Un­charted Vir­tual Jour­neys

They may have few real-world venues to show­case them, but this year’s crop of an­i­mated VR projects con­tinue to ex­plore new ter­ri­to­ries.

Animation Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Al­though the prom­ise and po­ten­tial of VR/AR is far from be­ing fully re­al­ized in 2020, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from CCS In­sight, con­sumers were ex­pected to pur­chase over 22 mil­lion VR and AR head­set and glasses this year. Heavy in­vest­ment from the likes of Sam­sung, Google, Face­book and Ap­ple con­tin­ues to bode well for this com­plex area of art and en­ter­tain­ment. Of course, artists and an­i­ma­tors have con­tin­ued to push the cre­ative lim­its of the tech­nol­ogy, and fes­ti­vals such as Tribeca, Cannes, An­necy and SIGGRAPH play an im­por­tant role in spot­light­ing innovative projects from an­i­mated VR cre­ators around the world.

One of the pro­lific pi­o­neers in the field is North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s six-time-Emmy-win­ning Baobab Stu­dios, which has con­tin­ued to de­liver innovative and vis­ually ar­rest­ing an­i­mated VR projects such as In­va­sion!, As­teroids!, Crow: The Leg­end, Bon­fire and this year’s Baba Yaga. This lat­est of­fer­ing is di­rected by Eric Dar­nell (Mada­gas­car films, Crow: The Leg­end, Bon­fire) and co-di­rected by Mathias Chele­bourg and is in­spired by the Eastern Euro­pean leg­end. Fea­tur­ing the voice of Daisy Ri­d­ley, the ex­pe­ri­ence in­vites au­di­ences to fol­low their “10-year-old sis­ter Magda” as they search a mag­i­cal for­est for a plant that can cure their mother’s ill­ness. But the user and Magda must also watch out for the evil witch who lives nearby.

“Baba Yaga has been a project that we have been want­ing to do for a long time, but we knew it was too am­bi­tious when we first started Baobab Stu­dios five years ago,” Dar­nell tells An­i­ma­tion Mag­a­zine. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the story of Baba Yaga: a fairy­tale that has not gained the same level of pop­u­lar­ity in Amer­ica as other clas­sic sto­ries and is long over­due to be told in a new way. The witch named Baba Yaga ap­pears with a va­ri­ety of char­ac­ter­i­za­tions in the var­i­ous fairy tales that in­clude her. Some­times she is a nasty witch that is a dan­ger to chil­dren. Some­times she is nei­ther good nor bad. And some­times she is a par­tic­u­larly good witch. We wanted to cre­ate a con­tem­po­rary retelling of the story that lever­ages off of this his­tory.”

Ad­ven­tures in 2.5D

Baba Yaga is Baobab’s first project with hu­man char­ac­ters and the stu­dio’s most styl­ized to date. “To get the the­atri­cal two-and-a-half di­men­sion look we wanted, we had to push the game en­gine to do things it doesn’t nor­mally do,” ex­plains Dar­nell. “We adapted many of the sto­ry­telling tech­niques we learned from In­va­sion! and Bon­fire to Baba Yaga, such as how to ap­proach in­ter­ac­tiv­ity and how to use mo­tion, char­ac­ter ac­tions, sound and light­ing to di­rect the viewer’s at­ten­tion.”

To pro­duce the an­i­ma­tion, the Baobab team uses a mix­ture of tra­di­tional an­i­ma­tion tools along with pro­pri­etary tech­nol­ogy and pipe­lines. “Like our past projects, we de­velop ev­ery­thing to run in a game en­gine so we can take ad­van­tage of a real-time toolset for cre­at­ing in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences,” says Dar­nell. “With our stu­dio op­er­at­ing re­motely dur­ing the pan­demic, we also built out a toolset that al­lows us to quickly re­view and col­lab­o­rate to­gether re­motely in VR.”

Ac­cord­ing to the vet­eran di­rec­tor, ev­ery project in the stu­dio’s brief his­tory has helped them learn more and ex­per­i­ment with what is pos­si­ble in VR. “With In­va­sion! we learned about the power of im­mer­sive char­ac­ters, but in­ter­ac­tiv­ity was lim­ited at the time,” he ex­plains. “As­teroids! and Crow: The Leg­end

‘We adapted many of the sto­ry­telling tech­niques we learned from In­va­sion! and Bon­fire to Baba Yaga, such as how to ap­proach in­ter­ac­tiv­ity and how to use mo­tion, char­ac­ter ac­tions, sound and light­ing to di­rect the viewer’s at­ten­tion.’ — Eric Dar­nell, di­rec­tor, Baba Yaga

con­firmed for us the power of mak­ing the viewer an in­ter­ac­tive char­ac­ter in­flu­enc­ing the di­rec­tion of the story. Crow: The Leg­end also helped us pol­ish the use of the­ater and per­for­mance tech­niques to di­rect the user’s at­ten­tion. We im­proved our ca­pa­bil­i­ties of us­ing the­atri­cal light­ing to de­sign in our vir­tual en­vi­ron­ments. With Bon­fire, we took all our past VR in­sights and added more com­plex AI to the char­ac­ters to en­hance the in­ter­ac­tion and, for the first time, made the viewer the main char­ac­ter of the story.”

Ad­ven­tures in Clay­ma­tion

The Na­tional Film Board of Canada is an­other ac­tive player in the VR field, with ti­tles such as Bear 71, Mino­taur and Gym­na­sia re­ceiv­ing global at­ten­tion in pre­vi­ous years. This year, the NFB pre­sented di­rec­tor Frances Adair McKen­zie’s five-minute project The Orchid and the Bee at An­necy. Pro­duced by Je­lena Popović, the short uses stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion with mod­el­ling clay pup­pets to of­fer a story that moves from a jel­ly­fish chang­ing its form to a bee that pol­li­nates a flower.

Adair McKen­zie be­gan de­vel­op­ing the con­cept for the short about four years ago. “The pre-pro­duc­tion work of defin­ing the nar­ra­tive, tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ment and de­sign­ing the sets took about two years,” she tells us. “From day one of the an­i­ma­tion process, to hav­ing all the el­e­ments spher­i­cally com­pos­ited for VR in Nuke, took a lit­tle over a year. Getting a fi­nal sound de­sign that we loved and the last color tweaks in on­line took us into 2020.”

The main in­spi­ra­tion for the project was nat­u­ral sci­ence.“The piece started out on a very apoc­a­lyp­tic tra­jec­tory, and I even­tu­ally rec­og­nized that be­ing in a dark room for years think­ing about fac­tory farm­ing would be detri­men­tal,” she says. “I be­gan re­search­ing an­i­mal ethics, ge­net­ics and evo­lu­tion. This led me to dis­cover some very beau­ti­ful and com­pli­cated sur­vival tac­tics present in the nat­u­ral world. It was Donna Har­away, one of my fa­vorite fem­i­nist the­o­rists, who in­tro­duced me to the in­ter-species love af­fair of the orchid and the bee … I wanted to use this project as an op­por­tu­nity to em­pha­size re­la­tion­ships, col­lab­o­ra­tion, dis­in­te­gra­tion and growth as a con­tin­ual process in the nat­u­ral world.”

The artist says she was ex­cited about the pos­si­bil­ity of work­ing within VR to make a piece rep­re­sent­ing the beau­ti­ful and vi­o­lent process of trans­for­ma­tion to the viewer in a very in­ti­mate way. “I feel like stop-mo­tion and clay an­i­ma­tion is a form of meta­mor­pho­sis,” she of­fers. “So, I wanted to pay homage to this and cre­ate a mu­tat­ing nar­ra­tive that could, through its ma­te­ri­al­ity, echo the con­cepts of evo­lu­tion and mu­ta­bil­ity that are at the core of its nar­ra­tives.”

For Adair McKen­zie and her team, the big­gest chal­lenge was the tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ment and dig­i­tal learn­ing. “Al­most ev­ery­thing in the project is real — the an­i­ma­tion, the ob­jects and the light­ing ef­fects — so it was an in­ti­mate and very ex­per­i­men­tal process,” she ex­plains. “Each phase of the pro­duc­tion had to be un­rav­elled with the con­sid­er­a­tion that it would be in­te­grated into a spher­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. We built a mo­tor­ized ro­tis­serie set, which em­u­lated the dig­i­tal move­ment for a fixed cam­era but meant we were stop-mo­tion an­i­mat­ing over a ro­tat­ing three-di­men­sional ob­ject. We ad­justed the nar­ra­tive arcs as we worked, be­cause the sets were be­ing dis­cov­ered through the process.”

The di­rec­tor hopes her work will pique the au­di­ence’s cu­rios­ity. “I hope they ex­pe­ri­ence it as a pure, mag­i­cal sort of im­mer­sion,” she notes. “That they can then carry this strange myth­i­cal space around with them in the real world. I hope young adults come into con­tact with it and are to­tally weirded out and have to won­der at what it is and what it means. I think that en­coun­ters with strange works of art, es­pe­cially at defin­ing mo­ments in our de­vel­op­ment, are very im­por­tant, and that we less and less fre­quently ex­pe­ri­ence me­dia that is without an agenda.”

Post-Apoc­a­lyp­tic Vi­sion

The work of sci-fi au­thor Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Cas­tle, Do An­droids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep) was the in­spi­ra­tion for The Great C, a 37-minute work pro­duced by Canada’s Se­cret Lo­ca­tion in part­ner­ship with U.S.based Elec­tric Shep­herd. Di­rected by Steve Miller and pro­duced by Luke Van Osch, the strik­ing piece was awarded the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val’s Positron Vi­sion­ary Award this year.

“Many of us at Se­cret Lo­ca­tion are fans of the works of Philip K. Dick,” says Miller. “For a long time, we’d been look­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to make a project based on his work. When The Great C be­came avail­able, we took it. We didn’t know ex­actly what type of project we were go­ing to make with it, we just knew the con­cept, set­ting and theme would work well in VR. We ex­plored sev­eral dif­fer­ent av­enues. We made some pro­to­types that were more like a game, that had a lot more user-driven in­ter­ac­tiv­ity, but in the end we

‘I think this mo­ment in time is a make-it-or-break-it sort of sit­u­a­tion for VR, and I hope it sur­vives, be­cause it is an in­ter­est­ing tool for ther­apy and im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, but I can­not pre­dict the out­come!’ — Frances Adair McKen­zie, di­rec­tor, The Orchid and the Bee

found that do­ing a cin­e­matic-like ex­pe­ri­ence in VR felt the most ex­cit­ing and en­gag­ing.”

Miller and his team of about 20 worked in­tently on the project for eight months, and launched it at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val in late Au­gust 2018. The film was ren­dered in real time us­ing Un­real En­gine. “Game en­gines are a par­tic­u­larly good fit for vol­u­met­ric VR movies, al­low­ing view­ers to immerse them­selves in the story world while main­tain­ing six-de­grees of free­dom move­ment,” says the helmer.

“We used a mix of 3D pack­ages to cre­ate the art: Maya, Blen­der, C4D and Modo were used, as well as ZBrush and Sub­stance De­signer,” he adds. “As a rel­a­tively small, scrappy team, we each tended to work in the soft­ware where we were most com­fort­able, and used fbx and oc­ca­sion­ally alem­bic files to bring it all to­gether in the en­gine. We also made use of the VR hard­ware it­self, us­ing Vive track­ers to do quick and dirty mo­cap to work out most of the 3D block­ing in the scene, which could then be passed off as ref­er­ence to the an­i­ma­tors. I am pleased to say the sul­try walk of the story’s fe­male an­tag­o­nist, Grey, is mostly me!”

Miller says he is pleased that he and his team have cre­ated some­thing that blends the pac­ing and vis­ual lan­guage of cin­e­matic sto­ry­telling with the im­mer­sion of VR. “There were lots of un­knowns for what an au­di­ence could tol­er­ate in terms of du­ra­tion, edit­ing and cam­era move­ment,” he main­tains.“While I think there’s plenty yet to learn and evolve when work­ing in this new medium, I’m over­all re­ally happy that I can still sit down and go through it and lose my­self in the story.”

Of course, noth­ing can be as grat­i­fy­ing as an au­di­ence that com­pletely be­comes ab­sorbed in the ex­pe­ri­ence. “When we first pre­miered in Venice, our screen­ings would run un­til 10 p.m.; at which point a boat would ferry ev­ery­one off the is­land where the fes­ti­val was held,” Miller re­mem­bers. “A gen­tle­man had tried to sneak in a view­ing at the end of the night, and begged them to hold the boats so he could see how the story ended! It’s truly hum­bling to get some­one en­gaged with your story like that, and luck­ily we were able to get him in for a proper screen­ing the fol­low­ing day!”

A Peek into the Fu­ture

The three di­rec­tors we spoke with all seemed op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the tech­nol­ogy and the art form. “VR is go­ing to keep on grow­ing and be­come more pop­u­lar as head­sets be­come eas­ier to use and more af­ford­able,” be­lieves Dar­nell. “Un­like live-ac­tion en­ter­tain­ment, an­i­ma­tion de­vel­op­ment works well even when work­ing re­motely, es­pe­cially in our case be­cause we al­ready had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing this way. I would ex­pect more stu­dios to em­brace the use of an­i­ma­tion for their up­com­ing projects. With pow­er­ful and af­ford­able head­sets like Ocu­lus Quest ramp­ing up pro­duc­tion and with new func­tion­al­ity like hand-track­ing rolling out, the level of im­mer­sion and in­ter­ac­tiv­ity will con­tinue to in­crease in the months and years to come.”

“I’ve been par­tic­u­larly ex­cited by projects like Wolves in the Walls and Vader Im­mor­tal,” where the viewer gets to en­gage with the char­ac­ters in a story,” says Miller. “Feel­ing like you are con­nect­ing with fic­tional char­ac­ters is such a cool con­cept, and I’m ex­cited to see those types of in­ter­ac­tions get even richer and more in­volved as we go for­ward.”

Adair McKen­zie says she rides her bike ev­ery day past an out­door VR head­set in­stal­la­tion, and she can’t think of any­thing that feels more an­ti­quated right now. “I think that VR is still in its youth,” she points out. “It needs time to be ex­plored by artists and mak­ers, as well as the tools, soft­ware and hard­ware that are ac­ces­si­ble and fa­cil­i­tate cre­ativ­ity. I think this mo­ment in time is a make-it-or-break-it sort of sit­u­a­tion for VR, and I hope it sur­vives, be­cause it is an in­ter­est­ing tool for ther­apy and im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, but I can­not pre­dict the out­come!” ◆

‘The main chal­lenge was the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fort re­quired to cap­ture the scope and scale sug­gested by the source ma­te­rial, and to do it with as much cin­e­matic flare as pos­si­ble.’ — Steve Miller, di­rec­tor, The Great C

Baba Yaga

The Orchid and the Bee

The Great C

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