Why Trailblazer Was Made

Using a VR animation tool to make a traditional short film.

Last year, my friends and I built a VR animation tool in Unreal Engine and made a short film with it. The short’s called Trailblazer, and it’s an animated visual music piece that follows a ball of light as it travels through space and time.

Artists all over the world are making narrative VR experiences that viewers can immerse themselves in. Pearl, Dear Angelica, and Age of Sail are all beautiful examples of stories that were made to be seen in VR.

But we chose to do things differently. Instead of using traditional tools to make a story for VR, we used VR to make a traditional short film. Here’s why.

Using VR

Ollie was built for VR because it’s more natural to interact with 3D objects in 3D. Instead of forcing people to use a mouse and keyboard to move objects around on a screen, VR lets people move objects around with their hands. We weren’t interested in building a professional tool— we wanted to make something that beginners would love.

But there was a tradeoff. Building a VR app today means building something that most people won’t get to try. When we made Ollie, VR headsets only worked when they were attached to expensive computers— it wasn’t easy to explain how the tool worked to someone who wasn’t familiar with VR. So, if we were betting on new tech, what was the best way to show people what Ollie could do?

Disney’s Silly Symphonies

The original answer was to make a mixed-reality ad for the tool, but the ideas I came up with weren’t very compelling. After spending a few months thinking about it, I found the answer at The Walt Disney Family Museum.

In the late 1920s, Disney was determined to diversify after the success of Mickey. That urge led him to Silly Symphonies: a series without a central character that “gave him the latitude to develop the animated cartoon medium.” Each piece in the series gave Disney room to experiment with new techniques— the multiplane camera, the three-strip color process, and more. He pushed the boundaries of the medium while making something that a non-technical audience could enjoy.

The thinking behind Silly Symphonies sparked the idea for the film. Instead of focusing on the technology, what if we made something with Ollie that could stand on its own? Something that didn’t need to be shown in VR? Animating with Ollie was the best way to stress-test the software, and making an animated short seemed like the best way to showcase what the tool could do without focusing on the technology.

Trailblazer was designed to be easy to understand, easy to experience, and easy to share.

Introducing Ollie

As a kid, I loved watching filmmakers talk about how they used art and technology to bring their films to life. So, after Trailblazer was over, I wanted to show people how we made it.

By using scenes from the film, I wanted to demonstrate how we used Ollie to animate objects, light environments, and shoot scenes. I wanted to give my teammates a chance to talk about their features, and explain how we used cutting-edge technology to make something that anyone could enjoy.

The result was a two-minute segment that played after the film.

Like software, movies are never really finished. They’re just released. But after nine months of hard work, it felt amazing to have two products that we were proud to share. Both Ollie and Trailblazer mean a lot to me— I love animation and building technology that makes it easier to produce creative work. If you’re someone who’s interested in this kind of work, I’d love to hear from you. Maybe we’ll build something together.

Thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or suggestions for me, DM me on Twitter or via sagarramesh.com.

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