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Virtual Reality Comes to the Tribeca Film Festival

Google and Patrick Osborne’s ‘Pearl’ leads a number of VR projects showcased at festival’s Virtual Arcade.

Patrick Osborne's 'Pearl.'

Haven’t you heard? Virtual reality is the next big thing. We don’t have Star Trek’s holodeck yet, but putting on a headset and entering an immersive, 360-degree imaginary world is as close as we’ll get until someone invents that holodeck, or better yet, the DCS. (“Direct Cerebral Stimulation” - you’re too late, I’ve already trademarked the term.)

Everyone’s getting in on the action, and some intriguing examples were on display at sidebar events held at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. One floor of the festival’s headquarters building was host to a “Virtual Arcade,” where a row of temporary booths, looking much like a progression of gypsy fortuneteller tents, housed a variety of VR applications.

My personal favorite and most convincing was Blackthorn Media’s “Dragonflight,” which put me on the back of a winged firebreathing reptile that would make How to Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup Harry Potter jealous.

As with any headset-based VR simulation, I entered a featureless grey dome marked with grid lines, reminiscent of an inactive holodeck. A moment later my dragon came to life. We flew over an extensive landscape of mountains, valleys and castles (at one point we went into a power dive that was real enough to set my stomach butterflies a-flutter) while encountering dragons not quite as friendly as the one carrying me. My mount might have been breathing fire, but I was the one making it happen thanks to the controller in my real-world hand. This was one dragon ride I’d be more than willing to spend a few bucks on when it reaches a for-real arcade. In the meantime, if you already own a headset it’s available on Steam for $15.99 - their webpage at will give you a little taste of the experience.

Blackthorn Media's 'Dragonflight.'

Not quite as successful or as much fun was Stanford University’s Interactive “Crystal Reef.” Intended as an environmental teaching tool, the simulation had me scouring the ocean floor for endangered sea life (none of which I was able to locate). The disorienting, weightless sensations of slowly descending (looking down), rising (looking up) and travelling “weightlessly” through three-dimensional space were real enough to give me a touch of the queasies. I’ll take dragon rides over scientific simulations any day of the week, thank you very much.

“Invasion!” was a slickly animated sci-fi quickie wherein a sly rabbit outsmarts a pair of hapless aliens on a frozen lakebed. The simulation had the pleasant side effect of turning me into a rabbit like the hero - looking down, I could see my bunny belly and paws. However, while I could look around the 360-degree forest landscape I was pinned to one spot, merely an observer to the goings-on. Too bad too; it would’ve been nice to get in a few hops of my own. (You can see it in action at )

“Invasion!” was directed by DreamWorks’ Eric Darnell, director of the Madagascar films, Antz and quite a few others. The distinction between live-action and animation directors has crumbled in recent years as both have taken on projects in the other’s medium, and the same phenomenon seems to be taking place between those disciplines and VR. Animation directors like Darnell definitely have a head start.

Tyler Hurd's 'Old Friend.'

Old Friend is proof the 1960s are still with us. To quote creator Tyler Hurd’s website, the experience is an “animated psychedelic dance party.” The experience put me in the middle of a ring of goggle-eyed, bare-assed little men whose willowy limbs reminded me of those air-inflated, wiggly humanoid figures one sees in front of car washes. At the center of the circle a crazed looking drum major struts about, singing Future Islands’ title song. Colors shift, backgrounds mutate, the drum major reappears in gigantic scale behind the dancers…the stills on Hurd’s website, provide a much better taste of the experience than I can describe.

Elsewhere in the building was the “TFI Interactive & Playground” and the project that first lured me to the Tribeca event, Patrick Osborne’s Pearl, the latest 360 production in Google’s Spotlight Stories series.

“I met Patrick two years ago at Annecy,” says Karen Dufilho, executive producer of the Spotlight series, “and I knew he’d be awesome in this format. He said ‘I’d like to do something inside one place with a bunch of characters, 37 sets and a song that ties it altogether.’ All of those things were too delicious not to do.”

The tale of a would-be musician and his daughter was told in non-linear fashion, entirely from the point-of-view of a passenger sitting next to the driver and set to a gentle tune that might’ve been written by the father himself. As the film jumped around in time I was free to stare at the road ahead, look at the driver to my left, turn around to see the back seat passengers and the junk accumulating on the car floor, or even stick my head out the window dog style and enjoy the view from just outside the car.

“We made the film four different ways,” Dufilho explains.  “For mobile, which is where all Spotlight Stories are, like a 360 canvas” enabling to the viewer to use their mobile phone like a hole into another dimension; “also in cardboard, which gives you a sense of VR immersion; big VR for immersion with the Vive headset, and lastly we made a 2D theatrical cut as well. They’re all rooted in the same story, but they’re all told a little differently.”

Pearl producer David Eisenmann goes a bit more into detail. “We build the 360 world out in 3D, and with a [virtual] 2D camera we do 2D representations of what we see in 360. In the first we let go of the camera so it’s you sitting in the car, but the story structure and narrative stays the same. In the other [2D] version it’s a camcorder recording of what someone sitting in the passenger seat shot. I think the dialog out there in the VR 360 [production community] is it’s an either/or situation. Actually, it’s the same process, you’re just thinking about both.”

That 2D version, telling the story in linear time, was screened the following night at a nearby multiplex. The original 360 view served as source material, almost like an array of cameras shooting simultaneously; instead of a head turn for instance, the 2D version cuts from the driver’s profile to a look at the back seat passengers. The camera is sometimes static, sometimes pans from one area of the 360 to another, and even indulges in a bit of shakeycam action.

With so much rendering being performed in real time one might expect animation akin to Dire Strait’s 1985 “Money for Nothing” video, but the simple yet sophisticated character design was attractive and conveyed their personalities nicely. “When you’re working on real time rendering you need a lot of computing power to make the animation look realistic,” mused Osborne, director of Disney’s Oscar-winning short Feast. “I think hand drawn animation on 2’s connects with people so well that your brain fills in the gaps. It gives people enough information to fill in the rest with their imagination.”

He continues, “The choices we made were impressionistic - we had to make production design choices everywhere. If you just look at the back seat all the time, there’s still a sense of a story, you can see junk building up. It limits you in a way but you can use those limits to make beautiful work; they’re not really limits.”

But what about money? Isn’t it the idea to monetize projects like this, turn them into income sources? “Someone must care but that’s not what we’re doing,” says Dufilho. “We’re interested in other ways of storytelling. Google is a tool-making place - they concentrate on the tech. We totally get it - is this a boondoggle or are we onto something?” Eisenmann adds, “We’re where the computer animation industry was 20 years ago. It’s about the creative and development. We’re lucky to be in that space again.”


I came across an interesting news item a few days ago. Seems the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia, California now features “The New Revolution Virtual Reality Coaster.” To quote from the article, “In a scene straight out of a science fiction movie, riders will don wireless headsets, entertaining into a virtual world of high-resolution, 360-view scenes that sync with the action of the coaster.” Now that is a venue quite a bit larger than a booth at a film festival.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.