SIGGRAPH: 'Book of Life' Director Jorge Gutierrez Debuts His "Super Personal" Virtual-Reality Short

Both Gutierrez's 'Son of Jaguar' and the upcoming 'Sonaria' were produced by Google Spotlight Stories.
Courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories

Google Spotlight Stories offered a preview of The Book of Life director Jorge Gutierrez’s first virtual-reality/360 short, titled Son of Jaguar, this week at CG conference SIGGRAPH. A release date hasn’t yet been announced.

"I was a VR skeptic, then I saw Patrick Osborne’s Pearl. It made me cry, and I had to do this," the helmer confessed.

The result is a “super personal” eight-minute animated short with the themes of family and tradition.

Occurring on Mexico’s Day of the Dead (as did Book of Life), Son of Jaguar's emotional story is set in the Mexican wrestling world and follows a family man and the son of famous wrestler Jaguar, who is going into the ring against Lord Calavera, despite having lost a leg in a prior match.

“Mexican wrestling is very much a tradition passed down from generation to generation, and there’s a legacy to live up to,” Gutierrez explained, adding that his original story was also inspired by traditional tales that his own father told him as a child.

Of the title character (whom he voiced), the director said, "In a weird way, that was me — I had autism, and my son has autism. The perception was, now life is going to be more difficult, and we have to make sacrifices. I wanted to take what is considered a weakness and make it a strength and use this as a positive."

The short begins with Jaguar and his family in their poor surroundings. Then they enter the wrestling arena with large crowds. While Gutierrez voices Jaguar, his real-life wife, Sandra Equihua (who was also the character designer), voices Jaguar’s wife. The director also incorporates "Bolom Chon," an ancient Mayan song that musicians and the filmmakers (including Gutierrez) sing at the end of the short.

The helmer believes VR can be a powerful way to create “emotion and empathy by allowing the viewer to walk in someone else’s shoes. That’s what I wanted to do — make someone not of my culture walk in my shoes.”

Of the technical limitations of VR at this stage, Gutierrez said, “It has to render on a phone in real time, which made it really difficult. It felt like reinventing the wheel; we had geniuses from Google Spotlight Stories and Reel FX [the animation house, which also worked on Book of Life] come up with ways to imply lighting and textures. I didn’t think we were going to be able to do the crowds. A lot of math and wizardry were used.”

From a storytelling standpoint, Gutierrez found directing for a 360-degree VR experience to be more like live theater than film. He encourages filmmakers to experiment with this emerging format. “A narrative is so hard in any medium, and VR is new, and cinema is 100 years old,” he said. “We are just getting started. Don’t give up.”

During SIGGRAPH, Google Spotlight Stories also offered a sneak peek at VR short Sonaria, a work-in-progress that follows creatures that transform from simple to advanced life forms.

Directed by Scot Stafford and Kevin Dart (the latter, who also served as the production designer, heads animation studio Chromosphere, which contributed to the project), Sonaria bases its creatures on a teardrop, while the sonic language is designed to be immersive. Said Stafford: “This began with a quest about how to optimize sound for VR. We developed a focused surround mix.”

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