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SDCC 2015: The Immersive World of Google’s Spotlight Stories

Google assembles a top-flight team of animators, storytellers, and technologists for the Spotlight Stories panel at San Diego Comic-Con International 2015.

‘Rain or Shine’ directed by Nexus Productions’ Felix Massie.

Nothing says Google -- yes, the search engine powerhouse -- like an animated dancing bear on skates.

And yet, the new animated short film On Ice, which Google previewed at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this month, is just the latest in Google’s Spotlight Stories series. On Ice features a zany science fiction-themed ice show, but behind it is another top-flight team of animators, storytellers, and Google technologists brought together to create unique short films for smartphones.

Google gathered some of its past and present creators on Spotlight Stories in San Diego at Comic-Con 2015 to discuss their work. What separates Spotlight Stories from their big-screen cousins -- and what drives Google’s interest in the project, they said -- is that these animated worlds extend beyond the boundaries of the phone’s screen. It’s as if your phone’s screen was a window, with more action happening beyond the frame. Move your phone, and the film scrolls with you.

But why develop for smartphones? Google Spotlight Stories creative director Jan Pinkava, who also directed Windy Day for the project, said that the technology had finally caught up with ambition. “The tech in these machines can do things as good as or better than game consoles,” he said. “Why would you watch a movie on a phone? It depends on what ‘fits’ on a phone, what’s the reason for it to be there.”

Using technology to develop new storytelling techniques may seem an odd fit for Google, but it’s no more unusual than anything else the company’s Advanced Technology and Projects division has produced. ATAP is a skunkworks team led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan with a mandate to build ambitious, unusual projects on tight, two-year deadlines.

Spotlight Stories now has surpassed that limit, and is in its third year. On Ice, currently in production in San Francisco, is the fifth of the Spotlight Stories to leverage custom Google technology to give filmmakers more tools.

Patrick Osborne's ‘Pearl.’

Patrick Osborne's ‘Pearl.’

On Ice director Shannon Tindle, who’s best known for his work on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Coraline, said that Spotlight Stories gave him a chance to tell a more immersive story. “If you feel that there’s something behind you,” he said, chances are “there is something behind you. It’s a story that happens around you.”

The format presents challenges, too. Patrick Osborne, the director of Disney’s Academy Award-winning animated short film, Feast, said he had to come up with some tricks to make his musical Spotlight Story Pearl feel grounded. “I used framing devices [such as] compositional elements [like trees] to actually frame the shot,” he said. “But the window does move, so you can’t be too precious about your framing.”

‘On Ice’ directed by Shannon Tindle.

Spotlight Stories technical project lead Rachid El Guerrab agreed. “We would keep characters just off the frame, even they’ve been walking away, to get the viewer’s attention more easily,” he said.

On the technical side, Google had to invent new compression technology to retain the quality of the drawings, El Guerrab said. There’s no computer-generated graphics in these films, but the wide scope of each film demands more than one frame per shot.

Max Keane, son of famed Disney animator Glen Keane, who worked production on his father’s Spotlight Story Duet, said those technical innovations gave the film the proper gravitas.

“We were able to keep the hand-made quality of Glen’s drawings, the different thickness of the lines,” he said. “It retains that graphic, dusty quality to it. The phone is pushing technology, but we don’t want to forget the importance of the craft.”

‘Rain or Shine’ directed by Nexus Productions’ Felix Massie.

Each Spotlight Story team has to rethink how they want to do music as well as animation. Scot Stafford, composer for Spotlight Stories, said that viewers were missing out on hearing entire orchestral sections because they weren’t using headphones when watching.

“For that person who decided to commit [to the Spotlight Story experience,] we decided to give them something special. There’s entire pieces of music that you get only when you don’t do what we want you to do,” Stafford said.

Google Spotlight Stories can only be viewed on Android for now, although an iPhone app is due later this year. You can also watch them in a traditional, linear format on YouTube.

In the coming year, Spotlight Stories executive producer Karen Dufilho-Rosen said she expects to see more humor and more experiential films from her team. Apparently, she’s got something up her sleeve that’s funnier than an animated dancing bear on ice skates.