Oculus Story Studio revealed their second made-for-VR cinematic creation Henry to the world today. Noah Nelson reports for Road to VR from the Hollywood premiere where he got to watch the short film in its entirety on the Oculus Rift CV1. Beyond this invite-only premiere, Henry will debut widely with the launch of the Oculus Rift VR headset in Q1 2016.
Oculus held an event today to premier Henry, their second virtual reality movie, in a posh mansion in the actual hills of Beverly Hills. Just how posh the event was and the larger connotations of such things can wait—right now the question is this: can Oculus’ Story Studio deliver compelling cinema experiences that will help give the non-gaming public a reason to embrace their vision of a virtual reality future.
Well, that’s the big question, and today’s event is just one step in what has turned out to be a long quest. Henry is Story Studio’s attempt to create a Pixar-like character-driven short narrative. Towards that end they’ve assembled the right talent; after a quick opening by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, the Story Studio’s Creative Director Saschka Unseld—director of the Pixar short The Blue Umbrella—laid out the emotional case for characters as the central experience of cinema.
Henry is a short film—for lack of a more up-to-date term—about a hedgehog named Henry who likes to hug. Being a hedgehog, that doesn’t work out so well for him. Henry doesn’t have any friends. When he makes a wish for his birthday events unfold that just might change that.
A key thing: Unseld explained that “Henry will be kind of performing live while you watch him.” The performance is generated as we are watching (thanks to it being rendered in real-time), if not exactly in response to our presence. That’s the set-up… and the delivery is exactly what you’d hope from a well funded studio with some of Pixar’s creative blood flowing through its veins.
After strapping into the Oculus Rift CV1 headgear a short trailer narrated—like the film—by Elijah Wood began. It was here we meet Henry, and he’s everything you want an animated character to be. You’ve seen him by now, but there’s a subtle difference between looking at a two dimensional representation of a VR character and sharing even a black void with one. The sounds that Henry makes as Wood gives us the setup starts to establish just who this hedgehog is.
The short itself works at a different scale. After the Story Studio logo plays we ‘open our eyes’ in a clever edit wipe from black to see a happy birthday banner for Henry. Then we’ve got some time to explore the space around us, provided we keep more or less to the rug on the floor of Henry’s main room. For the purposes of the demo we were each standing on a similar circular rug. It’s a subtle cue, but one that helped define my physical safe space, and one that was placed deliberately by Story Studio.
In time I was encouraged by the folks running the demo to sit down and join Henry at his table. I squatted down and watched the little guy come out of his kitchen carrying a strawberry decked out like a birthday cake. Which made me want a giant strawberry for a birthday cake… but that might be beside the point. Actually, it isn’t. Causing that kind of emotional reaction is more than half the point here.
A ladybug appears and surprises us both. I dove down low, and it was here where I mildly broke the tracking of the positional camera. The image ‘jumped’ because of how far down to the ground I got. A quick pulling back reoriented me, but I don’t feel ‘at-fault’ for breaking the image. If anything the animators did too good of a job: I wanted to see where the ladybug went. Either I wasn’t fast enough or it just disappeared under the table. However, I was able to see under the table, which is a kind of feat in and of itself. I had to keep myself in check so I didn’t go charging all over the room to explore even more.
Henry makes a wish. The wish turns into magic, and the story begins in earnest.
Having the time to explore Henry’s space was critical for creating the illusion of presence for me. By giving us the time to explore, and in my case the freedom to crawl a bit around the space, Story Studio set solid aesthetic ground rules. Henry and the other characters feel fully part of the story’s world, and that makes it easier to lean into the action that follows.
Henry is cute. The film doesn’t have the emotional punch of some Pixar shorts, but it has a lot of the same polish. What it did manage to do was bring a smile to my face multiple times and, by having the magic unfold around me as the viewer, let me visit that world for a while.
But the question is if I connected with the central character—if Henry’s ability to look me in the eye at key moments was enough to forge an empathic bond between a cartoon being and cynical writer. Well I don’t really know if I care deeply about Henry. We only spent a few minutes together, but I like the little guy. If this was the first part in a series of character shorts I’d be more than happy to see him again.
“He’s a glimpse of what I think the future holds,” Unseld said of Henry in his opening remarks. That glimpse is a solid foundation. When we pull back, and remember that this is only the second short film that Oculus has shared with us, just how much the future holds starts to feel very big indeed.