Penrose Studios’ Allumette launches on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR today. This real-time animated VR tale is beautifully crafted and aims for your heart strings, but does it hit its mark?

Alumette tells the tale of an orphaned girl who lives in a fantastical floating village. The aesthetic straddles the line between claymation and cardboard handicraft and is expertly used to set a well composed stage consisting of a little village that’s set floating in fluffy clouds. A stage indeed; while a picturesque slice of the tiny village surrounds you, directly in front there is a large flat area that Allumette makes ample use of for character performance and key moments. The scene around you functions as your viewpoint for the majority of the experience, and it’s well composed such that there’s a pretty world in your periphery, but it doesn’t distract you from the main action.

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The claymation-like animation approach might look great in a still, but I don’t think the choice of ‘low-framerate’ animation (where character animations are jumpy, characteristic of claymation) was a good fit for VR; we’re now so used to smooth 90 FPS motion in these modern VR headsets that seeing the characters animate at what looks like the equivalent of 10 or 15 FPS made me feel like my computer was stuttering or even that the characters were running in slow motion.

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Animation aside, the characters themselves—a mother and her daughter are the main focus—are well designed, staying clearly on the cartoon side of the style spectrum. Unfortunately that style comes accompanied with mumbles as the only form of communication among characters in the world of Allumette. Instead of saying real words, characters make expressive mumbles, hums, and groans to one another, so you are left with only the tone of what’s being said while needing to infer the substance. This felt a little tired, and made it more difficult for me to connect with and care about the characters, relegating them solely in the realm of little critters (reinforced by their cartoonish designs) rather than complex entities with which I could readily connect my human thoughts and emotions.

Alumette spins up a quick connection between Mother and Daughter (I’m using those as proper nouns because names are never given) whose craft is creating glowing baton-like wands that are sold to the townspeople. Mother teaches Daughter how to sell the goods, and, in a single moment, apparently teaches Daughter the meaning of kindness by giving one of the wands to a blind man to use as a cane. It all happens fast. Too fast.

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In VR your perspective is actually much further out; you tower over the little characters and their world like a giant. At this scale (closer to human-sized), Allumette might have been more effective.

I have been searching for a VR experience with characters I can really connect to and care about. I had high hopes for Allumette in that regard, but I’m still left searching. That’s not a major knock against Allumette, it’s something the entire VR industry is still learning how to do effectively.

Character development is hard, but in many ways it seems that time spent observing the characters is a minimum requirement. With Allumette spanning only 20 minutes or so, it’s hard to develop the characters and still have any time left for conflict and action. But this is in opposition to the VR medium which so far has favored shorter ‘experiences’ than epic stories.

Still, you can’t expect to just shove the conflict in the viewer’s face after a few minutes of exposition; if the viewer doesn’t connect to the characters then the conflict hardly matters because there’s no reason to care about the outcome.

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Allumette is at its best when the viewer realizes at the same time as Mother that she needs to make a tough choice because it’s the right thing to do. It makes effective use of the stage around the viewer to hint at what’s coming. This moment is not sophisticated though, and while I could feel a little tug on my heart strings from what I knew had to be done, it was only a general feeling of sympathy, not a specific connection to the situation of the characters (because I was not very attached to them or their world). The ending in particular felt oddly jarring, like the dénouement had been hacked off.

If it sounds like I’m being a little hard on Allumette, it’s because it’s really good, but I want it to be great. At the excellent price of free, it’s definitely worth a watch, but I don’t think it’ll have you coming back for a second viewing any time soon.

I want a story in VR that immerses me and makes me care about the characters and makes a world so enveloping that I don’t want to leave. We aren’t there yet, but Allumette undoubtedly points us in the right direction.

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  • Awesome.. I’ve been looking forward to their next animation. It’s the area I’m most interested in for VR. I run a small animation studio in the UK and we’ve been making our first steps in bringing an animation to life in Vr… I’ll be sure to check this out tomorrow…

    I also like the review, it’s critical but in a honest and well explain way… I assume the choice of ‘mumbles’ for the voices is to ensure it appeals to a international audience.

    And it certainly can work…

    i.e. Pingu, Lost and found, Long opening sequence to Pixars Wally. Much of Story Studio’s Henry (Bar.. Elijah Woods voiceover intro)… and Penrose Studios own’Rose and I’.

    • Get Schwifty!

      I have to say I am most interested in the gaming potential with VR, but I am finding that I am filled with delight when a new animation experience appears in VR. The effect of presence just cant be underestimated, it creates a serious emotional connection traditional flat viewing just cant match, higher resolution not withstanding.

      And you are correct, it was a very fair review and what I like on R2VR’s coverage at least of this kind of content is that it it really examines the use of VR and it’s effectiveness on experience which is the real measure.

      Even the rough live 3D camera videos are that much more immersive, well thought out animation in VR naturally works as it seems animation is always more effective the more engaging it can be to the senses.

    • PK

      I found Henry to be intriguing but aimed at younger audiences than Allumette. Here too I was thinking how much I’d like a more adult story, like if Vince Gilligan directed a piece for Penrose, that’d be awesome. But all in all this short film was a joy to watch, it had so many great ideas for VR storytelling that it’s hard for me to focus on any shortcomings. Sure the stuttering animation at times seemed like an odd choice, but I was so immersed I only occasionally noticed it.

      In many ways this is one of the best things I’ve seen in my vive so far, and I can’t wait to see what this studio does next.

  • Guy Sunderland

    The writer says ‘Allumette’ made it, “more difficult for me to connect with and care about the characters, relegating them solely in the realm of little critters (reinforced by their cartoonish designs) rather than complex entities with which I could readily connect my human thoughts and emotions.”

    Isn’t Allumette more for people under the age of 21, in visual and narrative terms ?

    • benz145

      Nothing I’ve heard indicates that this experience is aimed at a younger or less mature crowd. Great CG films like Toy Story or Finding Nemo are well regarded by people of all different ages.

  • DiGiCT Ltd

    Just downloaded it and watched it, very impressive and entertaining.
    It is how it should be with VR video, not 360 videos but real 3d realtime story rendering.
    Awesome and thanks for giving us this nice mini story.

    Additional : Seems story telling VR the artist really like to use the UE4 engine.
    It’s great as the realtime renders look so much better as in Unity.

  • yag

    I agree with Ben, the ‘low-framerate’ animation is pretty disturbing, I think it’s a false good idea in VR, where we are obsessed by smoothness…

    • Asinus

      I downloaded this and thought there was something wrong with my PC! I stopped it early on to try to figure out what was hogging all of the resources. I noticed that while the main story looked like it was “low framerate” (I guess) back ground animations were smooth. IT was distracting and annoying. It’s like a radio station intentionally adding static or a bluetooth driver that intentionally drops audio… you know… for effect.

  • James Friedman

    This was done really well, but I found myself screaming out WTF cause of the mother.

  • Luke

    hi, which software should I learn to use if I wish to make a short movie like Allumette? thanks a lot

    • benz145

      Unity and Unreal Engine are good starting points for creating VR applications.

  • ThePinaPopper

    I am just not sure what audience Allumette was created for. Adults? Children? It doesn’t engage visually enough for children and doesn’t tell enough of a story for adults. I found it beautiful, yet empty.

  • Michael Lupton

    I disagree with ben on this. I found the lower framerate mixed with the ability to lean in and look around the frame both charming and a feast for the eyes. This short animation did a lot with very little and did it well. I felt an emotional connection with these characters which is a lot for an animation where everyone was speaking in grunts. It felt like a mahic old timy 3d puppet show.

  • Ade

    Short, sweet, free and amazing. A taste of things to come, beautifully conceived with a fantastic atmosphere. Visually stunning with the dark cold scenes conveying despair, juxtaposed against the bright warmth and hope of the past. A simple yet effective piano score presents both a haunting theme and an innocent joy.

    The scale allowed the audience a ‘God-like’ status to watch the story unfold. What makes this so effective in VR is that it allows the viewer the freedom to observe the action from their preferred perspective, rather than be dictated to by the editor/director of standard 2D.

    The whole thing just worked really well, thank you to the creators.

  • Brandon Smith

    I began watching this but only lasted for a short while. I enjoyed what was there, but it was a little too self-indulgent for my tastes. It was extremely slow. As a creator myself, I constantly ask myself “why would someone be interested in this RIGHT NOW.” If the answer is “well it’s building up to something interesting later”, that’s a wrong answer and I need to do SOMETHING to answer that question immediately. Put in a funny bit of business, something eye catching, etc. Thinking someone is just going to be so captivated by my artistry that they are enthralled into waiting for something interesting to happen isn’t a good bet.