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Google Previews New Spotlight Story ‘On Ice’ At Comic-Con (Exclusive)

Things are bound to get weird when animation character designer Shannon Tindle previews his newest animated short film “On Ice” at Google’s Comic-Con panel this Saturday. For one, “On Ice” is a nutty story about a Sci-Fi-themed Ice Capade extravaganza, which is interrupted by — wait for it — a giant bear. On skates, no less.

And then there’s the fact that “On Ice” isn’t your plain old short film.

Instead, it’s Google’s newest Spotlight Story, which means it’s built exclusively for mobile viewing, with a twist: Spotlight Stories are 360-degree videos that use a kind of magic window to let viewers explore all angles of a story. Move your phone to the left, and your field of view movies to the left as well. Pan back to the right, and you’re exploring another area. Move it down, and you’ll see the floor. Hold it up, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the ice rink’s ceiling.

“On Ice” is going to be released by Google later this summer, and will eventually be available both on iOS and Android as well as via YouTube. It’s being released by Google’s Advanced Technologies And Projects (ATAP) research group, which has already made four such Spotlight Stories, ranging from the poetic Duet by animation legend Glen Keane to a live-action short by “Fast and Furious” director Justin Lin.

The idea behind Spotlight Stories is to advance the use of mobile technologies and reinvent storytelling at the same time. But up until now, ATAP has put tons of work into custom development of each of these stories.

To make Spotlight Stories more scalable, the group has been developing set of tools for studios and filmmakers that will allow the production of spherical videos without any extra coding. Tindle and his production crew at San Francisco’s Evil Eye Pictures were the guinnea pig for this story development kit (SDK), and his video will be the first that was completely built without any custom work by ATAP. “That’s a huge step for us,” said ATAP’s technical program lead Rachid El Guerrab.

Google wants to eventually make the Spotlight Stories SDK widely available to filmmakers and studios. But Hollywood creatives will have to rethink some of their ways of doing things to produce films for the new medium. Tindle, who previously worked on movies like “Coraline” and “Curious George” as well as the animated cult TV show “Foster’s Home Of Imaginary Friends”, said he was used to working on small computer monitors, only to eventually bring his creations to theater screens and big TVs.

With Spotlight Stories, creators have to go the opposite way and optimize everything for small mobile screens — which is why Tindle and the folks at Evil Eye Pictures were constantly reviewing and testing their work on phone. “That was new to me,” he said in an interview this week.

Tindle and his team also relied on mobile devices to aid other aspects of their work. Early on in the process, they shot a 360-degree photo of a real ice rink, put it on a phone and panned around and explored the space to see how it would look like. “Ideas started to come out of that,” said Tindle.

Giving viewers control over their point of view can challenge existing notions of how to tell stories, Tidle quickly learned. For instance, viewers can get lost when a character moves too quickly out of frame. And as it happens, ice skating involves a lot of movement. Tindle was struggling with a particular scene, and ended up observing users watch it on mobile devices over and over again. “I would just watch how they react,” he said: “Can they follow the action?”

In the end, Tindle just decided to have the character move in slow motion, giving viewers enough time to follow along. Making “On Ice” involved figuring out a lot of these kinds of tricks, he said, adding: “It’s new territory. There are no storytelling rules.”

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