Vir­tu­ally Bloom­ing An­i­ma­tion

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Hu Zhoumeng

This year’s Venice In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val was a boon to vir­tual re­al­ity (VR) con­tent providers world­wide: The time-hon­ored fes­ti­val an­nounced the first-ever com­pe­ti­tion for films made in VR. A to­tal of 22 VR movies were nom­i­nated, in­clud­ing two VR an­i­mated films from China— Free Whale and The Dream Col­lec­tor. The nom­i­na­tions helped the cre­ators of these films at­tain greater pop­u­lar­ity in their home coun­try and the films be more widely en­joyed. De­spite ups and downs in re­cent years, pro­duc­ers are still rid­ing the VR wave in hopes of emerg­ing as one of the first heavy­weights of the new medium.

Meld­ing Tech and Art

“When the whale jumps out of the water, it looks so real,” ex­claimed Lou Yanxin’s par­ents af­ter watch­ing Free Whale. The an­i­mated VR film was the first pro­duc­tion of Sand­man Stu­dios, which Lou founded. Most of the 11 peo­ple in the com­pany were born in the 1990s and ac­crued rich ex­pe­ri­ence in ar­eas like gam­ing and dra­matic pro­duc­tion. How­ever, lack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence shoot­ing live-ac­tion films, they de­cided to cre­ate VR an­i­ma­tion with com­puter graph­ics (CG) tech­nol­ogy.

Ac­cord­ing to Lou, it is hard to ex­plain the VR ex­pe­ri­ence; one must per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­ence it. “My col­leagues and I went all-in on the in­dus­try af­ter our first VR ex­pe­ri­ence,” de­clares Lou.

The 3D con­tent pro­duced in VR can have much greater po­ten­tial than 2D and pro­vide more space for cre­ators. “Tra­di­tional movies pro­vide a com­par­a­tively fixed an­gle of view since each shot fo­cuses in only one di­rec­tion,” ex­plains Lou. “A VR film is more like a the­atri­cal play in which four or five char­ac­ters move si­mul­ta­ne­ously. More­over, spec­ta­tors feel like part of the play rather than re­moved from it.”

The im­mer­sive VR ex­pe­ri­ence can en­hance sen­sory plea­sure, but at the same time, di­vert the au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion. Shoot­ing and edit­ing tech­niques of tra­di­tional films are no longer ap­pli­ca­ble to VR an­i­ma­tion. Film­mak­ers are still work­ing hard to ex­plore new tech­niques and rules for VR movies.

Free Whale fea­tures a sin­gle shot through­out the en­tire an­i­mated film, which al­lows view­ers to closely track the mo­tions of the lead char­ac­ter. The Dream Col­lec­tor adopts a three-act struc­ture, and the screen goes black at the end of an act.

The de­vel­op­ment of a more in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence has made VR more im­mer­sive, but such tech­nol­ogy hasn’t yet been seized by VR an­i­ma­tors due to their need for a con­sis­tent sto­ry­line. At first, Free Whale was de­signed to let the au­di­ence touch the whale on the screen to switch to a first­per­son point-of-view as the lead char­ac­ter meets the whale for the first time. How­ever, the fea­ture only con­fused the au­di­ence. Ul­ti­mately, the fi­nal ver­sion aban­doned in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments al­to­gether.

“The in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence must be

con­sid­ered when the screen­play is writ­ten,” notes Lou. “In­struc­tions are also nec­es­sary, just like how com­puter games have tu­to­ri­als.” Taiji, another an­i­mated VR film in the Sand­man Stu­dios pipe­line, will pro­vide an in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ence through­out the film, in which char­ac­ters’ move­ments and sur­round­ings on screen will change based on the au­di­ence’s view­ing an­gle.

Typ­i­cally, a VR an­i­mated film stretches only up to a dozen min­utes. Con­stant up­dat­ing of the nec­es­sary tools and hard­ware is hin­der­ing film­mak­ers from at­tempt­ing a fea­ture-length VR film. Sand­man Stu­dios must com­pletely re­in­stall its de­sign soft­ware ev­ery two months in or­der for it to func­tion op­ti­mally.

“Af­ter we up­date the soft­ware, work that might have taken two weeks be­fore can be ac­com­plished in two days,” Lou says. “Ev­ery time it’s a no-brainer.”

Fur­ther­more, most VR head­sets re­main heavy and cum­ber­some and lack ul­tra-high res­o­lu­tion. Users can get dizzy af­ter ex­tended us­age. Such con­cerns have also quashed hopes for fea­ture-length VR films. In the eyes of Lei Zheng­meng, pro­ducer of The Dream Col­lec­tor and co­founder of Pinta Stu­dios, the ideal length of a VR film should be about 10 min­utes, so VR an­i­ma­tion is suited to tell a “short but mov­ing story.”

The Dream Col­lec­tor tells the heart­warm­ing story of an old man who col­lects and fixes dis­carded ob­jects be­fore giv­ing them to oth­ers, through which the dreams pre­served in those ob­jects are also passed on. Di­rec­tor Mi Li drew in­spi­ra­tion from a real-life en­counter he had with an el­derly scav­enger he met on the street. With the an­i­mated film, he hopes to re­mind peo­ple of dreams they have aban­doned.

Another VR an­i­mated film soon to be re­leased by Pinta Stu­dios is Shen­nong: Taste of Il­lu­sion, a fairy tale about Shen-

nong, the leg­endary fa­ther of Chi­nese herbal medicine, who is known for tast­ing herbs to dis­cover their qual­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Lei, a scene in which Shen­nong fights il­lu­sory monsters af­ter eat­ing a poi­sonous herb is par­tic­u­larly breath­tak­ing in VR.

Big VR Busi­ness

In mid-septem­ber 2017, The Dream Col­lec­tor, which cost 2.5 mil­lion yuan (about US$378,170) to make, was re­leased through on­line VR plat­forms and re­ceived a mil­lion views within 27 hours of its re­lease. The an­i­mated film af­fords view­ers a 360-de­gree panoramic video on their smart­phones. More­over, us­ing a VR head­set, view­ers can see dif­fer­ent images as they move their heads or eyes, which greatly en­hances the ex­pe­ri­ence.

How­ever, a VR head­set and a com­puter that can han­dle VR videos can cost over 10,000 yuan (about US$1,510), a price point that has kept VR re­moved from ubiq­uity in or­di­nary house­holds.

Only a hand­ful of pub­lic the­aters have at­tempted to screen VR films. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of VR ex­pe­ri­ence cen­ters around China fo­cus on pro­vid­ing VR games. Not un­til June 2017 did Beijing wel­come its first VR cinema. How­ever, do­mes­tic busi­ness giants in­clud­ing Gome and Wanda have be­gun sink­ing more money into con­struc­tion of VR cinemas.

Since 2016, China’s VR mar­ket has un­der­gone ex­plo­sive growth fol­lowed by a sharp de­cline. In this con­text, many VR con­tent pro­duc­ers were left on the brink of bank­ruptcy. Even when in­vestors were bullish on VR, most cap­i­tal ended up with hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers rather than con­tent pro­duc­ers. Com­pared to its peers, Pinta Stu­dios en­joyed a smooth start. When Mi Li, who had served as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the fa­mous Chi­nese an­i­mated film Mon­key King: Hero Is Back, joined, the com­pany found it­self with a sharper com­pet­i­tive edge. Still, co-founder Lei Zheng­meng vis­ited dozens of in­vestors be­fore even­tu­ally se­cur­ing an an­gel in­vest­ment of six mil­lion yuan (about US$906,820).

Pinta Stu­dios is al­ready look­ing at more di­ver­si­fied op­er­a­tions. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on its fame earned at the Venice In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, The Dream Col­lec­tor has gen­er­ated rev­enues through copy­right sales, built-in ad­ver­tise­ments and de­riv­a­tive prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. Pinta Stu­dios has col­lab­o­rated with more than 20 mak­ers of prod­ucts such as liquor, nuts and um­brel­las to en­gage in crowd­fund­ing. It joined hands with the Chem­i­cal In­dus­try Press to pub­lish a chil­dren’s pic­ture book, and al­most all of the 6,000 avail­able copies have sold out. The on­line ver­sion of The Dream Col­lec­tor has built-in ad­ver­tise­ments for 13 brands. Lei hopes that such mon­e­tiz­ing at­tempts will boost the con­fi­dence of his part­ners.

Lou Yanxin is pro­mot­ing VR con­tent pro­duc­tion in his own way: by or­ga­niz­ing film ex­hi­bi­tions. Since 2016, he has or­ga­nized three VR film ex­hi­bi­tions un­der the ban­ner of “Sand­box Show,” which have not only of­fered a com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­form for in­dus­try in­sid­ers, but also helped the pub­lic bet­ter un­der­stand VR. He plans to hold a large ex­hi­bi­tion of VR works from around the world in June 2018, flanked by fo­rums, work­shops and trade fairs. Be­cause he knows China’s VR in­dus­try re­mains im­ma­ture, Lou hopes that such an ex­hi­bi­tion will pro­vide a plat­form for VR film­mak­ers, in­vestors and dis­trib­u­tors to ex­change ideas with each other.

Free Whale, the first an­i­mated pro­duc­tion from Sand­man Stu­dios,os, tells the story of Shem, a boy fromm the fu­ture who meets a ro­bot whaleale dur­ing his jour­ney to col­lect sam­ple­sples of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in space. cour­tesy of Sand­man Stu­dios

Lou Yanxin, founder of Sand­man Stu­dios, dios, in­tro­duces VR con­cepts uti­lized in the e an­i­mated film Free Whale. by Chen Jian

Founded in Septem­ber 2016, Sand­man Stu­dios em­ploys 11, most of whom were born in the 1990s and ac­crued rich ex­pe­ri­ence in ar­eas like gam­ing and dra­matic pro­duc­tion. by Chen Jian

The Dream Col­lec­tor, the first an­i­mated pro­duc­tion of Pinta Stu­dios, tells the heart­warm­ing story of an old man who col­lects and fixes dis­carded ob­jects be­fore giv­ing them to oth­ers, through which the dreams pre­served in those ob­jects are also passed on. cour­tesy of Pinta Stu­dios

Lei Zheng­meng and his col­leagues work on an an­i­mated film ti­tled Shen­nong: Taste of Il­lu­sion, a fairy tale about Shen­nong, the leg­endary fa­ther of Chi­nese herbal medicine. Founded in June 2016, Pinta Stu­dios now em­ploys nearly 30 peo­ple. by Chen Jian

Lei Zheng­meng, co-founder and CEO of Pinta Stu­dios. He be­lieves that VR is an amaz­ing in­te­gra­tion of art and tech­nol­ogy. by Chen Jian

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.