China's Light Chaser Animation Releases First VR Short

'Sent' Poster H 2016
Light Chaser Animation

The studio, which was founded by Chinese tech billionaire Gary Wang, says it created 'Sent' to highlight the storytelling potential of virtual reality.

Pioneering Chinese studio Light Chaser Animation is offering fans a chance to enter their smartphones and meet the emojis that dwell inside. 

On Friday, the Beijing-based studio — launched in 2013 by Chinese tech billionaire Gary Wang — released Sent, its first VR short.

Light Chaser is calling Sent a short story rather than a VR experience, as the project was developed to highlight the narrative potential of virtual reality rather than the immersive experience of "presence" the technology is already famous for.

"Lately, some key figures in the movie industry have questioned the viability of narrative storytelling in the VR medium," the company said in a statement. "Sent is Light Chaser’s first attempt in answering that question." (Sent can be watched in 360-degree video below.)

Among those who have expressed skepticism about VR's narrative potential is James Cameron, who in 2014 called the technology a "yawn, frankly," adding: "What will the level of interactivity with the user be other than just 'I can stand and look around'?"

Sent, running five minutes and 40 seconds, tells the story of a "Goodbye" emoji. The story begins inside the phone of a boy who is having a fight with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, behind the chat screen, all kinds of emoji characters are gathered and competing to be chosen and applied to the conversation. When the boy selects “Goodbye,” the emoji embarks on a magical journey that brings surprising twists for all involved.

Light Chaser spent five months developing and producing Sent. In January, the studio also released its first feature film, Little Door Gods, which grossed $12 million in China. 

“Virtual reality presented us with many challenges as well as opportunities, and it was very exciting for us to explore this new medium for storytelling,” said Mi Li, the short’s director.

Light Chaser says it implemented various techniques to create narrative flow within Sent. For example, Mi's team used natural movements of lighting, sound sets and actor reactions as "indirect control" to help viewers follow the storyline while still having the freedom to look in all directions. To reduce viewers' sense of disorientation when switching between the short's three primary environments, the team designed the location shifts to take place at turning points in the story, so the viewer’s attention is focused on the narrative and the environment change is experienced naturally. And the short's opening scene — which takes place in an "emoji theater" behind the main character's smartphone screen — was designed to help the viewer slip into the role of an audience member instinctively.  

Sent was produced in 2K panoramic 3D. Light Chaser developed several in-house tools for the project, including a 360-degree stereoscopic rendering tool. Compared with Little Door Gods, which was produced in 3D and runs roughly 105 minutes, Sent required five times the amount of animation data, 12 times the special effects calculation time, and 877 times Little Door Gods' per-minute average in lighting and compositing, according to the studio.

While Light Chaser's primary focus is animated filmmaking — it plans to release one feature each year — the studio says it will continue dedicating some of its computing resources to experiments in VR.

Sent is available on VR platforms MilkVR (Oculus) and YouTube (Google Cardboard), with a release on Oculus Cinema coming soon.