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Animators Embrace VR as ‘Age of Sail’ and ‘Crow’ Make Audience Inroads

Virtual reality has been making inroads in the entertainment business for several years, but 2018 has been an especially big one for animated projects.
This year, there are at least two VR-animated shorts vying for Oscar nominations: Google Spotlight Stories’ “Age of Sail” and Baobab Studios’ “Crow: The Legend.” Disney has created its first VR animated project (“Cycles”) and is also using VR to help market its animated feature “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Earlier this year, Nickelodeon’s Entertainment Lab created a real-time VR experience for the studio’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to promote the series’ reboot at Comic-Con. And the players in all of these ventures say that the landscape for VR animation can only get better.

“I don’t think anyone doubts that VR is going to become a thing,” says Maureen Fan, co-founder and CEO of VR studio Baobab, which has already won Emmys for its projects “Invasion” and “Asteroids” and is behind “Crow: The Legend,” starring John Legend (who executive produces) and Oprah Winfrey.

“When you get in a VR headset, you realize the potential and possibilities of the medium. The question really isn’t, ‘Is this going to become mass market and hugely successful?’ It’s when.”

Google Spotlight Stories executive producer Karen Dufilho agrees. “I think we’re all onto something,” she says. Google has been playing in the VR, augmented reality and mixed reality space for quite a while now and the company has 16 projects under its belt. VR is just one of its focuses. “We like to experiment and think of ourselves as storytellers and technicians versus ‘We’re doing AR’ or ‘We’re doing VR.’”

Google’s “Age of Sail,” directed by John Kahrs, who won an Oscar for his Disney short “Paperman,” is the tech giant’s latest and most ambitious project yet. At 12 minutes, it is the longest film Spotlight Stories has done and the first with dialogue (featuring the voices of Ian McShane and Cathy Ang). Throw in an ocean as a backdrop and you’ve got plenty of challenges. Google doesn’t have a house style and seeks out different creators, most who have never worked in VR before, to collaborate with, all the while searching to explore new technological frontiers. “I think that’s in our DNA,” Dufilho says. “We’re also interested in some sort of nut to crack, some sort of look or technology or, in the case of ‘Age of Sail,’ everything, right? The look, the technology, the mass of it, the scope of it was all something to crack. Can we be on the ocean in VR? We found out that we could.”

VR as a medium and a way to consume content is growing, but it can be tough to get recognition for those projects. This year, the Annie Awards,
the top prize for the animation industry presented by ASIFA-Hollywood, has included a VR category to honor work in that area. Academy recognition is another matter, though, so there are theatrical versions of “Crow: The Legend” and “Age of Sail” that their respective studios have provided for Oscar consideration.

One studio that’s decided to stay out of the awards fray with its first VR short is Disney. Its “Cycles” follows a family over 60 years in their home.
“Cycles” was pitched by lighting artist Jeff Gipson as a VR project from the outset. “The studio never said, ‘Hey, let’s make a VR short,’”
“We didn’t have a pipeline set up to create it, so we kind of created it on the fly,” says Gipson, whose team created the film in just four months.

The film premiered a Siggraph and the studio has no plans as yet to offer a 2D version for awards consideration. “I think there’s a lot of excitement, seeing how audiences have connected with it,” Gipson says. “Now it’s raising the question, ‘What does it mean for the company?’ Even from the marketing standpoint, we’re all just figuring it out as we go. We’re on this road, breaking into this new frontier for the studio.”

For years, tech conferences such as Siggraph have beenthe lone venues to consume VR content, but high-profile film festivals including Annecy and
Venice have set up stations for VR viewing, and in Venice’s case, last year launched a VR competition strand.

Mass marketing VR content is a challenge. Imax recently closed its sole European VR center, and has closed half of its VR centers around the world in the past couple of years.

“It’s new and there’s this weird tech and a lot of cabling and sensors. You can only show one person at a time on a single device and there’s a choke point of just getting a lot of people to see it,” says Kahrs. “I think that’s going to go away slowly over time when the hardware changes and becomes a little more elegant.”

The hardware can make a big difference and can sometimes drive aspects of the storytelling, says Eric Darnell, Baobab co-founder and chief creative officer, who wrote and directed “Crow: The Legend” as well as the studio’s “Invasion.”

“When we were working on ‘Invasion,’ there were no hand controls,” he explains. “We still wanted to have a story and have characters that connect with the audience, so we made the viewer a bunny, so that when they looked down, they had the body of a bunny that reacted to their movements.”

As the tech progressed, so did their storytelling abilities. Baobab gave great thought about what to do in “Crow: The Legend” now that viewers could use hand controllers. “What we learned is that the viewers get caught up in the mechanics of interactivity, so when we made ‘Crow,’ we decided to completely ignore the buttons [on the controllers] and go for something that felt more gestural, more natural,” Darnell says. “The viewer doesn’t have to think about what button to push and can interact with the world around them in predictable ways.”

In addition to short films, VR projects can become marketing tools and brand extensions themselves. Case in point: “Ralph Breaks VR,” an animated VR experience released alongside Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is being presented at certain Southern California venues and Downtown Disney in Anaheim, among other sites. created by the immersive-experiences company the Void, Disney and ILMxLAB., “Ralph Breaks VR” takes four people on a journey into the internet with Ralph and Vanellope. Wireless headsets and vests allow visitors to interact and play along with characters from the film.

It’s an extension of the movie, but participants don’t have to see the film to enjoy it. “It actually took its inspiration from the film, but it’s also a unique experience,” says Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge of ILMxLAB. “The fact that you can experience the film and then experience the world and characters from that world in VR is amazing.”

The “Ralph” experience is just one of many planned of the Void/Disney partnership. “We are definitely going to see more Void experiences with Disney IP,” Beck says.

VR believers see more to come. “It’s magical,” Baobab’s Fan says. “Who doesn’t believe in magic, right?”

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