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

Taking virtual reality onto the high seas, Oscar-winning director of Disney’s ‘Paperman’ delves into the making of Google Spotlight Stories’ longest, most visually complex virtual reality experience to date.

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.

Google Spotlight Stories has released its latest VR experience Age of Sail helmed by John Kahrs, the Academy Award-winning director of Disney’s Paperman short. The new virtual reality experience and accompanying theatrical short -- a standout contender for a nomination in this year’s Oscar race -- offers a sweeping, cinematic tale set on the open ocean in the year 1900.

Launching today on multiple platforms, Age of Sail 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 ChannelAge of Sail can also be seen in select cinemas as part of the 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows, the yearly traveling showcase dedicated to bringing hand-picked short films from around the world to U.S. theaters.

Making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Age of Sail had its U.S. debut at the LA Film Festival’s VR & Immersive Storytelling Showcase, The Portal, this past September, and will be presented in a special making-of session at the CTN Expo in Burbank this Friday at 7:00PM with Kahrs in attendance alongside production designer Céline Desrumaux and creative director Kevin Dart.

The first Google Spotlight Stories 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. When Avery reluctantly rescues Lara Conrad (voiced by Cathy Ang), a young woman who has fallen overboard a passing ship, he finds redemption and hope in his darkest hours.

The Google Spotlight Stories team calls Age of Sail its longest, most visually complex experience to date. The 12-minute VR experience and accompanying theatrical short is certainly ambitious, taking viewers out onto the rough seas of the Atlantic in a tiny sailboat, with all the thrills that entails, yet with nary a twinge of motion sickness. It was produced by David Eisenmann (Pearl, Son of Jaguar) and Gennie Rim (duet, June, Dear Basketball) with design and animation studio Chromosphere, and executive produced by GSS EP Karen Dufilho and creative director Jan Pinkava. From a technological standpoint, Age of Sail is a masterpiece. But from a storytelling perspective, it’s even better -- expansive and truly immersive, Age of Sail uses the language of cinema to deliver a story that is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.

John Kahrs

From the beginning, Kahrs approached the project like an epic feature. “Spatially, a lot of the things I’ve seen in VR -- in my mind’s eye, at least -- they’re on a very small scale. And I didn’t want to make something that was cute and small and felt compressed into this small space. I wanted to go for a David Lean expansiveness and make a story that had that epic quality,” he says. “Characters with histories, going back to Victorian time -- I wanted to load all that stuff in there so it felt like this was a substantial movie, a big, sweeping, epic movie compressed into a really short running time.”

Inspired by sailing trips with his father, and watching him build boats in their home basement, Kahrs grew up with a fascination with sailboats that has continued into his adult years, becoming the genesis of Age of Sail. He had scraps of ideas in his head -- an aging sea captain who had lost everything, a kid falling off a ship -- but it took time for the raw fragments to coalesce into a story. “For a long time I was focused on the girl as being the main character,” he says. “She was the one with the problem, and she had an arc, and the old man was the agent of change. You were with her for the story. But at a certain point I switched it to make it more about him. I think that’s when things really locked into place.”

That character shift allowed Kahrs to explore a grittier type of story. “It’s an old guy who’s turned away from the world and a child that is thrust in to that old guy’s life, and he’s forced to change and adapt. At the beginning of the story he doesn’t believe in anything, he’s given up, and at the end of the story he’s sacrificing everything for the safety of this kid,” he recounts. “Children of Men, True Grit, Logan, A Perfect World... all these films are versions of that kind of story. I’ve always loved that kind of story so when I realized I was dropping into the same track, I felt like, ‘I’m in good territory here, and this’ll be something that resonates.’”

Coming up with the story for Age of Sail was one thing, but bringing it successfully into the world of VR was quite another. That feat was achieved with the help of Google Spotlight Stories technical art lead Cassidy Curtis, who worked closely with production designer Céline Desrumaux and the Chromosphere team to develop a system of waves that would deliver the immersive feel of the open sea without causing discomfort to viewers.

Solving that technical challenge was one of the first priorities for the GSS team. “One of the first things I really wanted to crack was, were we being totally idiotic to make a VR piece that was on a boat rolling on open ocean waves? I thought that maybe this would be the most embarrassing thing the Google group has ever done. I mean, if it comes out and everyone is getting seasick then it’d be the laughingstock of the VR world,” Kahrs wryly acknowledges.

“I had already seen some VR pieces with some very mild stuff that did make me seasick,” he continues. “When you move the camera slowly, if you translate the viewer one direction or another in a very slow way, it actually makes you queasy. I was really worried about it. We were starting the project, we were hiring people, budgets were getting approved, and it was moving forward. And if we don’t crack this problem we should just stop.”

To address the issue, the GSS created a simple approximation of the ocean environment and sky populated with low-point-count boats. “Then you start figuring out, can you roll the boat under the viewer? Can you roll the horizon, or do you lock the horizon? Do you lock the boat and roll the horizon? What are the combinations of factors of design principle you hang on to so that you can make a stable environment for the viewer?” Kahrs details.

The answer turned out to be much the same as in real life, Kahrs found. “If you’re on a boat and you look out at the horizon, it’s this stable thing that you can lock on to, that your body uses to tell you that everything is OK,” he explains. “The information coming in to your eyes, and the way you feel, and your inner ear, all of that matches up. But if you go below deck and you can’t see that horizon and the boat is locked around you, then you really get seasick fast. It was very much the same for the VR version. We tested that out on a lot of people and we found the right combination.”

With that hurdle cleared, Kahrs next turned his attention to developing a cinematic vocabulary to apply to the story. “The language of filmmaking is totally different for VR. You can’t cut and you can’t compose and you can’t jump from one scene to another or jump from one place to the other very quickly, at least not in the way that I was thinking about it,” he remarks. “I had to build a story from the ground up that was sympathetic to those demands. That’s why I designed it like a play that happens around you. The characters are choreographed to move all around you and that’s what creates the dynamics and the interest, as opposed to using cuts.”

While he initially attempted to map out the visuals for Age of Sail using traditional storyboards, Kahrs quickly learned that he needed another approach. “You can make drawings that are tailored for 360 video with certain tools, even in Photoshop, but I found it incredibly cumbersome,” he says. “Beyond that, I was also getting caught up in the rules of traditional filmmaking, cutting and composing with the edge of a frame, which I shouldn’t have been doing because I didn’t have either of those capabilities.”

GSS creative director Jan Pinkava finally told Kahrs to stop trying to design storyboards. “’Don’t even go down that road,’” he recalls Pinkava telling him. “’Just start laying it out and choreographing the action in 3D in Maya with very simple models, and then iterate through that so you figure out what the best choreography is.’ I think that was really solid advice because it forced me to turn myself away from the comfort zone of traditional filmmaking and go right into this theater-in-the-round way of conceptualizing the story.”

By comparison, the theatrical version of Age of Sail, which was assembled after the VR version was mostly completed, presented Kahrs with a wealth of opportunities to employ traditional filmmaking techniques, and provided an endless number of creative choices. “I figured the VR part should come first because it’s weirder and more complex,” he says. “Once you have that, you have this perfectly repeatable action and drama, and your cameras can go anywhere inside the scene,” he continues, noting that because Age of Sail had already been animated completely in the round, it looked good from any angle. “They were bullet-proof performances. They weren’t just tailored to one view.”

Working from thumbnails Kahrs created using Photoshop, the crew went in and started placing cameras. “It’s really cool, it was almost like shooting in live-action,” he enthuses, “only it was infinitely repeatable, and you could put your cameras anywhere and cut around it, which was really satisfying. It was a dream come true that you never get in the traditional way of doing animation.”

While both the VR and theatrical versions of Age of Sail cover the same ground, so to speak, they each offer the viewer a little something different. “In the theatrical version you can see Avery yelling at the ship, but when you’re in VR you’re back there in the cockpit with Lara,” Kahrs observes. “You can’t see his face and the fire in his eyes just when he’s really going for it. That’s what cool about the theatrical version; it gives you these angles that you can’t get in the VR version. But the VR version has this sense of immersive space that you can’t get in the theatrical version. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. That being said, in VR it’s a very cool experience.”

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.