Dear Angelica Is the Film–and Filmmaking Tool–VR Needs

Dear Angelica is a simple story: A girl who lost her actress mother at a young age reconnects with her by watching old films on a VCR. Because it’s a virtual-reality short, it’s not hard to feel like you’re joining that young girl as she imagines tagging along with her mom onscreen. However, it’s also Oculus’ first VR experience created with the company’s Quill tool, which lets illustrators create immersive 3D animations directly within VR– and the result plays like a fever dream, all brilliant floating images and fleeting memories.

There’s another dream as well here, one that you may not see if you don’t know where to look. As a female-led story, illustrated by a woman, coming out of the nested boys’ clubs that are Silicon Valley and the burgeoning VR industry within it, Dear Angelica is a vision of the future of VR–and of storytelling itself.

“What’s so great about this piece is it’s got two female characters, it’s about women, it’s about mothers,” says Wesley Allsbrook, Dear Angelica’s art director and main illustrator. “This should be something that’s not tokenism. We should be making a lot of these. Tech is a weird and not necessarily safe space for women, but it doesn’t have to feel like that–and perhaps Dear Angelica can help there.”

But that’s Dear Angelica’s mission in the real world. In the virtual one, the experience–which premieres today at the Sundance Film Festival–is out to show what’s possible in VR. Quill was developed to make Dear Angelica, but it was also made for everyone to be able to use: not just professionals, but anyone who wants to use VR as a creative outlet. And now that Quill is available for anyone with an Oculus Rift and a Touch controller, Dear Angelica has to show them what it’s capable of.

Making It Up As They Go

You know that scene in Buster Keaton’s The General? The one where Keaton has to clear the tracks while the train is already in motion? That’s basically VR filmmaking in a nutshell, but even more so with Quill. While Oculus’ Story Studio division first conceived of Dear Angelica in late 2015, Quill didn’t exist yet–so while the team knew the story, they basically had to create the best way to tell it. “We were sort of doing visual development, and technical development, and story development at the same time,” Allsbrook says.

As with any creative project, some ideas fell out (like allowing viewers to affect the story using Touch controllers) and other changes crept in. But every time something changed, visual effects supervisor Inigo Quilez had to literally rework the code of Quill so that Allsbrook could make the relevant animations. “I didn’t have any of the engineering processes you would have normally where you have to go through code reviews for new versions,” Quilez says. “It was just ‘New version? Cool, try it.’ ‘It crashed? Fix it and try again.’ ‘Ok, it works now.'”

Making Dear Angelica that way had its moments of stress, but it also means that now the Story Studio team knows all of Quill’s best practices for the future. “Using a tool that doesn’t actually exist for a project was a pretty crazy decision,” Story Studio lead and Dear Angelica writer/director Saschka Unseld says of using Quill, adding that the tool’s development continued throughout the VR film’s creation. “By the end we were actually able to make the project.”

That method also enabled them to actually discover the best uses of Quill while they developed it. For one, they learned to discard a lot of what Unseld calls “micro-moments.” Those little actions–opening a door, walking into a room–are essential in standard films, but in VR, where your viewer can be looking anywhere, they often make viewers ponder things that have nothing to do with the story (“Why is that TV there?” for instance.). So the team threw out those moments and opted to try to tell their story through moods. To do that, Quilez put a function in Quill called “draw order,” which recorded the lines Allsbrook drew and the speed with which she drew them so that the action viewers watched was the creation of the pictures in Angelica’s daughter Jessica’s memories. “It should feel like a lucid dream in that way that things appear and disappear in a nearly effortless way,” Unseld says. “We can use that to basically string up these narrative moments.”

Even though the team had decided to do away with a fully interactive version back in the spring of 2016, some interactive touches did make their way into the final product. Some images animate if viewers move in and look closely at them, for example, and other illustrations fill in with more color if you focus on them. (There are other Easter eggs as well, which make repeat viewings more enticing.)

By summer, they were getting close to having something that looked like the final product. “They started locking me out of making changes in June,” Allsbrook says with a rueful laugh. “It was hard to stop drawing on things.” By August they were QA testing Angelica and working out bugs. That may seem quick, but Unseld says if any project takes longer than a year or year-and-a-half, it risks losing relevancy considering the speed with which VR is evolving. “‘Really good’ is going to mean a different thing every four months,” Allsbrook adds.

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The Geena Davis Connection

Another thing Story Studio had to incorporate for their latest VR film is strong voice talent. Dear Angelica’s titular character needed a vocal star to carry the emotional weight. Since Jessica’s mother was an actress who played astronauts and superheroes, it had to be someone who resonated. Lauren Graham’s name was thrown around. So was Sandra Bullock’s. Unseld had shown Allsbrook The Long Kiss Goodnight for inspiration while they were working on the experience and Dear Angelica has a nod to Thelma & Louise, so Geena Davis was also a good candidate. (Also, Angelica is a redhead.) “She is, of course, great,” Unseld says, “but we didn’t initially think we would be able to get her.”

Lucky for Unseld, he was wrong. Thanks to the work of a mutual friend, the Story Studio team was able to show Davis a rough assembly of Dear Angelica in Los Angeles last year. She loved it. “All they had to do was show it to me to sell me,” Davis says. “It’s extraordinarily beautiful.” It also, thanks to its female protagonists, aligns nicely with Davis’ personal quest to see more gender equality in cinema. The actress launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004 and in 2015 launchd the Bentonville Film Festival to highlight women filmmakers. With Dear Angelica she gets to be part of a female-led movie and one that can set a precedent in a very new field of filmmaking.

“I’ve always obviously been interested in women’s representations in film and television and I’ve always loved new technology,” Davis says. “And I thought this is a great opportunity to try to have some influence to say, ‘Let’s start this one off with some gender parity, let’s make this a conscious effort to have that in our thinking as we’re creating this brand new medium.'”

This, of course, is right in line with Unseld and Allsbrook’s thinking, and with Allsbrook being the art director on Dear Angelica that means she’s also a woman on the other side of the camera (so to speak), which Davis notes is just as important because it can “encourage there to be more female creators.”

Life After Angelica

Prior to moving to San Francisco to work on Dear Angelica, Allsbrook was an editorial illustrator and graphic novelist. Now that her work on Dear Angelica is wrapping up, she’d like to keep working in VR–but she likely won’t be doing it for Oculus Story Studio. She left the company at the beginning of October. She says it was “for a variety of reasons” but it’s hard not to notice the timing: Her departure came fairly close to the time news broke that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was funding anti-Hillary Clinton memes. When asked about the “shitposting” controversy now, Unseld says Story Studio was “separated from it,” which seems fair–the unit operates fairly autonomously from Oculus and parent company Facebook. But Allsbrook says it factored into her decision to leave, particularly because the fallout made it hard for her to prepare for Oculus Connect 3, the developer conference last fall where Quill was being demoed.

“People here got asked questions [about it] by their friends,” Allsbrook says. “It was part of the reason why I left. I couldn’t get through my OC3 prep. Already my job here wasn’t working the best way I thought it could, so I left. Then the election happened and I was glad I left.”