Patrick Osborne and Felix Massie test the limits of animation in the burgeoning field of VR with the Google Spotlight Stories Pearl and Rain or Shine.
Patrick Osborne’s follow up to his Oscar-winning Disney animated short Feast is now playing nearer to most people than any theater. The most-recent release from Google Spotlight Stories, Pearl is the tale of a girl and her father chasing their musical dreams in a beloved hatchback, told in an immersive 360-degree VR environment most viewers can access through their mobile phones.
Osborne says he connected with Google on the recommendation of Glen Keane, who made the short duet for the outfit. “They don’t really have a creative agenda other than making things that are interesting that come from a person, a voice that they want to partner with,” says Osborne.
The creative side came from several different impulses. “I wanted to do a story that takes place over time, I like that kind of story — Feast has similar stuff,” says Osborne. “And then, if you’re going to make cuts in VR or 360, you have to find some kind of anchor to orient people. And setting it in a location that doesn’t change seemed to be a good start.”
That at first was a house or a specific room that would change over time, morphing into the idea of making it a car, which allowed for motion and different backgrounds, and the idea of the car being passed down through a family. “I got one of my dad’s cars,” says Osborne. “But my dad also drew a lot and he passed on a passion for drawing and for art, and — this is sort of a sidestep away from that into music but doing the same story.”
Osborne worked with artist and production designer Tuna Bora on the look of the film and characters, as well as the story. “I didn’t want it to be too on the nose about what happens,” he says. “It’s sort of an abstract experiential thing.”
Osborne tackled writing Pearl with a traditional script, which was used to record the actors and create a storyboarded version that the musicians could compose against. It was animated using Maya with some common Shotgun plugins, and rendered with Google’s Spotlight Renderer, which is a very slim piece of software at less than a megabyte.
Comparing the experience to Feast, Osborne says the process was a bit frustrating at times because the process is too new to have standards. “The tools don’t really exist to collaborate on this stuff yet,” he says.
Pearl will be followed by Felix Massie’s Rain or Shine, which Google expects to release this summer. Rain or Shine follows a girl named Ella, who receives a pair of sunglasses in the mail that cause it to rain directly over her when she puts them on. As she discovers this while moving around the busy square in front of her home, her actions affect the environment and other characters as she figures out a way to turn this odd situation into a good one.
Massie says the first major challenge was “figuring out exactly what we wanted to be able to do.”
“We realized actually that in every VR experience you’ll always want a singular thing to happen,” he says. “It’s a story about Ella and her day, so you can plan her story and then everything is kind of secondary to that.”
Co-producer Christopher O’Reilly says the discovery of the technical challenges as they presented themselves, as well as the need to reconsider every aspect of film production such as lighting, staging and art direction, was quite exciting.
The story was scripted around Ella’s story, with other short stories occurring to the side. Viewers can step away from Ella’s story to the side stories at will, with Ella’s story picking up where they left it when they come back to her. “It doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll be led back so if you’ve seen these three (story points), you’ll jump back in at the fourth — you won’t suddenly jump in down here.”
Rain or Shine also was animated using Maya, with animators each working on a section at a time. “If you follow the action quickly, different things happen,” says O’Reilly. “If you watch it more slowly, people react in a way that feels appropriate.”