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October 02
2017

ISSUE

Fall 2017

VR OPENS THE DOOR TO UNLIMITED EXPLORATION

By TREVOR HOGG

The user gets up close to Chloe as she thwarts two bumbling aliens in Invasion! (Image courtesy of Baobab Studios)

While at the early stage where the tools and visual language are being established at the same time, virtual reality is already encompassing a variety of approaches and applications towards storytelling and experiences. In order to geta better understanding of how to use VR effectively and the future of the emerging medium, CEOs and chief creatives from Baobab Studios, Penrose Studios, Tangerine Apps, Google ATAP, ILMxLAB and Skydance Interactive, along with acclaimed filmmaker Kel O’Neill, discuss the current state and future of the emerging medium and its impact on animated film.

Often referred to as the Pixar of VR, Baobab Studios, based in Redwood City, California, was founded by CEO Maureen Fan and CCO Eric Darnell. Daytime Emmy-winner Invasion! revolves around a bunny thwarting an alien invasion and is being developed into a traditional feature-length animated film by Roth Kirschenbaum. Their current project is the serialized tale Rainbow Crow, which is based on a Lenape legend.

“Inside the home are the standard models of pay for watching, purchase, advertising or subscription. Outside of the home there are VR arcades popping up all over the place. People want our content specifically in those theatres, so you can see a licensing model.” —Maureen Fan, CEO, Baobab Studios

The legend of Rainbow Crow brought to life in a serialized VR experience that makes use of sophisticated lighting and pastel colors. (Image courtesy of Baobab Studios)

“Technology always takes longer than everybody expects to be disruptive, but when it does the impact is greater than anyone anticipated,” states Fan. “We raised $31 million to make sure that we had enough to last through the trough of disillusionment. In the meantime, we do make some revenue. Inside the home are the standard models of pay for watching, purchase, advertising or subscription. Outside of the home there are VR arcades popping up all over the place. People want our content specifically in those theatres, so you can see a licensing model.”

“We’re creating a lot of proprietary pipeline stuff that allows us to do the process efficiently as well to do creative and technical work in our medium,” remarks Darnell. “We’re also working on tools that allow us to do things creatively that are otherwise difficult. In Rainbow Crow, we have developed a tool that allows us to have multiple lights turning off and on at various times which is especially difficult to do when you’re running in real-time. Lights are expensive, so usually you only have one or a lot of cheats. It’s a two-pronged attack. We’re trying to have infrastructure tools in place and improved. We’re also looking at ways to create tools that allow us to be creative.”

Penrose Studios in San Francisco has a mandate from Founder and CEO Eugene Chung to create worlds in virtual and augmented reality that allow for unlimited exploration and narrative expe- riences. The various environments include an asteroid in The Rose and I, a cloud city in Allumette, and a lighthouse situated in a post-apocalyptic water world in Arden’s Wake.

“Virtual reality allows us to create these large expansive worlds. Allumette has a floating cloud city and that’s not something you can go to in reality. Even if you watch a picture of it, it’s different than if you are in it; that’s what virtual reality unlocks for you.” —Eugene Chung, Founder/CEO, Penrose Studios

A color key for the library located within the lighthouse featured in Arden’s Wake. (Image courtesy of Penrose Studios)

“Virtual reality allows us to create these large expansive worlds,” notes Chung. “Allumette has a floating cloud city and that’s not something you can go to in reality. Even if you watch a picture of it, it’s different than if you are in it; that’s what virtual reality unlocks for you.”

A still taken from Allumette, which transports the viewer to a cloud city in a re-imagining of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. (Image courtesy of Penrose Studios)

VR has a particular advantage, Chung adds: “The incredible thing about VR is that it’s fully immersive. People tend to get lost and forget that they have other things. A great example is with Arden’s Wake. The prologue is over 15 minutes long but 90% of viewers think it’s 5 to 10 minutes long. Some people question if there’s going to be an attention apocalypse; it’s an opportunity to go back to the roots of undistracted storytelling.”

The Tangerine Apps team

Co-founded by Joe Farrell and Dogan Koslu, Tangerine Apps, based in Los Angeles, combines visual effects and video game expertise to produce VR experiences that assist with traditional filmmaking, as well expand the scope of marketing campaigns for feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and the bid for the 2024 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

A VR experience that allows the user to be a guest in the world of Beauty and the Beast. (Image courtesy of Disney and Tangerine Apps)

“We have been literally standing outside of the computer staring in through a little window into the digital world,” remarks Farrell. “Now what you are able to do is stand inside the digital world and realize the scale or scope of things with a sense of perspective. There’s a lot of prep work that goes into it, but once the filmmaker is in VR decisions are instant. Before, it was like, ‘I am going to make a decision and hope that it’s the best.’”

Google Spotlight Stories is VR content produced by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group located in San Francisco. Director Jan Pinkava has collaborated with acclaimed filmmakers Aardman Animations, Justin Lin and Patrick Osborne to produce shorts that include the Pink Panther-themed Special Delivery, live-action alien visitation Help and cross-country father/daughter relationship Pearl.

Peter Osborne situates the viewer in the passenger’s seat of a 1970s hatchback to witness the relationship between a travelling musician and his daughter in Pearl. (Image courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories)

Aardman Animations embraces the spirit of the Pink Panther in the Christmas Eve caper, Special Delivery. (Image courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories)

“VR is about transporting you to somewhere else entirely and AR is about putting you in a different version of the real world you’re in,” observes Pinkava. “If you are interested in storytelling then you have to ask, ‘What kind of story can I tell in the real world when I don’t know what the real world is for each member of my audience? How are they going to interact with this where they are? What mood are they in? Are they traveling, at home or the office? In the world of mobile VR, it’s good not to make assumptions about that and to create whatever experience you’re offering the audience to work wherever it is or to take them somewhere else.”

Combining the technical and creative resources of ILM, Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm is ILMxLAB in San Francisco, overseen by Executive-in-Charge Vicki Dobbs Beck and Director, Content and Platform Strategy, Mohen Leo. The goal is to produce immersive entertainment and experiences for theaters, theme parks and social spaces that include a series centering around Darth Vader and collaborating with Alejandro González Iñárritu on Carne Y Arena.

“We try to put storytelling and the creative vision front and center, and figure out what we have to do with the technology in order to bring that to life,” states Dobbs Beck. “Someday we’re likely to have a single device where we’re experiencing all shades of reality from the real world in its simplest form all the way to fully virtual reality and everything in between. If you believe that trajectory, it’s important to understand how to create those different kinds of experiences even now when we haven’t reached that state.”

“The next step for captured virtual reality, if we’re talking about real-world content, is the light-field acquisition,” remarks Mohen Leo. “It’s early days for that but it’s something we’ll see over the next 10 years. It’s interesting progress on not just capturing the single view point, but being able to capture a full volume of reality in which you can then move around.”

LEFT and RIGHT: Skydance Interactive seeks to produce original interactive and immersive gameplay commencing with mech battle tale Archangel, its first VR game. (Image courtesy of Skydance Interactive)

Skydance Interactive CEO Peter Akemann seeks to produce original interactive and immersive gameplay commencing with mech battle tale Archangel. Other projects from the Marina del Rey-based company include Life VR, based on the sci-fi thriller which places the user inside the International Space Station.

“Seeing your face and hands, and this complex high-dimensional presence that you have in the world, is compelling,” states Peter Akemann, “as it is compelling to see another person there, even in that avatar form, or when people can chat or type in ‘dance’ to make their avatar move around. That being said, much like in standard games, the single-player experience is always going to be an important and powerful thing. A lot of individuals are alone a lot of the time and don’t always want the social pressure of being with other people. They just want a great story. You’re going to see a future that has both of those things.” Akemann adds, “Technological questions are always divergent culminating to a broader and richer future with more different kinds of experiences in it.”

LEFT and RIGHT: Stills taken from The Ark 360 video showcasing the efforts of scientists in San Diego to save the endangered white rhino in Kenya. (Images courtesy of Jongsma + O’Neill)

Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma form the award-winning Dutch-America filmmaking duo Jongsma + O’Neill and produce interactive documentaries. The Ark VR enables viewers to witness American scientists and African rangers trying to protect and preserve endangered species, in particular, the last three northern white rhinos in existence.

“For The Ark, our goal was to use the immersive qualities of 360-degree video to allow users to be at two places at once simultaneously,” explains Kel O’Neill. “Using basic matting in Adobe Premiere we were able to devote at various junctures of the piece 180 degrees to Kenya (in the front) and 180 degrees to our second location in San Diego (at the back). It’s this idea that you’re telling a global story by using a global approach. That didn’t come out of video game tropes, but the work we had done in video installations, making multi-channel pieces for a gallery.

“Everyone I know who is working in this medium is conscious about managing the hype cycle, because we’re all invested in this thing becoming what it could potentially become, which is a mass medium on the scale of television, cinema and radio,” remarks O’Neill. “It’s just an issue of having enough breathing space.”

There is also a sense of storytelling circling back to its origins. “We started off in human history with drawing cave paintings and telling stories around a campfire,” reflects Penrose’s Eugene Chung. “Then we moved on to books and literature. Now we’re increasingly going back to the visual medium being the basis of everything we do to communicate.”

High-profile advisors for Baobab Studios that include co-founders of Pixar and Pacific Data Image as well as a renowned American animator see a connection between virtual reality and the early days of computer animation. “Alvy Ray Smith, Glenn Entis and Glen Keane are like, ‘Back in the day no one knew what they were doing. It was just artists and engineers trying to figure out how to do it,’” states Maureen Fan. “For them, VR has that same feeling. They want to help and pass it on to the next generation.”

LEFT to RIGHT: Maureen Fan, Baobab Studios, Eric Darnell, Baobab Studios, Eugene Chung, Penrose Studios, Jan Pinkava, Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP)(Photo credit: Anna Hoye) Vicki Dobbs Beck, ILMxLAB, Mohen Leo, ILMxLAB, Joe Farrell, Tangerine Apps, Peter Akemann, Skydance Interactive (Photo credit: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages), Kel O’Neill, O’Neill + Jongsma

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