Jessica’s mother was dying.
She’d been a larger-than-life figure while Jessica was growing up, an actress whose silver screen antics had filled her daughter’s childhood with grand visions of action and fantasy; of shoot-outs and fantastic flying beasts. But here, as Jessica remembered her mother’s final moments, she seemed weak, frail, impossibly small. And compared to the visions that had towered overhead just moments before, she actually was: the few lines sketching out her hospital room scaled down to the size of a grapefruit as she succumbed, shrinking smaller and smaller, until she wasn’t even there at all.
Sundance Film Festival 2017
The fact that I’m still carrying around Jessica’s memories as if they’re my own says a lot about Dear Angelica, the latest virtual reality short from director Saschka Unseld and Oculus Story Studio. Receiving its formal premiere here at the Sundance Film Festival — it’s available on the Oculus Store today — the piece follows a young woman named Jessica (voiced by Mae Whitman) who reminisces about her late mother, Angelica (Geena Davis). But to place viewers inside Jessica’s romanticized world of memory, the group abandoned its Pixar-friendly animation style for something else entirely: an impressionistic, illustrated look that reveals itself, stroke by stroke, seemingly in real time. It swirls and envelops the viewer in a way that just wouldn’t be possible in other mediums — and that’s no doubt because Dear Angelica was drawn entirely in VR itself.
Made in VR, for VR
“In the very beginning, it was just the desire to create something that was illustrated inside of VR,” Unseld tells me in Story Studio’s San Francisco offices. “The beautiful thing about drawing is that it starts with a blank canvas — and then out of nothing, an illustrator or painter creates something. And that wonder feels so conducive for VR.” Interested in exploring a story about loss, and the stories parents pass down to their children, Dear Angelica was born.
My colleague Adi Robertson got an early look at the project last year, and the finished film unfolds in much the same way. The long, looping lines of artist Wesley Allsbrook wrap around the viewer to create three-dimensional illustrated scenes that you can move around, behind, and within. As the story unfolds, Jessica begins writing letters to her departed mother, thinking back to the memories they shared and the roles she saw her play during the course of her career. And just as the brush strokes unfurl in real time, they vanish as well, calling to mind the ephemeral nature of memories and the relationships we build with our loved ones.
That may sound like I’m putting on my film school hat a bit, and it’s because I am; Dear Angelica is the first Story Studio project I’ve experienced that’s felt like it was using its visual grammar with real artistic intent. The rhythm of drawing and un-drawing are one component; the other is the powerful use of scale. When Jessica thinks back to triumphant scenes of her mother, Allsbrook’s illustrations tower over the viewer in bold, vivid strokes. When Angelica nears death, the imagery is sparse, tiny; a bold life diminished until it’s nothing more than a speck, and then gone.
The idea of using scale as a creative tool came out of experiments with Quill, the VR illustration tool that Oculus built for the project. The initial plan for Angelica was to have Allsbrook create her illustrations traditionally — she has a celebrated career in print and digital media — and then have her work be imported into three-dimensional space. “We spent three months trying things,” says visual effects supervisor and Quill creator Inigo Quilez, who realized early on that a native tool would be the best possible solution even though work on the project had already commenced. “I had to tell people ‘I think this is wrong,’ but how do you say that when you've had five people working for a few months?”
“This is what drawing is supposed to be!”
Quilez cobbled together a demo of the drawing tool during a two-week sprint, which offered up nothing more than the ability to draw a single pixel-width line in VR. But for Allsbrook, the appeal was immediate and obvious. “I was like, ‘Ah, this is what drawing is supposed to be!’” she says. With traditional drawing “eventually you get to the edge of the page. Eventually you run out of space, and your idea is over there, out of scale with your body, somewhere else. But with this, that wasn't happening anymore. What he was able to do so quickly made me think this is a way I want to try working for most of the rest of my life.”
With the tool evolving to meet Allsbrook’s artistic needs — and her drawing process informing so much of the way Dear Angelica unfolds for the audience — the final result is a short that’s uniquely experiential, and hard to compare to traditional media. It was made in virtual reality, but more importantly, it feels like it can only truly exist in VR, and not even the exact same assets in a point-and-click port would so convincingly envelop the viewer into Jessica’s reveries. That’s a vital step for a medium that’s still finding its footing, and a bar that Story Studio producer Edward Saatchi admits his group hasn’t always cleared. “We had the same reaction looking [back] at Henry,” he says of the team’s Emmy-winning last project. “You could watch it as a short in a frame, and it would work. Sometimes it would be even funnier.” Dear Angelica, he says, simply wouldn’t work at all.
But more than just the visual style of the piece is the way it’s constructed from an experiential perspective. Lost focused on a robotic hand looking for its master, and Henry was the voiceover-driven story of a friendless hedgehog, but the real reason they both felt like animated shorts was because they adopted conventional narrative and storytelling techniques. Dear Angelica, on the other hand, is comprised of a series of moments designed to trigger different emotional reactions: thrills, triumph, wonder, sadness. As a viewer, I didn’t feel so much like I was being told a story as I was having the memories myself — putting me in Jessica’s shoes throughout the entire piece.
I wasn’t being told a story — I was having the memories myself
“What are the building blocks of telling stories?” Unseld asks. “When you write a book, it's words. If you illustrate, it's images. In a movie, to a certain extent, it's images. But in VR I don't really think it's images. I think it's more the thoughts that are in the audience's head. It's states of being. It's a stream of consciousness feeling.”
With Dear Angelica out the door, Story Studio is looking toward the future of Quill, which it hopes can bring new artists into the fold and help populate the VR world with new creators. The company showed several Quill tests created by different artists, which varied wildly in both style and approach. One had created a virtual art gallery, complete with different works hanging on the walls, that could be explored using the program’s basic navigation tools. Another had created something resembling a visceral-looking graphic novel.
Most importantly, none of them bore any stylistic resemblance to the other — a testament to Quill being what Allsbrook calls an “unopinionated” tool that doesn’t inflict its own stylistic conventions on an artist. And while a beta of Quill is already available for Oculus Touch owners, in the next 12 months Oculus hopes to add sequential storytelling, taking it from something that can be used to create single illustrations, into one that can be used to make self-contained VR comics, complete with audio. “At the end of the day you could have a single illustrator or comic book artist create the full thing, and you don't need a tech team anymore,” says Unseld. “It's purely artist-driven.”
But while the comic book idea sounds exciting because it brings a known quantity — with a known monetization model — to a young industry that desperately needs one, it’s actually the exploration of the unknown that makes Dear Angelica itself so interesting. When I took the headset off after watching the piece for the first time, I was at a loss for words; my eyes were moist. I’d had a unique emotional experience, and those kind of moments are what will draw audiences — particularly when the experiences are designed around a level of immersion that only VR can provide.
“There’s so much still to do.”
So while Oculus the company no doubt sees Quill as an opportunity to kickstart a plentiful market of content with empowered creators, I hope Oculus the studio continues to push it further — to explore, play, and surprise with it’s upcoming projects. Listening to Unseld talk, that’s exactly how he sees his long-term mission.
“We could have done another Henry,” he says. “But no. Each project needs to really be something different, because there are so many things to try out. It's not the time to rest and just keep repeating the same things we've done already. There's so much still to do.”