Way back in 1999, I had the pleasure of contributing a segment to a SIGGRAPH course on non-photorealistic rendering. By that point I had made a whopping two-and-a-half animated short films with different visual styles (Brick-a-Brac, Fishing, and a never-finished The New Chair) which in those innocent times made me an authority on the subject. So I threw together a loose framework based on what I’d learned from those experiences, and built my piece of the course around that.
I went back and re-read it the other day, and was surprised to find a lot of it still holds true. In particular, one lesson that we carried through in both Pearl and Age of Sail is that if you plan ahead and you’re smart about it, committing to a stylized look can also save you a lot of time and money.
So if you’re interested in making a film with a new visual style, but you just don’t know where to start, have a look!
SIGGRAPH 99 Course 17: Non-Photorealistic Animation
I’m talking about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” of course. I’ve seen it twice on the big screen, and already want to see it again. (If you still haven’t seen it, you are missing a major milestone in film history. Get off your tuchis and go to the movies already!)
There’s a moment in the film when our newly super-empowered Afro-Latino hero Miles Morales and the original Spider-Man Peter Parker meet for the first time. Their spidey-senses activate, and suddenly they both realize what they have in common. “You’re like me!” That moment of recognition, beyond its first purpose of conveying the powerful “anyone can wear the mask” message of inclusion, hit me personally on a whole different level. I found myself looking through the screen, senses buzzing, at the amazing team of artists and technologists who made it, people who really get it: the idea that when you take the art seriously, when you use every step of the process to amplify that artistic voice instead of sanding off its rough edges, when you’re willing to break the pipeline and challenge “how it’s usually done”, that’s when you can make something special, unique, and meaningful. This movie is a triumph, and every single person involved in making it should be incredibly proud. I see what you did, I know exactly how hard it was to do it, and I see you.
I can’t wait to watch this a few more times to soak in all the details– the smear frames, the animation on twos, the silhouette lines and suggestive contours, the halftones and Kirby dots, the CMYK misprints, the world-class acting choices, the strong poses, the colors and lighting, that crazy Sinkiewicz flashback, all of it.
I also hope this marks a turning point for the animation industry. Listen to your artists. Trust them. Let their work shine on the big screen the way they meant it to look. And don’t let anyone tell you what “can’t be done” with the look of your film. The non-photorealistic rendering community has been building the technology to do this, literally, for decades. Let’s use it!
Wow, it’s been a busy few weeks since we launched “Age of Sail“! Hard to keep track of all the news, but here are a few highlights…
It’s been nominated for four Annie Awards…
For the first time, the Annie Awards will honor animated VR productions. Vying for the prize are “Age of Sail” by Google Spotlight Stories and Broadreach Pictures; AtlasV’s “BattleScar”; “Crow: The Legend” by Baobab Studios; “MindPalace” by Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg GmbH; and Polyarc’s “Moss.”
In addition to the VR bid, Google Spotlight Stories’ “Age of Sail” came away with three other nominations, including character animation in an animated TV/broadcast production (Sikand Srinivas); character design in an animated TV/broadcast production (Bruno Mangyoku); and production design in an animated TV/broadcast production (Celine Desrumaux and Jasmin Lai).
Gnomon released the video of the making-of talk that John Kahrs and I did. (John’s part is not to be missed: a life lesson in thoughtful, personal filmmaking.)
Watch The Making of Google Spotlight Stories: ‘Age of Sail’ from Gnomon_School on www.twitch.tv
And AWN just ran a nice interview with me and my partner-in-crime, Chromosphere’s Theresa Latzko, about the art and tech challenges of the ocean, the look, and more.
Still reading? Really? Well, here’s some other nice press, about both VR and cinematic cuts:
This just in: I’m coming up to Vancouver this weekend for the Vancouver International Film Festival’s “VIFF Immersed” event. We’re showing Age of Sail (a Canadian premiere!) and Back to the Moon in VR. I’ll also be doing a talk about both projects in the “New Realities in Storytelling” conference, Saturday September 29th from 3:30-4:15 in the Reliance Theatre at Emily Carr University. Looks like there’ll be lots of other interesting VR-related talks happening all weekend! Here’s the full conference program. The VR exhibition will be running from Sunday to Tuesday in the “Hangar” building at the Centre for Digital Media. Tickets are available here.
At the VR Storytelling Meetup last night, an interesting conversation with the other panelists got me thinking about frame rates again. Apparently, for filmmakers shooting live-action 360º video, the high frame rate required for playback in a VR device can be a bit of an obstacle. Not just technically, but psychologically: it’s a turnoff for the audience.
I felt that emotional turnoff when I finally saw Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie at 48 frames per second. It was astonishing and beautiful in the sweeping exterior shots. But when it was just characters sitting and talking, it felt… fake. I found myself scrutinizing the makeup, looking for flaws and finding them. At the time I attributed it to a cultural bias: because I grew up in an era when high quality entertainment came in the form of 24p films, and cheesy soap operas were 60i video, I must subconsciously associate high frame rates with low quality.
But what if there’s more to it than that?
In a recent interview about Pearl, Patrick Osborne pointed out that simplifying the visual style, removing texture and detail, leaves room for the audience to put themselves into the characters. It lowers a barrier to empathy. Scott McCloud said as much in Understanding Comics. This is why I’ve always preferred non-photorealism over realism. It’s what you leave out that counts.
What if a similar mechanic is at work around the question of frame rates? The secondhand report from the live action VR filmmaker was that at 60fps, it felt too obvious that the people were actors. You could look at a background character and tell instantly that they were pretending. Leaving aside the possibility that it may have just been bad acting: is it possible that the high frame rate itself lets you see through the ruse? Could it be the density of information you’re receiving that pushes your perceptiveness over some threshold, and makes you a sharper lie detector?
And if that turns out to be the case: how should filmmakers respond?
On the YouTube version of Pearl, we got a few comments like this:
Well, the long wait is over. If you have an HTC Vive, you can now download the VR version of Pearl via HTC’s new portal, Viveport. Enjoy!
Pearl is one of twenty finalists for the Future of Storytelling Prize! Now’s your chance to vote for Pearl!
In other news, we’ll also be showing Pearl at the Kaleidoscope VR Summer Showcase, which travels around the world to London, Seoul, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’ll be at the SF event on September 30th.
Pearl has also been nominated in three categories (Narrative, Mobile, and Original Score) for the Virtual Reality Foundation’s third annual Proto Awards, coming up on October 8th. The nominees all look amazing. I can’t wait to meet them!