Penrose Studios have unveiled their second VR film Alumette at the Sundance Festival and Road to VR‘s Chris Madsen went hands-on with a virtual reality experience which he found evoked real empathy with the inhabitants of its beautiful, virtual world.
While at the Sundance Film Festival, I had the opportunity to visit with Penrose Studios for a sneak peek at their latest project, Allumette, being announced today and due to be released later this year. Penrose is a startup from San Francisco focusing on high quality VR and AR and most recently noted for its critically acclaimed “The Rose and I”, a gorgeous VR animated short that remains on my demo reel of breakthrough VR experiences of 2015.
Eugene Chung is the founder of Penrose and formerly Head of Film & Media for Oculus and Executive Producer of Lost from Oculus Story Studio. Following VR since the 90’s, it was the infamous ‘Valve Room’ experience where Eugene first experienced virtual ‘presence’ and immediately determined that creating content for VR was his new path. Indie filmmaker, cinema historian, avid gamer and hacker/coder since the age of 15, Mr Chung compares virtual reality to early cinema in seeing its potential as becoming the new big art form.
Eugene led me down stairs to the demo room. Donning the HTC Vive, I was transported to a title screen as a sweeping orchestral score drove home that I was indeed embarking into a professional and polished experience. A yellow lit window materialized in the darkness before me. I could see a family occupying the space inside, silhouetted against a golden glow of light from the room beyond. Thanks to the positional tracking afforded by the Valve’s Lighthouse tracking system, I was able to physically walk to the small window which was no bigger than my face. Feeling as big as a giant, I leaned in to view the darkened miniature characters inside. A second window then appeared off to the side with another room for my curiosity to be drawn. More windows continued to fade in until I was surrounded.
I found myself in a beautifully crafted miniature village in the dark of night, wind howling and snow drifting about. The village appeared to be supported on the tops of clouds. I had just began exploring the details of the environment when I spotted some movement in the shadows under a bridge. I ducked my head down to look closer.
What happened next was magical and speaks to the power of third person VR experiences. From out of the shadows and into the moonlight stepped a young girl looking cold and distressed, fighting the icy blasts of wind while awkwardly carrying a large wooden box. This must be Allumette. She was tiny enough that I felt I could have reached out and picked her up with my fingers. I marveled at her varied animations, her facial expressions and her efforts at struggling against the weather as she fought her way towards the street. I was aware I was smiling ear to ear completely charmed by what I was seeing. It was at this point that I had an experience unique to the medium of VR. Feeling present with this character, I felt a strong compulsion to put my hand out to shield her from the icy wind and to scan the streets above to ensure there was no danger that might be waiting for her. I laughed realizing that I had formed a connection with this little virtual girl and my protective instincts had been triggered.
Allumette stops near the street where her wooden box falls and spills its contents to the ground. The objects appear to be wands with tiny little crystals on the ends illuminated by some sort of magic or energy. It is a delight to view the details of the scene up close as I constantly shift my perspective in the physical world. By putting my face inches from the crystals I can see the intricate patterns of energy swirling inside. At one point, a wand discharges with a bright flash making me jump back in surprise.
The characters and set pieces are stylized with a handcrafted look as though I am looking at handmade models rather than CGI renders. The look is reminiscent of stop action animation films such as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “Coraline” including the movement of the characters which have that signature stop animation in which objects are moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.
Feeling as though I have stepped into a child’s bedtime story, the scene changes as Allumette has a flashback to happier times. I find myself still in the clouds but with much better weather. A ship approaches, floating through the air and past my head. Positioning myself on the side of the ship I can see Allumette with her mother in a mechanical room with spinning gears. I am entranced watching the contraption with all its moving parts and take my time moving around, peeking down the hatch from the deck and looking down the hall into the room at the front of the ship. Watching mother and daughter interact is endearing and serves to set up the beginnings of the story as well as create an emotional attachment to the characters.
I will not spoil the rest of the experience here in case a demo is eventually made public. The demo I was shown was about 10 minutes long. There has been much internal discussion about how long a VR engagement of this type should last and Penrose is confident that just over 20 minutes feels about right. At the end of the experience my controller became a wand which I could use to continue to explore the set. I enjoyed lighting up the shadowed areas and pushing the tip into the fluffy clouds which diffused the light just the way you would expect a cloud would.
I look forward to the completed experience as I find myself wanting to go back to the rich world Penrose has created that can be enjoyed by all ages. I am intrigued by the responses I had towards the characters with presence giving me the sense that I could somehow physically intervene to help or give comfort; something not even considered in modern cinema. Penrose and its remarkable team of artists are on the right track and seem to have a formula that works. Bravo for being able to connect me with the characters so quickly and bringing some genuine magic to my day.