Google’s Spotlight Stories series has always been ambitious. When Windy Day, by Ratatouille co-director Jan Pinkava, debuted on Motorola’s original Moto X back in 2013, it quite literally turned heads by inviting users to follow along in a 360-degree story about a mouse who’d lost his hat to the wind. In the years since, each Spotlight Story, incubated in Google’s ATAP lab, has sought to push the envelope, bringing in talent like former Disney animator Glen Keane and Fast and Furious director Justin Lin to create unique and often gripping short films. As Keane told me when his film, Duet, launched in 2014, the technology represents a new “creative garden” worth diving into.
Pearl is Google’s latest effort in this vein, and the company has taken their ambitions all the way to the Tribeca Film Festival. The short, which premiered this week, is a sweet story about a father and his daughter Sarah's shared love of music — but told from inside a car named Pearl. Director Patrick Osborne, who last directed Disney's Oscar-winning short Feast, calls the film a folk musical not unlike The Giving Tree; Pearl is a kind of home for the pair even as it slowly breaks down as the years go by.
'Pearl' is a folk musical not unlike 'The Giving Tree'
Osborne, along with longtime Spotlight Stories composer Scot Stafford and their team, worked on two versions screening at Tribeca. The 2D version was shown on the silver screen, and offers the perspective of someone sitting in the passenger seat for this family journey. But the 360-degree version, which can be viewed on Google Cardboard and the HTC Vive, shows Pearl as a character, too, aging through the years and collecting memories as the family inside gets older. I had the chance to sit down with Osborne and Stafford this week to talk about the film, the challenges that came in making it, and what’s next for animation.
How did the work on Pearl get started at the very beginning? Where did the idea come from?
Patrick Osborne: I met Karen [Dufilho, executive producer] and Jan Pinkava at the Annecy festival about two years ago, when we were doing the Feast world premiere. Eventually [Jan said], "Look, just think about what you might do if you were to do something that happens all around you." And then I ran into them a couple of months later at the Clear Talent Network, an industry-animation-related illustration conference. They were there showing Glen Keane's Duet. I sat down for a drink and said a few ideas. And the thought [that] came to me [was] maybe you could do a kind of Giving Tree — but with a car. The idea was to kind of have the car get worse as [time] passes in it. And then I thought, "Well, Google will probably do things that a studio maybe wouldn't." I’m really into folk music, and I thought maybe we could make it into a little folk musical. So we got Scot involved because of that. And then it was about a year ago, pretty much exactly, where I decided to actually do it and jump in and try to make something.
It started from the song, and then I wanted a story that had the structure of a pop song where we had the chorus / verse story structure. People are so used to hearing song structures that way. So we went out to a bunch of musicians to write demos. [Scot] went out to people I'm a mega-fan of, and people I didn't know, and he did the smart thing of making me listen to it blindly. We ended up going with a songwriter named Alexis Harte [and co-writer JJ Wiesler], who did "No Wrong Way Home." It felt like it really caught the atmosphere and the mood I was looking for.
Scot Stafford: We started off with just a single verse and chorus of the song, but the story and song were being co-developed at the same time, which is super rare. Alexis wrote more than a dozen verses, with the idea that we didn't know which one would fit with the story. [Patrick] chose the verses, and kind of reassembled it in a way. And honestly if we hadn't done that, I don't think it would have worked. If it wasn't a collaboration from the very beginning, there's just no way. With interactivity and with getting onscreen animation that fits with the images, it just would have fallen apart. So it was just neat to see something I've never seen before work so well and be so collaborative.
PO: It's a really interesting challenge I'd never thought of or dealt with before, and I had some people, who were like "I don't know if you want to deal with that!" Letting the audience control the composition is crazy, but I kind of cheated that with having some car windows that you can compose with it, so there's a little bit of composition in there anyway. The audience can take control of the rest. Part of the reason to do the car thing is to [create] a beautiful composition all the way through even with the audience grabbing the frame itself.
So why the title Pearl? And then, second, what is the make and model of that car?
PO: [Sarah] names her car, so I wanted it to be kind of abstracted out of that. In the short, she mentions it twice, but it's very casual. "C'mon, Pearl." And then she names her band Pearl. [The car is] based on an '83 Chevy Citation that my family had, but the actual car's design is kind of in between a Pontiac and a Citation. It just needed to be something that felt a little bit dated, and boxy — it helps that it's boxy. The art itself it very lo-res, so a square '80s car works very well.
Can you talk more about the sound design and blending the music with each scene and through time and everything like that?
SS: This was the most interesting thing I've ever worked on from that perspective, because it was really important to keep it clear when the song had an on-screen source and when it became score. In VR, you have to come up with answers to questions you've never asked before. You don't really have to ask yourself, "What if people look away?" in a film. Like, well, they'll miss that scene. [laughs] Whereas here, you need sound to create what I call a "sonic horizon" that allows people to orient and balance themselves. It's a big problem in VR, feeling disoriented. So that means that stereo music basically has to go away. We had to do a mix that was spherical, and we had recordings that were spherical.
PO: One of the big things [in] making the 360 stuff now, it's [at] such a stage that the actual creative tools that we're used to — editorial and layout and storyboarding — don't make a lot of sense. I can't get inside of a sphere and draw on it and scan that, you know? And the same thing for sound tools. So I think it could be interesting in the next couple years when people make these editorial tools for VR projects. We're still making things on screens [with] 3D tools that we know, but [360 video isn’t] really made for that. It still works, but it's a little more hacky. [But] animation is great work, because all the pieces are separate. You can move things around independently and reorient depending on where the audience is looking, you can have things freeze and wait. You can't do any of that in live-action video, because it's all kind of baked together. I'm sure, with the Lytro camera stuff that's coming and pixels having depth, that'll kind of change and be really interesting, but for now, animation has a huge advance as far as making this stuff work and flow because of how flexible it is after you've made the assets. It's pretty cool.
Patrick, you won an Oscar for Feast two years ago. What is it like not only making this but making it available for Tribeca?
PO: It's great. We were trying to figure out what would be the best way for the first little kind of sneak out into the world, and I seemed it would be cool to do it at a festival as prestigious and great as this festival. We didn't know if they'd want us to be involved or not. You're not sure what the festival wants to do that particular year with their programming. It’s not up to you. But we thought this would be a great one and we're really excited that they're willing to screen the film version and then also preview our little 360 version, too. It's really cool, because the festivals are kind of doing both now so with something like this you can be a part of it.
What's next for animation and sound design regarding this technology and making art with it?
PO: I think it's getting these headsets on and making your animation entirely inside that world. I think even for regular films that would be useful. To be able to walk around a set or a CG film that you're working on, or a visual effect film, get notes, tagging things with a virtual camera, framing stuff up. Just the obvious and really cool. And then we're not sitting down all day at work, so that's better. You're moving around a little bit, everyone will be a little bit more healthy and have like permanent scars right there. [pinches the bridge of his nose and laughs]
SS: Yeah. I tried to look at animation in the frame, and I'm like, "What's the foot doing?" You can't see the foot. So you need an animator to show their work. You have like four or five movies to watch, because there are different parts and you just can't see the whole thing. [But] if you're in the headset and watching animation, you can just look at it, and it seems like that would be the way to do it.
PO: With the headset on, it's a very much individual experience, but when you're making it with people, it's hard to have him have his own experience and you to have yours and then talk about it. What we had to do is unwrap [the 360 video], and you end up with these really weird, warped, unwrapped renders. A lot of the artists that we had engaged had never seen anything like that before. [They’d ask] "What does it mean when I draw on this corner in this weird, warped world and how does that translate to a 3D image"?
Animating completely in VR is the future, but you need Cerebro to pull it off
SS: Have you ever seen people try to watch together a piece of 360 video? It's like totally slapstick. [But] the whole creative process is inherently collaborative. For example, in the final mix of a film, you get to an ideal movie theater where it's presented on a gigantic screen and you have a big Dolby sound system. Everyone is looking at and hearing the same thing. Doing that in VR is currently impossible. So it's all these leaps of faith where you're just like, "I've done this enough. I think I know what it's going to sound like. I think I know what it's going to look like." [You] get it on the device, which takes a really long time, and then you're looking at it for the first time and you're like, "Oh, that's not what i was thinking" or "Oh that is what I was thinking." And then someone else gets a chance.
PO: You know what we need in a theater? Professor X's sphere. You would have to have all around you and everybody would stand on a little platform in the middle.
[But] It's fun to make this kind of thing, mainly because, for any creative project that feels like you're stretching a little bit with this unsolved problem, it’s just interesting and worth trying. That was the real reason to jump in. And I'm sure that more of this kind of stuff will continue to be made at least for the next couple of years, until we figure out if it's awesome or a fad. But we'll see. I think there's a chance with time.