We’ve been excited about this project for months, and now that it is out on both YouTube and the Spotlight Stories app, I dare say we were not excited enough! Patrick Osborne’s VR short animation, a blend of music video and narrative, is fantastic and one of the most emotionally engaging works we’ve experienced in this new medium.

(As is the case with all these VR films, they can be tricky to play. You can view the film on desktop using draggable navigation in the Chrome browser. A better experience is mobile, where “magic window” viewing works in the latest YouTube app for iOS and Android. For the best experience, pair your phone with a headset like Google Cardboard — headset settings for the film work in the YouTube app on both iOS and Android, or download the Spotlight Stories app.)

Inspired by the classic Shel Silverstein story “The Giving Tree”, Pearl sweetly tracks the relationship of a father and daughter through the years, from their early days criss-crossing the country, living out of the car in support of his music, through to her rebellious teen years, and eventually a music career of her own. Its an emotional journey told in montage, and is both unique for its approach to the challenges of VR storytelling, but also in the way it incorporates music as a central element. 

How to tell stories in VR is an ongoing conversation, and leading technologists and storytellers in the space love to admit how little we all know at this point. The analogy often used is that the rules of film, concepts like the 180 rule, or the implications The Kuleshov Effect, were slowly developed over a long period of film history into a shared grammar that was learned by both filmmakers and audiences. VR being so new means that there is no such comparable understanding yet, and so we must all still theorize and experiment. To the extent that Pearl furthers the conversation around this shared grammar is its edit. To tell a story that spans decades within mere minutes necessitates montage, but cuts themselves are a hotly debated subject within VR. Due to the level of immersion in the form, and the freedom of the viewer’s gaze, cutting can be a jarring experience — often confusing at best, motion sick-inducing at its worst. Many early VR theorists explicitly ruled out editing in VR as fundamentally wrong.

While that opinion is slowly going out of vogue, it is easy to say that I’ve never seen a VR film with as many changes in scene as Pearl. The key insight of Osborne’s team is utilizing a fixed vantage point. The entirety of the piece takes place in a car, the titular “Pearl”, and you experience it all from the passenger seat.  This provides continuity – the change of scene is not jarring because you, the viewer, have a reference that remains constant throughout. You have entire freedom of the scene, but no matter where you look when the cut occurs, your line of sight and perspectival depth will be largely matched. Osborne has almost in effect made a 360 film comprised of 2D frames: the window, the windshield, the skylight, the backseat. However the level of engagement and spillover between these frames is masterful, and really fun to watch.

VR in general has gotten a bit of knock as being too technologically preoccupied, excitement over the form papering over lackluster content. So it’s a great pleasure to be able to unreservedly recommend Pearl on a story and emotional level as well. Osborne is gifted at pulling heartstrings, as fans of his Oscar-winning short Feast can attest to, but the unique and ultimately key element of Pearl is the song which backs the entirety of the film. An original composition, it establishes the theme of the film and lends emotional heft. Interestingly the song itself is an essential part of the story structure, as Osborne and the team utilize the the verses as acts. A major shift midway through the song, the introduction of a new vocalist, correspondingly shifts the narrative from the father and daughter together to her burgeoning forays into independence. 

The film is part of Google Spotlight Stories, the VR storytelling initiative that debuted in 2013. Run out of Google’s famous ATAP labs, the series has employed high-profile collaborators to experiment in 360 storytelling. We recently featured Help by noted Fast and The Furious director Justin Lin. Pearl is unique as far as the Spotlight Stories series go however in that two versions have been developed, a traditional 2D version of the film debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival as an out-of-competition short, while the 360 version was also exhibited amidst the festival’s many New Media Programs. It’s that ease with which the old and the new converge in Pearl that makes it noteworthy in our eyes, from the skilled animation and classical 2D storytelling to the unique collaboration between songwriter and director, both layered into the tech of an emerging medium. It’s my favorite VR piece to become freely and ubiquitously available, so if you or someone you know has been holding out from the hype, grab yourself a cardboard and check this one out.