Google is bringing virtual reality (VR) to its biggest web property yet: The search giant is releasing a new animated 360-degree short film called “Back to the Moon” that celebrates the life and work of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès as a doodle on the Google.com homepage Thursday. The doodle went live early Thursday local time across Asia and Europe, and is set to hit the U.S. at midnight Eastern time.
Visitors of Google.com will then be able to click through to a 360-degree YouTube video that illustrates some of Méliès’ pioneering work in a kind of animated medley. Viewers get to explore the video in 360 degrees either by navigating with their mouse or finger, or by tilting their mobile phone in a magic-window-like mode.
“Back to the Moon” was created by Google’s doodle team in collaboration with Google Spotlight Stories, Google Arts & Culture and Cinémathèque Française teams, and produced by London’s Nexus Studios.
“He is one of our heroes,” said co-director Fx Goby of Nexus Studios about Méliès. The French filmmaker, who produced his most famous films at the turn of the 20th century, is known as a pioneer of visual effects. He built his own sets and starred in most of his own films. Méliès would film himself multiple times over the same film strip to create the illusion of a seven-member band of identical musicians, make items mysteriously disappear and confuse the audience by switching characters mid-scene — all of which can be seen in the doodle.
Concept art for “Back to the Moon.”
In many ways, it’s fitting that a tribute to him would be produced for an emerging medium like 360-degree video, where filmmakers once again have to come up with a lot of tricks to direct their audience’s attention. “We had to invent a lot of things,” said Goby. “VR is a new medium.”
The Google doodles team began working “Back to the Moon” in September of last year, and the production took a whole 6 months. That’s a lot for doodles, which originated as playful special-occasion versions of the Google logo some ten years ago. Initially, doodles were just simple drawings, meant to educate users and to commemorate moments of cultural significance. However, doodles have since gotten a lot more elaborate, with some including web-based video games and even simple music production tools.
“We are always trying to find new ideas,” said Google doodler and “Back to the Moon” co-director Helene Leroux. “This is the first VR experience that we did for Doodles.”
As such, it came with a number of other firsts. This was also the first time Google teamed up with an outside production company like Nexus Studios to make a doodle — the team simply didn’t have anyone on staff with 360-degree video production experience. “It required outside expertise,” said Leroux. And in another first, Google hired the London Symphony Orchestra to record the score of the doodle.
Concept art for “Back to the Moon.”
Also deeply involved in the production was the Google Spotlight Stories team, which has been making 360-degree videos for the company for a number of years now. Some of Spotlight Stories’ earlier projects included a short film from legendary animator Glen Keane, the Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated animated short “Pearl” and “Son of Jaguar,” the Emmy-nominated Mexican wrestling saga animated for VR headsets by “Book of Life” director Jorge Gutierrez.
“Back to the Moon” is the 15th Spotlight Story to be made by the team, and it will inevitably be the one with the biggest audience to date. “It brings an incredible spotlight to Spotlight,” said Google Spotlight Stories executive producer Karen Dufilho.
Goby said that the team was very conscious of the huge audience that the Google homepage can bring to the project, which is why it tried to balance the possibilities of 360-degree video with a simple narrative. Users who don’t look around much will still get the story, but anyone who explores the entire scene will be rewarded as well. “There are hidden gems everywhere,” he said.
In addition to being featured on the Google homepage for 48 hours, “Back to the Moon” is also being distributed through the Spotlight Stories app for iOS and Android, as well as on Google’s Daydream VR platform. And the company is also bringing the film to high-end VR headsets via Steam and Viveport as well. Said Dufilho: “We think of it as animation everywhere.”