ANNECY, France — John Kahrs’ “Age Of Sail” and Jan Pinkava and Mark Oftedal’s “Piggy” are two of the four state-of-the art-animated VR projects that Google Spotlight Stories (GSS) has brought this year to Annecy. For the third year running, GSS – a division of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group – and Google VR are partnering with VR@Annecy, a non-competitive category of the official selection.
At a Studio Focus Session on Wednesday presented by GSS, titled “Animation Everywhere,” the projects’ creators discussed their shorts while exploring the storytelling capabilities of VR, as well as the limitations and possibilities of 360 immersion. The panel was moderated by GSS’ executive producer Karen Dufilho and Pinkava, GSS’ creative director. Panelists included Kahrs, directors François-Xavier Goby and Hélène Leroux (“Back to the Moon”), and artist Céline Desrumaux, production designer in “Age.”
Kahrs took home the best animated short Oscar and an Annie Award in 2013 for his hybrid “Paperman.” Of “Age of Sail,” the director said: “I wanted this piece to operate in a less stylized universe, because the audience should believe the world is real – to feel the peril and the exhilaration of being in a storm, to be vulnerable.”
Visually inspired by American illustrator Bernie Fuchs, “Sail” chronicles the story of William Avery (Ian McShane), an old sailor adrift in the North Atlantic who rescues a teen girl mysteriously lost at sea. According to GSS, it’s the group’s most visually complex and longest project to date. The sneak peek is 1.5 minutes, and the final running time will be 10-12 minutes.
“Piggy” dives into VR possibilities with a very different approach: How to give the audience the control of timing in an expanded gag. “The plot of ‘Piggy’ is a series of classic cartoon gags, but now the viewer controls the timing just by deciding where to look,” co-director Pinkava said.
“This is the first time we had a character interacting directly with the audience, and its presence in the story is actually the story,” he added, explaining that the minimal plot aims to offer a maximum 360 immersive experience, where the viewer has a decisive role in the story, as both watcher and watched.
The story is simple. “There’s a little mischievous pig, a cake and the viewer,” explained Pinkava. The pig never loses sight of the cake, but won’t eat in front of the viewer. Using eye movements, the viewer is able to interactively communicate with the pig, which in turn expresses surprise, guilt, annoyance, and shame at its predicament. Although the action is real-time and responsive, as in a game, the acting is fully-authored animation, rather than machine-generated.
The concept set out in “Back to the Moon,” also part of the VR showcase, posed different challenges. In traditional animation, said co-director Goby, “I control time and I control the frame. I am in charge and you’re passive as an audience, watching what I am showing you, and I decide when I use some music or when I show you something.”
In a VR storytelling experience, however, control shifts to the viewer, which Goby said can be frustrating for the director as a storyteller. He added at the end of the panel: “VR is an incredible tool, but not every story could be told in VR.” Leroux suggested that the current range of VR is able to tap into less than 1% of the technology’s future possibilities.
360/VR “Moon” is a tribute to pioneer George Mélies. When Google released the piece globally as an interactive doodle in May, it went viral and topped YouTube trends, scoring more than 200 million views in two days. It marked GSS second’ collaboration with Nexus Studios (“Rain or Shine”).
Distributed in four programs, the non-competitive VR@Annecy offers eleven shorts: Eric Darnell’s “Crow: The Legend – Chapter 1,” Ethan Shaftel’s “Extravaganza,” Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski’s “Gymnasia (Preview Demonstration),” and “Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes (in Virtual Reality).
Also in the mix are “Piggy,” Pete Billington’s “Wolves in the Walls (Chapter 1),” “Age of Sail,” Hélène Leroux and Goby’s “Back to the Moon,” Paloma Dawkins’ “Museum of Symmetry,” Eugene Chung’s “Arden’s Wake – Expanded,” and Martin Allais and Nicolas Casavecchia’s “BattleScar.”