Age of Sail Review: A Fantastic Voyage in Virtual Reality
The immersive animated VR film Age of Sail is now available for viewing at home. Google Spotlight Stories released the film on November 14th, on multiple platforms. It’s an astonishing and emotional adventure between a young girl and a seasoned captain, who meet unexpectedly at sea.
Set in the early 1900’s, Age of Sail is one of the best examples of how to use virtual reality to tell a story effectively. Although Google has released a number of Spotlight Stories over the past few years, this one is different. Approaching the artistic level of a Pixar short film, the film takes viewers (travellers is a better word) on a journey with captain William Avery. Avery is a grizzled sailboat captain who resents the fact that steamships are beginning to replace his beloved sailing vessels. He sets forth on a journey alone, but unexpectedly encounters a spirited young girl named Lara, who manages to rescue him from his sullen demeanor. Short but very moving and effective, the story is one of adventure, companionship, and determination.
Directed by Oscar-winning animator John Kahrs, the film stars Ian McShane as the captain and Cathy Ang as Lara Conrad. Age of Sail originally premiered at a number of film festivals earlier this year. A traditional “flat” version of the film was created after the VR version was produced, and is currently available on YouTube.
The VR experience
Because it’s available in both traditional and VR versions, Age of Sail provides a perfect case study for comparing the differences in watching a standard film vs. an immersive VR production. It’s also possible to experience different levels of immersion and interaction, depending on the type of VR headset used.
I was able to experience the film in three different ways:
- The “flat” version on YouTube
- The limited VR version on Google Daydream (which provides three degrees of freedom)
- The full VR experience on Lenovo Explorer (a Windows Mixed Reality headset which offers six degrees of freedom).
The filmmakers made conscious decisions in how the various versions were presented, in order to take advantage of the medium at hand. In the traditional “flat” version, the film uses long, medium, and close-up camera shots to tell the story in a traditional way. The viewer is limited to only what the director wants you to see.
In the VR version, we become a more direct participant on the journey, although we cannot affect the story in any way. The perspective feels like we are a passenger on the boat; a passive observer, yet always close to the action.
3DoF vs. 6DoF
It’s important to note that the best way to experience Age of Sail is on a VR device that provides six degrees of freedom (6DoF). Although the viewing perspective is essentially the same as in 3DoF, a 6DoF headset allowed me to lean forward, stand up or sit down, and even walk up to the characters. I could look closely at their faces, or inspect the props they were holding (a photograph, for example).
In the limited 3DoF experience on Google Daydream, it was possible to look around in 360 degrees, but my position was locked to a fixed point in space. I could not lean forward or get closer to any part of the scene. The experience was still enjoyable, but limited because I naturally wanted to move around within the scene.
Is VR the future of film?
In a word, no. The traditional motion picture art form will live on for the foreseeable future. Virtual reality will not take anything away from the work of current filmmakers who continue to create “flat” films.
Furthermore, I don’t believe that the introduction of VR into the filmmaker’s lexicon will be disruptive in the way that CGI technology impacted stop-motion special effects. When Jurassic Park arrived in 1993, it effectively ended the need for stop-motion photography (made famous by artists like Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Phil Tippett). The stop-motion art form lives on in the works of Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and others, but CGI has largely replaced its use in live-action films.
However, virtual reality gives us a new perspective and a new approach to film-making. As a viewer, I naturally want to get closer to the action, and VR affords me that possibility. When the story is told effectively, and I am given a choice to look where I want in a scene, I become a participant rather than merely a viewer.
The challenge for VR filmmakers is to avoid giving viewers too many choices, or granting them too much autonomy in what they can do on their own. That being said, Age of Sail provides a perfect balance between freedom and restriction, allowing viewers to feel like they are really on board a sailing ship, in the midst of an unforgettable story.
Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.