Tuesday, July 17, 2018
  • Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016
Immersed In VR At The AFI Tech Showcase
A scene from "Pearl" directed by Patrick Osborne
Insights from Oscar winner Patrick Osborne, production designer Tuna Bora, Wevr co-founder Anthony Batt, et al
  • HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
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With an animation pedigree that includes winning a Best Animated Short Oscar last year for Disney’s Feast, director Patrick Osborne is known for creating assorted different worlds. He noted that virtual reality has taken him to the new filmmaking plateau of “creating a world and being able to step into it.” 

Osborne observed that with the current state of VR technology, a viewer can block everything out and be totally undistracted as he or she gets immersed in a virtual experience. It’s “cool,” he affirmed, to create that experience and the world in which it resides. 

Osborne’s comments came during a panel discussion at this past weekend’s American Film Institute Tech Showcase, held as part of the overall week’s AFI Fest which runs through November 17 in Hollywood. The session featuring Osborne, among others, presented a Google Spotlight Stories Case Study of Pearl and Rain or Shine, two creatively ambitious VR shorts. Osborne directed Pearl. Fellow panelists included Tuna Bora, production designer on Pearl; Kim Adams, producer of Rain or Shine who has since become sr. producer at Oculus Story Studio; and Rachid El Guerrab, technical project lead, Google Spotlight Stories, Discussion was moderated by Jan Pinkava, creative director of Spotlight Stories, part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group.

In recent years Google has worked in tandem with varied filmmakers to explore, shape and showcase the VR experience through short films. Thus far nine shorts have been produced, the latest being Rain or Shine which is about to formally debut. Rain or Shine entailed a collaboration between Google Spotlight Stories and London’s Nexus Studios. Pearl, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, was born out of a collaboration among Google Short Stories, Evil Eye Pictures and Passion Pictures. 

Directed by Felix Massie of Nexus, Rain or Shine centers on a girl who enthusiastically takes delivery of a pair of sunglasses but whenever she dons them, it rains. Pearl traces the relationship between a father and daughter over the years as captured by their time together in a hatchback automobile. They crisscross the country chasing their dreams, lending a road movie kind of feel to their story as we see the girl, Sarah, come of age and become a talented musician/performer herself. The short is anchored by the original song, “No Wrong Way Home,” written by Alexis Harte and JJ Wiesler and performed by Kelley Stoltz and Nicki Bluhm. Pearl broke new ground for Spotlight Stories in both storytelling and technology, with the most shots sets, and characters, along with custom lighting, effects and interactive surround sound in every shot. 

Pearl could also break new ground in another respect. Google Short Stories has submitted it for Oscar consideration in the animated short category.

Osborne observed that Pearl required him to adjust his filmmaking lens. He noted that relinquishing control of the camera to the audience is contrary to what an animator is accustomed to, which is to be in control of everything. To gain back a measure of that control in the VR space, Osborne chose the setting of a car--modeled and inspired by his family’s 1983 Chevy Citation--since it represents a finite environment with which people are familiar. He also liked the idea of a family car being passed down to the daughter, much like a passion for the arts, in this case music, can be passed from one generation to the next.

Production designer Bora said that Pearl provided her with some daunting challenges. She noted that for a little less than six minutes of screentime, the shoot spanned 26 sets. Bora related that there’s “a completely different process to designing an environment at 360 degrees at any point of the story.” It’s an intense process she affirmed, with Osborne chiming in that it’s akin to creating “a painting with no edges.”

Of those edges, Bora said that in this kind of road trip experience, viewers can focus anywhere, including looking out the car window or even the sunroof if they so desire. That’s why she approached Pearl not as an animation design piece but rather an experience design piece to serve the story within.

At the same time, observed Bora, VR has an inherent dynamic that can give viewers a sense of story even if they wander elsewhere. She pointed out that in Pearl there are little moments in the car which underscore that we are seeing Sarah grow up before our eyes. “Even if you don’t notice that,” related Bora, “you still feel as if you’re growing up” by virtue of being immersed in the action.

In the case of Rain or Shine, shared Adams, since viewers can gravitate to whatever elements or stories they choose, interesting subplots had to be devised. At the same time, these subplots were constructed to help bring viewers back to the main narrative. Adams noted that even the musical score tries to subtly lead the audience back to the primary story. If viewers go too far on a minor subplot tangent, the score gets quieter and even turns to silence, regaining volume as eyes move back to more mainstream elements. 

El Guerrab said that VR brings us to the intersection of interactivity, engagement, film and theater. And being on the ground floor during the early stages of this medium/discipline lends itself to major discoveries in such areas as tool development and artistic approach.

For Bora, perhaps the biggest takeaway from working in VR is the love she has for its psychological aspect as people make the choice to empathize with others. Viewers are placed in the shoes of people whom they might not ever get to meet. She cited The Displaced, an acclaimed virtual reality experience produced for The New York Times by Vrse.works (now Here Be Dragons) which places viewers directly inside the global refugee crisis. In today’s divisive times, Bora observed, it’s healthy for people to break out of their insular worlds and delve into other people’s experiences, thoughts and opinions. It’s healthy, she affirmed, for people to develop an empathy that they wouldn’t experience otherwise.

Keynote address
Kicking off the AFI Tech Showcase was a Saturday morning (11/12) keynote address from Anthony Batt, co-founder of VR production house Wevr, which has delved into the medium on varied fronts, teaming with the likes of comedian/musician Reggie Watts, wellness expert Deepak Chopra, animation guru Phil Tippett and filmmaker Jon Favreau on different individual VR projects.

Wevr collaborated with the latter and Reality One on the series Gnomes & Goblins, creating an interactive fantasy world featuring many realms and denizens. Yet while working with Favreau yielded a worthwhile, well-received show, Batt believes that in the big picture the most innovative VR won’t necessarily come from the center of Hollywood but instead its edges, namely creatives and artists who are on the periphery and have no or fewer pre-conceived notions of VR that are unduly influenced by extensive TV or feature film experience. Without the baggage of another already established medium or discipline, these new artisans can fully immerse themselves in VR, “go crazy” and create an immersive experience more fully tapping into the potential of experiential 360.

Batt noted that production design is a critical element to the success of a VR project, fundamental to the character of the show or film, setting the entire space for interaction. Audio too is integral as Batt related that if done properly, audio can enable a viewer to close his or her eyes and still have a substantive experience.

And, of course, the opportunity to experience the points of view of different characters within the VR experience is a valuable storytelling dimension, akin in respects to--but potentially far more multi-faceted and encompassing more POVs than--the Showtime series The Affair in which the different perspectives of the protagonists come to life, providing more than just one side to the story. 

Batt eagerly anticipates how VR will impact various genres and program categories such as the sitcom, the non-scripted reality show, even the cartoon. At the very least, viewers will be doing more than watching characters on TV. They will be standing with the characters interacting and walking around them, making for a far more engaging experience. Batt affirmed that “the focus should be on how awesome the story makes the new medium”--and conversely how the new medium brings more dimensions and life to any story.