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Dear Angelica might be the most beautiful virtual reality I’ve ever seen

Wesley Allsbrook / Oculus Story Studio

Oculus Story Studio was assembled to be at the vanguard of virtual reality entertainment, experimenting with a form that’s still in its infancy. But it hadn’t really earned that title until now, with the Sundance premiere of Dear Angelica. Despite a running time under 15 minutes, Dear Angelica is a fully formed piece created for VR, in VR. It’s directed by former Pixar artist Saschka Unseld, with art from illustrator Wesley Allsbrook, using a drawing tool called Quill that was developed for the project.

Dear Angelica is minimally interactive; the world never waits for your response or forces you to make decisions. But it’s not a static VR film or animation, either. It’s more like being dropped inside a moving painting, where everything feels simultaneously unreal and tangible.

What’s the genre?

Bittersweet animated narrative short.

What’s it about?

A young woman named Jessica (voiced by Mae Whitman) writes letters of reminiscence to her late mother Angelica (Geena Davis), a film star whose many roles — as an astronaut, hardboiled character, fantasy hero, and more — helped define the pair's relationship.

Okay, what’s it REALLY about?

The power of art and fiction — both to shape how we see each other, and to help us process grief.

But is it good?

In parts, Dear Angelica feels like it’s grasping at something VR film in general hasn’t quite reached. For lack of a better term, it mounts a brute force attack on your emotions. The music and voiceover overwhelm you with a pathos the story hasn’t quite earned, leveraging two characters you don’t get to know all that well. (By design, we mostly meet Angelica through her film roles.) With a piece this short, there's not much time to draw viewers in and win them over, which ultimately lessens the project’s impact.

Unseld agrees that the piece intentionally draws heavily on broad themes and archetypes, but he thinks that’s the right move at this point. “I think the archetypical thing might just help for you to have more freedom for experimentation,” he says, “because people know what it is and they don't constantly question, what the heck is this?”

Visually, this experimentation pays off incredibly well. When I say Dear Angelica may be the most beautiful VR I’ve ever seen, that’s hardly hyperbole — partly because we’ve only got a few years of work with which to compare it, and partly because Allsbrook’s three-dimensional illustration is so vibrant. It’s by turns sweeping and intricate, from the lush fantasy sequences of Angelica’s movies to the roughly sketched outline of Jessica lying in bed, pages of her letters fluttering to the floor beside her bed. Each section unfolds around you with a loose dream logic, so you can walk through Jessica’s memories as they fill in, linger, and eventually disappear.

The idea that virtual reality is uniquely affecting because it gives you agency or a first-person perspective doesn't really make sense to me; these are exactly the same arguments I heard about exploration games five years ago. VR feels different because it colonizes your senses so completely, removing the abstraction between physical motion and digital experience. Instead of panning around a scene with a mouse or joystick, you’re enveloped effortlessly by a fictional world.

Often, these fictional worlds come with clear bounds and compromises, but Dear Angelica’s art style abandons realism enough to transcend this limitation. Nothing in it looks solid enough to pick up, and there’s no artificial boundaries to its world, just painted shapes floating in air. At the same time, it takes up very real space, inviting you to take in every line from every angle.

Even when the characters don’t gel, the core story gets at something compelling. Memories of our childhood are always dramatized and often romanticized, and Dear Angelica takes this to a point where reality is inseparable from fiction.

In the end, this becomes not just a form of remembrance, but a protective shield. When Jessica finally recalls the moment of Angelica’s death, she shapes it into a grand narrative from one of her films, not simply an inevitable ending to another human life. The piece never presents this as escapism or avoidance. It just suggests that after enough time has passed, all our memories become a very real part of us — whether the events in them happened or not.

What emotions are involved here?

A varied bouquet of poignancy.

How can I actually watch it?

Dear Angelica is currently available for free through the Oculus Rift’s store.