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Google Spotlight Stories Previews VR Shorts ‘Son of Jaguar,’ ‘Sonaria’ at SIGGRAPH

The boisterous, colorful tale of a Mexican wrestler trying to live up to his father’s legacy and the lyrical journey of a pair of ever-changing creatures moving through landscapes of sound and light are the latest projects to come out of Google Spotlight Stories, the marriage of art and technology for mobile and VR storytelling. Both were previewed as works-in-progress this week at SIGGRAPH 2017 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

“Son of Jaguar” comes from the mind of “The Book of Life” director Jorge Gutierrez, who just signed on to develop a new spinoff from the Lego franchise for Warner Bros., “Billion Brick Race.”

The short boasts Gutierrez’s trademark style and continues the Day of the Dead theme of his Golden Globe-nominated 2014 animated feature.

“It continues that idea that you are part of something bigger than yourself,” he says.

Gutierrez noted that fans of “Book of Life” will be pleased to know there are quite a few Easter eggs for them hidden in “Son of Jaguar,” which he made with his “Book of Life” partner Reel FX.

When given the chance to direct a project for Google Spotlight Stories, Gutierrez was, at first, anxious.

“I was very skeptical about VR, and then I saw Patrick Osborne‘s ‘Pearl.’ I think for me that was the one. It made me cry and I said, ‘I gotta do one,'” recalls Gutierrez.

When he started thinking of story ideas, the VR goggles themselves inspired him. “When I see people putting on the goggles, it’s like a wrestler putting on a mask. I always wanted to be a wrestler. It’s probably not going to happen so I thought, ‘This is it! My chance to be a wrestler,'” he explains.

“And then I’d heard people say that when they were watching VR, they’d felt like a ghost. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to write with the idea that you’re a ghost. It’s Day of the Dead, you’re coming to visit your wrestling son and your wrestling grandson, and you’re going to be a part of the story,'” Gutierrez says. “That was the original inspiration.”

But he was also excited to get really up close and personal with his characters. “To be able to walk around them and literally bend down and talk to the kid. It was a dream come true. I wish I could do that with any of my films,” Gutierrez says. “It definitely fulfilled a giant fantasy.”

He even voiced the lead character in “Son of Jaguar.” “It was super surreal to be in a VR space and watch a character I designed talking in my own voice. It was a narcissist’s dream come true!”

One of the most important things for Gutierrez was to give the story the right mix of humor and tenderness. He says he’ll know if he got that right when his mother finally gets to see it.

“I can’t wait for my mom to watch it,” he said. “Anything I make is to make my mom cry. My goal is to make my mom cry, so hopefully it works. … What if she doesn’t cry?”

Google Spotlight Stories plans to premiere “Son of Jaguar” later this year.

“Sonaria” was passion project for co-director Scot Stafford, who as creative director of music and sound has collaborated on all of Google Spotlight Stories’ projects, including for last year’s Oscar-nominated animated short “Pearl.” He also has his own music and production company, Pollen Music Group. “We’ve been doing music and sound for the Spotlight Stories, so I’ve actually worked on, in one way or another, every one of their stories going all the way back to ‘Windy Day,’ which is just 2012, but in VR years it’s like dog years,” notes Stafford.

Stafford came up with the original concept for the immersive “Sonaria” and worked primarily everything heard in the piece. Co-director Kevin Dart and L.A.-based animation studio Chromosphere produced all the visuals.

“It started off as an experiment in sound, which is something that in VR takes on some additional importance than it does on TV and film. What can we do to take it a step forward?” explains Stafford. “So I came up with the basic concept of two creatures guiding us through a series of environments that forced us to develop a lot of new audio technology and creative techniques that actually make it a pleasant, cool experience.”

Stafford knew he needed just the right partner for the simple, yet abstract project.

“I took it to Rachid El Guerrab, our project lead on Google Spotlight Stories, and said ‘Look, I know you guys are thinking of this as sound sound sound, music music music, but the fact is the visuals are just as important in this one, so we need to work with someone really, really good,'” he recalls. “He showed me this amazing short film that Kevin and Chromosphere did called ‘Forms in Nature.’ They were exactly what we were looking for.”

In addition to the sound aspects, Stafford was really inspired to do the environmentally-tinged short for the new “Cosmos” and “Planet Earth” series. “They’re surprisingly emotional,” he says. “And it’s important for people to be thinking about this stuff and inspired by it; being a witness to the forces of nature at work and how emotional it can be to see creatures interacting. It was all part of this primordial soup, of all the VR stuff I was thinking about, the science-y stuff I was thinking about.”

Though Chromosphere has dabbled in VR, “Sonaria” is the first full VR project Dart and the studio has done. “I’ve been really interested in it, especially how you can push 2D styles in a VR space, which this project was a perfect fit for,” says Dart. “We were already starting to experiment on our own before we were contacted by Google Spotlight Stories and we’re continuing to now. It seems like a really fun medium to play in.”

“My favorite thing about VR, which is what’s really cool about this piece is the ability to sit in a space and enjoy it,” Dart continues. “Have a really nice, relaxing space you can transport people to. One thing I’ve noticed even with some of our earlier projects is the amazing effect that the sound has when you’re really in that space.”

“Sonaria” will premiere during the Future of Storytelling Festival in New York City on Oct. 6 to Oct. 8, but the launch on the Google Spotlight Stories mobile platform is yet to be determined.

SIGGRAPH wrapped Thursday, with more than 16,500 attendees from around the world checking out the latest in computer graphics and interactive technologies.

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