What happens when Hollywood heavyweights come to vr? Viewers can now find out, thanks to the release of the Gnomes & Goblins Preview from The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau and vr studio Wevr.
Also on board for the release is Avatar and I, Robot animation supervisor Andy Jones, who worked with Favreau on Jungle Book. Cartoon Brew spoke to Jones and Gnomes creative director Jake Rowell about how this Preview came to be and how it combines film and game sensibilities to produce something different in VR.
Scoring a Hollywood director
Jon Favreau was working with Jones on The Jungle Book when Jones visited Wevr, a vr studio in Venice, California behind the vr undersea series TheBlu. Out of interest, Favreau tagged along.
“Jon came over and saw TheBlu and was so taken by it that he got inspired to do his own project,” related Rowell, who directed TheBlu and previously contributed in vfx and art design on properties such as Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, and Superman Returns. “Jon came back two weeks later and pitched us his vision of Gnomes & Goblins.”
Favreau’s initial pitch was a mix of fantasy and mythology that ultimately got scaled down to a single creature in a single forest location. For the Preview, which is now available as a free Steam download for the HTC Vive vr headset, players have the opportunity to interact with the goblin, a creature designed by Favreau.
“Jon wanted the goblin to be a bit timid,” explained Jones. “He is tough in his own right, but a little scared of you, as you are a giant in his world. So at first he clearly doesn’t trust you and is very cautious in his approach. Once you get to know him, however, his true personality comes out, and he is a cool little dude that makes you laugh.”
In addition to the character, Favreau, Rowell, and Wevr developed a distinctive color palette for Gnomes’ forest. Here, according to Rowell, they deliberately referenced traditional Disney palettes and combined it with what might typically be used for stop motion or clay animation.
Filmmakers in a VR world
The team behind Gnomes had had so much experience in film and visual effects, but could this be translated to the vr world? For Jones, in particular, tackling animation was a very different prospect.
“In film, you animate a linear set of shots to propel the story forward,” he said. “With the goblin, we really wanted the player to feel like they were part of the story. In order to achieve that, we had to approach the animation as a set of responses to a variety of situations and scenarios. We essentially created an AI-style character framework.”
Animators worked in Maya to produce the scenes, which were then fed into Wevr’s proprietary ‘Wevr AI character framework.’ Another innovation in this process was being able to preview the animation. Usually artists work on flat screens, but vr of course is a usually a 360 degree medium. So Wevr’s crew used a ‘state’ room to review the goblin animation and check goblin personalities from happy to sad and everything in between. Goblins at various heights compared to the player were also reviewed here.
And it wasn’t just the goblin that required animation. “It is all alive,” said Jones. “The grass, the leaves, the trees, the fireflies: there is movement and life all around you. That was achieved in a very genius way through sophisticated vertex animation and clever procedural mapping.”
Interaction, not just narrative
So, technically this Gnomes & Goblins Preview has all the bells and whistles, but how does that make it a different vr experience? The answer lies in how much interaction Favreau sought to include in the Preview between the goblin and the player, rather than just telling a typical narrative story. With the Vive controllers, players can explore the forest in their own time and carry out only slight and subtle interactions with the goblin. It’s a deliberate move by the creators.
“The idea,” commented Rowell, “is that it’s a relatively simple and introductory vr experience that makes people feel comfortable but also be very engaged. With the goblin, eye contact is a very big thing for us. We want it to acknowledge you. So, if you pick up object that object has meaning. Is it a threat? Are you going to throw it at him? Are you going to give it to him?”
The intention right now is for this Gnomes & Goblins Preview to be just the start of something bigger, although that has not yet been determined. What is clear, said Rowell, is that Favreau’s vision is a grand immersive world that could continue to expand as the director learns more about vr, and the vr studio learns more from the director.