#467: Oculus Story Studio’s ‘Quill’: An Immersive Storytelling Tool

saschka-unseldOculus Story Studio has been exploring VR storytelling through a series of short narrative experiences starting with Lost and Henry, but they wanted to push the envelope of immersive storytelling with their next short titled Dear Angelica. They created a new content creation tool called Quill that enables artists to create immersive illustrations and animated stories entirely while being enveiled in VR. It was announced that it was going to be released sometime at the end of January when Dear Angelica premieres at Sundance.

I had a chance to catch up with Saschka Unseld at Oculus Connect 3, who is the creative director of Oculus Story Studio as well as the writer and director of Dear Angelica, to talk about Quill and the intention behind their next VR experience.


Quill is a mix between Adobe Illustrator and Adobe After Effects in that there are 2D vector brushes that have a bit of motion graphics flare. This gives the “quillustrations” their own distinct feeling that is very unique to the VR medium. It’s more like stepping into a surrealistic dream or through someone’s impressionistic memories that really come alive when you are co-present with them. There’s also a lot of dynamic movement as the environment and characters are redrawn out and constructed line by line.

Their intention with Quill was to create a non-opinionated tool that feels more like the style of the artist that rather the tool. The closest analogy in the VR world is probably Tiltbrush, which also uses 2D vector-like brushes. But Tiltbrush takes a much more opinionated approach with their highly-stylized brushes, and so it’s often easier to tell that it’s a Tiltbrush creation rather than who the artist who created it.

The advantage of a tool like Tiltbrush is that it’s a lot easier for non-artists and casual creators to make something that feels amazing, just from the shear joy of being able paint with light in 3D for the first time ever. But with Quill, it’s going to be a lot harder for non-trained artists to pick up the tool and feel like they’re the next Picasso. It’s more of a blank slate, and will require more of a learning curve for each artist to be able to fully express their style.

Oculus Story Studio has also been collaborating with comic book artists to be able to empower them to create immersive VR art, but also craft an entire story within VR using Quill’s storytelling engine. Dear Angelica has been the first film/movie/VR narrative experience to be created with Quill, but it’ll be interesting to see more independent artists start to use the tools to craft the stories that they want to tell. But until then we’ll have to
wait until Sundance in January before they release it more widely and start talking about other projects that are being created with it.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So, two of the biggest applications coming out of Oculus Connect 3 that I am personally the most excited about are the Oculus Medium, which is creating 3D objects in 3D, as well as Quill, which is Oculus Story Studio's process of doing illustrations that are animated. It's by Oculus Story Studio, and they wanted to create a tool to be able to tell stories in an impressionistic fashion. So it's a little bit like a tilt brush mixed with something like Adobe After Effects. So it's got a illustrator's quality of this 2D strokes, but something that is a lot more dynamic. And they create what they call cool illustrations, which kind of goes beyond what other mediums are even possible before. Oculus Story Studio originally was created with the mandate to be able to really push the limits and explore what's possible with storytelling in VR. And in their first two stories with Lost and Henry, they kind of feel like they're got the DNA of a Pixar short movie, and they still kind of feel like an animated short film. With Quill and their latest story, which is Dear Angelica, it starts to move into a story that is very unique to VR and could only really be told within virtual reality. And so today I have the chance to talk to the creative director of Oculus Story Studio, as well as the writer and director of Dear Angelica, Shashka Unseld, who wanted to both explore the process of grief and loss within VR, but also the empowerment of what it means to tell your stories and to leave a legacy behind. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. So today's episode is actually brought to you by you, my Patreon supporters. Back in January of 2014, I bought my first Oculus Rift DK1 and I was really just blown away. I was like, oh my God, this is going to change everything. And so I saw this huge wave of revolution that was going to be coming. And so I went to the very first consumer VR gathering and did 46 interviews over the course of a day and a half. and kickstarted the Voices of VR podcast. And since then, I've gone to over 30 different conferences talking to over 500 different people, trying to bring you the latest insights and innovations of virtual reality design, what is possible with this medium, what are people doing with it, how is it going to change all these different industries, and trying to really educate the larger VR community. And so if you value this podcast as a service, then please send me a tip. Just a dollar a month makes a huge difference, especially if everybody starts to pitch in. So please do go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Sashka Ensel happened at the Oculus Connect 3 conference that was happening in San Jose, California from October 5th to 7th. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:03:04.555] Saschka Unseld: Hi, I'm Sascha Anselden. I'm the writer and director of Story Studio's next experience movie, film, called D'Angelica, and I'm also the creative director of Oculus Story Studio.

[00:03:15.625] Kent Bye: Great. So here at the Oculus Connect 3, you're showing kind of a new trailer for D'Angelica. So I'm noticing there's a lot of very stylized, animated illustrations that come to life. So maybe you could talk a bit about the tools that you had to make in order to create this effect.

[00:03:32.019] Saschka Unseld: I mean the Angelica is the story of a daughter writing a letter to her mother and kind of it's about her memories of her mother and her mother was an actress so it's about the movies her mother makes and kind of all these things combined. The story takes the form of us being inside of that girl's memories and for a long time the question was like how do memories look like and I think they should look like a classical CG thing or like the real world and I wanted them to be painterly. So that's where the collaboration with Wesley Oldsbrook came, who's the illustrator. So everything you'll see visually is illustrated by her inside of VR. And basically when we set out to do that with the story, we wanted to give her tools that she can express her creative vision inside of VR and not be hindered by a tool. And so that's where Quill was born. And it was born literally just to serve the singular purpose of making sure that Wesley's artistic and stylistic voice looks exactly the way on screen or in the headset or in VR as she wants it to be. And so the tool evolved, like Quill evolved, and mostly for the singular purpose of the Angelica. And the Angelica became a weird project because it's a very complex story it's a very emotional story compared to Henry which is very broad for family for everyone the Angelica is a really independent kind of artistic story and we were unsure like does this work like will it work to tell the story purely through illustrations or will it not work and In the movie story film experience, there's two voiceovers, one of the daughter and one of the mom. And we modeled kind of the character of the mother, Angelica, on the hero characters, actors from movies that we know. And the first one that we always thought of was Geena Davis. So we thought we should see if she would want to be the voice cast in it. I remember the moment when we kind of showed a work-in-progress version of the whole thing to Gina Davis. We had set up a meeting. She had seen a bit of VR before but not much and didn't care that much about it. And we showed it to her and at first she was just excited by the visuals because they're gorgeous and was like, oh this is just like Thelma and Louise and kind of kept calling out things like people do that often in VR. But then it goes to kind of the more emotional moments in the story and she just became quiet. And we're kind of huddled over this monitor on the side, we're kind of watching what she's watching and wondering where she is right now and then like midway through to the experience she just broke out in tears. Because it is so much about the stories we tell and the stories she told with her movies and they're very important to her as well, what stories you put out there and how you move people with them and what it means as your legacy to the world because people will hear your stories, watch your stories, experience your stories even after you pass away and so it is really important what the stories are that we tell. It was amazing to see that she got that and that she was moved by what we tried to do as well and that she was instantly like, what do you want me to do? What do you need? So that was just really, really approving for us that this crazy weird idea that we had is actually going to work out and it's actually going to be emotional and kind of we could tell stories like this. The interesting thing that then happened was that Quill as a tool evolved so much that we felt we had other illustrators in the studio and people we knew try it. And there was a big thing that we always kind of spearheaded for the tool which is that something that originated from what Wesley, our illustrator, said that it should be non-opinionated. And we're always wondering, what do you mean by non-opinionated? I have no idea what you're talking about. But what it is about is that the tool itself shouldn't have a creative voice. The artist has the opinions, not the tool. So what you would never want to have is that you can tell in what tool something was made. Never be like, oh, that looks like Quill. You want it to be like, oh, that looks like the artist. So we worked really hard on that and kind of the other illustrations that we released today as well from other illustrators we worked with look nothing like the Angelica looks like and make us really happy because ultimately it's about bringing the artist's voice through and not the tools. We want the tool not to have an opinion. So we were there and then we just couldn't because we were about telling stories and it's all about telling stories and for us at least. So what we're doing now is we're working with comic book artists and we're trying to have them push that Quill itself has the functionality for anyone to tell a story in VR. So you don't need a massive tech team. You don't need technological software that you don't understand. You don't need a crazy team that costs shit loads of money. but the same way as the indie comic world works. It's like someone who's a really beautiful artist, who has an amazing voice, maybe with a writer, maybe by themselves, they can create a narrative. So that's kind of the push for Quill, is that it's a tool for storytelling, for illustrations and for all that stuff, for artistic expression, but ultimately for artistic expression through stories.

[00:08:31.195] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that there was a kind of a debriefing of Henry, which was originally trying to be a comedy. But yet what you found was that it's actually pretty sad being there. And I feel like grief is something that is an emotion that for some reason being embodied within a space, I think we're able to feel a lot of those stronger emotions of empathy and grief a lot more. And so have you found that as well in the process of doing Dear Angelica, that you're really focusing on grief and loss?

[00:09:00.041] Saschka Unseld: Yeah, I think, I mean, D'Angelica is about grief and loss, but ultimately also I think it's empowering because the stories we tell and the things we do are important. And I think that's an empowering thing, that's not a sad thing. The thing that, especially in D'Angelica, I realized since the beginning is there's something in VR that I think actually I really like, and it's because it's so powerful, is that you're alone. Not only are you alone, you also don't have a body. And I think that's actually, lots of people are like, no, I want it social, no, I want a body, but I think that you don't have any armor. You're by yourself and you don't even have your body to ground you and protect you. I think it's a very interesting, fragile space people are in. I think that's why it's important to not do stupid jump scares for no reason, but it's important to really take care of your audience. And if you do, I think it's incredibly powerful because you can tap into something where people open up and people become fragile and where people are open. So I think that's something we realized with Henry. And I think in D'Angelica, because it is about memory, because it is about kind of grief and ultimately empowerment, I think tapping into those emotions is just something that always happens because you just feel like that is where the meat is, that is where the emotion is, and that's where you move people.

[00:10:20.228] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that was really striking for me was just to see the stylization of the movement that was happening, whether it was the strokes that were being animated or whether or not it was kind of like a tilt brush style that after you make a painting then it sort of is created and you get to see it be redrawn and you have that effect of drawing in real time in terms of seeing all the different strokes that were made to create it. And that's kind of like a stylistic, but also it helps give that dynamic motion. But I think in terms of being surrounded by a 360 degree area, I think it's just a technique that I think just fits naturally with VR. So I'm just curious to hear how you're using that as a storytelling mechanism.

[00:11:00.630] Saschka Unseld: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. It's actually a mix of, we record the way Wesley draws everything, but we also want to narratively guide you. So what you see is a combination of her speed of drawing the strokes to give it a human-made, organic feel, but also something very specifically story-wise guided. What happens first, what seconds, like to give you right flow, to not make you feel like, oh, you're lost, but to give you the sense of like, no, I'm being taken care of. It was something we found by accident because when Inigo wrote the tool he just recorded it so you could play it back and we're like holy shit this is amazing and you could see the human touch so much on it. We just need to now augment it with more guidance and not have also Wesley do also all the kind of no you need to draw this first and this second but kind of have that be more organic process.

[00:11:51.123] Kent Bye: And so is Quill going to be available for the general public, for people to make their own stories then?

[00:11:56.367] Saschka Unseld: I mean, we're working right now because we wanted to have the tool driven by creators and artists' needs. We're working with comic book artists. But then we're going to have more in the keynote about that tomorrow as well.

[00:12:07.574] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:12:15.334] Saschka Unseld: I don't know. I think that's why we're all excited about it because we all kind of know that there is fascinating things there and I think for me personally any kind of storytelling and I think in VR it's especially powerful is to move people and to touch people and to make them see the world in a new way and kind of to make them see themselves in a new way and leave a mark in a good way on people that have gone through an experience.

[00:12:42.082] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Sashka Ansald. He's the creative director of Oculus Story Studio as well as the writer-director of Dear Angelica. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all Quill is a really amazing application and the art within Dear Angelica was really exquisite. It did really feel like you were stepping into a dream and walking through someone's memories and I am really excited to see both the final version of Dear Angelica, but also what people start doing with the tool. Right now, the only experience I've seen is done by the artist Wesley Albrook. And to me, it was really interesting to hear Sashka say that, well, this tool wants to be non-opinionated. You don't want to feel like you're walking within a Quill illustration, but you want to feel like you're walking into a Quill illustration done by the artist, like in this case, Wesley Albrook. So it sounds like they're in the process of working with comic book artists to be able to really refine this as a little bit more of a professional tool. When I look at something like Quill compared to Tilt Brush, they're very similar in the kind of style that they're using with these kind of 2D paintbrush. But Tilt Brush feels like it's a little bit more like you can go to Tilt Brush and, you know, not really be an artist and be able to create something that looks amazing just because the brushes are so dynamic and you know, you're painting rainbows and being able to paint with all these different flashing lights that are really synced up to the music. But in Quill, it feels like you have to have a little bit more of an artist training to be able to go in there and make something that is super awesome and amazing. So I'm curious to see it. It feels like it's a little bit more of a professional application, but also designed for storytellers to be able to actually animate and add a little bit more of a dynamic feeling to their creations. So a couple of people have asked me, what's the difference between Oculus Medium and Quill? For me, Oculus Medium is the process of creating 3D objects that have meshes that have complete integrity. There's no holes or gaps in it. So it's a lot more like Maya, 3ds Max, or Blender, where you're actually creating the 3D objects that you could 3D print or that you could also just put into a VR experience at some point. For Quill, it's a little bit more like Illustrator, like 2D vector drawings, but it's also matched with something like Adobe After Effects, so it's got kind of like this motion graphic type of feel to it. And you're also creating stories within it, so you've got that kind of Adobe Premiere, or with Illustrator, you're able to actually create these timeline sequences and actually have movement over time. So it was a really powerful effect to see the drawing actually being drawn within real time around you. And Shostakovich said that one of the things that they found that was a really interesting thing that they were doing for debugging, which was to pause the illustration in the middle of it, which allows you to stop everything that's sort of unfolding around you and just to take a look around and look at everything and not feel like you're stopping the narrative that's moving forward. But then you can kind of push go and kind of really seep into the scene that's unfolding. So that will be interesting to see in the future if some of these stories that are told within VR have these other tools that allow you to express your local agency. So in order to kind of stop the experience and be able to really look around. And I think with the movement and being able to change the different scales, it just had a really powerful effect of making you feel like you're actually immersed within this artist's vision of the story that's unfolding. Now, in terms of the content, one thing that I wanted to expand on a little bit was this blog post and unpacking of some of the lessons learned from Henry, which Henry was originally supposed to be this comedy, and the story was like you're going to this hedgehog's birthday party and he's all alone and no one's there and so it's actually like pretty sad you start to be like oh poor Henry there's nobody that's showing up for his birthday and so they found that you know that there was actually like they were going for comedy but it ended up being like super sad and And I think that the story of Dear Angelica has a really powerful emotional thread to it. And it, you know, reading the letters of the parent that had passed away, and it's just kind of taps into this feeling of grief and mortality. And I haven't been able to see the entire experience, and so wasn't able to really tune into the empowerment and what it means to be able to pass on your stories. But overall, I think that it's going to be a super powerful emotional experience. And it sounds like they're going to be releasing it around Sundance. And they did announce during the keynote that Quill was going to be also released as a tool to the wider VR community. So super excited to see what comes of that. And once it's into the hands of these different creators, what kind of dreamlike quality of being able to tell these different stories, really empowering people with the tools to be able to use the medium of virtual reality to explore this combination of narrative and storytelling. which it was really interesting to hear Saskia not really know what to call these experiences yet. He's like, is it a film? Is it of a movie? Is it an experience? Right now it's just kind of more like a film or a movie, especially if the authorship is really written and you're a ghost in a lot of these experiences where you go in and the story is being told to you rather than you kind of participating and having the story kind of emerge out of any sort of direct result of your actions. And in talking to Devin Dolan of Synectic Media back at Sundance, we had this really great discussion about the four different types of storytelling in VR. And across two different axes, one in which you're a ghost. You have no real embodiment within the experience. You're not included within the story at all. You're not addressed. You're kind of like this omniscient ghost just watching the experience. And the other is that you actually are a character within the story. So you actually are addressed as a character. You're involved within the story. You have a body. see yourself within the experience and have characters kind of respond to you and not just completely ignore you. And the other axis is whether or not you have any real impact or agency within the experience or not. And so being a ghost without any impact is kind of like what basically all the major 360 videos or any movie or book that you see, you're just kind of passively consuming the story. And in Dear Angelica, it is much more like you're a ghost and you are receiving the story still. And I think at some point we're going to get into these experiences where you do have a body and you are a character and you actually do have some influence within the story as it's unfolding, both in small ways of being able to make different choices and decisions, but ultimately to have some global agency as well and to have those choices be of consequence and have some sort of dynamic emergent narrative emerge out of that. And I think if you watch the show Westworld on HBO, it starts to really explore a little bit of that, where you're going into this town with all these AI agents and their characters that are going through these narrative loops, but yet you have the ability to interrupt their loops and to interact with them and just make it feel like you're actually interacting with a human. But that human has kind of like a backstory and a whole character that's been developed and evolved. And so I'll be talking to actually three of the different Oculus Story Studio members a little bit more about storytelling in VR. And I had a chance to do a whole half hour discussion about the future of narrative in VR. So I look forward to being able to air that episode and unpack that a little bit more. So, that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for joining me on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you'd like to support the podcast, then spread the word, tell your friends, join up on the email list at voicesofvr.com. And, you know, sending a tip and just a few dollars a month really does make a huge difference. And I just wanted to express my gratitude and thank you for all of my supporters that are out there. And that really does make a huge difference. And so I'd love to get a lot more just individual small donors, just a dollar a month. 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