Patrick Osborne’s Animated Short 'Pearl' Brings Virtual Reality to Oscar Discussion

The VR short had a theatrical qualifying run.
Courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories

Patrick Osborne — who won a 2015 Oscar for directing Disney’s animated short Feast — could find himself back in that race with his musical short Pearl, which qualified for consideration through a theatrical release though it was actually created for 360-degree video and virtual reality via Google Spotlight Stories.

The project is set entirely in a car, with vignettes of a father sharing his love of music with his daughter, as she grows from age 6 into her 20s.

“I’m really into folk music and I thought it would be cool to do a folk musical set in a car, with a guy touring around,” said Osborne of the idea he had when Google approached him. The short is anchored by a original song, "No Wrong Way Home," written by Alexis Harte & JJ Wiesler and performed by Kelley Stoltz and Nicki Bluhm.

“I hope with Pearl, people will think about where their interests or passions come from,” Osborne says. “You are the sum of your experiences; they make you who you are.”

Osborne further explains the short's personal meaning. “My father is an artist too — a toy designer; in the early '90s he worked at Kenner when it was bought by Hasbro and he made the choice not to move with his job, to keep my brother and I in the same school with our same friends. He sacrificed doing what he loved in a way to make our lives normal. I thought I’d like to pay tribute to that, and that choice of passing on your creativity. The father/daughter story in Pearl is the musical version of that."

“People care about their cars in a way that’s almost human," he adds of his choice for the setting. "My wife named her car Pearl.”

Osborne says that to play the short on a mobile phone for the 360-degree video and VR uses, the animation has to render in real time at 60 frames per second “to be comfortable to watch, so we had to be very light in design choices, but sometimes putting yourself in a corner is really interesting. I’ve always been into simplified animated looks that aren’t very realistic anyway — a style that is flat and graphic — and this lent itself [to this format]."

He learned a lot about VR during production, for instance about editing. “People were saying there's no such thing as editing in this medium, but I thought if we set it in one location that had physical things that didn’t change, it wouldn’t be disorienting.”

The technical and visual aspects of the project were supervised out of Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. It was produced with Evil Eye Pictures in the Bay area, and the animation was created by freelancers working in various cities including London and New York. “We were working over Google Hangouts, and used Shotgun Software to have dailies," Osborne says.

To create the theatrical version, the director watched Pearl in 360-degrees on a mobile phone, effectively serving as a camera operator by recording which direction he wanted the viewer to be looking in a given moment. Says Osborne, “In the VR version, you don’t want the edits to be too fast. But if we let it be that slow in the film version, it was very boring." And so under his direction, additional editing was involved for the cinema version.