Inside ‘Dear Angelica’: How Oculus Reinvented VR Animation, With a Little Help From Geena Davis

Dear Angelica
Courtesy of Oculus

Geena Davis will never forget the first time she tried virtual reality, because it literally brought her to tears. “I was crying, and so moved by it,” she recently recalled. “I was just a mess by the end.”

Davis’ tear-inducing introduction to virtual reality (VR) came when she first watched a draft of “Dear Angelica,” a new 12-minute cinematic virtual experience from Oculus Story Studio that is premiering at Sundance and on the Oculus Rift headset Friday.

“I felt bad about it,” Oculus Story Studio Creative Director Saschka Unseld recently told Variety. “We made Geena Davis cry! She completely teared up.” Davis nonetheless signed on to the project and voiced one of the main characters, which is roughly based on her life and career.

But “Dear Angelica” isn’t just a deeply personal and intimate story that intertwines personal memories with the ones produced by Hollywood; it’s also pushing the boundaries on virtual reality storytelling itself, as it is the first animated movie that has been drawn entirely within VR.

Capturing memories, line by line

Facebook-owned Oculus unveiled Oculus Story Studio as a unit to explore storytelling for the new medium in early 2015. After experimenting early on with the possibilities of new medium with “Lost,” a short film that followed a robot lost in the woods, the studio had its first major success with “Henry,” an animated comedy about a hedgehog in need of love. “Henry,” which was directed by Pixar animator Ramiro Lopez Dau, won the studio an Emmy last year.

But while “Henry” was a fun short film in the tradition of Pixar and Disney, “Dear Angelica” is decidedly darker fare, animation for adults. The story is all about a daughter of a famous movie star, voiced by Mae Whitman, who writes a letter addressed to her late mother.

“Dear Angelica” blends personal memories with famous movie scenes, transforming for instance a family road trip into a “Thelma and Louise”-like shootout. Courtesy of Oculus

That letter becomes the narration to the movie, and takes the viewer through a series personal memories which are intertwined with the movie scenes the mom is known for. “I’ve been watching all of your movies again,” the daughter writes, and continues to say that she sometimes can’t tell her personal memories apart from those movies. “Your movies were so much more than just movies — they were about us,” Whitman can be heard saying.

“It is about memories and about how we remember stories and how much they mean to us in our lives,” said Unseld, who wrote and directed “Dear Angelica.” “The stories that our parents told us, but also the stories you’ve seen in movies, and how much they become part of us.”

Unseld began writing the script for it in June of 2015, and brought illustrator Wesley Allsbrook as art director on board later that year. Allsbrook had previously contributed to publications like the New Yorker and the California Sunday Magazine. Initially, she approached her work for “Dear Angelica” the same way, drawing individual characters and sets, which were then used as assets and converted to VR by the Oculus Studio team.

Early concept art for “Dear Angelica.” Courtesy of Oculus

However, this didn’t work at all, Allsbrook recalled during a recent interview: “I was telling all of my friends in private: I think I’m gonna have to quit this job, because this looks really ugly. This is a problem.”

“We were struggling,” said Useld, as early tests simply weren’t conveying the magic of Allsbrook’s drawings in VR. “Something got lost in translation.”

Made for VR, in VR

Oculus Story Studio Visual Effects Supervisor Inigo Quilez also didn’t mince words. “This looks like crap,” he told the group during a meeting some time in late 2015, only to propose a radical solution: “If we are making a VR movie, then the content should be made in VR as well.”

Quilez went on to create Quill, a tool that allows illustrators to draw complex 3D images while wearing a VR headset. Allsbrook immediately began using Quill, working with it as Quilez still added new features. “The tool was not made in isolation. It was always made in production and for Wesley, with her input,” he said. “She was saying: I need more transparent tips for the strokes, or I need thicker brushes. So we would go and adapt the tool.”

Quill isn’t the first drawing app for virtual reality. Google-owned Tiltbrush, which is available on the HTC Vive, is probably best known as a way for artists to draw immersive 3D pictures. But Quill was always meant to be a production tool for VR media, and this had some direct implications on the way “Dear Angelica” came to look.

One example: “Dear Angelica” is being animated stroke by stroke, with individual lines of the animation being drawn out to direct the viewer’s attention as the story unfolds around them. Watching this in a 3D space is unlike any other animation, and unlike anything that has been done in VR before.

“Dear Angelica” was drawn entirely in VR with a tool called Quill, which Oculus is giving away for free. Courtesy of Oculus

For Unseld, making the creative process itself was key to telling the story of “Dear Angelica.” “If you’ve ever seen someone draw, it’s so fascinating,” he said. The first line of a drawing doesn’t quite reveal what a picture will be about. Add a few more, and people or objects start to take shape. “It seems so similar to how we remember things.”

But in many ways, this key element of “Dear Angelica” was nothing more than a lucky accident. “The way Inigo wrote the tool, it records all the strokes that Wesley does,” said Unseld. One day, Quilez added a feature that would just draw out every stroke in the order she had drawn them while loading up the image — an effect that blew Unseld away. “I was like: Holy shit, we could just use that for the way the story unfolds!”

Rapid iteration, and a much smaller team

Working directly in VR, Allsbrook and Unseld could also iterate much more quickly. “VR is a new medium, and we have to figure out how to tell stories in it,” said Unseld. Doing that is hard when the production process itself takes a long time, he argued. “If you can shortcut that time, then you can actually start to try things.”

During the production of “Dear Angelica,” Allsbrook would often draw individual parts of the story while sitting at her desk, wearing a VR headset. Then she would show the images to Unseld, who would step into VR and move things around in the same way one might rearrange a stage or set. “You can play with this stuff like dolls,” said Allsbrook. “You can pick things up and move them around and rescale them.”

This rapid iteration process made it possible to explore some very interesting elements that otherwise may not have come to fruition. One example is a scene in which Angelica, the character of the girl’s mother, struggles with an illness, which is visualized as a fight with a monster. The fight scene draws out around the viewer, getting closer and closer until it feels almost claustrophobic.

Mother slash movie star Angelica in her fight against a deadly illness. Courtesy of Oculus

“We are actually pushing you around slightly by drawing things around you,” said Unseld. “That’s one of the few moments where we know exactly where someone stands in the space. We trap you in.”

Allsbrook and Unseld also have a few easter eggs hidden throughout the experience. The film itself switches back and forth between scenes showing Angelica in movies and memories and her daughter, sitting in her bedroom, and writing her letter. But even in those memories, the daughter is always there, hiding in a corner or under the bed, as if to say that the lives of the two protagonists were always connected.

There are also a few interactive elements that only appear or become animated if viewers focus on a certain area of a scene — but overall, “Dear Angelica” is using interactivity very sparingly. “Telling the story as complex as this in a completely visual illustrative way was enough of a challenge,” said Unseld, who argued that too much interactivity would have made it too distracting.

At the same time, the team wanted to give viewers a chance to explore the scenery more freely. That’s why it added the ability to pause the movie. “You can pause it any time, walk around and look at details, and then continue,” Unseld said. “You are in control. You can either have it wash all over you, or you can take a moment somewhere.”

One of the final shots of “Dear Angelica,” which is now available for free on the Oculus Rift VR headset. Courtesy of Oculus

A whole new world

Going forward, Oculus Story Studio wants to keep using Quilt to produce animated VR movies, but also to explore other art forms in VR. These will include comics that you can step into, or that can develop with a mixture of 3D images and animations around you. Ultimately, Quill could be democratizing animation in VR, said Unseld. “Creative artists don’t need a team of 20 engineers to back them up,” he said. ”That’s something incredibly powerful to have. That it’s that easy to create inside of VR, and have it be an artistic voice inside of VR.”

Allsbrook agreed. “It has a future, it doesn’t just stop with ‘Dear Angelica.’ I hope people do make stuff like this. I intend to keep using it this way, and to keep using it to make VR projects in the future.”

As for Geena Davis, like much of Hollywood, she has caught the VR bug as well, telling Variety that she’d love to be in a VR live action movie one day.

But Davis also agreed that VR has the potential to be more than just another screen. Connecting back to her own first emotional experience with VR, she argued that there is something special about the way it pus people in the middle of a story. “It’s a fascinating opportunity to create more empathy,” she said, adding: “The future of storytelling in VR is limitless. It’s a whole new world, really.”