There are certain buzz-worthy technological concepts that, having initially infiltrated animation discourse, continue to circulate just below the surface until a new development, event, or work of art re-energizes them AND brings them to the fore. The notion of digitally-enabled interactivity is one of them. In the past year, several creative initiatives in the field of interactive animation have received sufficient mainstream media coverage and subsequently helped rekindle debates and conversations surrounding the topic. Way to Go (http://a-way-to-go.com/) is an interactive online project created by Vincent Morisset, Caroline Robert, Édouard Lanctôt-Benoit and the studio AATOAA and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Combining hand-drawn animation and three hundred and sixty-degree video capture, Way to Go invites the user to an un-timed, objective-free walk in the digital woods, where any click of the mouse has the potential to unveil new imagery and the soundtrack adapts to the chosen tempo of movement. Unburdened by conventional narrative or dialogue, the minimalist avatar walks, runs, sits around and otherwise enables the person on the other side of the monitor to explore the dynamically generated content at their own leisure. Spotlight Stories, launched by Google and Motorola Mobility in October 2013, allows owners of the Motorola Moto X phone to experience animated shorts interactively: by moving the phone in different directions, the user can pan and tilt the camera within the animated environment that is being rendered in real time and, in doing so, follow a particular action or character or simply “look around” the cartoon.[i] So far, Google has released three shorts, all directed by Disney/Pixar alumni: Windy Day (Jan Pinkava, 2013), Buggy Night (Mark Oftedal, 2014), and Duet (Glen Keane, 2015). Finally, Oculus has recently introduced its Story Studio division (https://www.oculus.com/storystudio/), which will take advantage of the company’s proprietary virtual reality headset in order to produce immersive virtual reality movies. The first of those experiments, Lost, a short directed by Saschka Unseld (the man behind Pixar’s Blue Umbrella), was introduced during the Sundance Film Festival and met with critical enthusiasm.[ii] Oculus intends to release four more shorts over the course of 2015.
While engaging with such projects mechanically is easy (and pleasurable) enough, doing so theoretically poses immediate challenges. Even a task as simple as defining the works described above proves less than straightforward, since “interactive animation” serves as an umbrella term covering a range of projects that fuse two separate media: games and animated film. Oculus and Google describe their creations in cinematic terms; they speak of shorts, movies, cartoons, etc. Vincent Morisset, on the other hand, explicitly defines Way to Go as a game, explaining that he “wanted to explore space and time and control [and] video games seemed like the best place to do that.”[iii] Still, such an attempt at clear delineation is misleading, as the Oculus and Google shorts incorporate elements of play, while Way to Go resembles an experimental film. All three exhibit a fascinating tension between spectatorship and play, between passive contemplation and active participation – and all three address this tension in unique ways. In that sense, the usefulness of “interactive animation” as a descriptive term is limited. While its broadness and inclusivity reflects the form’s aesthetic and technological diversity, the actual parameters of any given work remain concealed behind the union of two such inherently multi-faceted terms as “interactive” and “animation.” On a related note, and to complicated things further, it is hard to tell whether the user (viewer?) is watching interactive animation or playing it. Does this distinction even make sense in this context? Perhaps a compound term – like play-watching – is needed to capture the simultaneity and ambiguity of the interaction between these two experiences that such projects offer.
Engaged Spectatorship/Restful Play
One thing is certain: interactive animation denies the viewer the luxury of passivity. While the pleasure of viewership is still sought after, simply sitting back and allowing the narrative or spectacle to unfold is pointedly discouraged. Instead, these works, through their emphasis on interactivity, offer the tantalizing promise of agency, seemingly ceding some of the creative control to the user in order to enlist her as a willing participant in a dynamically unfolding series of events. In the case of Google’s Spotlight Stories, it is up to the person holding the phone to move the camera in any desired direction within the 360-degree virtual environment. In Way to Go, the user is encouraged to run, pause, rotate the camera, click around the screen to reveal new information, and otherwise shape an individualized experience based on personal preferences. In many ways, this is restful play: the kind of stress-free, mission-less and narrative-less restful gaming – offered by exploration games such as Flower (Thatgamecompany, 2009) – that exists just south of the border with film spectatorship.
As engaging as the interactivity is, however, at their current stage of technological development, what these projects offer is little more than a successful simulation of creative control. Whether or not “the real thing” – i.e. unconstrained interactivity in and through animation – is even possible (or what, precisely, it would entail) is a separate issue worthy of a longer study. At present, viewers are promised infinite permutations of the play-watching experience in theory, yet in practice their interaction is constantly shaped, guided, and limited by pre-existing software and hardware parameters. In Way to Go, for instance, the user is encouraged to explore along a strictly delineated path. As far as nature walks go, much of this virtual park is off-limits, and trespassing is strictly prohibited. In Windy Day, the logic of the narrative encourages the viewer to follow the hat being blown around the wind, and experience events in a given sequential order. Even though one can turn the camera any which way, its logical path is strongly suggested. In that sense, it may be too early to announce, as Amid Amidi has in his Cartoon Brew coverage of the phenomenon, that “we are seeing an unprecedented push into […] non-linear animated storytelling.”[iv] The linearity might not be strictly enforced, but it is far from absent.
Still, perhaps this sense of agency is so titillating precisely because it is illusory. Freedom of choice is granted together with an absence of repercussions – either immediate or long-term – simply because all possible options are given equal (and positive) absolute value. It is impossible to fail at Way to Go, whether or not one chooses to run through it in five minutes, ignoring the landscape completely, or spend an hour clicking away. Procedurally, interactive animation renders the notion of wrong move meaningless, as every executable action is fair game. This removes both the need to strategize and the pressure of avoiding a less desirable outcome. For some, especially those approaching such works from the point of view of traditional gaming, such a low-stakes experience might prove insufficiently stimulating. For others, this sanitized version of control translates into a relaxing mental stroll in the (digital) park.
The notion of peaceful, stress-free exploration and discovery keeps cropping up in promotional materials and reviews of interactive animation projects. For instance, Vincent Morisset has repeatedly emphasized that “the main premise for Way to Go [is] exploring how we, as human beings, relate to our spaces—how you feel as you discover a new one.”[v] In his review of Way to Go for Kotaku Australia, Mark Serrels admits to being “worried about writing too much, in case I spoil the sense of discovery I had when playing through this.”[vi] This emphasis on discovery is by no means a new phenomenon. There is a subgenre of video games dedicated to exploration, such as the aforementioned Flower (Thatgamecompany, 2009), as well as adventure games featuring procedurally generated open universes, such as the much-anticipated No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2015). Such games take the concept of virtual exploration as a central premise, shaping the mechanics of their gameplay around it. Way to Go, the Spotlight Series, and the Oculus shorts are simultaneously indebted to those projects and – specifically in the case of the former (as the latter is more traditionally cinematic) – to experimental cinema, with its de-emphasis of narrative and focus on duration, discovery and associative links. Indeed, as they occupy an uncertain space between film and video game, these re-mediate and re-animate existing creative concerns belonging to the two art forms.
As in the case of user control, the discovery offered by such projects is neither limitless, nor unconstrained. Both the objects one may discover and the pathways leading to said discovery are preprogrammed. Still, fascinatingly, the illusion of discovery offered by these games is not as easily shattered as the illusion of control. Arguably, this is due to the participatory element of the experience. The knowledge that every scene and character has been designed and placed within the environment precisely to be “discovered” does not diminish the idea that one has earned said discovery through a deliberate motion or gesture, such as clicking or rotating a phone in a given direction. Indeed, interactive animation generates a strong sense of initiative through its reliance on concrete physical actions. By engaging the body along with the gaze, this type of art galvanizes attention in a purely kinetic way.
The Importance of Hardware
As central as exploration is to the interactive experience, focusing on the world within the monitor is only part of the package. The experience of play-watching interactive animation necessarily brings about an awareness of its underlying hardware (another feature that seems to bring it closer to video games, as opposed to cinema). In the case of the Motorola phone films and the Oculus Rift shorts, both of which were designed for and can be accessed through one particular device only, the machine itself determines key aspects not only of the production, but also of the consumption of these works. The way one interacts with the art is calibrated according to the possibilities and features of the device. For the phone films, this means an emphasis on the easy, basic movements afforded by a lightweight hand-held device. For the Oculus films, it means highlighting the immersion possibilities of the apparatus. In both cases, users are constantly reminded of the presence and role of this device that they are holding, carrying, and moving, or that they are literally attached to (in the case of the Oculus Rift). Product and platform are no longer separate, but thought of as one symbiotic entity. Even Way to Go, the most technologically undemanding of the three examples, does not allow the user to forget about hardware entirely. The game requires users to disable the mouse cursor, thereby denying them the opportunity to practice today’s ubiquitous distracted viewing. For instance, any attempt to open another tab is immediately met with failure, forcing attention back onto the task at hand.
This obsession with the machine poses serious challenges for their distribution and consumption. While Way to Go is free to play online, Google’s interactive cartoons are currently only available on one phone (the Motorola Moto X), and Oculus’s upcoming virtual reality films are being developed for the Oculus Rift headset (which is not yet available to the general public). Making an entertainment product exclusive to a given platform is by no means a novel practice, but while purchasing an Xbox over a Playstation in order to have the opportunity to play Halo is not unheard of, it is unlikely that many people would switch to a Motorola X in order to experience Glen Keane’s Duet. A short, whimsical phone application simply does not have the same wide appeal as a mega-successful video game franchise and, by restricting viewing options, Google is potentially dooming its creations to a rather limited run. And yet, such insistence on exclusive ownership is not surprising, especially in the initial stages of experimentation with the form.[vii] After all, enhancing the appeal of the respective hardware remains one of the main motivating factors behind the development of such works. Relying on animation’s ability to capture attention and generate publicity in order to sell a technological product is not a novel idea, as the early history of Pixar (to quote the most often-cited example) attests.[viii] Today, as before, the main function of these art projects – at least from a corporate perspective – is to serve as technological showcases, adding prestige and increasing demand for the accompanying brand.
The Future of Interactive Animation
In conclusion, it is necessary to ask: where is all of this going? How may one speculate on the future of interactive animation? While it may be too early for anything but cautious educated guesses, it seems possible that the development of this artform will take several paths: a focus on physical interaction (think of moving the Motorola phone), a greater emphasis on virtual immersion, and a combination of the two.
Of the three, virtual immersion is perhaps the most fascinating, if only for its overt (and problematic) promise of revolutionizing existing media. In the inaugural blog post for the Oculus Story Studio, supervising technical director Max Planck promises a new storytelling medium which will “immerse the audience into fantastic worlds and deeply meaningful stories using realtime rendering.”[ix] In the accompanying promotional video, Story Studio’s creative director Saschka Unseld also speaks of the “birth of a completely new medium.”[x]
But is virtual reality animation, in its current form, a truly new medium? Or is it, rather, a form of expanded cinema?
Max Planck’s description of the issues and questions that drive the work of Story Studio points to the latter. Here’s an excerpt from the aforementioned introductory video: “How do all of these narrative devices that we use in film translate to virtual reality? How does acting work? How do you compose? How do you light? […] One thing we did try was the concept of cuts. In virtual reality, you are the camera, so it’s more like a teleport instead of a cut and we found that when you teleport someone, it’s jarring. These are problems that have been solved many times over in filmmaking and are completely new and different in virtual reality.”[xi] Evidently, what’s at stake here, at least in these initial stages, is adapting the language of filmmaking, along with the existing toolset of the craft, to the new platform. Indeed, this evokes the early years of mainstream computer animation, when traditionally-trained directors were discussing ways to incorporate the principles of drawn animation into the new technological process.[xii] In that sense, at least currently, virtual reality and immersion appears to be a new evolutionary branch in the technological and formal development of animation, as opposed to a separate medium. Whether or not immersive works – as well as non-immersive, interactive pieces like Google’s shorts – will eventually break away from the traditions of cinematic storytelling and what alternatives they will propose remains to be seen.
[i] For an in-depth look at the development of this project, see Steven Levy, “Google Channels Pixar to Change Storytelling as we Know it,” 29 October, 2013, http://www.wired.com/2013/10/motorola-google-mouse/all/#slideid-124991
[ii] For an enthusiastic account of the experience of watching Lost, see Bryan Bishop, “I Just Saw the First Movie from Oculus, and it is the Future,” 26 January, 2015, http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/26/7919177/oculus-lost-virtual-reality-film-sundance
[iii] Jess Joho, “Experience Life and the Elasticity of Time in Way to Go,” 06 February 2015, http://killscreendaily.com/articles/experience-life-and-elasticity-time-way-go/
[iv] Amid Amidi, “Oculus Launches Story Studio to Explore VR Cinema Possibilities,” 13 February, 2015, http://www.cartoonbrew.com/interactive/oculus-launches-story-studio-to-explore-vr-cinema-possibilities-109160.html
[v] Jess Joho, http://killscreendaily.com/articles/experience-life-and-elasticity-time-way-go/
[vi] Mark Serrels, “Stop What You’re Doing and Play this Video Game Right Now,” 10 February 2015, http://www.kotaku.com.au/2015/02/stop-what-youre-doing-and-play-this-video-game-right-now/
[vii] Oculus has emphasized their commitment to open source in promotional materials, but it remains to be seen what concrete steps the company plans to make in order to ensure wider availability of its innovations.
[viii] See David A. Price, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, New York: Vinage, 2009.
[ix] Max Planck, “Breadcrumbs – A First Blog Post,” 26 January, 2015, https://www.oculus.com/storystudio/
[x] See “Introducing Oculus Story Studio,” https://vimeo.com/117849907
[xii] See, for example, John Lasseter, “Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation,” Computer Graphics 21, no.4 (1987), 35.
Mihaela Mihailova is a PhD candidate in the joint Film and Media Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures program at Yale University. Her research interests include animation, Film and Media theory, early Soviet cinema, contemporary Eastern European cinema, video games, and comics. She has published articles in animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, and Kino Kultura. Her piece “Frame-Shot: Vertov’s Ideologies of Animation” (co-written with John MacKay) is included in Animating Film Theory (ed. Karen Beckman). Her translation of Sergei Tretyakov’s “The Industry Production Screenplay” appears in Cinema Journal 51.4 (2012). Her essay “Latvian Animation: Landscapes of Resistance” is forthcoming in Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and Function (ed. Chris Pallant).