Interview: Goro Fujita
Critics say virtual reality is a niche concept that’s yet to find its feet. Gary Evans meets the Japanese artist who wants to prove them very, very wrong
We meet the Japanese illustrator who wants to prove critics of virtual reality technology very, very wrong.
G oro Fujita recently went to a dinner party with friends in Pasadena, California. After the meal, a group of guests got out their musical instruments and started to play: a guitarist, a man on piano in the corner, another plucking a double bass, and a drummer beating a drum box with his hands.
Goro wanted to join in. So he opened his laptop, put on his virtual reality headset, and slipped a controller on each hand. While the musicians played, he painted and animated them using Quill, the virtual reality illustration software.
“It was a meta-moment for me,” Goro says. “I was painting and animating them while listening to their live performance. At one point, I imagined the animated characters were playing the music! It’s crazy to think how far technology has come that it enables artists to create animated pieces in almost real time.“
It’s a good story, but is it anything more than that? Goro’s worked on many successful animated movies that didn’t use VR. The technology’s been available for some time and while some say it’s the future of digital art, critics still regard it as a niche concept. What can this tool do for art that
couldn’t already be achieved? This is the problem that Goro faces every day: “Whenever I design a VR experience the most important question I ask myself is, ‘ Why VR?’”
Born in Japan and brought up in Germany, Goro wanted to work in animation after seeing a short film called Alien Song (1999). Victor Navone’s piece shows a green, oneeyed, 3D alien singing and dancing to the Gloria Gaynor song I Will Survive, before… well, no spoilers here. It contains many of the characteristics that would later make Goro’s work so good: it’s technically proficient, but it’s also captivating, whimsical, funny and just a little bit weird. “I knew 3D animation was the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
Goro found a university near Berlin that specialised in 3D animation. But studying at The German Film School for Digital Production was expensive. To raise money for fees, Goro and a friend founded a company that developed software, sold hardware, carried out programming and web design… a bit of everything. “I consider myself a fairly technical artist, but I’m still very ‘right-brained’ and don’t do maths and programming well.”
a quick learner
The business lasted a year, but he made enough money to pay for some of the school fees. His grandmother helped with the rest, his parents with living costs and so, in 2002, Goro enrolled in film school. The three-year course required him to create 12 film projects. There wasn’t enough time to perfect these pieces, but he learned how to work quickly and efficiently – all good practice for what was to come.
In his second year, Goro met Stephan Stoelting, an artist who painted using Photoshop and would become his mentor for the next 12 months. Goro became interested in digital art, learned the fundamentals and then started doing daily speed paintings. By graduation, he’d completed over 350 of them. He says these speed paintings – 30 minutes, start to finish – were the reason why he switched from animation to illustration at the school.
“In the beginning, I made every possible mistake, but the longer
I knew 3D animation was the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life
Drawing a line in 3D space was something that I’d never done before…
I kept up with it, the more I was able to see the good and bad, and was able to improve bit by bit. I got to the point where I could apply my skill-set on a professional level.“
Still, he thought of illustration as a hobby, not much more. Goro wanted to become a character animator. He was certain of that. Early on, he got the chance to try out both fields.
After film school, Goro took up a range of roles at various German studios. He worked as a matte painter, graphic designer, character animator, visual development artist, background artist and concept artist. His first job in art was visual development for a liveaction horror feature that was never made. His first job in character animation? Working on a television commercial for a supermarket chain, animating “little cartoony price-tag characters.” Thankfully for Goro’s career, things would get better.
living the dreamworks
In 2008, he accepted a job in visual development at DreamWorks Animation. He spent seven years there, worked on Megamind (2010), Madagascar 3 (2012) and Penguins of Madagascar (2014).
Then Goro had a stint at the Facebook-owned Oculus Story Studio, working on virtual reality film Henry (2015), which won an Emmy. When the studio closed in 2017, Goro joined Facebook’s team in Menlo Park, California, developing the virtual reality painting tool called Quill…
A polymathic software engineer called Íñigo Quílez invented Quill at Oculus Studio. He developed it as part of the production of Dear Angelica (2017), a short film about memories. It was painted entirely by hand in virtual reality and, up to that point, widely regarded as the most beautiful VR film ever made.
“I still remember the magical moment when Íñigo let me try his first VR painting tool prototype,” Goro says. “Drawing a line in 3D space was something that I’d never done before.”
“Íñigo claimed that Quill had an infinite canvas. I wanted to put this to the test and came up with an idea of worlds nested within worlds, to see how far I could zoom in. I still remember vividly when I first zoomed
in and out of these worlds and being in awe. This was a ground-breaking moment for me.”
Ever since leaving DreamWorks, Goro wanted to work on animated short films. He finally got his chance in 2017. The concept was a VR picture book, each page featuring an animated vignette that up to four users could view at their own pace. He designed it for the social VR platform Facebook Spaces. But why not tell this story using traditional animation tools? As Goro said himself, “Why VR?”
Goro’s picture-book story lasts two minutes in total. Using Quill, Goro made the whole thing – from idea to finished piece – in just three weeks. “Using the traditional 3D production approach, this would have taken me more than a year. It proved to me how powerful creation in VR can be. Regardless whether the output is VR native, live action or animation, I’m convinced that the VR workflow will be deeply implemented in future entertainment productions.
“You can manipulate, paint and sculpt in all axes at once, which wasn’t possible before. This makes creation in 3D environments extremely fast and efficient and, most importantly,
The audience becomes the camera, so traditional film language doesn’t apply
fun. Content and assets created in Quill can also be exported to other 3D applications, which makes it a powerful tool for the entertainment industry and can benefit all kinds of departments down the production pipeline, from previsualisation to final asset creation.”
New and unexplored
So it’s faster, but what about the end result? The tricky thing about VR, Goro admits, is that it only makes sense if you’re in it. A 2D representation doesn’t do a piece justice. You can’t judge VR by how it looks on a monitor.
Take his most recent project, The Last Oasis (2018), a post-apocalyptic adventure and the first of its kind. Goro painted it in VR using Quill in just five days. The story is about a survivor, a scientist in a bunker who moves from room to room looking for artefacts that might help him save what’s left of the outside world. Or rather, as the viewer, you move from room to room. Watch the trailer and The Last Oasis looks like a pretty good animation. However, put on the headset and it becomes something completely different.
Goro made the piece specifically for Oculus Quest, a new all-in-one headset out this year. The Quest has no wires. You can move freely. You’re untethered. Goro always dreamed of jumping into a painting and living in it. VR is that dream made real. It is, he says, the purest form of artistic expression. And it’s still a young medium.
Goro compares VR to the early days of film, an unexplored landscape, but with a difference. In a film, the director carefully chooses the shots, the angles, the framing. In VR, you look where you want to look and go where you want to go. “The audience becomes the camera,” Goro says, “so traditional film language doesn’t apply anymore.”
It’s the inventing of this new language that Goro Fujita is interested in. It’s here he finds the answer to his own question: why VR?
“When I designed The Last Oasis, I wanted to explore how I can take advantage of the free movement of all-in-one VR devices to enable viewing of future room-scale ‘Quillustrations.’
“Whatever I create, the experience has to be best consumed in VR and include things that other media can’t provide. In VR, you feel presence, and the audience actually becomes the camera, which is very different from traditional film.”