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Google Spotlight Stories Debuts ‘Sonaria’

New VR experience directed by Pollen’s Scot Stafford and Chromosphere’s Kevin Dart launches on Steam and Vive Port, mobile for Android and iOS via the Google Spotlight Stories app, and Google Daydream.

‘Sonaria’ © 2017. All images courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories.

On the heels of the release of director Jorge Gutiérrez’s Lucha Libre-themed VR experience, Son of Jaguar, Google Spotlight Stories -- the experimental unit of Google ATAP that explores immersive and interactive 360 storytelling -- has come out with another new virtual reality project, Sonaria.

Directed by Scot Stafford and Chromosphere, Sonaria is a lyrical journey of two ever-changing creatures as they flow from one life form to another in an immersive tale of sound and light. The visual language in Sonaria is simple and abstract, designed to suggest, while the sonic language is layered and detailed, designed to answer.

First introduced at Annecy this past June and previewed at SIGGRAPH 2017, Sonaria had its premiere at the Future of Storytelling Festival in New York City in early October and has now debuted on both Steam and Vive Port, along with a mobile version for Android and iOS via the Google Spotlight Stories app, and Daydream.

Additionally, Son of Jaguar, which recently debuted on the Pixel 2, then made available via Steam and Vive Port, has expanded to mobile platforms and is now available on iOS and Android via the Google Spotlight Stories App. It will also be featured on Daydream and YouTube Kids.

The teams from both Son of Jaguar and Sonaria will be at the CTN eXpo later this week, showcasing their projects throughout the weekend, giving VR demos, and also discussing their process at panel discussions on Friday, November 17th and Saturday, November 18th. (See the full CTN eXpo schedule here.)

-- On ANIMATIONWorld: Jorge Gutiérrez Wrestles with the Limitations of Virtual Reality in ‘Son of Jaguar’ --

Sonaria was passion project for Stafford who, as creative director of music and sound, has collaborated on all of the projects from Google Spotlight Stories, including last year’s Oscar-nominated animated short Pearl featuring the original song, “No Wrong Way Home.”

Scot Stafford

Sonaria was sort of like a dream that came up very suddenly and within a very short window because we knew we were going to start working with Jorge Gutiérrez on Son of Jaguar,” Stafford recounts. “I had this idea of following these two creatures through ever-changing environments as they transform into different shapes and having the visuals be very abstract and evocative and suggestive but have the sound be more immersive and realistic so that at no point do you ever ask yourself ‘Where am I? What am I looking at?’ It’s ‘I’m underwater, I’m looking at these cellular creatures that become jellyfish that become fish that become frogs.’ You know exactly what you’re looking at and it’s a very gentle experience despite the fact that you’re moving through all these environments very quickly and the only thing these creatures have in common is that they’re red and blue and made up of these teardrop shapes.”

Stafford is behind the original concept for Sonaria, as well as the music and sound design, which was crafted at his company in San Francisco, Pollen Music Group. Los Angeles-based Chromosphere was responsible for directing the visuals.

Kevin Dart

“Scot came up with the initial idea to create an abstract, musically-driven journey, but after that first seed of an idea was planted we really collaborated on detailing out the journey and coming up with the visual language we would use to tell the story,” says Chromosphere’s Kevin Dart. “He was a great creative partner throughout the process. He had a little drawing of some teardrop shapes turning into a bird in his first presentation, and we used that as a launching point into creating an entire world where the teardrops are sort of the building blocks of life.”

Living in Los-Angeles, Dart has been working in the animation industry since 2007 with credits including The Powerpuff Girls, Steven Universe, Disney’s Big Hero 6, DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and the Spike Jonze feature Her. He is also behind the short film Forms in Nature, which explores the use of natural shapes in human technology, and is the creator of fictional spy girl Yuki 7.

“Animators and composers have a lot in common in terms of the way they think and the way create something from nothing,” Stafford says of the collaboration. “Unlike live-action, where you’re working with actors and sets, in music and in animation you’re creating stuff from nothing. You think in terms of loops and in terms of audio/visual synchronization, and it’s very non-linear. There’s a lot they have in common.”

One of the first challenges of the project was coming up with a musical structure that could be animated to. “Because there are points in the story where the action could loop and change the overall length, we had to have a consistent beat structure to make sure all of the animation lined up,” Dart illustrates. “There are also points where the creatures talk to each other and make a pulse, which had to be carefully engineered and timed to work with the musical score. In addition, from a creative standpoint, we always wanted to make sure that everything was being designed for an optimal audio immersion experience, which involved placing characters at a certain distance from each other for an exaggerated stereo effect, or balancing the height of a water surface to get the effect of changing audio when you’re above or below the surface.”

Stafford delighted in what he describes as the “pure quality” of the visuals Dart and the Chromosphere team designed for Sonaria. “Kevin Dart and Chromosphere, and the artists that he worked with, I really can’t say enough about their talent and their ability to constantly surprise me,” he asserts. “I would just come to them with ideas that were barely articulate and this is what we’re going for and the way that they would just synthesize all of these ideas and then come back to me with this art. I mean, I’ll never forget when they sent me this picture of the whales. The whales are kind of the big payoff.”

While most of Sonaria is animated in 2D, the whales are rendered in 3D at an enormous scale. “They get so big and it’s like, ‘I’m surrounded by whales. I’m immersed in art, and I’m surrounded by whales, and that is amazing,’” Stafford enthuses. “We wanted to have a stirring experience and something that hopefully makes people go wow and takes your breath away but also is just very gentle and a comforting experience and respects the viewer and, at this point, the discomfort that people feel when they first strap on the headsets. That was all something that we felt was important.”

The Chromosphere team used Adobe Photoshop for 2D design and Autodesk Maya for 3D, employing the proprietary Google Spotlight Stories engine for rendering. “We came up with a 360 template storyboard that’s basically a row of four regular story panels stuck together, each representing a quadrant of space around you,” Dart recalls. “It was great for helping to organize our thoughts and the flow of the story, but ultimately our 3D layout animation pass acted as the real storyboard and animatic.”

Adapting Chromosphere’s production pipeline to VR storytelling added another layer of complexity to the project. “We’re more accustomed to doing traditional 2D films, which have nice scene breaks and easy ways to split up the work and the animation,” Dart explains. “Sonaria is basically one continuous scene, which presented a lot of challenges, especially since our animators were spread across the world in France, Israel and Australia. Coming up with a way for everybody to work together on this single continuous scene was a big challenge, and we had to re-think our approach to planning the animation. We also found it important to always preview every animation scene directly in VR as opposed to just watching a 2D playblast,” he recounts.

Bringing 2D designs into a 3D environment provided additional challenges for the Chromosphere team. “At first we weren’t sure if the flat approach to the teardrops would work in VR because we worried it might feel like pieces of paper floating around instead of living creatures,” Dart relates. “Eventually though we found that with keeping the lighting and color approach consistent with the flat shapes, everything fit together pretty nicely and felt very natural.”

“We’re going for something that is just like almost sort of childlike, with that wonder of discovery,” says Stafford. “There’s this beautiful world around you that will hopefully at some points stir up some emotions of what it’s like to be enveloped in art while looking at these very pure creatures that aren’t anthropomorphized. There are no misunderstandings. Nobody dies. But there’s just something beautiful about watching the progression through all of these different spaces and feeling like you’re witnessing something that is outside of the human experience but something we understand and we love witnessing.

“It’s thrilling,” Stafford continues. “People want that thrilling experience. Ironically, in VR, one of the hardest things to do is to sculpt a gentle, kind, comfortable experience. It’s actually really hard to do.”​

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.

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