Allumette, the latest creation of Penrose Studios, a small startup comprised of Oculus Rift, DreamWorks and Pixar alumni including Eugene Chung, founder and CEO, who was previously Head of Film & Media at Oculus VR, debuts as the first virtual reality narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Six degrees of freedom is huge,” says Allumette writer and director Eugene Chung, who is also the CEO of Penrose Studios. “It adds so much to what we call ‘presence,’ which in many ways is the holy grail of virtual reality. How do we move and think in this medium? Allumette is about thinking natively in virtual reality.”
Chung preaches “presence” in his company’s creations — the idea that, deep down, as you’re having the experience, you should feel that the objects are truly in front of you.
CEO Eugene Chung at the Penrose Studios in San Francisco.
IMAGE: PENROSE STUDIOS
Chung directed and produced Allumette, which will be available for consumers later this year on several VR platforms, including the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR and HTC Vive.
To his credit, there is an incredible temptation to reach out and touch the objects and characters; the only thing that stopped me from trying was that I didn’t want to look silly in front of the other people in the room.
The narrative, which the company describes as “love, sacrifice and an infinite bond between an orphan and her mother”, does not entirely reveal itself in the roughly six-minute demo, but will once it expands to the planned 20-minute feature — much longer than the average VR movie.
Penrose has also created movie-like posters, right down to the aspect ratio and font, to help promote it.
The poster for “Allumette.” IMAGE: PENROSE STUDIOS
The Immersion Experience
Here’s what you’ll experience when you enter the virtual world of Allumette:
Everything’s computer-generated, but the digital 3-D models manage to look sculpted and organic, from the realistic textures of the stone buildings to the human figures. It’s an inventive experience in a brand-new medium—but watching the characters with their herky-jerky motions makes it feel almost familiar.
You’re not just a static observer in this world. Allumette was built for positional-tracking headsets, giving it a sense of dimension, realism, and dynamic perspective.
Lean in towards the Smurf-size characters and tiny bridges to get a closer look. View the protagonist from all sides, following her around the corner of a winding staircase.
Walk around a bit inside the miniscule, Venice-inspired city in the clouds, taking in the scenery from any angle you like. You’ll also experience X-ray vision: Poke your head through walls and windows to see important plot developments going on inside.
As you move about the space, you can explore the city’s stone bridge, its buildings and other features up close; at one point a flying ship comes onto the scene, and as Allumette boards it, you can plunge the headset into its clock-like innerworkings for a look around.
There’s a story unfolding—a heartbreaking one, at that, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match Girl”—and you’re the director of photography.
After that much time with a face-computer strapped around your head, you might think you’d be dying to come up for air. Instead, Allumette puts you inside a world you don’t want to leave.
And once you re-enter reality, you’ll want to watch it again—in part because it’s so beautiful, but mostly because you’ll want to make sure you didn’t miss anything going on inside the walls (and hulls) of this virtual city.
But new VR systems such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer the positional-tracking magic that smartphone systems like the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard don’t.
These new, powerful headsets let you explore a virtual world by leaning in, or even physically walking around a set.
Allumette is the best example yet of a non-game that employs these capabilities in a subtle yet revolutionary spin on storytelling.
Thinking natively in virtual reality can be a challenge when there aren’t even native tools to build the experiences.
Even in terms of their own skills, the Penrose team found that they couldn’t fully rely on their own experience and abilities. Chung and Penrose technical director Jimmy Maidens have a combined resume that includes stints at Pixar, Dreamworks, and Oculus Story Studios.
But while the most engaging VR experiences blend aspects of film, stage performances, and the interactivity of gaming, the ideal skill set for creating exceptional VR project isn’t simply a combination of those things.
The traditional tools for doing film just don’t translate well,” says Maidens. “Even for videogames, because they’re all designed for 2D screens. We have to use internal tools that we’re developing for VR rather than taking tools that were designed for another artform and trying to make it work. You have to be willing to let go and understand that you know less about it than you think you know, to say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, and let’s figure out how to do this again.”
While pricey systems such as the Rift and Vive add those extra dimensions to VR projects, Chung believes smartphone platforms will soon narrow the gap.
He says Allumette will be available later this year for all positional-tracking headsets—the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and upcoming Sony PlayStation VR—but that mobile devices may soon be supported.
The idea is, how do you get computer vision good enough so that you can actually track the world without having markers or something that tracks you like the Vive or Oculus Rift does,” Chung explains. “The technology is still not completely refined right now for consumers, but there are a lot of really interesting things in the works to do that. So I think we’ll get there.”
As of now, distribution for Allumette — and other “VR films” is still being worked out, as the business models have not completely emerged yet. But expect that to change by the time Sundance rolls around again next year, and likely with twice as many VR installations as the year before.