Marshmallow Laser Feast, animation studio Blue Zoo and illustrator Rob Pybus have created a new VR video for Squarepusher track Stor Eiglass, which guides viewers through a surreal illustrated dystopia. We spoke to BlueZoo about making the video, which can also be viewed on Google Cardboard and as a 360-degree video on YouTube...
Directed by MLF's Robin McNicholas, the video for Stor Eiglass is described as "an absurdist take on sci-fi tropes like a “reverse Inception [Christopher Nolan's 2010 thriller about constructing dream worlds]”. Assuming the perspective of a headless man travelling by jet pack (and later, bike), viewers are guided through a brightly coloured landscape filled with skyscrapers and billboards into a darker universe where residents addicted to VR jog mindlessly on the spot dressed in bright green tracksuits. With the happy world revealed as a virtual construct, viewers travel further through darkness until they are left in the desert with a dancing shaman.
As you'd expect from a musician known for making brilliantly bizarre visuals, videos and audio (you can read our interview with Squarepusher about his work here), it's a surreal experience, with some brilliant illustrations from Pybus. Lo-fi graphics and saturated colours provide a nod to the early days of rave, while presenting a universe that appears cheerful, but is exposed as something much more ominous.
Made for Samsung's VR headset, the video will be screened at events in cities including Tokyo and Sydney later this month but can also be viewed on iPhones and android mobiles using Google's low-cost Cardboard VR kit and online using YouTube's new 360-degree video platform. The YouTube version offers a less immersive experience than watching through a VR headset, but viewers can still take a panoramic tour through Pybus's detailed world using the W, A, S and D keys on their keyboard - to try it, watch the video below in Google Chrome.
Blue Zoo, Pybus and MLF created the video in just six weeks after Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson) and McNicholas, a friend of the musician, discussed the possibility of collaborating on a VR project. The brief was fairly open, though Jenkinson was keen to create something that would use VR to highlight the possible perils of the medium by exploring a world where people are addicted to it.
“Robin was really keen to do something different – he wanted to see how we could build a panoramic environment out of Rob’s drawings, rather than create something realistic," explains Blue Zoo co-founder Tom Box. "Often, realistic VR experiences can end up feeling a bit like a tech demo, and Robin wanted something with more of a narrative and a sense of humour," he adds.
The project is the first time Blue Zoo has used 2D illustrations to create an animated VR environment: to create the video, the studio worked with Pybus's 2D storyboards and colour palettes to build static landscapes, which the illustrator and McNicholas would then add to and edit. "It was a very iterative process," adds Box. "We'd build the 3D environment, Rob would paint textures on top, then we'd animate it and load it into the headset, so Rob and Robin could watch it and see areas that needed developing. After that, Rob would go away and design some more artwork and billboards and we'd add them in," he explains.
As Box points out, one of the biggest challenges when creating VR videos is making an environment that is detailed enough to hold viewers' attention, but won't leave them feeling sick or dizzy - a task that's even more difficult when making a video to work across multiple devices with lower resolution screens.
Pybus' artwork for Stor Eiglass
"With VR in general, you want to build really detailed worlds but the more you cram in, the more it slows down, which can induce motion sickness," says Box. "Rob's drawings are hugely complicated, and with Cardboard, which is made for devices better suited to playing Candy Crush than watching Playstation-quality graphics, you have quite limited capabilities graphically," he explains.
"It was very much about trying to find that balance between Rob's drawings, and something that will work seamlessly in a VR world," he adds. "With TV animation, you just build what's in front of the camera, but this had to provide a 360-degree experience throughout a four-minute journey. The difficult part with that is making sure there are always things to see all around you and, if it's making you feel sick, pinning down exactly what it is that's making you feel that way. That was tricky to identify, because the more we watched the video, the more we got used to it, so we had to keep finding new people to look at it and tell us what was wrong."
Until recently, making a VR video for YouTube and mobiles would have taken several months (and probably, bespoke software or coding). Stor Eiglass, however, was created using Maya animation software and 3D game engine Unity. "The project was only possible because the technology is at a stage now where you can just grab off the shelf software. A few years ago, making the same video for Android, iPhone, YouTube and VR would have taken about a year but now, you can republish it for each device in a week or two," adds Box.
Storyboards devised by Pybus
Traditionally, one of the biggest problems with creating VR music videos is that not a lot of people actually get to see them: Björk's Stonemilker video received a great deal of press coverage when it was announced earlier this year, but can only be seen in full at the Black Lake exhibition at New York's MoMA and despite the endless predictions that VR headsets will soon be as popular as mobiles and tablets, they're still an expensive product, owned mostly by tech companies and affluent early adopters.
Google Cardboard and YouTube 360 can't match the viewing experience of Oculus or Samsung's Gear, but they do offer a good compromise, ensuring that videos created for VR headsets can still reach a wider audience. The 360 platform was only launched a few weeks ago, but Stor Eiglass shows how it can offer a more interactive alternative to traditional YouTube promos, and it will be interesting to see if other musicians and labels undertake similar experiments.
As Barney Steel, director at Marshmallow Laser Feast, points out, 360 also provides a greater incentive to make VR videos, even if the end result is less impressive than the real thing. "At the moment, the biggest drawback with VR is that not a lot of people will watch it, so there's not really a market for it - but as headsets get better and more people start buying them, I think you'll see a lot of bands and artists wanting to experiment with the medium," he adds.
"One of the most interesting things about the platform, for us, is the sense of presence," adds Steel. "You could have fans running alongside musicians, or watching them perform on stage, but you could just also just have them sitting next to you eating chips on the sofa. We're super interested in VR as a company, and music projects, particularly ones like this without a brief, are a great way to experiment with it," he adds.