Virtual reality is having a creative moment. This week saw an Oscar nomination for a 360-degree animation, while several VR experiences are also winning plaudits at the Sundance Film Festival this week.
That might surprise the many people who think of VR as synonymous with video games. The best-selling system so far is Sony’s PlayStation VR, paired with its PS4 games console. Rivals such as HTC’s Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift have also focused on gamers as the first adopters of their pricey headsets.
Commercially, this makes sense. PC gamers already have the expensive computers and graphics cards required to run Vive or Rift, and are accustomed to spending up to $60 on a piece of software.
However, putting such a focus on games risks overlooking some of the most satisfying experiences one can have with VR. The limitless canvas presented by this technology is launching new kinds of cinema, as we have seen for a couple of years on the film festival circuit, and more open-ended artistic creativity.
The Oscar nod is for Pearl, an animated short released by Google as part of its Spotlight series last year. Pearl sits the viewer in the passenger seat of a family car, watching a daughter grow from toddler to twenty-something alongside her guitar-strumming father. The five-minute film is also available in a more traditional 2D version — which is the one that was shown to members of the Academy — but it nonetheless marks a moment of recognition for “look anywhere” filmmaking.
Available for free on YouTube, Pearl is best enjoyed through a Google Cardboard viewer, where you can choose to focus on dad, daughter or the road — or each in turn if you choose to watch it more than once. VR’s intimacy works well with the sweet coming-of-age tale and in the confined environment of the car.
For a more “native” example of VR filmmaking, seek out Dear Angelica on the Oculus Rift. Created by Oculus’s in-house Story Studio team, which is made up of various alums of Disney’s Pixar, Dear Angelica is a work that can only be experienced (or made) in VR.
The titular Angelica, voiced by Geena Davis, is a film star of a bygone age. The animation is narrated by the daughter she left behind, whose letters we both hear and see written out before our eyes.
As viewers, we see the animation come to life around us in “real time”, just as it was painted by the illustrator, Wesley Allsbrook. Her smooth brushstrokes and fluid handwriting conjure knights fighting fantastical dragons, gunfights and hot rods, even astronauts and space shuttles — and then take us back again to the small, quiet bed upon which Angelica’s daughter writes her letters.
By putting us inside the painting process, the animation has a tangible sense of craftsmanship that most computer animations — even the impressive Pixar movies — do not. Oculus says that instead of employing a huge team of animators and rendering their images in vast server farms, Ms Allsbrook “painted every scene entirely by hand”. This personal touch comes through in the emotional punch of the piece: Dear Angelica has caused more than a few VR headsets to get fogged up by teary eyes at Sundance.
Tilt Brush, Quil and Medium
Dear Angelica was created using Oculus’s Quill software, which comes free with the Rift’s new Touch controllers, released in December. Quill and Oculus’s other creative app, Medium, are both very similar to Google’s Tilt Brush, available for Vive through the Steam software store.
All three apps use motion-tracking controllers to let you paint and sculpt in 3D. The right hand releases paint or sculpting material, which then hangs in virtual space for you to twist, resize, mould or erase. The left hand functions as a sort of infinite palette, allowing you to change colours, brush styles or the kind of material you can generate.
The rest is up to you. For those of us who are intimidated by a blank page or a white canvas, the limitless studio of VR can be a little overwhelming at first. My first time in Tilt Brush, after warming up by signing my name in the sky and inflating various white blobs, I eventually managed to produce a 3D sketch of a car — of sorts — complete with steering wheel, beaming headlights and smoking exhaust.
It was no masterpiece but if I, with few artistic leanings, can make something semi-respectable within about 20 minutes, it is clear that the barriers to entry here are low and the potential high.
After a while spent in Quill or Tilt Brush, going back to using a mouse and keyboard on a normal PC screen feels flat and strange. This is the unexpected contradiction of VR: installing all that hardware around the room and then strapping a screen to your face is just as awkward and unwieldy as it sounds. But once you are in there, VR is technology at its most intuitive and natural, because it encompasses all three dimensions from the real world. In the right hands, works like Dear Angelica show just how powerful human VR can be.