something that’s actually better than what the actual geometry is doing. So my big takeaway from this project is kind of that less is more, in a way.

TL: With the lighting setup that we had, where everything is sorted into very clear and simple shapes and into planes of shadow and light, it was really interesting to see how things like the movement of the sails, or the movement of a character, were exposed.

Sometimes you end up with these very small indicators that tell you what a shape is like. For example, with Lara’s skirt we drew a stripe going across it as it moved because so much of the other information is removed. Sometimes it’s only that blue stripe that is really telling you what the movement of the skirt is doing. And that kind of reminded me of how it would work in traditional animation, where you would really have only a couple of indicators, usually as few as possible just because that takes less time to tell you what the shape of a given object is. But it’s also a very elegant way to show these shapes, I think.

Something similar happened with a lot of the parts of the boat, which is very complex and features a lot of the parts of a real boat. But because of the way that the lighting and shadows organize it never ends up feeling overwhelming.

AWN: Tell us more about some of the work that went into depicting the mechanics of sailing with this illustrative, visual style that’s super grounded in real-world detail. It sounds like lighting was a huge part of that.

TL: John was very particular and very informative about what an actual boat does and we had a pretty substantial crash course in just the mechanics of sailing. We also studied a lot of books with rigging and we became all somewhat familiar with all the boat terminology.

We made sure that all the parts of the boat that are contributing to the story, that the characters interact with, are anchored in reality and are moving the right way and are attached to the right things in a way that is actually believable. John put together a couple of very cool videos with some simple 2D animations that became sort of a guide for the crew about how you pull out the sail, or what the mechanics are when the boat goes through the process of breaking water and sinking, and how the air flows through that sinking boat, and which part of it ends up heaving and sinking faster.

He did really good job communicating to us the mechanical parts that were important to the story and that we needed to know to order ensure that everything that made its way into the final film was believable.

AWN: Age of Sail achieves so many different things on so many different levels, but was there anything that you wanted to do that you ultimately weren’t able to accomplish?

TL: Well, the team I worked with was fairly small and effects ended up taking up such a big part of the movie. Like, it turns out that besides the two main characters, pretty much the whole movie is effects. There was so much to get through, and we did a lot of experimentation with the way the boat is directly interacting with the water and splashes around characters, and that sort of foamy, plastic-looking wake that you find in a lot of the Thomas Hoyne paintings. I wish we had been able to implement more of that into the finished project.

CC: Yeah, there’s always more detail that we wish we could add, you know? When we were doing the cinematic cut of the story, the theatrical version of the film, there was some wonderful stuff that Stephane Coedel, our compositing artist did with sunlight on the water, that I really wanted to put back into the VR version after we had finished the film. And we just ran out of time. It’s always like, “Oh, I wish we would have done that.”

But it’s always painful at the end of a project because you just get up to the point where you can see how much more beautiful it could be if we just had another month to work on it, and then you get told, “No, time’s up. Pencils down.”

TL: It was really crazy to see that pretty much up until the last week there were still developments being made. Even in the last week itself Cassidy came out with a cool way of making the splash parts dissolve in a more interesting manner, and came out with a shader solution for producing roiling water. All those things were so last-minute that you can kind of feel how if that momentum had just kept going so many more things could have been added. But that’s how it always is.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.