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Interview: Patrick Osborne’s Pearl Is the First VR Oscar Nominated Short

Google’s Spotlight  Stories is a viewer interactive experience made for the mobile phone user. Oscar winner Patrick Osborne who previously won for Feast is back with Pearl, the Oscar-nominated short following a father and daughter as they experience music while traveling on the road. Osborne says the idea came when he was promoting Feast on the festival circuit, and the creatives of Google Spotlight Stories suggested he make a short story.  Rising to the challenge, Pearl was created with Osborne choosing to tell a story about passion being passed on.

I had a quick chat with Oscar nominee, Osborne to talk about Pearl below:

How did the journey of Pearl happen for you?

I took Feast around with Disney, we had gone to some festivals. I met Karen Dufilho-Rosen and Jan Pinkava who are the creatives of Google Spotlight stories, they were taking Glen Keenan’s Duets around and so you get to meet different people. They mentioned it would be cool if I did something like that. That was just the beginning and I thought about what it might be and I looked for stories, any story that I cared about that would be in 360 videos where you’d have a phone that would be used as a window into the world. It started as that. I wanted to be able to cut and edit so the only way to do that was to be in a location that was consistent. The perfect location for that was a car because you can make the location itself move and you could change the lighting and weather. The story came out of, “What can we tell in a car that would be interesting?” I thought about various ideas such as giving the car from one generation to the next and seeing a bunch of owners. I thought about what else you pass on in life other than objects. You pass on passion and talent and exposure. So, that idea of a musical road trip movie with folk music seemed like a fun way to do it. That was the pitch about a father and daughter who go on a road trip while the dad wants to become a musician and is trying but he gives it up, but in that act, he passes on talent without realizing it and she gives it back. That is the briefest of pitches. I walked through a bunch of road trip scenes and I shot some children, and I worked with the production designer and we ended up making it in about 6 months.

We had five or six artists and ten animators. After we finished the creative work, they had to optimize it to work on a phone and the other game engines, and that took another six months.

It’s not just a straight forward short, there’s a lot of technology around it. Is virtual reality something you’ve always wanted to explore?

I always like exploring new things such as The Paperman and with Feast. The technology involved in both of those were forward thinking. I think you come up with very creative solutions to challenges like that. When all the problems are solved it’s not as much fun to make stuff. Then it becomes like numbers and the challenge becomes about numbers. I’d rather the challenge be technical and creative.

When you see the road trip stories you rarely see father and daughter, at what point was it going to be that relationship rather than two men, or two girls?

I like to factor in my life a little bit. My dad is an artist, and he had to give up doing part of his job and downgraded his career so my brother and I didn’t have to move. A version of Pearl came from there. When you take a version of your life a little, you extract it to a universal place. It became less about the specifics and more about the journey itself. I also wanted to do a male and female duet. It would be interesting if it were mother and son because it could have also been that story. It would be interesting to see what would be different about that.

You blend music in every scene.Talk about sound mixing.

I sent the artwork in a brief description about what the short would be to a recording company in San Francisco. They sent a demo request to a bunch of artists they knew and we ended up with ten demos of rock songs. I went and chose one blind, I didn’t know who wrote it. We chose and we crafted the story after that.

There were twelve verses and we found the ones that felt that they could be sung by the right voices. The singers did other demos and it actually ended up being recorded in San Francisco in a car itself with a microphone. The singer was sitting in the front seat of the car with the window, and the door opened or closed depending on the scene. The song was sung at least ten different ways. Outside the car, inside, in the back seat just to make the audio bounce correctly. You can tell when the audio is done right in 360. It’s a complicated task.

How long did it take from inception to completion?

I met them about a year before I agreed to do it. The first pitch was in November and we started in April. It was all about getting it to happen quickly once I decided to do it. I wasn’t sure I was going to leave the studio yet because you can’t do it when you’re working.

What’s next for technology in this field and making art?

I like the idea of making art in VR. Since we finished making the film a lot more tools have come out which would have made it easier. A lot of these VR tools were ones we didn’t have. I’ve been putting VR into my process of other things such as feature animation, and we’re using it to design in ways we’ve never had to do so before.

I hear you’re a gamer. What are some of your favorite games?

Now with VR, I love all the creative stuff. I’ve always been a Battlefield first person shooter. I like games where I don’t have to spend days getting into. I like the idea of being able to play for ten minutes, it’s done and you can leave. I don’t have 40 hours a week to put into it. I’m a first person shooter gamer.

You won an Oscar for Feast. What’s it like this time around?

I never thought I’d be nominated once. To be nominated twice is crazy. It’s definitely cool to know some moments about what goes on behind the scenes. The first time it goes by really quickly. Now, the only thing I’m nervous about — I’m not nervous about winning or not; the other shorts are great — but I’m more nervous about having to speak. That’s what strikes me the most. That’s the terrifying part.