Watching Allumette is almost like watching a Pixar movie as an immersive theater experience, but even that description seems to sell the film short. It’s difficult to describe VR storytelling without using familiar contexts. VR movies are like theater, but also like film, and sort of like video games, and a bit like a theme park attraction, but it’s really a new art form in the process of defining itself.
“We haven’t even defined the name for the art form,” said Eugene Chung, the film’s director and the founder of Penrose Studios. “Right now people are calling it ‘VR/AR Content’ or ‘Mixed-Reality Content’–it’s a terrible name,” he laughed. “It’s going to be a massive industry, but we haven’t come up with a good title for it yet.”
Allumette really needs to be experienced, and on its own terms. Its world premiere is today at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Virtual Arcade, which features several other VR films. The more I think about Allumette, the more I want to experience it again. The emotional tug of the story was just as impressive as the technological aspects of immersion and the imaginative sense of design. Like my favorite magic tricks when I was a kid, I found myself asking, “How did they do that?”
Allumette centers on a girl and her mother who sell large, magical matchsticks around town. The world they inhabit is sort of like Venice by way of Hayao Miyazaki and classic Final Fantasy–a city in the clouds with bridges and tiers, and little docks for the airships that course through the sky. Allumette is essentially a 20-minute silent movie, with the characters communicating in hums and sighs, expressing emotions through body language like classic pantomime.
“Alfred Hitchcock said that to be good with spectacle you had to be a simplifier,” Chung noted. “Painters and writers can be complicators, but when you’re working in spectacle (i.e., cinema and now VR) you have to simplify. So you have to take something and strip it down to its core elements.”
The heart of the story concerns a mother’s love for her child and the sacrifices people make, all rendered with simplicity and sincerity.
Even if the core of the spectacle is simplified, there’s lots of room for the viewer to explore. The very beginning of Allumette seems to invite a look around. As the opening credits appear against a black background, a window lights up as if watching a building across the street. The window dims. Then another window, then another in your peripheral vision, and then windows all around as you turn in a full circle. It’s as if you’re surrounded by dots of candlelight, each one a window, and you can walk up and peer in a little closer at the shadow puppet story inside of it.
I found myself pacing around the virtual set of Allumette. At first I was trying to frame shots of these characters, like I was cinematographer, leaning in for close-ups, bending down for a slightly different angle, even trying to simulate a slow tracking shot. But every now and then I would feel less self-conscious about the HTC Vive on my face. In those moments of total immersion, I was just a bystander in the imaginary city watching a mother and daughter do their thing. Occasionally I’d stray too far to one side–there are edges to this virtual world–and I’d feel a gentle tap on my shoulder from someone nearby just to get me centered again.
The mother and daughter’s airship is one of the great elements of Allumette, and a source of wonderment as well. It docked in front of me after I’d watched it descend from above. Just through the headphones I heard Jimmy Maidens, lead technical director at Penrose, say that I could look inside.
Until Maidens mentioned it, the thought had never occurred to me.
The sense of immersion made me feel like there was an actual boundary between this object and me. My mind thought it was physical, real, like a dollhouse, but I could actually peer into it, as simple as dunking my face into a pool of water. The airship interior was a miniature world within this virtual world. It was one of many strange moments of realization, like when I first looked down at the lower level of the setting in Allumette. I expected to see my feet; instead, clouds and sky and a town square.
This mix of emotion and technology seems to fit with Chung’s own sensibilities. His mother was a CPA, and his father was an opera singer. “I’ve always had this duality of left-brain/right-brain all throughout my career, which is important for VR,” he said. Even before founding Penrose, the duality is evident: Chung attended NYU Film School and Harvard Business School, he worked in production at Pixar and then became a venture capitalist.
Allumette is the second project by Penrose Studios. The San Francisco-based startup is just a few months old but has assembled a team of artists, engineers, and storytellers with backgrounds at Oculus, Pixar, and Dreamworks. The company’s previous VR piece, The Rose and I, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was very well-received.
Penrose has other VR projects in the works, though they have yet to announce their slate. They’ve been experimenting with an interactive component to VR at the moment, though Chung explained it’s really a matter of how the interactivity can be used effectively as part of the storytelling experience of a piece.
“Presence is that feeling of being someplace else; storytelling is storytelling,” he said. He added, “When you’re given agency, it changes the way you perceive the story.”
With the way things are looking, VR might change the world of storytelling.