I was an Oculus virgin. Well, almost. A few years back at the AVNs I had a gander at what the future of porn might look like, or so its promoters said. Basically, you could watch people have sex in a 3D environment, where one thing was happening in one part of the house and another thing was happening in another. Only it wasn’t actually real couples, but 3D animated people — that uncanny valley kind with glassy eyes and condom-smooth skin. All of which sort of rendered the whole experience sort of pointless, unless you’re really into anime porn. I digress. In any case, more recent experience suggests the technology has progressed.
At the other end of the spectrum is “Dear Angelica,” an Oculus animated film –written and directed by Saschka Unseld — that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (where I was able to watch it). Unseld came from Pixar, where he started as a layout artist on Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 and eventually directed his own short, “The Blue Umbrella,” which played before Monsters University in 2013.
Every technology goes through a period where it seems to be trying to mimic other forms of media, or determine what it does best, before finding its own niche. I’m not sure Oculus has 100% found that niche, but “Dear Angelica” certainly seems like a further evolution. The stroke of genius in the film, which features voice work by Mae Whitman and Geena Davis, in a story about a daughter paying tribute to her dying, filmmaker mother, is that rather than attempt to be a more representative depiction of reality, it’s deconstructionist. Rather than attempt to be seamless, it does the opposite, turning its own construction into an element of the narrative. It uses Oculus’ immersive capabilities to put you inside not a finished world, but a world of abstraction and animation that takes form as you watch. That turns out to be much more exciting.
The result is this sort of time-lapse animatic that feels simultaneously cutting edge and old fashioned — an immersive, 360-degree palette for classic brush work. The style suits the narrative, which is a story about creating worlds of imagination, but also feels like a demo reel designed to show off the possibilities of the format.
Drawings can’t just be stretched to fit 3D space on their own, and in order for “Dear Angelica” to be made, Oculus Story Studio had to first create new tools. Which in this case came in the form of a new program called Quill.
“That was the breakthrough for us,” says Unseld. “Traditional tools would be to draw it on paper, on a background in Photoshop, and then somewhat translate it into VR. And that just always fell short. We have this amazing coding programming wizard, Iñigo Quilez, and he sat down on this kind of hackathon day we had, and was like ‘I’m just going to write the drawing tool for you inside of VR.’ Within 24 hours, he had the first version. It changed everything, because creating inside of VR, and moving elements around, that’s the process you want to have in order to create something that’s uniquely VR. Because you want to experiment. And it’s really hard to do that when you need to take the headset off to do something on the monitor, change something, and jump back in.”
Quill allowed “Dear Angelica” art director Wesley Allsbrook to paint everything in it by hand (or, “paint” “by hand”). Unseld brought in Allsbrook, an illustrator and graphic novelist, for “Dear Angelica” after seeing a New York Times piece she’d illustrated about sexual assault. Quill allowed her to illustrate inside a VR space in which she was able to move the environment around while drawing in it, not just left and right but forwards and backwards in three dimensional space.
What Oculus has done with Quill is to open up the creation process to not just to those with the necessary (and fairly broad) technical knowhow — artist/engineers like Quilez, say — but to pure illustrators, like Allsbrook. According to Unseld, the hope is that more artists like her will begin to create for VR. Which is why Oculus is releasing not just “Dear Angelica,” but Quill, the program they created for it.
“The goal of Story Studio is to pioneer narrative in VR,” Unseld says. “And pioneer by doing, by creating pioneering projects. And then to not be the sole people who do that, we share the tools we use to create it. That way we excite not only people about VR, as consumers, but also excite people to create for VR.”
“Dear Angelica,” which is about 12 minutes long, is an amazing experience not just for what it is, but for what the medium could eventually be. Having 360-degree viewing environment means that at any given moment, there are at least 180 degrees of canvass you don’t see. Which means that right now, there’s a certain “follow the bouncing ball” quality to it, where the piece itself has to teach you how to watch it and where to look. And just on a practical level, the narrative seems to have to lead you in directions that don’t get you tangled up in your cables like a dog on a leash.
“With every project we’ve done, we’ve tried to educate the viewer as we go,” Unseld says. “In ‘Dear Angelica,’ in the beginning you need to get used to the flow. And then once you’re in it, we have things draw around, all around you at once, and you decide where you want to look. And then with some other moments, we draw it back to just a singular point. A lot of the narratives right now include a way to make you understand how they’re supposed to be experienced, so that people don’t feel lost and confused.”
Which means, of course, that the “flow” or whatever you want to call it, will evolve as people start to understand the possibilities of the form. The idea that part of the narrative is hidden but discoverable doesn’t really exist in other forms of media.
“In the case of ‘Dear Angelica,’ I would say ideally you discover around 80-ish percent [of the art work] on first viewing, and with others, 20 percent more,” Unseld says. “We could have done it like 50-50, but then you run the risk of someone being like, ‘Oh, I kind of feel missing out.’ It just felt the right decision percentage-wise to make for this experience.”
It’s still a little hard to imagine what this will eventually look like, since we haven’t experienced it yet. Narratives and counter narratives playing concurrently, like melodies and counter melodies in Beethoven? The same story in different perspectives, like Pulp Fiction, but playing simultaneously? We don’t exactly know yet, but the possibilities are there.
Right now, “Dear Angelica” and Oculus movies like it are being released piecemeal, as individual works, and meant to be experience that way. But eventually, the folks behind “Dear Angelica” envision a release model more like Netflix or episodic television.
“‘Dear Angelica’ is a single, fairly deep experience that someone can spend time in,” says Colum Slevin, Oculus Story Studio’s head of experiences. “Another thing we’re looking at, both in the Story Studio, and with a lot of the third-party developers we work with, is episodic. Because we really want the art to be a daily experience for people. And in order for it to be a daily experience, it has to be a weekly experience first, and you have to sort of build that, and in order to build that, you need to have content where people go, ‘Oh, you have to see this thing.'”
“I think you’re going to see a lot more of that in the coming year, because we’ve been working on a lot of projects that have a pilot-based structure, with episodes and that kind of thing.”
Right now, “Dear Angelica” is that proverbial thing you have to see. Certainly more so than animated porno.