Ren started by painting the various skyscrapers inside the forest. It was a rough outline, and the colors weren’t quite right, but it was proof that the setting and general concept could work inside Quill. “On the first day I actually had some footage of the boy looking up and then having him look up to the airplane,” he said. “And I was thinking ‘Wow if this is polished, this could actually be a really good 10-second story.'” He sketched out some of the basic shots and sequences on post-it notes, but relied on his spontaneous imagination and experimentation inside Quill to perfect each scene.
The young director broke the film down into four distinct scenes: the central skyscraper with no visible sky or plane, the rooftop with a beautiful blue yonder and airliner soaring overheard, the abstract ‘fall’, and the final scene where the boy awakes on the floor and nearby residents emerge on their balconies. These sequences had to be split into separate project files in part because of how Quill handles lighting and exposure. The dark, gloomy atmosphere of the first scene, for instance, meant the sky above would always look white and blown out.
Separating the movie also made the project more manageable. Quill’s copy-and-move animation style means the underlying geometry — and by extension, project size — doubles whenever you add a new frame. “So if you’re creating a four-minute animation in one file, that file will be super huge at the end of the day,” Ren said. “So you have to split things up and organize them tidily.”
The student spent most of October building the sets, designing characters and generally “just freestyling.” In November he doubled his efforts, painting and animating up to six hours each day inside Quill. By December he was ready to ‘film’ each shot inside Quill and export to Adobe Premiere. He added some visual flourishes with After Effects and then exported the final footage in the high-quality Apple ProRes format. The final edit, complete with ambient noise and music by composer Hefeng Liu, was finished on a Mac with Final Cut Pro.
With a four-minute runtime, Wired is a little longer than Fujita’s Beyond the Fence. The two projects are subtly different, however. Wired was always designed as a traditional movie that could be viewed on a laptop, smartphone or TV. The decision meant Ren could keep clutter inside his 3D-painted world and line up the virtual ‘camera’ to ensure it was never in shot. Beyond the Fence, meanwhile, needed to work as a VR experience where the viewer could look almost anywhere.
Ren was surprised that Wired was ready in January — he had given himself until the end of the academic year to finish the project. The animator posted the film on Vimeo and the popular Virtual Animation Facebook group earlier this month. The reaction was universally positive and reinforced the potential of Quill as a movie-making tool. “This is beautiful,” VR researcher Eva Hoerth commented. “Easily one of my favorite short films made in VR.”
The scale and quality of the work astounded Facebook, too. Fujita contacted Ren immediately and asked him to write a Quill blog post explaining his process. “I almost jumped out of my chair,” Ren said. “It’s really nice, because I know I can share the workflow, the challenges, and how to deal with them to the community. That feels really nice.” The film also precedes an update to Quill that will simplify long-form filmmaking in VR. “You’ll be able to sequence the whole movie very soon in some release,” Inigo Quilez, product manager and lead engineer at Facebook wrote in a comment.
“The potential of this tool will be so much better in the next few updates,” Ren said. “[Facebook] have told me, through emails, about the ability to tell longer stories using Quill. I’m really excited about it.”
The VR artist will graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design later this spring. He’s now planning a short series, with possibly one-or-two-minute episodes, that will be painted and animated inside Quill. “I’ve already started doing the pre-production,” he teased.