Oscar winner John Kahrs (“Paperman”) has made the most ambitious VR short yet from Google Spotlight with “Age of Sail,” which has been converted for Best Animated Short consideration. The great breakthrough was believably capturing the open ocean for this adventure in the North Atlantic about an old sailor (Ian McShane) who rescues a Victorian girl (Cathy Ang). (Watch the short below.)
“It’s very much like the Grand Canyon,” said Kahrs. “You go there
and your spatial perception is astounding. And then you can show a picture and it’s not the same. The open ocean can have that high stakes drama as vast as David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ But all the portrayals I’ve seen of the open ocean are nothing like it. So I thought it would be cool for VR being in the waves.”
So Kahrs studied the pioneering VR work at Google Spotlight, particularly Patrick Osborne’s Oscar-nominated “Pearl” and Glen Keane’s “Duet.” He learned about being creative with low polygon animation and real-time rendering, as well as the claustrophobic nature of VR storytelling.
“You can’t move too far and cut a lot,” Kahrs said. “You have to make a play that happens around the viewer. So I thought about ‘Knife in the Water’ and being stuck in a boat, and ’12 Angry Men’ and being stuck in that room.”
While the open sea provided new spatial opportunities, Kahrs also wanted ‘Age of Sail’ to be dialog-driven. Borrowing from “True Grit” and “The Karate Kid,” he crafted a two-character drama about the friendship of opposites and the passing of wisdom from the old to the young. “I wanted an actor with gravitas to carry it, so I cast Ian,” he said. “And I liked his character arc of not caring about her at all and then in the end trying everything to bring her to safety when she falls overboard.”
Most important was capturing the realistic motion of the waves. Kahrs shot tests and then came up with a jagged visual style that evoked a hand-drawn look. But adapting to VR didn’t work at first. “I boarded a 90-degree view of her falling overboard in Super Panavision, struggling in the waves. But it was exhausting and I couldn’t sustain it,” he said.
So Kahrs consulted with Oscar winner Jan Pinkava (“Geri’s Game”), creative director of Google Spotlight, who recommended laying it out in the computer with block characters as a series of action scenes. “He told me to claim the 3D aspect of it,” said Kahrs, who collaborated on the animation with LA-based Chromosphere and Evil Eye Pictures in San Francisco.
The result was a two-pronged strategy: the spectacle of being adrift on the ocean and the interplay between the sailor and girl. “I hit you hard when I want you to view an action moment,” Kahrs said. “But there are moments when you hear them discussing their desires off screen and can immerse yourself in the environment.”
This served Kahrs well when making the flat version for Oscar consideration. He had all sorts of repeatable shots at his disposal, and added a series of close-ups and long shots for familiar dramatic purposes. It was the best of both worlds while offering a new kind of animated experience on the open ocean.
“I do feel like I’m trying to stuff feature films into these [shorts],” Kahrs said. “It’s definitely the most ambitious thing yet that I’ve tried to do.”