New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and is compatible with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

The program, overseen by Cartoon Network director of digital development Ryan Harwell, came about when several artists at the company a couple of years ago expressed an interest in developing immersive VR content. “The challenge was that we’re a studio that has traditional animators, illustrators and board artists, and to make a VR interactive experience, you typically have to have a 3D background in modeling or animation,” Harwell says. 

The program gave the artists that experience — and in whirlwind fashion. Each team had four weeks, start to finish, to create a concept, develop it and animate it using VR tools, which they had to learn to use as they went along. 

The three teams worked one group at a time. After each four-week project, there were six weeks to discuss how things went. “I wanted to get feedback from the teams, improve the process and give feedback to the tools company as it built out its feature sets,” Harwell says. “Plus, each team passed on what it learned to the next.”

Team members were handpicked for the program and came from several Cartoon Network properties, including “Adventure Time,” “Over the Garden Wall,” “Steven Universe,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Clarence.” They worked on their VR project while their regular gigs were on hiatus or as they were coming off a show, Harwell says.  “I went out and found talent,” he says. “All of these individuals had to be open-minded because it can get very tense. You’re learning a lot of new stuff, developing for a new medium, so it was important that they also embrace team collaboration. Each team was built with a tone, a genre, in mind.”

The first team created “Kosma Kwest,” heady and existential, and very much in the vein of “Adventure Time,” Harwell says. Team two produced “Beyond Beeville.” “In this game, you take on the role of a one-winged bee who has to save its company from collapse,” Harwell says. “It’s got a lot of heart. There’s puzzle solving. There’s exploration.”

The third team built “Jest to Impress,” a comic experience that puts the viewer in the role of a court jester trying to make a bored king laugh — or else. “This team really wanted to hone in on comedy and how to express that in VR. It benefited most from all the knowledge that was passed down from all prior teams,” Harwell says. 

When the teams had their concepts, they started animating using the VR tool Tvori. “They were in a headset for six, seven, eight hours a day, modeling and animating,” Harwell says. 

Harwell hopes the program keeps increasing the types of VR it creates. “We built this in a modular way so we could continue to expand and add experiences,” he says. “I would love to add multiplayer experiences, all kinds of different stuff, into this modular hub we built that is Cartoon Network Journeys.” 

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