Computers / Features

Beyond Cinema and Video Games: Why Allumette is the Future of Virtual Reality Storytelling, Part 2

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You have to start small, with disruptive technology. You set the groundwork and build upon it. Allumette, an animated VR short from Penrose Studios, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, is a perfect example of this. Allumette is, to understate it, a huge step forward in narrative storytelling, but the story that it tells is a fairly simple one. It takes place primarily in a single location, using a tiny cast of characters. It’s an emotional story, told without words in a city in the clouds.  A young girl, Allumette, is all alone with a box of large matchsticks. Over the course of the story, we find out why. Everything is presented in miniature. The characters are just a few inches tall, and everything is scaled thus. It’s a very vertical city, but almost everything is a little bit below your line of sight. As such, I spent a fair amount of time hunched over so I could get close. The apparent height is calibrated to each person, so no matter how tall you are, you will see the city in the same way. (This effect was intended to heighten the “miniature” feeling.)



 

You’re not part of the narrative, just a disembodied camera. When you look down, there’s nobody—just blue. But as a camera, you can move around and see the world from wherever you like within the Vive’s grid (something I never felt limited by during the experience). “It’s like real life,” said Eugene Chung, writer/director of Allumette and head of Penrose Studios, in an interview after I experienced the piece. “You have to make sure it works from every angle, so we’ve optimized it so that you can see a thing from various angles. You can duck your head under the bridge and see it from the other side, for example.”

Let’s talk about the bridge.

In the miniature sky town is a bridge. When the narrative begins, you’re looking at that bridge, which is just a few feet from your face. It’s a stone bridge, around which much of the story unfolds. At one point, I decided to duck under the bridge and see what I could. I crouched down, walked underneath, and stood up. I turned around, and there was Allumette, still sitting on the edge of the bridge, now with her back to me. It was conceptually but not narratively interesting, so I instinctively ducked back under the bridge to see things from the front.



 

Immediately, a flag went off in my brain: “You just ducked under a thing that wasn’t there without thinking about it,” it said. I ignored the narrative for a moment and just stared at that bridge. I walked up to it, got close to it. Part of me wanted to just walk through it, because I knew that I could. I knew that it wasn’t real.

But I couldn’t do it.

My body, trained by decades of experience, is simply tired of running into things. And even though my brain knew that that bridge wasn’t there, my body refused to move. It didn’t want to run into yet another stone wall. Chung and the team are well aware of that effect, and it’s a feeling beyond which Allumette forces you to push.

At one point in the story, during a flashback sequence, a giant floating boat comes in from behind you. It stops right by the bridge. Suddenly, a disembodied voice, not a part of the experience, said directly into my ear, “You can put your head in the boat.” I jumped a bit, disoriented from the real world filtering into my virtual one, and the woman who had said it apologized. It was fairly surreal, to be honest. I walked up to the boat, and, after steeling myself, lunged my head forward into the “wood.” Of course, I went right through, and inside was Allumette and her mother. And I’m just inches from them. The story is taking place in a form that I couldn’t see without taking that physical step forward and doing something that I felt I shouldn’t be able to do.



 

“Everyone has trouble putting their head into the boat,” said Chung. “That’s a new thing we don’t have a name for yet. That is something that is a real thing, because we have been trained to not stick your head into solid objects. It’s a weird thing, but it’s one of those magical moments. It’s something you can’t do in the real world. I think it presents opportunities.”

It’s a subtle form of interactivity, but it is an incredible one. Disembodied cameras in video games have long allowed you to put cameras through “solid” surfaces to get the best view, but this is nothing like that. The physicality of the moment makes it like nothing I’ve ever felt before. When the story was over, I was given a chance to interact in a more traditional (and non-traditional) way. As I stood there, waiting for further instructions, an animated matchstick floated toward me, like an oversized version of one from the narrative. This was a member of the team handing me a Vive touch controller, a motion-sensing device not entirely unlike a Wii remote that allows you to touch. I grabbed it and began to move. “Try to touch the bridge,” he said. And I put the end of the matchstick against the bridge. The controller vibrated, as though I had bumped into a solid structure. As I moved the matchstick across the world, it lit up dynamically. It was beautiful. So why didn’t they let me do that while I was watching? The answer gets at the heart of one of VR’s most complex issues:

Allumette was always designed as a standing experience,” said Chung. “I think it makes you feel more present, which is good, but it’s also a challenge, because the more present you feel, the harder it is to tell the story.” He wrote a blog post about exactly this last December, called “Presence & Storytelling Are In Conflict,” where he discusses the inherent issues with making you feel like you’re physically in the world of the narrative as opposed to just bringing you there mentally. When you’re aware of your body, your brain stops thinking about whatever else is there. Having the Vive’s touch controller in my hand and the ability to “feel” the world and affect it in a visceral way would have distracted me from the narrative in the same way that the realization that I had ducked under a nonexistent bridge did. So it was a safer bet to remove true interactivity from the equation entirely, at least at this early stage. 



 

There are a lot of questions about the limits of this new form of storytelling. One of the biggest is also one of the most fundamental: length. Discussions with spherical video creators seem to suggest that the sweet spot for that content is about 3-5 minutes. Less is fine, but more generally isn’t. Short, sweet, and to the point. (For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a slightly longer spherical “horror” film of sorts, which held my attention throughout.) Allumette, on the other hand, is unconstrained at nearly 20 minutes, and it could have been longer.

“The first film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, was 45 seconds long,” Chung said. “Years later, The Great Train Robbery was a ten-minute narrative. Technology is moving a lot faster now, and we’re already pushing 20 minutes. But we’re doing stuff in smaller chunks, and we’re building out to bigger pieces. We didn’t have a specific time constraint, but we knew it was going to be bigger than The Rose and I, our first piece, which was about five minutes [a demo of which is available for the Samsung Gear VR, for anyone interested in checking it out – Ed]. We were intrigued by the concept of what we could do with length. But we’re still too early with VR to know what the optimal length is. Is it 1 minute, 10, 100? Maybe it’s 1,000. People can be in VR for hours at a time, and maybe that’s optimal. I think it’s different for everyone. I suspected that 20 minutes wouldn’t be too long, and now I know that there’s still room to push.”

“There’s still room to push” is something you could say about pretty much every aspect of virtual reality. This is all extremely new, and the tech can barely even be considered in its infancy, since not all of the major players in the field have even released their hardware yet (though Chung is excited for the release of the last big headset, the PlayStation VR, which Penrose will have content ready for at launch). We don’t even really know what VR is for yet; Oculus announced the Rift on Kickstarter three years ago as a video game platform and VR as a video game technology. The acquisition by Facebook was a pretty clear indication that this has larger implications, but without specific examples it’s hard to know. Allumette is one of those key examples, proving that there’s much more potential for this technology.

Allumette isn’t a video game, even though it’s made with the same Unreal Engine that powers many modern games; it’s not a movie either, even though you’re passively observing a continuous narrative. It’s something that we don’t even have a name for yet, an entirely new medium and art form that is going to completely transform the way stories are told in the years to come.

Ever since I first donned a VR headset two years ago, I knew that this was going to be something special. It wasn’t until Allumette that I realized just how special it really is.

To read Part 1 of this story, click here

1 Comments

Well, this is quite encouraging. Indeed, we have stepped into the new age of VR which is going to change our entire setup around us as it was changed with the starting of mass use of present internet backbone. And, surely we are going to experience newer communication environment with the developing VR techs. Pretty much exciting!! 

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