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Augmented and Virtual Technology Boost Storytelling and Revenue Streams for Animation Studios

An alphabet soup of tech acronyms is on Hollywood’s menu these days, with VR and AR as the specials du jour. Those outside interactive media can be forgiven for not knowing how virtual reality and augmented reality will impact their businesses. But figuring this out is crucial for animation producers, whose pint-sized audiences are fluent with smartphones and other devices. The topics will also be on the agenda at the Annecy Animated Film Festival and Market, which runs June 12-17 in Annecy, France.

“They’re better at it than most adults,” says Cartoon Network president Christina Miller. “And they expect their brands of choice to be available wherever and whenever they want.  To be part of our audience’s habits, we’re multi-platform by design.”

Miller notes the network’s new “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes” is launching both as a show and console game, and they’re developing VR experiences for “Adventure Time.” The company’s Adult Swim channel is programming VR for the Oculus and Vive headsets, but producing animated content for pricey hardware will take time. “It will be the Wild West for a while,” says Miller. “We’re emphasizing experimentation so that we’re ready when it IS a vibrant business.”

Likely to have more imminent impact is augmented reality, especially with Facebook and Snapchat encouraging users to add digital images to real-world scenes. As Miller says: “AR has been around a while, but then it got married to Pokemon. Never underestimate the power of a meaningful brand married to technology at the right time.”

Nickelodeon Group president Cyma Zarghami admits, “As a parent, when Snapchat arrived, my first instinct was ‘game over.’ Since then, I’ve realized it’s an exciting opportunity.  We need to understand what the implications will be for our audiences.”

Toward that end, Nickelodeon has launched the Entertainment Lab, headed by senior VP Chris Young. “I’ve spent a lot of time in kids’ animation,” says Young. “I see a future where we can apply things that were budgetarily or technically out of reach just a few years ago.”

One development is the VR experience “Slime Zone” (pictured above).

Another of the Lab’s demos is a virtual puppet show using the star of Nick’s “The Loud House.” As Zarghami says, “They’ve used a game engine to create a 2D puppet of Lincoln Loud that can — through an Adobe character animator — host Saturday mornings for us. We can manipulate his arms, legs and mouth, and he can talk about anything in real time.  We just have to bring in voice talent, we don’t have to ship it to Asia for animation. It’s a small application that Chris Young’s group has created, and there will be many more.”

Promotional uses for these technologies are already emerging. Sony Pictures Animation has an interactive piece for “Smurfs: The Lost Village” running on Microsoft’s HoloLens platform, which allows kids to interact with virtual Smurfs.

“It brings characters out of movie theaters and into homes,” says Sony Pictures Animation senior VP Mike Moon.  He notes that the Motiongate theme park in Dubai has a Hotel Transylvania AR experience, and expects there will be AR and VR associated with “The Emoji Movie.” “There are marketing opportunities even while these technologies are in their infancy.”

Moon says the greatest penetration remains on mobile devices. “There are so many AR experiences that run on cellphones now.  That’s the linchpin that brings it to the masses.”

Fully immersive, headset-based VR is also being explored at studios as a creative production tool.  At DreamWorks Animation, senior technologist Manny Francisco says: “We have a lab where artists work in VR to understand how to draw or sculpt using VR tools. They can do previs or layout interactively. It’s a good mechanism to take 2D storyboards and translate them into 3D space.”

One point on which technologists agree is that more and more animation will be created using real-time tools. And new software companies are emerging to meet that need. Former Pixar animator Tom Sanocki, who founded Limitless VR, is finding that even non-VR creatives are interested in his software. “There’s definitely a way to hedge your bets by building something in VR, even if you’re not ready to use VR as a delivery medium.”

Even such production studios as Bento Box, creators of “Bob’s Burgers,” are anticipating the time when a business model will emerge to move these technologies past the expensive R&D phase. As CEO Scott Greenberg says: “Animation has a leg up in VR and AR.  We’re building worlds anyway.”

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