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'Dear Angelica': A VR film that steps inside a painter's brain

At Sundance, Oculus Story Studio is one of several creative teams probing the limits of storytelling in virtual reality.


At an early point in "Dear Angelica," you switch from watching an animated movie to living inside it. It feels a little like stepping into a dream, except it isn't one sprung from your own mind, but that of an artist leading you into hers.

The virtual reality experience, which visualizes the memories of a fictional daughter about her departed actress mother through an evolving series of painted memories, premieres Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. It's the latest work by Oculus Story Studio, the in-house creative team at Facebook's virtual-reality headset maker, Oculus.

The group is one of several here in Park City, Utah, focused on testing the creative limits of virtual reality, one of the buzziest technologies of the last couple years. The immersive format has existed for decades, but recent big investments by the likes of Facebook, Google and HTC have spurred an explosion in sophisticated technology available to consumers and creators alike. Content makers like Oculus Story Studio are trying to figure out how to translate skills from filmmaking, animation, theater and other traditional art forms to a medium that upends many of their conventions.

Initially, Oculus Story Studio embarked on the project to figure out how would it feel to be inside an illustration, Saschka Unseld, creative director at Oculus Story Studio and the writer/director of "Dear Angelica," said in an interview.

"Normally you're seeing an illustrator's vision through a window," a flat, rectangular reproduction of the image inside her head, he said. With VR like his studio's project, "suddenly you're inside the artist's mind."

At first, the studio tried porting flat illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook, art director of "Dear Angelica" and the short film's illustrator, into VR software. But they found the effect always fell short.

So the company developed an illustration tool called Quill, which essentially lets an artist paint brushstrokes in the thin air of virtual reality while wearing a headset.

Quill is now available publicly for anyone to play with using an Oculus Rift headset with the system's Touch hand controllers. The public version is similar to Tilt Brush, a popular VR painting program made by Google.

But unlike Tilt Brush, the public version of Quill will add an element that made "Dear Angelica" possible: The ability to paint not only in space but also in time. The company plans to release a version this year that allows for timed replay and editing of the creator's brushstrokes, which theoretically means anyone can make VR animations on their own.

In "Dear Angelica," the effect is feeling like worlds are swirling to life around you, brushstroke by brushstroke, while they're fading into different visions at the same time. In making the experience, Oculus Story Studio discovered a new narrative flow for VR.

What's the next test for Oculus Story Studio? Interactivity. Story Studio's unannounced fourth project takes advantage of Quill to marry comic-book-style art and storytelling with its first experiments letting the viewer have some control in the telling of the tale.

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