Get ready to step into, and walk around in, a series of surreal, lucid dreamlike memories. At the Sundance Film Festival today, Oculus Story Studio, the filmmaking arm of Facebook’s virtual reality company, Oculus, released Dear Angelica, its third film project and a beautiful example of what this emerging medium has to offer. It’s the story of a recently deceased mother, voiced by Geena Davis, whose glamorous life as a movie star is recalled in one vivid memory after another by her grieving teenage daughter, who is there with her at her deathbed.
The Story Studio is tasked with developing rich content that showcases the best of what’s possible on the Oculus platform, and by extension, in VR itself, which is essential as the nascent consumer technology struggles to become mainstream.
With Dear Angelica, there can be no doubt that they’ve succeeded.
The film is gorgeous, taking full advantage of “positionally tracked” VR, in which users can physically walk around in a virtual environment—rather than just having a 360-degree view from a fixed position—with graphical elements floating and blooming all around you as you move. It’s a tour de force of dreamscapes, beautiful artistry, and technical achievement that lets us feel the aching pain of the daughter, played by Mae Whitman, yet also relish her many memories of her mother, which are actually brief flashbacks to scenes from her movies.
More than a year in the making, Dear Angelica will be available for the Oculus Rift later today. When the Story Studio leaders hired artist Wesley Allsbrook to realize their vision for a film that explored what it would be like to step into, and live inside, a painting, she soon informed them that there was no existing technology that made it possible for her to actually create what she was imagining. Thus was born Quill, a purpose-built VR production tool (now available to Oculus Rift users with Touch Controllers) that allowed Allsbrook to “draw in space and time,” as creative director Saschka Unseld told Fast Company last year.
Imagine that van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” were a three-dimensional painting. Imagine that you could move around inside it and peer, up close, at each of the Dutch artist’s perfect strokes. That’s kind of what watching Dear Angelica is like.
And although dozens of people worked to bring the project to fruition, Allsbrook painted every stroke herself, by hand—meaning the film retained 100% of her vision. That’s something the Story Studio is quite proud of. As it wrote in a blog post, it’s “a significant moment for animation, whether based in VR or otherwise, as the field heavily relies on increasingly large teams of concept and production artists.”
As the story progresses, each memory unfolds with the rendering of individual strokes, a manifestation of a Quill feature that records an artist’s every stroke, in order, and then allows you to play them all back later.
“That became basically the way the story unfolds,” Unseld told me earlier this month at Story Studio’s San Francisco office. “I never wanted to have a moment where it feels like things [in the story] are not drawing in and out around you. That ability of [Quill] became the language of how we progressed through” Dear Angelica.
Another important element of the film’s storytelling is the ability to pause playback, yet still allow the viewer to walk around inside the imagery, exploring each and every detail of what Unseld called the “living painting.”
Unseld, who was previously an artist and short film director at Pixar, noted that pausing a normal film is boring, because everything stops. But in Dear Angelica, not only can viewers walk around and examine everything they see, but the Story Studio team also built in a series of Easter eggs that only materialize when you get very close to them, meaning there’s a richness to the visual narrative that’s not evident without working for it.
For example, he explained, there’s a moment in the film when the focus is on a tiny version of Angelica’s hospital bed. But if you turn around and peer into the darkness behind it, a life-size bed appears.
There are other hidden details as well, such as a tiny illustration of the daughter in every illustration of one of the mother’s movies. One such scene plays out a surreal shootout in a diner, and tucked away in a corner is a tiny daughter watching the movie unfold.
Beyond the fact that you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward the film—and explore the details as they materialize—Dear Angelica features no other interactivity, and doesn’t utilize Oculus’s Touch Controllers.
Unseld said his team wrote a version of the story that did leverage the controllers, but didn’t end up implementing it because that kind of interactivity would have had to be integrated from the ground up.
Still, he predicted that all future Story Studio projects will feature some kind of interactivity since the Touch Controllers—which bring users’ hands into an experience—are a “really, really intriguing thing to add to any kind of narrative.”