With ‘Dear Angelica,’ Oculus finds a story worthy of the VR medium

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With ‘Dear Angelica,’ Oculus finds a story worthy of the VR medium

In court this week, defending the origin of the company he took such a huge bet on years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg divulged some of his deeper motivations for pursuing a VR future with Oculus.

“We want to get closer to this kind of perfect representation, so you can capture a moment you had.”

The medium of virtual reality is a new one, one that may eventually allow these perfect representations and perfect fictions, but its true power (and danger) lies in its ability to turn anything into what feels like a personal experience.

Embodying the emotions of the viewer is at the heart of Dear Angelica, Oculus Story Studio’s latest short film premiering today at Sundance. The film follows a daughter (voiced by Mae Whitman) reliving memories of her late mother, Angelica (voiced by Geena Davis), as we, the viewers, are swept up in the emotional release of the vivid, painted landscapes that unfold brushstroke by brushstroke around us.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s director, Saschka Unseld, and pick his brain on what made this such a special project for the Oculus Story Studio team.

“With each project we can open another door, finding that oh yeah this is something interesting. Before Henry, there was nothing like this that was in VR,” Unseld said. “Before Lost there was nothing like this in VR and the same for Dear Angelica, in regards to narrative and storytelling.”

Oculus Story Studio’s last major project, Henry, was in many ways a challenge in proving VR’s viability. The film followed a cute Pixar-esque hedgehog who loved hugs despite his prickly spines, something that grew complicated when presented with a crowd of balloon animals at a birthday party. The story gave audiences one of the first VR characters they could fall in love with and the film went on to win an Emmy, the first to be awarded to a piece of original VR content.

The door being opened with “Angelica,” seems to be defining a clear, yet fluid, relationship between the face computer-adorned viewer and the virtual protagonist. Unseld insists that even if you’re not physically standing in the daughter’s place, you are meant to hear her narrative as your own thoughts and feel her pain as coming from inside yourself.

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“We are the main character even if we’re not critically embodying the main character,” Unseld said.

For a medium so unbounded by its potential for creating agency in viewers, Dear Angelica‘s strength comes from bringing your soul in line with the pain and euphoria of the daughter herself. There is still even more room to conjure these feelings; we are rapidly approaching a time where the lines between video game and film blur and will allow viewers to rewrite stories as they happen. For filmmakers this shift can be unnerving, but in virtual reality, everything is evolving rapidly.

Something that makes this film so special to the team at Story Studio is how it was built, that being entirely within VR.

“The hardest thing is that we were building the tool while we were telling the story,” Unseld told me. “So it was a massive leap of faith that this was going to work in the end and that people were going to get the story.”

Through the course of development, the technical team created tools for Art Director Wesley Allsbrook to paint frame-by-frame the dreams and memories of Angelica’s daughter. These tools turned into Quill, a creative tool that Rift/Touch owners can actually download and use themselves to craft stories of their own.
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Dear Angelica is perhaps the most important film to emerge from Story Studio, largely because of its available reach. Whereas past films were showcased at festivals and events, this is the first project to launch from Story Studio after the consumer release of the Oculus Rift headset. Later today, owners of the systems will be able to download the film and watch it at home, receiving the exact same immersive experience as festival goers in Park City, Utah.

For the budding virtual reality industry, Sundance is about more than discovery, it’s about validation.

“It’s interesting, Sundance is the weird marker of how far we’ve come and what the different discussions are now than what they were a year ago,” Unseld said.

This year marks the first year that the festival is hosting a dedicated “VR palace” within its New Frontiers program. It also marks the first year that the festival has made an important stipulation for VR filmmakers showcasing there: all VR titles shown at Sundance must be world premieres. These evolutions signify not only the breadth of content being built by various filmmakers but the level of quality that is starting to arise from a medium that is attracting the attention of just about every creative in the industry.

In the film, Angelica’s daughter is eventually able to reconcile the loss of her mother through the comfort of the distinct memories (real and imagined) that fill her life with her mom’s influence.

Dear Angelica is a film that feels alternatingly sparse and alienating and buoyant and boundless, but ultimately the story that’s told is one that seeks to show us just as much about our own realities as it does about the ones we manufacture to fill emptiness, something VR, for better or worse, seems more capable of than most.