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Penrose Studios Built Social VR Software to Produce Its New VR Film ‘Arden’s Wake’

San Francisco-based VR animation studio Penrose Studios isn’t just taking the first chapter of the new animated tale “Arden’s Wake” to Tribeca next week; the startup is also getting ready to give the world a first look at one of the tools it used to make the film. Maestro, as the software is being called, is a social collaboration tool to review VR animations, and it may just be the first software of its kind dedicated to collaborative film production in virtual reality.

Penrose is best known for “Alumette,” its 2016 animated VR film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Matchstick Girl.” At Tribeca, the studio is premiering a new animated film that once again features breathtaking worlds that viewers can step into, getting them that much closer to the very emotional story.

“Arden’s Wake: Chapter 1” is all about a young girl who loses her mother at a young age and grows up with her father, a lighthouse keeper slash scientist, in a post-global-warming oceanic world. Then, tragedy strikes again and the girl is forced to confront the ocean, which happens not only to be her mother’s deadbed but also home to a number of other surprises.

Like previous Penrose productions, “Arden’s Wake” comes with a huge level of detail. Reviewing these animations in a traditional setting, with animators crowding around a monitor to catch a glimpse of the action, quickly proved impossible. That’s why Penrose also developed Maestro, which allows the entire team to step into VR with their headsets, and review each animation in 3D.

Animators can voice chat with each other with simple avatars, use a kind of virtual laser pointer to draw attention to specific areas and even leave notes within each shot to highlight objects that still need work. “We did that every day we did this piece,” said Penrose Studios Lead Animator Bruna Berford. “It was basically a life-saver.”

Despite using state-of-the-art tools like Maestro, “Arden’s Wake” doesn’t feel gimmicky at all, as it uses VR to advance the story, and not for technology’s sake. One example: The piece will premiere on high-end headsets first, but won’t use any input controllers. “We have tied a lot of interactivity,” said Penrose founder and CEO Eugene Chung. “It ended up just distracting the viewers.”

The Penrose team has already begun to work on chapter 2, which is set to be released later this year. And the company is also looking for ways to release Maestro to the community of VR creators. Chung told Variety that he’s considering different distribution models, including to give it away for free: “Being able to empower the world with it — that’s exciting.”

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