Google Spotlight Stories Special Delivery screenshot
Courtesy of Google

Santa Claus is coming to town — but one particular custodian really doesn’t like the idea of someone messing with his chimneys, or climbing around on the roof. He tries to catch the intruder, starting an epic and hilarious chase. That’s in a nutshell the premise of “Special Delivery”, a new animated short by Aardman Animations, the award-winning animation studio behind such hits as “Wallace and Gromit”, “Shaun the Sheep” and “Chicken Run”.

But there’s something else that’s special about the short, aside from Santa’s presence. “Special Delivery” is the latest of Google’s Spotlight Stories, a new genre of 360-degree videos made for mobile devices. The twist: Spotlight Stories invite viewers to move their phone to explore a story, and use it like a window to an invisible world that surrounds them. It’s almost like virtual reality, without a headset. “We are pioneers in 360-degree storytelling,” said Aardman co-founder and creative director Peter Lord in an exclusive interview with Variety this week, adding: “It’s just been a thrilling project.”

“Special Delivery” plays in a backyard of a snowed-in apartment complex, with a point of view that’s reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic “Rear Window”. Viewers can move their phone around to explore different areas of the scenery, and for example tilt it up to see Santa landing on the roof, or to the side to see him deliver presents to the kids of the neighborhood.

But changing the point of view this way doesn’t just put other aspects of the scenery into focus — it actually changes the plot itself: There are more than 60 trigger points placed around the backyard, and looking in a certain area essentially “unlocks” small parts of the story while pausing other parts of the action. This makes it possible to focus on an impromptu neighborhood band, and have Santa and his adversary patiently wait to continue their chase off screen. “This is the most interactive story we have done so far,” said Google’ Spotlight Stories project lead Rachid El Guerrab.

But this isn’t just about easter eggs. The two main characters, Santa and the custodian, also frequently end up in different spots, forcing the viewer to decide whether to put the spotlight on the grumpy or the jolly fellow. “You can choose to follow either one of the characters,” said Aardman animation director Tim Ruffle. This kind of interactivity was totally new to the Aardman team. “You’re given this amazing challenge to make it work in the 360 world,” said Lord. “You never know where the user is gonna look.”

A 3D cardboard model of the “Special Delivery” scene created by Aardman Animations as part of the production process.
Courtesy of Google

To tackle this challenge, Aardman’s team started with building a cardboard model of the entire scene, which allowed them to move characters around and identify the different aspects of the plot. Then, they storyboarded the individual plot lines, only to eventually bring them all together. Making all of this work wasn’t always easy, admitted Aardman technical director Philip Child: “It was chaos.”

Storyboarding with Post-Its to develop the different aspects of the plot.
Courtesy of Google

Part filmmaking, part software development

This isn’t the first time for Google to team up with award-winning filmmakers for interactive 360-degree videos. Spotlight Stories originally began as a Motorola project and later became part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects research and development unit.

The group has released 360-degree videos in collaboration with former Pixar animators, including Glen Keane, creator of “The Little Mermaid”, as well as renowned action movie director Justin Lin. Spotlight Stories team makers include former Pixar director Jan Pinkava as well as former Pixar producer Karen Dufilho-Rosen. The group is tasked with advancing storytelling for mobile devices, and it has from the beginning been an effort that’s part software development, part filmmaking.

SEE MORE: How Google and Justin Lin Are Reinventing Movies For Mobile (Exclusive)

Initially, the Spotlight Stories team developed custom technology for each and every project. Aardman was the first studio to use Google’s new story development kit (SDK) to produce “Special Delivery,” and Ruffle said having these tools available helped a lot. “We tried to squeeze as much as we can out of the technology,” he said, adding: “I think we really pushed the technology.” However, working for a client that is building the production tools is unusual, joked Child: “Normally, you are very nice to your clients and very mean to your software vendors.”

Different hotspots within the story trigger different parts of the plot: concept art from the “Special Delivery” production process.
Courtesy of Google

Non-linear streaming within the YouTube app

Google is also exploring new grounds with “Special Delivery”, as it is the first Spotlight Story that’s being hosted on YouTube. The Google-owned video service began to host 360-degree videos earlier this year, and the goal had long been to also bring Spotlight Stories to YouTube. However, this actually turned out to be a pretty complex technical challenge.

That’s because Spotlight Stories isn’t just a video that allows you to pan around. By giving viewers the ability to explore different plots within the story, projects like “Special Delivery” also abandon the idea of a traditional timeline. Basically, a story can take as long as you want it to, which is obviously very different from a traditional YouTube video with a fixed length.

Aardman Animations director Tim Ruffle watching “Special Delivery” on a phone.
Courtesy of Google

To make “Special Delivery” work within the YouTube app, Google’s engineers essentially had to load code that’s more like a gaming engine within the YouTube player without slowing down the experience on hundreds of millions of phones. Streaming the content itself also required some pretty sophisticated tech — essentially, youTube’s player has to predict where viewers will look next to make for a smooth experience.

That’s same technology could help YouTube to improve its own virtual reality efforts.“ This is literally non-linear streaming,” said El Guerrab. In fact, the story is already optimized for virtual reality as well: Users can also switch to the VR mode within the YouTube app and watch it with a Cardboard VR viewer, which brings the the viewer closer to the action and adds more 3D depth to it.

Christmas all year

Google is now moving to retire the Spotlight Stories app, and eventually move all previously published stories over to YouTube as well. One of the reasons for this is the sheer size of YouTube’s audience: The video site has over a billion monthly active users — an order of magnitude more than Google could have reached with the existing app. “We are now connecting filmmakers to that huge audience,” said Pinkava.

Another side effect is that YouTube comes with existing monetization models, most notably advertising. Spotlight Stories previously considered making users pay for individual pieces of content, but YouTube’s approach will likely work a lot better for these short bits of video. El Guerrab said he was glad that YouTube already had a revenue model in place. “We don’t have to figure it out,” he said.

Google is bringing “Special Delivery” to the YouTube app for Android first, where it will initially work with a limited number of Android devices. To make sure that users of other handsets and desktop PCs aren’t left out, the team has also compiled a non-interactive 360-degree video version that doesn’t let users follow different paths within the story.

YouTube plans to add support for interactive Spotlight Stories to its iOS app and additional Android devices soon, and Lord joked that that the video works just as well during other times of the year — something his team quickly realized during the production process. “At Aardman, it’s been Christmas all year,” he said.

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