Animation has entered a new realm: virtual reality. It may be a revolution; or like 3D, it may turn out to be just an industrial fashion with little intrinsic artistic value. Sara Diamond, a producer at Oscar-nominated Google Spotlight Stories thinks that the audience receives an experience in immersiveness like never before.
Google Spotlight Stories creates short animations for a VR environment. You can watch them on the app – you can move the picture around in the window while it plays; you can observe details and follow events as you wish. You can watch them on your phone, moving it effortlessly, like a tiny window to another world. Or you can watch them in full VR: wearing a headset and truly entering that other world.
These are good stories, too. One of the short films, Pearl, received an Oscar nomination this year, deservedly (and won an Emmy for Innovation in Interactive Programming). We asked Google Spotlight Stories producer Sara Diamond at the Anilogue festival, Budapest, where she came to introduce and promote animation made for virtual reality.
I used to dream that I am watching movies on my glasses, lying in my bed. Are we getting there? What is your goal?
Well, I’m loving working in VR and with Google Spotlight Stories, it’s a really wonderful project, so just making more beautiful short films with talented directors.
What is Google’s goal?
I can’t speak to that, unfortunately. That would just have to go through their press.
Why VR, then? What does VR have that normal animations do not?
In VR you can be truly, fully immersed in 360 degrees:
people totally forget where they are,
so they can be completely involved in the story, able to be fully transported in there. So I think immersiveness is really powerful.
Immmersiveness is present in normal movies as well, if they are well done. In a movie theater sometimes you can completely forget where you are.
So how does VR achive deeper immersion?
We have some tools. We can use sound and visual cues, for example, and strong storytelling. Hopefully that takes it to the next level. If the story is done well, I think it’s beyond. It’s similar to a 2D film but there is something about it, because it is fully around you: you really feel like you are in a different place.
Animation has a hundred years of techniques like how to guide the audience’s look, framing and perspective, and so on… I guess you have to reinvent a lot of those.
A little bit, yes, but we use a lot of the same techniques. Pearl was revolutionary for us. We used the window as a framing device. And with sounds we can direct the audience’s attention to the right or to the left. And we use triggering devices in our shows to keep the audience to following along with the true moments of the story. To do that, they have to look at certain moments for the next action to continue. Imagine a sphere around you; if the audience is looking at the action, we move on to the next action. If not, it’ll wait until you get there, for a reasonable amount of time.
How effective is this technology? Does the audience look there?
Yes, because of the sounds and other cues that we use. Most of the time the audience does not realize this is happening. Our aim is to keep that tech behind the scenes:
if we’re doing it right, you won’t even notice it.
I have seen Pearl and Rain or Shine: besides being good stories (especially Pearl) they are good animations, too. However, they are not at the level of the best animation technology that we see in the movies. What are the future requirements for that to happen?
We want to be true to the style of the director and not to be limited by the tech. The show is rendering in real time, so that is something to consider – but for Rain or Shine, if you look at [Art Director] Robin Davey’s original concept art and the final, it’s practically the same. It’s how it was designed: it was meant to be that simple, graphic, cute style.
Do you see full movies in VR in the future?
Gosh, I don’t know. Why not? We have longer and longer films. Son of Jaguar, one of our newest shorts, is now 9 minutes in VR, and that’s the longest one we’ve ever done, so we’ll see.
Is there anything that restricts full movies shot in VR other than the technical side (computing power etc.)?
We have been primarily focused on short films. We’ve not even really ventured into the world of full feature lenght. I can imagine it can be a little difficult watching a full film in VR for the eyes.
Is the focus of the Spotlight project more on a technical demonstration, like what it’s capable of, or more on the stories, the films themselves?
It is definitely a combination. You can’t have the films without the tech. And the stories push the tech as well – so, a partnership of the two. The tech is obviously very important to us but we try to pick the best possible stories to work with.
How do you know what stories are going to be good enough?
Not every film is perfect for VR. You may have a beautiful story but it’s just not right for this kind of 360° space. You need a certain level of interactivity and you can’t have too much of it at the same time. Special Delivery, which was one of our animations, is a really good example. There is a main storyline to follow, but there are also a lot of side gags and little treats; this one uses the space really well. If you have something that’s only like a 2D film where you are just looking straight forward, it doesn’t really need to be in VR. But also if you have the audience whipping their heads around in 360°, it’s dizzying and doesn’t make sense for that space.
Can you tell me about new projects within Spotlight?
We have two new ones that just launched about a week ago, so we are really excited about those. One is Sonaria, our first story to be driven and inspired by sound design. Originally it was just an internal experiment, but it grew to be so strong that it became a full Spotlight story. It is released on Vive as well, in full VR, and mobile, and across all our platforms. And we also have Son of Jaguar, which is a really interesting show for us: it’s the longest one we have ever done and it’s really sweet.
If you could pick any animation story from the last hundred years and adopt it to VR, which one would it be?
Oh my gosh; any animation? Wow. (Thinks.) You know Raimund Krumme? He did a film called Crossroads that would be fun in terms of playing with dimension and space. I guess that would be the one.