Korean director Erick Oh follows up his Oscar-nominated “Opera” animated short with the more personal and intimate “Namoo” (Korean for tree), which captures the beautiful and heartbreaking moments of a painter’s life, constructed around a symbolic tree. Produced by Baobab Studios, the festival favorite was made simultaneously as a virtual reality experience as well as a 2D/theatrical short using the innovative VR animation tool Quill (formerly owned by Oculus).
Oh was inspired to make “Namoo” while grieving the loss of his grandfather, using his personal life as the centerpiece. “I went on a journey to ask questions,” Oh said. “I asked questions. Of course, I document my thoughts and provide a room for the audience to probe it and think about themselves too. That being said, I think I discovered a lot about who I am while making this film.”
The “Namoo” narrative explores the passage of time and change of seasons through color, while the evolution of the tree that accompanies the painter evokes his emotional arc. “Tree is a symbol of your self motivation that drives you internally,” he continued. “Or it could be your unconsciousness with the tree and the guy interacting with each other. Sometimes tree gives stuff to him or takes away stuff or reveals something that he has forgotten. Sometimes he does something to the tree. That’s who we are: We keep talking or battling with our inner self and constantly making different decisions. That’s what makes life at the end of the day and who you are.
“It forms in a heart shape when you meet the love of your life. Sometimes there’s a huge hole in the middle and that probably represents those moments of emptiness. And then sometimes it goes super distorted and it feels like everything’s falling apart. But after so many versions of your tree, you find a balance.”
For Oh, the experience of animating “Namoo” in virtual space, in real time, with the Oculus headset, was both new and exciting. It provided a considerable cost savings in every respect. But there was a necessary learning curve about discovering the uninterrupted, 360-degree narrative flow of VR. Fortunately, he hand-picked six Quill experts to assist him. “One of the many reasons I was able to do VR was Quill software,” he said. “This enables artists to get into virtual space to draw and paint very intuitively. All the layers were done in Quill [modeling, rigging, animating, shading, lighting merged into one].”
While the VR experience consisted of watching the tree grow in front of you, the short naturally contained its own narrative that escalated with tension. Thanks to Quill, the painterly, 2D-look was convincingly achievable in CG.
The coinciding of production on “Namoo” with the pandemic also impacted Oh’s personal journey. “We had a difficult time while people were sick, dying, losing their home,” he said. “I was also devastated, too. I had to put those emotions in the film as well, and it was therapeutic for me. So, by the end of the film, I think I became a better person.”