Acclaimed VR Works ‘On the Morning You Wake’ and ‘Paper Birds’ Take Bold, Artistic Chances

The cool animated VR projects on display at SIGGRAPH often steal the show at the CG animation and technology confab, which was held in Vancouver this year. We recently had a chance to catch up with the creatives behind two of these inspiring projects —  On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) — and Paper Birds and find out more about their inspirations and thoughts about using the medium:

On the Morning You Wake is a powerful, well-crafted VR documentary from Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, Archer’s Mark (Notes on Blindness), and Atlas V. It allows viewers a more personal, intimate glimpse at how the citizens of Hawaii reacted to an emergency alert about a ballistic missile threat on January 13, 2018. Director Mike Brett recalls how the whole project got rolling after he received an email about it from Susanna Pollack (EP and President at Games for Change) back in 2018.

“She had been working with the MacArthur Foundation and Princeton University to explore ways in which VR might help audiences engage with the complex issue of nuclear security, and she reached out to us having seen our previous VR project Notes on Blindness,” Brett tells us. “What followed was a lengthy development process, which — with the help of former Princeton PhD student Tamara Lilinoe Patton — led us to the events of 13th January 2018, when the people of Hawai’i received that text message that read, ‘Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This is not a drill.’ The immediate horror, and subsequent aftermath of that message was the creative inspiration for the project.”

On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World)
On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World)

Once Brett and co-creator Steve Jamison established the emotional and narrative core of the project, they spent months interviewing those who experienced the events first hand, as well as speaking to experts in the field of nuclear weapons who could shed light on the wider social, political and military architecture that had led us to this point. “We used those interviews to build a three-act audio structure for the project, and then started building a pre-viz of the environments for each scene (which would later be rendered in a point cloud art direction), and blocking out the actions for each character (each of whom would be shot using volumetric capture techniques),” he explains.The core creative and programming team probably ran to about 50 people. With collaborators in the UK, France and the U.S., the production brought together citizens from three nuclear-armed nations, each of which had its own narratives around the dangers and injustices connected with nuclear weapons — and the responsibility of concerned citizens to shed light on these issues.

The producer believes that things are moving incredibly fast on the VR creative and technical front. “That’s both exciting and bewildering,” he notes. “New tools are constantly emerging, and as a creator that means the storytelling possibilities at your fingertips are expanding exponentially. I guess the biggest challenge I see from where I’m sitting is how we protect a space for genuinely independent VR creation even as the biggest VR projects start to lean into those familiar spaces of franchise IP. Like the film world, VR is a delicate ecosystem, and we need to protect (and fund) space for independent thinkers, writers and artists to develop if the art form is to reach its full potential. For me, that’s intrinsically linked to creating and supporting a robust distribution network so these kinds of independent projects can reach the broadest possible audience.”

Brett maintains that there’s  something genuinely liberating about working in an emerging medium where the technical and creative possibilities evolve over the course of the project. “Compared to linear film, which is such an established creative form — with rules that can sometimes feel hard to challenge — the best VR projects embrace the fact that you’re essentially laying the track even as you’re traveling at full speed down it,” he points out. “When it goes well, that’s an amazing experience. I love the fact that people have seen and responded to the project in a way that shows it has made its mark, both creatively and from an impact perspective.”

Here’s the trailer for the documentary:

For more info visit www.onthemorningyouwake.com

A Mystical Musical Journey

Paper Birds, a half-our interactive story about a young musician in search of true inspiration, was another one of the big VR hits at SIGGRAPH this year. Produced by 3dar (Gloomy Eyes) and Baobab Studios (Baba Yaga, Namoo, Crow: the Legend), the project features the voices of Ed Norton, Joss Stone and Archie Yates and first premiered at Tribeca Festival in 2021.

German Heller

The project’s producer, director and writer German Heller (who is also the CEO of 3dar) says there were many sensations he wanted to bring to his labor of love. “The inspiration is a combination of moments I’ve experienced and each scene is literally that,” he says in an email interview. “The first one wanted to evoke what I felt when crossing a bridge in India before sunrise on a windy day and the last one was from when I got lost in the woods when I was little. The whole invisible world comes from what I’ve experienced with music in some shamanic sessions in Brazil. Paper Birds is a collection of sensations with an underlying story thread of self-discovery.”

Heller and his team of about 25 (and 25 support staffers) began the project in September of 2018, began producing it in Sept. 2019 and finished it in June of 201. “We produced the project in Argentina, using standard 3D animation tools,” he says. “Our toughest challenge was that it was done entirely during the pandemic. We were all remote and dealing with the world’s circumstances. It was pretty difficult. What I am most pleased about is the music! I just love how the music turned out!”

When asked about the state of VR, Heller says, “It’s getting there! When mixed reality hardware hits the streets it will be a game changer. That’s going to be a big leap in the VR timeline. In terms of advice for beginners, I would say, ‘Always try things inside the medium, inside the VR headset. You could have great ideas that look amazing on paper or in your head… but when you build them inside VR might not be what you expected. Do a VR storyboard in TiltBrush!”

Heller says that he always knew he wanted to work in this brave, new world. “I used to walk to the supermarket with my mom and I used karate to fight against enemies in my imagination,” he recalls. “I always wanted to bring fantasy to reality and that’s why VR is exciting. But even more exciting is Mixed Reality. That’s what we’re doing next. What I love about working in VR is that you’re always creating something that hasn’t really been done before. There can be innovation in any decision you take as a director. So much uncharted territories to discover. That makes it very exciting!”

Watch the trailer below:

For more info, visit www.3dar.com

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