The medium of virtual reality remains a relatively brave, new frontier, so the jury is still out on which true stars will emerge from it. In recent years, film festival juries have been awarding prizes to a growing roster of interactive studios — Baobab Studios in Redwood City, Atlas V and Albyon in France and No Ghost in Britain — which have won honors at festivals like Annecy, Cannes and SXSW. Come 2023, three of these players (Atlas V, Albyon and No Ghost) will stand alongside the undisputed star power of Wallace & Gromit, collaborating on Aardman Animations’ first VR adventure, The Grand Getaway.
The eagerly awaited title will debut on the Meta Quest 2 headset — the latest hardware from Meta’s Oculus technology division, which is funding the project. The Grand Getaway will permit fans to walk around and interact with the hapless Wallace and his canny dog Gromit. They’ll also climb aboard (virtually speaking) the duo’s latest contraption: the Auto-Caddy.
“Right from the start, we wanted audiences to see the world from the perspective of Wallace & Gromit,” says Aardman creative director Finbar Hawkins. “We want them to inhabit the Auto-Caddy.” As W&G fans know well, such inventions are guaranteed to cause a comedy of errors — especially as the beloved duo is trying to cut corners to get to a much-needed holiday by the sea!
Hawkins, who previously worked on Wallace & Gromit’s 2020 AR adventure The Big Fix Up, collaborated with Aardman’s Oscar-winning director Nick Park and longtime Wallace-whisperer Merlin Crossingham, to develop a VR adventure. “After we had a scenario we all liked, we sat in a writers’ room putting together the arc of the story and the story beats. We looked at where we could weave in the interactivity,” he says.
Beryl’s Back, Too!
One key development toward this goal was creating a role for the character Beryl — voiced by BAFTA-winning actress Miriam Margolyes — who’d appeared in The Big Fix Up. As Hawkins observes, “She’s our kind of mumsy Siri. Because VR is this amazing immersive experience where the audience is the camera, we needed support from a character to nudge that audience from time to time, and keep them on track with the story. She’s both a guide for interactivity — someone who can help the audience when they need guidance — and also a narrator, commenting on the adventure the audience is experiencing along with Wallace & Gromit. And she’s funny, so she keeps things light and interesting.”
Hawkins also collaborated closely with director Bram Ttwheam, who also worked on The Big Fix Up and has supervised visual effects for several Aardman projects. “Being involved in visual effects, I’m no stranger to mimicking the physical world in CG,” notes Ttwheam. “We’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at shaders and animation styles to give it the right feel. We’re now carrying that into The Grand Getaway.”
“We’ve teased out a truly Aardman way into the adventure,” he adds. “The new ‘Auto-Caddy’ contraption has evolved from some of Nick’s own ideas and doodles. We took those doodles and cherry-picked the elements we needed. Then we built CG versions. Aardman’s DNA is present on many levels.”
Supervising the animation is Aardman’s Daniel Gerhardt, who previously worked on the studio’s 3D-CG collaboration with Sony, Arthur Christmas. Gerhardt has also worked with VFX powerhouses DNEG and Framestore on hits like Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy.
“We’re very protective of the animation at Aardman,” says Gerhardt. “We’re referencing the wealth of props, gags and previous Wallace & Gromit escapades as much as we can.”
When Gerhardt worked on The Big Fix Up, he noted that puppets were built at Aardman and then scanned and used as reference, including the face shapes. “So I’ve already spent a lot of time animating in the style of a stop motion puppet,” he says.
“My role is complementary to stop motion,” Gerhardt explains. “I study the armatures, techniques and methods of the stop-motion department, and assist the CG rigging so that it mirrors the way the traditional puppets are put together. We’re creating methods of working so that we don’t end up with animation that is ‘too smooth’. It has to feel like it’s had someone’s fingerprints on it!”
“The technology between AR and VR does not make too much difference for animation,” he observes. “As long as I can pinpoint the camera/user point of view and understand the character, I am set to go. Obviously, there are a few different ways of working with animation clips that can be used by a game engine.” He notes that “In VR we’re dealing with scenes where the whole character is always on display. We have to spend more time working out how they get in, out of a scene. So I work out how we approach each part and break it down from there.”
For interactive expertise, Aardman partnered with the VR specialists at Atlas V, Albyon and No Ghost. “I fire them problems and they fire back solutions,” says Gerhardt. “So I can get on with the animating parts!”
“Atlas V is the umbrella company that has relationships with Meta and Albyon and produced some assets for us,” explains Ttwheam, “Our partners at No Ghost are looking after the gaming and implementation side of things. Lawrence Bennett, their creative director, has a great overview of the piece.” (Bennett was the writer/producer behind No Ghost’s interactive film Madrid Noir, and his many VFX credits include ILM on the Star Wars franchise.) “He brings some directorial flair to the table, and we all feed off each other,” Ttwheam says.
In the still-small world of VR, No Ghost also worked previously with the Atlas V team on Madrid Noir. Atlas V producer Dash Spiegelman says, “Lawrence is directing the gameplay with an expertise and aplomb that’s a joy to behold. From video and audio recordings of Lawrence in-headset walking us through the features of a new build, to conference calls helping us make sense of a terrifyingly complex flow-chart, Lawrence synthesizes, explains and breaks down intricate concepts in a straightforward and often humorous way.”
The Atlas V team, which is known for the award-winning VR pieces Sphere and Gloomy Eyes, is working with Vincent Dudouet at its sister company Albyon to handle 3D asset modeling and audio supervision for The Grand Getaway.” Atlas V CTO Ferdinand Dervieux is the UX designer and consults on all the gameplay. Their collective expertise is aimed at solving the technical constrictions that still impact VR.
Cheese for Everyone
“One of the big challenges is to ensure that Wallace & Gromit can be experienced by everyone,” says Spiegelman. “We want to ensure that a seated experience isn’t poorer for the lack of physical movement. We are avoiding having scenes that can’t be enjoyed players using either seated or room-scale set-ups.”
“We’re putting a lot of effort into making people feel like they’re inside the world of Wallace & Gromit,” Spiegelman says. “The visual approach is to make things feel like they’re made out of clay. And the bizarre and wonky contraptions that you get to build/fix/modify are all a huge part of achieving this goal.”
Giving audiences the sense of personal interaction with Wallace & Gromit depends on having what Spiegelman calls a rudimentary form of ‘conversation.’ “The characters look at you when they speak, and you can even impact your interactions with them,” he explains. “Close your fist and leave your thumb out to signal ‘Thumbs Up’ when someone asks you a yes/no question and you’ll see them respond to you dynamically!”
Wallace & Gromit: The Grand Getaway will launch on Meta Quest 2 in 2023. See more of Aardman’s interactive work and other projects at aardman.com.