Oscar-winning director of ‘Feast’ discusses his brand-new Virtual Reality project for Google Spotlight Stories about a father, a daughter, their music, and a very special car.
Google’s innovative quest to transport the best in narrative animated short filmmaking into the world of VR has taken another big step forward with the release of their newest VR experience, Pearl. Written and directed by longtime Disney animator Patrick Osborne, who won the Oscar for his 2014 short Feast, Pearl is a heartwarming story that follows the vagabond lives of a girl and her father, who eke out a meager existence traveling the country in an old Chevy Citation. Viewers experience their lives in various 360 degree environments, watching them grow up both as individuals and as a family.
The production pushed Spotlight Stories’ both creatively and technically into new territory – Pearl has the largest number of shots, sets, and characters of any previous offering, along with custom lighting, effects and interactive surround sound in every shot.
Alongside the launch of Pearl, Google has added Shannon Tindle’s On Ice and Aardman’s Special Delivery to the Google Spotlight Stories app, which is available on both Android and iOS platforms. Google will showcase the Spotlight Stories and their VR technology at the upcoming Annecy Animation Festival, running June 13th-18th, including a panel discussion on Monday the 13th and all day VR presentations the following Tuesday, Wednesday and half of Thursday.
I recently had a chance to speak to Patrick about his experiences making Pearl, the challenges faced moving from 2D/3D production to producing for 360 VR environments, and the greenlighting of his new ABC TV show, Imaginary Mary.
Dan Sarto: I watched Pearl on a theatre screen and both the Vive and Google cardboard VR systems. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the experiences. Your story, and the 360 world you created provided a much more immersive and enjoyable environment than others VR projects I have seen.
Patrick Osborne: Thank you. You know, I am the kind of person who wants to make something that's new...I have to stretch in some way. With every new experience, do something that feels like you're pushing yourself in a direction that you haven't tried to go before. The TV show [Osborne describes below how his new TV show pilot, Imaginary Amy, was just picked up for series] was like this too. It's like, "I think I’d like that new experience. Why not try?"
The idea of doing a project in 360 starts there in a way. I thought, "Well, that sounds challenging and weird and maybe frustrating and that makes it all interesting and worth doing." This will stretch me in a different way – a new way of thinking about story. I'm interested in theater - I'm interested in other storytelling mediums. I felt like this was in-between making art, making a film and making a play in a way. It felt cool to try.
With Feast, it's almost like a filmmaking cheat, the idea of having the viewer experience these long jumps in time. I think it does endear people to the story a little bit. I use that in Pearl too. I'm cheating a little bit emotionally. But it's something I just think is cool and fun to play with, the jumps in time like that. Plus, because VR is 360, everyone talks about how the cuts are difficult and it's disorienting. I didn't quite believe that was true. I thought there were probably a lot of ways to make it work. You just need anchors in space. You need a set that people can trust and understand, like a car, to anchor them in space for these cuts to work. I think making something big in scope was definitely something that Spotlight Stories hadn't done yet.
Google wasn’t opposed to it at all. They were excited about trying to do something with that scope. They were afraid though that they weren't going to be able to deliver what I was asking, with the idea of preloading the scene and having to do all this real-time render stuff. That was actually much more of a challenge than I expected. I thought, "Oh, we're doing real-time so it's going to be great…you animate it and then you look at it and it looks great. It looks finished.
But it turns out that with real-time, you have to do so much optimizing of everything. That I didn't quite expect. We finished this creatively in November and it took almost four months to optimize it so you could watch it.
DS: Really? That seems like a long time to wait to see a short piece of finished work.
PO: Yeah. That's a long time to wait for a creative person. I never saw an edit completely pulled together until about a month ago. The fact is that for VR stuff the creative tools just don't exist yet for the authoring side.
DS: But lots of people are racing to build creative development tools.
PO: Yeah, people are starting to make new creative tools. Already at home I have a Vive headset and I have been playing around with Unreal Engine. I have a little thing where you can include the game engine in your VR headset and move pieces around and start to animate and set keys. That's fantastic and I think that's going to explode in a major way in the next year where authoring for this stuff will be in 3D. It doesn't make sense to author VR on the screen. It really makes sense to author VR in the headset.
DS: Of course.
PO: Trying to storyboard was hard and trying to layout was difficult as well. Then, not being able to see the final piece all working for months was a challenge. I was happy to give the group of engineers at ATAP that challenge and see them rise to make it work. This is a really big feat to actually make this work on its own. The Vive headset is really powerful so it doesn't require as much of that optimization right now for a look as simple as Pearl, but the phone definitely did. It took a lot to get that working.
DS: How did you map your production sensibility and orientation from what you've been doing in a 2D/CG pipeline, where the final result is a 2D image on a screen, to this new VR space? How did you handle storyboarding? How did you handle creating 360 environments and then wrap them together to tell a normally linear story?
PO: The storyboarding process started with very traditional storyboards. I drew them very wide angle. You could see about 180 degrees so everyone could understand the story we wanted to tell. We didn't really figure out the story until we went and did a 3D layout with chess piece-looking simple pawn-like characters moving around so you got a sense of what the dimensionality of the film would be. The storyboarding process was a lot more like part of the pitch at this point - you really needed to previs the whole thing in 3D to get an understanding of how the film was actually going to feel. It wasn't selling emotionally yet, even in the boards. It was really a nice leap of faith for all of the Google folks to trust that it would eventually work based on me going through the emotional core of it with them, showing the drawings, showing the 3D. When you watched it you didn't get it, it didn't make sense at all.
It's one of those things that until it's really finished and all the elements are there, stuff is missing and it's not going to sing 100%. It definitely became a leap of faith, like I'm waving my hands and saying, "Trust me it's going to feel okay once the environment is immersive and the colors all work and the story is told in props as well as told in acting and the sound is there." All those things really join together to make the story work. Without half of them it’s a bit of a challenge. It was a lot of just convincing people, "This is going to be okay. Don't worry. It will be pretty in the end."
DS: Vice versa, they have to convince you that the technology is there to bring all these elements together in the end.
PO: Sure, yeah. I trusted that we'd be able to do it. But, I was prepared to drop things out. As a director you always have to weigh your demands against feasibility. That's something that happens in live-action, it happens in feature animation and it happened in this. I have my priority list of like, "I have to have this, and if this scene has to be simplified these are things we can move and these are things we can't." Having that priority list is pretty important. And, you always lose something. There's always going to be some kind of compromise you have to make to make it work. You just have to be clear about what the important things are in that case.
DS: In Pearl, at least to me, I sensed a similar narrative framework in a sense as in Feast. You have a story, filled with threads intersecting over time with the same car. That seems very similar with Feast, where your narrative framework is a love story with threads intersecting with a pet dog that’s always eating a meal.
PO: Yeah. For me, starting with some kind of framework like that is helpful for an audience. For Feast, it's the food - food is always going to be the center. That's our compositional anchor. For Pearl, the car becomes our compositional anchor. That's me taking my comfort zone and using that to anchor the VR side of it, the 360 side of it, to make it a little bit easier. I thought, "Well, I know if I have something like the car that's the center of the story we can thread through, then the audience at least won’t get completely lost. Even in the VR setting you can still get a little bit disoriented and not be sure what's happening. But people will still get the gist of the story somehow by following the car.”
DS: As an audience I didn't feel the anchor of the car was a cheat or a trick. It brought me right into the narrative and allowed me to easily move about in 360 space, yet never feel disconnected even though I was constantly moving into uncharted visual ground. That anchor allowed me to have a comfort zone by which I could look around with context by which to understand everything. I thought it was very, very successful and made the experience enjoyable.
PO: Well good. I think there are some visual similarities between the two films. There's something beautiful to me about the simplicity of what can be done on a cell phone. With Feast, the visual simplicity was a choice that wasn’t made out of necessity. We could make it as real as we wanted but chose to do it a certain way. But on the phone it has to be simple. So it's good to make it impressionistic. I love that look. I'm bored with 3D animation. Whatever you can do to make it interesting is cool to me.
DS: Absolutely. I can understand from a creative standpoint for you, this project was an opportunity to work with new innovative platforms and to stretch your creative chops. What’s the overall goal of the Google Spotlight Stories, for making this type of new VR film experience?
PO: I can't really speak on Google's desire to make these types of things other than to explore. I know they use our stuff - our design choices go into the software development kit, or the story development kit as they call it, that they give out free to anyone who wants to make one of these VR film experiences. I think for them it's software development, it’s talent development and it’s supporting beautiful things in the world. I feel like artists should take that angle on this stuff now. You can do your work, you can say your message, and you can do it in partnership with these companies that are trying to get technologies out there into the world to be more common and more interesting.
A lot of this started for ATAP just because cell phone development went so quickly and all these amazing sensor technologies blew up in a way they wouldn't have if phones were not so ubiquitous. What can you do with that creatively? That’s an interesting question now that phones are everywhere. Many artists just want to get their work out and be seen. This is an amazing way to have that happen because everybody has a phone in their pocket and can at least watch that version of a creative piece. I know they're not charging for this stuff so there's no real financial backend. It's all in the goodwill of the company to make interesting stuff and to create technology that connects emotionally with people. It's cool.
DS: All things considered, what were the main challenges that you faced making Pearl?
PO: There were no challenges at all in Google questioning what I wanted to do or what the story was going to be or anything like that. The only challenges were in the actual production and visualization and being able to see it in some kind of representative form before it was finished. Filmmakers are all used to a really solid editorial process. But that doesn't exist when you make stuff like this.
Like I was saying before, the tools just don't exist to make stuff that way yet, which makes it a huge challenge. That's really underestimated in the commercial world right now, which wants to jump onto this VR expansion. But they’re buying their way into a creative world which is without the infrastructure setup like they're used to with the traditional editorial and note process, which is just impossible. That was the toughest thing for me.
Also, our art crew was spread out worldwide. I really love the human side of making animation - you're with people, all together in one room. We had about half the crew together, which was great. But because of the freelance nature of the animation business today, you don't really meet people face to face until…there were a lot of people that worked on Pearl that I didn't get to meet until we went to New York to show it at Tribeca.
That part was a bit of a challenge. That's the way animation is right now. It's cool that people can live wherever they want in the world and still animate. But I really like the vertical studio, the antique version that the guys at Pixar have which is everybody is right there.
DS: Lastly, let’s talk about the TV show you’re on that just got a series order from ABC. Aren’t you at the upfronts in New York right now?
PO: I'm experiencing what the upfronts are for the first time. It's crazy. I don't know exactly what they are other than a very weird “Netflix and Amazon don't mean anything buy commercials still please” kind of plead that they do, but it's been fun. We were just at dinner with WME and Ari Emanuel in a room full of all the new show runners, creators and their new stars. That's a weird place for a shy animator to exist. But it's also nice to be invited every once in a while to that sort of thing.
DS: Well congratulations on the show.
PO: It's cool that it got picked up and nice that we'll be able to make two hours of animated content for the next year. That's cool because it's always fun to go and see the studio that's doing animation and realize that because of a conversation you had at lunch, there's fifteen animators working for a year. I think that's nice and weird also at the same time.
DS: It's a very different world the way these TV shows can come together. When someone wants it done it gets done.
PO: It was insanely fast.
DS: Is the animation being done independently, or is that being done at Disney?
PO: It's being done independently. We actually did it in Ireland. I went to Dublin for a couple weeks to hang out with a couple of guys there at a company called Egg Post. They're normally a post-production company that had done a little animation work for the BBC. I liked it so we tried them out. It went well so it will be cool.
DS: Are you going to have to go back and forth or just review and supervise things remotely?
PO: I'm going to put in place supervisors that I trust and hopefully make it run that way. It will be cool.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.