The much-anticipated new Google Spotlight Stories project making a big splash on the VR and animation scene is available to view online today.
Anyone who’s been aboard a sailboat on the open ocean knows the distinctive sound of sailcloth flapping in the wind, and the rolling motion of a craft riding the waves. Movie magicians have yet to invent “smell-o-vision” to simulate the scent of salt air, but there already is an immersive animated short that captures many of sailing’s signature sensations. Age of Sail, helmed by John Kahrs of Oscar-winning Paperman acclaim, is the latest release from Google Spotlight Stories app for iOS and Android available on both Steam and Viveport today (Nov. 14). The 12-minute short, which had a sneak peek at the Annecy festival earlier this year is said to be one of the big contenders for the Animated Short Oscar and Annie Awards.
While “VR” is a term that conjures images of headset-clad gamers shooting virtual villains only they can see, Age of Sail is as far from the first-person-shooter genre as you can get. It employs VR gear to place viewers inside a sailboat while a two-character play unfolds. As Kahrs explains, “You’re free to look anywhere you want. But when a squall hits the boat, the environment transforms and it’s an all-encompassing experience that sweeps you away. You can’t really do that in cinema.”
Kahrs understands this distinction well. In addition to creating Paperman for Disney, he worked on features such as Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled. He also has Pixar credits that include The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc. and Ratatouille — written by Jan Pinkava, the Animated Short Oscar winner for Geri’s Game. Pinkava, creative director at Spotlight Stories, co-executive produced Age of Sail with exec producer Karen Dufilho and producers David Eisenmann and Gennie Rim.
Google’s team knew Kahrs’ reputation when he approached them with the idea for Age of Sail. He says his presentation was like a Little Golden Book. “It had black-and-white paintings that were the beats of the story,” he further explains. “It was a way to focus on the character arcs so we’d have a strong emotional foundation for audiences. I had to prove this story was worth doing, and they signed up.”
In addition to adapting storytelling to VR, Kahrs had to direct voice actors — another first for him. Luckily, the pivotal role of a washed-up sailboat captain was voiced by Ian McShane of Deadwood fame, who delivered the perfect gravitas that role required. Set in the open ocean in 1900, the short tells the story of an old sailor who rescues a young girl (voiced by Cathy Ang) in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Echoes of Classic Disney
Kahrs also had to adapt his 3D computer animation knowledge to characters rendered in real time. “VR limits the complexity of the geometry you can push around,” he notes. “We had to find a way to turn the weakness of low polygon count characters into an advantage. So we made the edges broken and chunky in their design. And the characters move on twos, like a lot of classic Disney characters did.”
Fortunately, Kahrs had the expertise of Chromosphere, the L.A.-based studio that delivered the dreamlike Sonaria for Spotlight Stories last year. Chromosphere’s Kevin Dart, the creative director of Sonaria, filled the same role on Age of Sail. “Part of what excited me about John’s idea was that I’d never seen anyone try this before,” says Dart. “John wanted a realistic sense of water, even though it wasn’t photoreal. As a studio, we’re interested in mixing realistic techniques with stylized designs. We’re trying to exist in a space in this art form that isn’t over-colonized.”
Kahrs also had collaborators working in France, Australia, New Zealand and the team at Evil Eye Pictures in San Francisco. Animators worked in Maya, with Spotlight’s proprietary game engine running it all in real-time.
Early audiences who lined up for Age of Sail at the Venice and Los Angeles lm festivals didn’t have to fear sea sickness, as some might expect. Kahrs, who grew up around boats and is also a pilot, embraced an elegant solution: “We locked the horizon. So even though the ship is rolling all over the place, the steady horizon line keeps you feeling fine.”
You can watch Age of Sail here: and learn more about the Google Spotlight series here.
Today Google will launch Age of Sail — Google Spotlight Stories’ latest multi-platform Virtual Reality (VR)/360° film, directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker John Kahrs. The theatrical version of the film is now available on the Google Spotlight Stories YouTube Channel, the 360°mobile version is now available via Google Play and iTunes and the VR versions on Steam and Viveport.