It’s always the subtle movements that pull you in.
There is something poignant in an emotion so consuming, it spills over into our very posture, allowing those around us to glimpse a bit of our inner world. This palpable sensation is at the heart of Allumette, the groundbreaking virtual reality film premiering at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. To some extent, it is also a representation of the state of virtual reality at this moment in time.
“It’s definitely a story in some ways,” says Eugene Chung, founder and CEO of Penrose Studios, the creator of Allumette. “But I think, more than that, it’s like this new art form we don’t even quite have a name for yet. We’re defining our own space and defining it in our own way.”
In a linear film, the audience can only see the elements the cinematographer chooses to reveal; in virtual reality, the challenges of building an entire world are more encompassing. In Allumette, this extends to the construction of detailed, fully realized interior sets that may never be seen—such as the cabin of a passing boat—but which also invite the audience to explore as far and wide as they dare, ducking into any structure in sight, even those which appear impermeable at first glance.
“Being able to convey this sense of being, the presence—that connection is so strong.”
Clocking in at 20 minutes, Allumette is nearly double the length of the best-known virtual reality films to date. This length is a deliberate test to see how much VR viewers can handle, at a time when many of the rules for the medium are still being written.
“I don’t think anyone knows what the right length is for a VR story experience. It took a while for people to figure that out for a play, and we had plays for thousands of years before we had films,” Eugene says. “For us, we love to write these big stories in VR, but it’s like kind of a testing ground: is it going to be one minute, is it 10 minutes, is it one hour or is it 10 hours? It could literally be of any one of those numbers, and we’d have to figure it out. It’s kind of like Charles Dickens. You write little bits and pieces and eventually, you get Oliver Twist. But you’ve got to start from somewhere.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE STAIRCASE
Only a pedigree like Eugene’s could have propelled Penrose to the forefront of this new frontier. The son of an accountant mother and an opera singer father, the dueling forces of art and logic fascinated him from an early age.
“Growing up, my dad was sort of in that older world [of opera], and today we live in the era of moving pictures,” Eugene says. “The question I always ask is, ‘What’s going to be that next step? What is the next major medium that’s going to transform and be different from moving pictures in the same way that moving pictures are different from the theater and the stage play and the opera that came before it?”
Early jobs in venture capital and animated film production allowed Eugene to absorb the lessons of tech investing and the possibilities of storytelling through animation before landing at the leading VR technology company just as it was finding its footing. As its first head of film, Eugene was perfectly positioned to explore the burgeoning technology, and after the company was acquired, he seized the opportunity to create his own studio, one that focused on the emotional possibilities of virtual storytelling.
“It’s just an incredible moment to be in virtual reality,” Eugene says. “We decided now is the time to go and make our stories and our worlds the way that we want to.”
To that end, he gathered some of his most talented associates and former colleagues, and together they founded Penrose Studios, the name of which is inspired by the mathematician who conceived of groundbreaking “impossible figures” nearly 60 years ago.
In assembling his team, Eugene found a partner in Jimmy Maidens, a longtime artist, sculptor and animator with an even longer-running enthusiasm for virtual reality.
“In the mid-’90s, I purchased my first VR headset, and it was kind of coming on at the end of its first wave, but didn’t really take off,” Jimmy says. “I managed to scoop up some VR headsets online and started trying to create VR worlds and stories. I’ve been basically doing that ever since.”
HOW TO BUILD A FILM IN VIRTUAL REALITY
Every creative process is different, but the early steps in creating a virtual reality film—writing, rewriting, refining the story—are much the same as traditional film. After that, the paths diverge. In virtual reality, it is imperative to translate the 2D story as quickly as possible into the VR space, to see what comes to life with the addition of a dimension, and what falls flat.
To speed that process, the Penrose team is developing proprietary creation tools in VR.
“We’ve been stuck with traditional tools for making video games and movies and art, drawing on paper or a 3D application on a computer’s 2D screen. You can draw a 2D storyboard, and it looks great on the screen,” Jimmy says. “But the only way to know [what works] is put it in the VR and look at it. We have some amazing-looking models or characters that look great on a 2D screen, and then you jump into VR and you’re like, whoa, this just really doesn’t work or, whoa, this is actually super charming, and you would have never known it from looking at the 2D screen because the medium is so different.”
“What’s your framing in life? It’s just the world around you.”
In many respects, constructing a film in VR is an iterative process more akin to songwriting. It’s a process that must be explored and experienced in order to get a true sense of the story and, to that end, Eugene and Jimmy often entered the VR space of Allumette too many times to count within a single day.
“There were so many dead ends, multiple times a day. You have to have [tenacity] in VR because you run into so many roadblocks,” Eugene says. “[But] you’ve got to work natively in the medium and become a native thinker for us to get better and better stories. What makes stories that are good so good is when you have the time to build in layers upon layers of things that work—and then you’ll take away a lot of the story. We took a lot out of Allumette that the viewer’s not going to see. It’s kind of like the Mark Twain process; he said, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter.’ A key thing for us is trying to get a good succinct story and seeing if that emotional resonance will still sustain itself over that period of time.”
“It’s a little bit like trying to paint a picture, but trying to create the paintbrush at the same time.”
Even once the resonance is there, actually getting the audience to see it presents unique challenges in virtual reality.
“A lot of the rules are that you would lean on in traditional filmmaking aren’t there,” Jimmy says. “One of the most basic things, framing—you don’t have that anymore because you can look around you. It’s like, what’s your framing in life? It’s just the world around you.”
If guiding viewers just enough to comprehend key narrative elements has been a challenge for the team, this same flexibility to define the broader space as they go has added fuel to their efforts.
“We worked in film for years, and you can pick up a book off the shelf that’ll give you all the basic rules to make a well-crafted film,” Jimmy says. “In VR, all the basics are still in the works, and that’s super exciting.”
The opportunity to rewrite the rulebook has also leveled the playing field for talent, which means that anyone on a given team can have an outsize impact compared to the more entrenched hierarchy of traditional media.
“Nobody really knows the rules,” Jimmy says. “We did some early exercises [designing our city in Allumette]. They weren’t quite feeling right, so we sat everybody on the team down for an hour and said, let’s do this: no preconceived notions other than we’re making this environment that the story will take place in. One of our engineers—who is not a modeler or an artist in the traditional sense—ended up with this idea. When we reviewed everybody’s work, including my own and Eugene’s and that of artists on the team, his ended up standing out as working the best in this new medium, in the VR. It was just like, ‘Wow, this concept, this idea, is just working really well.’ If you look at that early version, what we have now is still almost entirely based on that original rough idea that our engineer came up with in that hour.”
“There’s just so much camaraderie in VR, it’s pretty incredible,” Eugene says. “It feels like this small family of pioneers is trying to invent and define this entirely new grammar.”
And it is this very sense of communal ingenuity that ultimately dictates how creators will bring VR stories to life, now and in the future, by picking up on the basics of what works and building on those things, while exploring the possibilities of the new.
“It’s been funny because we take a lot of aspects of things like stage plays or operas or cinema and combine it with a lot of new things, but because VR is so new, you also really have to understand the technology behind it,” Eugene says. “It’s the same, in the sense that we have stories. Since tens of thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were telling stories around the fire, it’s been about having a core story that’s emotionally resonant. But with this, it’s like the language isn’t there. We have to figure out from scratch. It’s a little bit like trying to paint a picture, but trying to create the paintbrush at the same time.”
It’s a starry night, one of those rare evenings when the sky is completely clear and your view seems to extend out into the infinite expanse of the universe.
Day dawns as the opening credits fade away, and you are startled to find yourself still among the clouds, suspended in a floating European city bobbing in midair. The buildings of the city seem to match the stars in number, but there’s something hanging in the air—a loneliness, but also, a sense of possibility, and a feeling of expansion.
“At the core, Allumette is a very personal story about an orphan child and her relationship to her mother. She lights these matches and when she does, she gets to be transported back to a magical, happier time in her life. It’s a story about family love. It’s a story about sacrifice. It’s a story about mother’s love,” Eugene says. “From a core story point, it comes from the relationship that I have with my mother and the sacrifices she made to provide me and my brother with the opportunities we have today.“
Allumette is set in a miniature, handcrafted world based on the idea of Venice floating in the sky. In shrinking the world down to the size of a dollhouse, the creators deliberately set out to foster a more intimate exploration for each viewer. The resulting sensation is that of walking as a giant among toys.
“I remember when we were doing our first test with Allumette, as we were developing the style. And seeing this tiny little creature alone and cold… the empathy I was getting,” Jimmy says. “I wasn’t thinking about all the amazing technology I have strapped to my head. All I was thinking was, wow, I care about this little creature in this world, and everything else is washing away right now. And that was one of those moments—that’s what we’re trying to create. It’s not that you’re having a VR experience, but that you’re just in the moment.”
In lieu of dialogue, the team at Penrose decided to let the animation do the talking.
“We’re excited about the concept of dialogue… but in this kind of piece in particular, it’s more a kind of mood.” Eugene says. “In some ways, we’re inspired by people like Chaplin and the early silent film era. It’s about making something that everyone from your grandmother, to your child, to anyone in the world can appreciate it and enjoy. Since we don’t have English dialogue, anyone around the world can appreciate the story of Allumette, even if they don’t speak our same language.”
“You can’t underestimate VR; it will surprise you in a lot of ways that you don’t expect.”
The overriding invitation contained within Allumette is a return to that childlike state of discovery, while simultaneously marveling at the possibilities of the future. For the creators, the trick lies in directing attention to the story itself while also encouraging the viewer to explore, physically wandering through the scenes and ducking inside structures to investigate the goings-on within.
“We have this warming-up period where you come in and you get to look around, and then we start bringing in visual and audio cues to try and gently guide you into the beginnings of where we are,” Jimmy says. “We don’t start the action instantly. You give everybody a chance to kind of settle into this fantastical new place that we just dropped you into, rather than going at a thousand miles an hour right away. We also came to the realization that, just like in a movie theater, nobody can force you to look at the screen. People may look away and miss it, and that’s part of being in the world.”
That ability to emerge from the film having had a uniquely individual experience, coupled with the immersive nature of the medium, has allowed the Allumette team to elicit deeper emotional responses than even they had anticipated.
“I’ve seen people watch Allumette and cry and emotionally connect to it, but they haven’t even seen the full piece—and I thought I was very jaded from it. But when I saw some of latest lighting work that Jimmy did, it emotionally resonated with me. I felt it,” Eugene says. “And I was a little surprised just because I’d seen it a million times. To actually feel that made me feel like this could actually be something.”
THE FUTURE OF VIRTUAL REALITY
As unusual and groundbreaking as the experience feels for the audience, the potential to create something with the capacity to touch audiences on a deeper level will depend greatly on the ability of studios to tug on their own heartstrings as they develop new journeys to share with the world.
“As amazing as it is right now, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. We’re still in the hand-cranked movie projector days,” Jimmy says. “I think in the next few years, we’re just going to see an amazing evolution of this technology. The limitations are only that this is a brand-new medium; it’s just getting off the ground.”
Like any new medium, virtual reality is demanding of its creators, and the Penrose team has discovered that their first instincts often aren’t the best ones for the format. The real challenge lies in letting their talents take a backseat to their senses of discovery and wonder.
“You can’t underestimate VR; it will surprise you in a lot of ways that you don’t expect,” Eugene says. “In the early days, we found people who’d say, ‘Oh, I made films for 20-plus years, I know what I’m doing in VR.’ And I think that’s the worst [attitude]. A hundred years ago, the best stage directors didn’t end up becoming the best film directors because they felt like they knew too much. They took the camera and put it in front of a stage. It took completely new artists to invent things like the cinematic close-up. There’s a different artistry to it.”
And, as with any elevated artistry, the potential to make an outsize imprint on the public consciousness is hanging there, just within reach of those willing to grasp it.
“Part of what we want to do at Penrose is create things that will be part of the foundation that attracts a broader audience for VR,” Eugene says. “What’s going to bring VR to the masses is not going to be video games, as great as they are. I think it’s going be something a lot greater and a lot bigger.”
That sense of epic possibility speaks to the belief shared among these early architects of the medium: this could be The Big One.
“It feels like one of the most powerful mediums that we’ve come across, ever. There’s the visceral nature of it, the connection that you feel when you’re in there. It’s just too powerful to ignore,” Jimmy says. “I love traditional art. I draw all the time, and I’ve sculpted and I love the real world. But being able to convey this sense of being, the presence—that connection is so strong.”
And it was that precise connection that inspired Eugene in the first place.
“This is different than anything else. This is that transformative piece of technology. There [have only been] a few times in my life where I’ve felt that kind of magic. And virtual reality was the first time I really felt presence, being able to walk around and explore a world. I think virtual reality is that [magic],” Eugene says. “The VR that I saw a few years ago that compelled me to join this revolution—this is going to change the world.”
We spoke with the Penrose team as part of The Lincoln Motor Company’s ongoing Film Uncovered series, in partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival. To learn more about how #TheFeelingStays, visit us here.