VR meets Pixar in this beautifully-crafted animated adventure.
I arrived at a loft in Union Square for my first screening of the Tribeca Film Fest. I was all set to meet a bulk of the team from Penrose Studios, a San Francisco start-up dedicated to combining creativity with technology to develop ground-breaking stories in VR. As ambitious as this goal seems, it’s a mission shared by countless other studios. Afterall, every immersive entertainment company hopes they’re the one to figure out the “winning formula” for virtual reality film experiences that will eventually become the industry standard. However after sampling Penrose’s latest project, Arden’s Wake, it’s become abundantly clear that this could very well be the studio to crack the code.
Based off of the preview experience, Arden’s Wake is a 15 minute epic following a young female protagonist living with her father in a lighthouse perched atop a murky ocean. After dad goes missing, she must brave postapocalyptic waters previously forbidden to her and begin a journey of self discovery that may also reveal her family’s past as well. As she descends further into the dark abyss, she encounters ruins from an ancient civilization, wonderful creatures and a towering ominous beast that leaves behind more questions than answers. Put simply, it’s an unbelievably imaginative world that keeps you constantly enthralled with gorgeous scenery, relatable characters and a plot that keeps you guessing. However, what truly makes this captivating experience shine is its immense attention to detail.
From the torn flags serving as fins for an aquatic submersible, to the subtle facial expressions of each character, Arden’s Wake is bursting at the seams with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments and tiny details that serve as crucial elements to it’s story. A top down view of the set and its characters gives you an experience similar to pearing into a dollhouse. Miniature characters move about the scene granting you the freedom to create your own shots and angles by peaking around corners, towering above buildings or by leaning in for a closer look. Basically they leave the cinematography up to you. For instance, by utilizing the room-scale technology of the Oculus Rift (Will be available on a variety of VR platforms), I was able to get up close to the father figure in the story. It was only then I noticed a small flask on his person as well as dark bags underneath his eyes, which indicated the character may have a drinking problem. And after seeing the emotional introduction of the film, I wouldn’t blame him…
The private demo I was given, while brief, was more than enough to help me grasp the tone of the full experience. The impactful beginning, not too different from the mood of Disney Pixar’s Up, was one of the most emotional moments I’ve had in virtual reality to date. No other immersive story i’ve tried has attempted what Penrose does in this project. But how exactly was Penrose able to hit a level of emotion and detail other studios have yet to achieve? It all comes down to the special trick the company has up their sleeve: A custom social software that lets the team collaborate on the project together, in real-time, from anywhere across the U.S, all without leaving virtual reality.
Part of the Penrose Proprietary Technology Suite, Maestro is a custom program allowing the artists, writers and producers to enter and edit scenes together, adding a whole new dimension to creating and collaborating in VR. I was lucky enough to experience the program myself after the screening and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the coolest multi person VR experiences I’ve ever tried. After donning the headset, I was transported to one of the films scenes, frozen in time. There I was able to see and speak with some of the developers wearing headsets in other parts of the room as they stopped and started the animation, drawing notes and noting changes around their characters throughout. Each user was represented by a floating head and two hands which we used to point to different aspects of the scene we wanted to acknowledge. Soon several more members of the team joined the session, this time remotely from their offices all the way in San Francisco. It was surreal asking questions to team members across the country all without leaving not only virtual reality, but the actual program entirely.
Quickly I began to understand how Penrose was able to craft an experience as creative and intricate as Arden’s Wake. Giving team members the ability to actually enter a live scene in VR and communicate with one another as they take notes allows for unrestricted collaboration. It’s all about the company’s commitment to transition itself into what they call “native VR thinkers and creators.” Basically they believe that the only way to deliver a better VR experience is to create it in VR. If Arden’s Wake is an example of that intuitive methodology, then I’m all for it. The captivating adventure has excited me more for the future of virtual reality than anything I’ve seen so far this year.
The 15 minute Arden’s Wake preview is currently available for viewing at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC now until April 29th. If you’re in the neighborhood and looking for an excuse to cry in a VR headset (not joking), I highly suggest checking it out. Get there early though because the line is ALWAYS long. Unsurprisingly.