The scene is a snowy apartment building out of the 1950s, rendered in a bright, slightly retro palette. A janitor trudges across the courtyard, then stops, wary. Someone is out there. Someone large, nimble, and wearing a floppy red hat. Then you turn your phone. The janitor slides away, and instead you’re looking into the third-floor window of a snoring tenant. Move over a little more, and there’s a cat eyeing a tiny bird on the rooftop. As you focus, the cat tries to pounce. Another bird — this one giant and angry — plops down in front of it, and the cat scoots back across a line of Christmas lights, chastened. And then we’re back to the janitor, who starts a wild chase with a mysterious intruder who is, obviously, Santa Claus.
This animated short — called Special Delivery and released today — is the latest project released for Spotlight Stories, a smartphone-based video platform run by Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) group. It’s an interactive YouTube video compatible with Android phones, with a non-interactive 360-degree video version for iOS or web users. A collaboration with UK studio Aardman Animations, the project is another small step towards turning a Google experiment into a new artistic medium.
Spotlight Stories started in 2013 with a one-off video called Windy Day, created by Ratatouille co-director Jan Pinkava — now Spotlight Stories’ creative director. Instead of using a fixed camera, Windy Day asked viewers to pretend their phones were windows into a tiny, Pixar-esque world. They could choose to follow a mouse chasing his wayward hat, or they could soak in details from the scenery around him. It was the kind of video that could only be done with a smartphone’s motion sensors, turning phones into more than little TVs.
Windy Day debuted as a cute perk for Moto X phone owners, but Google quickly started thinking bigger. After the short was well-received, ATAP started two new pieces, one of them in partnership with legendary Disney animator Glen Keane. Keane’s creation, a hand-drawn animation called Duet, was nominated for both an Annie Award and an Oscar. "[Duet] got us a lot of credibility within the artist community, that this is not a gimmick, this is not a sort of gamey thing that we’re doing," says Spotlight Stories technical lead Rachid El Guerrab. "This is actually real animation, just in a different way."
"This is actually real animation, just in a different way."
Since then, ATAP has been reaching out not just to the art community, but to Hollywood and the world at large. It recruited Furious 6 director Justin Lin for the first live-action short earlier this year, and it announced a "story development kit," a toolbox for artists to create Spotlight-style animation or video on their own. "We’re trying to do more and figure out — is this really a new form of entertainment?" says El Guerrab. "What [are] the ingredients in it that make it different from a normal film?"
The creators of Special Delivery have a long pedigree in "normal" film: Aardman Animations is behind — among other things — the 2000 film Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit animated shorts. When ATAP approached Aardman with the story development kit, says director Tim Ruffle, they returned with a number of ideas that they thought would fit the medium. One of them stuck: what if looking through the phone’s imaginary window was more like peering into a literal one?
"We kind of imagined — what if Rear Window happened at Christmas, and was trapped in your little phone in a 360-degree world?" says Ruffle. Instead of following one or two characters, viewers could see snippets of life across an entire apartment block, blended with a single main storyline that would give the piece focus. "It seemed so perfect for looking out into these little vignettes."
Aardman wasn’t the first to pitch a Rear Window-inspired Spotlight short — it’s actually a pretty intuitive connection. But Google liked the studio’s vision of what Pinkava calls a "groovy" period piece. Its style was inspired by mid-20th century animation trailblazer UPA, creator of both comedic characters like Mr. Magoo and surreal shorts like an adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
Aardman’s animation, though, had to look good from several different possible camera angles. It couldn’t be linear, and it had to progress at the viewer’s pace. In Special Delivery, some vignettes only begin when you look closely at them, and major story events will wait until you’re paying attention. Instead of a screen, the team had to imagine something more like a stage. They even built a circular cardboard "set" as a storyboard, blocking out the movement of their characters in physical space.
"When you have that literal arm’s length of looking through a window, you have many more options."
"You’re giving away the camera to the audience, which is a bit nerve-wracking," says Ruffle. "After a while, you kind of get the idea that you’re trying to create an experience for people, rather than creating a show."
That’s a sentiment that’s heard more and more often, from directors exploring the nascent field of virtual reality video. The natural progression for Spotlight Stories seems like a switch from holding a phone to wearing goggles — of being in the world instead of seeing little pieces of it. Windy Day eventually got support for Google’s Cardboard headset, and Special Delivery works in Cardboard as well.
But Pinkava disputes the idea that Spotlight Stories is just a stepping stone towards VR. "There’s a difference to having a sense of being inside a world more literally, when you have VR goggles on your face," he says. "But looking through a window also gives the maker of a story different options for what you can do." There’s no need to worry about motion sickness, for example — a major limiting factor in designing for VR. "When you have that literal arm’s length of looking through a window, you have many more options to kind of cheat, and do exciting and interesting tricks to tell a story."
Special Delivery is supposed to work equally well with both. But when I try it out, I actually prefer the non-Cardboard version. Cardboard focuses me totally on the scene, but because I have to turn with my head and not my (comparatively) super-flexible hands, it feels as if I have less control over my view. I’m distracted by the phone’s low resolution in VR, which makes it harder to appreciate the crisp, stylish animation. And in a strange twist, Cardboard feels more artificial. I’ve spent so much time staring into screens that I’ve nearly stopped noticing them, but Cardboard is still a novelty that constantly reminds me of its presence — especially because unlike other headsets, you have to actively hold it against your face.
It’s almost more technologically impressive that while the earlier Spotlight Stories were hefty downloads in a dedicated app, Special Delivery streams on YouTube, making it far easier for casual viewers to check it out. Google has spent the past two months playing up 360-degree YouTube videos, but Special Delivery’s light interactive elements push it closer to something like a living environment. "Most of the scenes are available to you from the first moment you enter," says El Guerrab. "It’s like downloading half of your movie in the beginning few seconds."
"It’s like downloading half of your movie in the beginning few seconds."
It’s almost, I suggest, like YouTube could become a basic game platform.
El Guerrab quickly shuts down the comparison. It’s partly on technical grounds — ATAP prides itself on making Spotlight Stories technical components as stripped-down as possible, compared to a full-featured game engine. But it’s also a question of vision. "The focus is on storytelling. It’s a much bigger audience for us, for creators in general," he says. "There’s a different audience that is game developers."
Those distinctions, though, are blurring. El Guerreb admits that there’s an intersection between something like Special Delivery and the non-traditional adventure games of Telltale, and virtual reality has popularized semi-interactive "experiences" without obvious game-like elements. And while Spotlight Stories is still working closely with high-profile artists like Academy Award-winning animator Patrick Osborne, the team also hopes to release the story development kit publicly at some point next year, so creators can figure out its limits for themselves. "We have at least enough material and support that we can say ‘Go create stuff with it,’" says El Guerrab. "That’s our biggest push.’"