In the animated short Escape, a loan skateboarder eludes a city full of cops by leaping over barricades and treating a dark subway tunnel like a halfpipe. But the most impressive feat is how the video was made: Animation student Nick Ladd created Escape almost entirely in VR.
On paper, VR is an ideal medium for 3D animation. Consider that Pixar films feature lovingly modeled characters and environments, but to explore their richness, animators are constantly peering through 2D monitors, using a mouse to change angles. These “virtual cameras” used in modern animation software are relatively clunky to use, but even when mastered, they’re still an abstraction of shooting a real scene, the full 3D environment.
As first reported by Road to VR, Ladd used a combination of the drawing software Quill and the VR animation program Animivr. Using a mix of the two apps over the course of four days, he created all of the short’s assets inside virtual 3D space, complete with frame-by-frame animations of his spindly, stick figure protagonist.
“Drawing in VR is actually a very intuitive experience,” says Ladd. “Being able to see depth while you work and rotate by grabbing with your hands saves a lot of time.”
VR drawing is still in its infancy. The two major players, Facebook’s Quill and Google’s Tiltbrush, have only been publicly available since this year and last, respectively. Yet the experience of VR drawing software is surprisingly mature for such a burgeoning medium as it allows you to literally draw sculptures, painting 3D scenes right in midair. In fact, I’d argue that there’s actually a smaller learning curve to drawing with virtual pigments than there is to painting with real oils, based on my own experience. And since that drawing is all in 3D, a director can drop in a virtual camera to film the scene from any angle they like, as if they’re a god zooming in and out of a giant model.
“I actually made a rough storyboard for the film but quickly scrapped it when I was able to find better shots within the program,” Ladd says. “I think being able to physically feel like you’re in the environment, and move and grow and shrink that environment, can really help quickly plan shots.”
Indeed, Ladd takes full advantage of this unlimited, virtual perspective, with a few wide action shots that catch a certain Hollywood grandeur, even within his humble, four-day animation. Ladd is the first to admit that the tools are still developing for VR animation–for instance, Animvr still relies on frame by frame sketching, rather than moving objects at their joints more like posable puppets–and it probably doesn’t make sense for most animators just yet.
“I took on the project because I enjoy making short films. I wanted to challenge myself to work entirely in VR for an entire project to prove it could be done, and hopefully, build some excitement as VR as a creation tool for artists,” says Ladd. And now that he has proven the concept, Ladd is planning out other VR animations he wants to produce–stick figure Tony Hawk optional.