Google’s Spotlight Stories team is back with yet another mobile storytelling gem: “Rain or Shine” is a cute and smart animated short that follows a little girl called Ella who wants to try out her brand-new sunglasses outside — only to find that she is being followed by a singular cloud that unloads buckets of water on her, but leaves the rest of the world dry and sunny.
But “Rain or Shine” isn’t just your regular animated short film. Optimized for mobile screens, it invites viewers to look around on a 360-degree stage that plays out across a typical London square. Viewers can simply tilt their phones to look up, down, left or right, as if they were to use the phone as a window into an invisible world. It’s the same technology that Google has been using for all of its Spotlight Stories, including “Duet” from Disney legend Glen Keane and “Help” from Fast and Furious director Justin Lin.
“Rain or Shine” takes this idea of giving viewers agency over the story further, and allows them to unlock a number of subplots as they explore the square. “We really wanted to reward looking around,” said Google Spotlight Stories executive producer Karen Dufilho.
Viewers can even influence the story by paying more or less attention to certain things. For instance, there’s a couple drinking in front of a pub. Look at them for a long time, and they’re bound to get quite tipsy. “You have to misbehave” and not just stay with the main plot, Dufhilo advises viewers.
The story was produced by London-based Nexus Studios in conjunction with the Spotlight Stories team from Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP) unit, and directed by Nexus’ animation director Felix Massie. Nexus Studios and Google folks started talking about a collaboration about two years ago. Nexus Studios co-founder and executive creative director Chris O’Reilly explained that the company wanted to focus on the story first, despite the possibilities of the medium. “Don’t pitch us gimmicks based on the technology,” the team was being told, he recalled.
|A spaghetti ball: The Nexus Studios team, plotting the story for “Rain or Shine.”Photo courtesy of Google|
“Rain or Shine” nonetheless ended up being the most interactive Spotlight Story yet. “It has a complex narrative tree to it,” said Spotlight Stories Creative Director Jan Pinkava, who previously wrote and co-directed Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” That made the production of the piece challenging at times. The storyboard was “a spaghetti ball” of ideas and subplots, said Dufhilo. The goal was to have all those little pieces and ideas fit nicely together. “It’s this sort of a Swiss clock.”
“Rain or Shine” is being released on YouTube as well as through the Spotlight Stories app on iOS and Android, and viewers can also enjoy the experience in VR via Google’s Cardboard and Daydream VR viewers. Getting an interactive experience like this to work on the web, and as part of the regular YouTube player, represented another challenge. “‘Rain or Shine’ also pushed out streaming technology,” said Spotlight Stories Technical Project Lead Rachid El Guerrab.
ATAP first started to work on Spotlight Stories when it was still owned by Motorola, with a mandate to push the boundaries of mobile storytelling. One of the key ideas since the beginning has been a balance between giving viewers the freedom to explore sceneries and cues and plotlines that make them come back to the main story.
In “Buggy Night,” ATAP’s very first Spotlight Story, this vehicle was literally a spotlight. In a way, “Rain or Shine” goes full circle on this idea by having Ella followed by a sinister cloud. “It’s the spotlight you never want to be under,” O’Reilly joked.