Oculus Story Studio's third foray into virtual reality filmmaking doesn't currently involve a single frame of animation, and it may still be the most impressive thing the studio has ever done.
During Sundance, Oculus offered an early look at the unfinished Dear Angelica, an upcoming animated short for its Rift virtual reality headset. Oculus announced Dear Angelica last year as part of a slate that, so far, has included the science fiction short Lost and the cute, Pixar-esque Henry. In any other medium, what Oculus has brought to Sundance this year would be called storyboards or concept art. But in VR, it's extraordinary.
After putting on the Oculus Rift, all I can see is one word: "Hello." From the front, it looks like ordinary cursive. But using the Rift's tracking camera, I can walk to the side and see the letters collapse into a tangle of meaningless black loops. A few moments later, the world's white background begins to fill with three-dimensional illustrations. They fade in line by line, a cloud-streaked sky being navigated by a sleek flying dragon, carrying two small figures on its back. It's like a painting that floats in mid-air.
It's like a painting that floats in mid-air
Oculus Story Studio producer Edward Saatchi compares Dear Angelica to the surreal coming-of-age tales of Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. It follows protagonist Jessica through the dreamlike memories of her mother Angelica, an actress with a career that spanned genres from drama to horror to children's fantasy — the source of the flying dragon. In a second, less fantastical scene, Jessica sits in her room composing a letter, while I look over her shoulder or examine her impressionistically rendered furniture. The story won't be interactive in a game-like sense, but participants will move through it by focusing on different memories, moving at their own pace.
Even if the sets and characters in Lost and Henry inspired a sense of presence, they were still familiar designs that would fit easily into a traditional film. In fact, "This actually feels like a movie!" was my colleague Bryan's first reaction to Lost last year. Today, Saatchi admits that they probably could have been movies. The action was mostly concentrated in one part of the experience, and each short acknowledged viewers in only minor ways — in Lost, the story wouldn't trigger until participants were looking in the right direction, and the hedgehog protagonist of Henry could look into your eyes. "I think that was really innovative for a year ago, but we need to go much further much faster," he says.
If Dear Angelica were a movie, it would be some kind of animated surrealist watercolor production. But the best part is that it doesn't feel like one. It's the first piece Oculus has ever made that defies obvious comparisons with flatscreen media. Which makes sense, because it's the only piece that didn't start on a computer screen.
Before joining Story Studio, Dear Angelica's art director and lead illustrator Wesley Allsbrook established her career in an older artistic medium; her work has appeared in The New York Times magazine and The New Yorker, among other places. Initially, she expected to do something similar at Oculus, relying on a team of designers to translate her illustrations into virtual space. It's not a replacement for older media, but a way to experience something totally new. "I love movies, but I want to stay there," she says.
But the studio soon decided that the project didn't just need to be watched inside virtual reality, it needed to be composed there. Dear Angelica is the first piece to use Quill, a VR illustration tool that Oculus developed for Allsbrook. From what the company has shown, Quill is like a professional-grade version of the HTC Vive's flashy Tilt Brush painting program. Tilt Brush is known for making even complete novices' work look good, because its brushes paint electricity or fire or falling leaves. Oculus is keeping most of Quill's interface under wraps, but what it's showing off at Sundance is the virtual equivalent of watercolors and a canvas — subtle and all-purpose tools for trained artists. Creations from Quill can be exported and animated in virtual space, which is what will eventually be done with Dear Angelica.
"I love movies, but I want to stay there."
Oculus doesn't seem to be the only company making virtual reality content inside VR space; Penrose's Eugene Chung has told me that the studio is using VR-based tools to produce parts of the animated short Allumette. But it's almost certainly one of the first, and it's the first to show something like Quill publicly.
As in Tilt Brush or Oculus' own sculpting tool Medium, Quill turns your right hand into a brush, which you can use to create strokes of varying widths and colors using the Touch's buttons and analog stick. But unlike a real paintbrush, Quill plays with what creating objects that can be looked at from any angle might mean. With one Touch trigger, you can paint lines that are visible from all directions. With the other, you create images that appear only when you're looking straight at them, like the pictures on holographic paper.
After my Dear Angelica preview, I try my hand at Quill, using a pair of Oculus Touch controllers. Allsbrook drops me into one of the scenes, letting me add my own art around the dragon. Inspired by the blue-green clouds, I start outlining the curves of a river, the first thing I can think of that will let me get away with painting only wavy lines. But making something in Quill requires thinking of it simultaneously as a drawing and a sculpture. Where does the section of river I'm making end? What does it look like from behind? What do I see when looking up from underneath, like a scuba diver or a fish?
Under the surface, I decide, there's a shipwreck. I start with the half-oval of a galleon, then grab the whole thing (using a button on the other controller) and flip it sideways. Leaning over, I draw a few circles around it to create a bowl. It reminds me of the painstaking work I used to do with 3D modeling tools, except that I'm not placing vertices or slicing up shapes with a mouse and keyboard, I'm creating something with my hands. Painting badly, but painting nonetheless. This is what Allsbrook does, by her reckoning, five hours a day in the Rift.
What does a drawing look like when it's also a sculpture?
Will Quill make it outside the world of Story Studio? It seems inevitable, but Saatchi and Allsbrook won't confirm it — and, given how limited the Sundance demo's features are, it's clearly not ready for a consumer release yet. Likewise, they won't give much detail about Dear Angelica, except that it will be far more substantial than Oculus' previous work and is coming to the Rift later this year. "We put out the movie when it's sufficiently innovative," Saatchi explains enigmatically.
Even with this scant information, this is one of the first times I've felt like an animated feature didn't just work best in virtual reality, but had to be done there. It's the first Story Studio piece that I would recommend not just as a good way to experience VR, but as an artistic experience in its own right, even in this limited state. And it's the first one that I don't find myself implicitly comparing to something else. After one year and three projects, Oculus Story Studio has found a voice of its own.