Animation powerhouses like Disney have long perfected the craft of retelling classic stories with cutting-edge technology. Virtual reality-focused Penrose Studios, which was founded by former Oculus exec Eugene Chung in 2015, is now taking this approach to the next level.
Penrose debuted “Allumette”, a 20-minute animated film loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Matchstick Girl,” on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR Thursday. And just like those Disney movies, “Allumette” goes to show that technology is a means to an end, and that good stories always win.
“Allumette” is the story of a young girl who is stranded in the dark and cold, staying warm by lighting up oversized, magical matches. Each match unlocks a memory, just like in Andersen’s classic fairy tale. Only this time, those memories tell the girl’s back story: The dreamlike world of houses and streets floating in the sky that she used to travel with her mom; the love that they had for each other; the lessons her mom taught her; the tragedy that tore them apart.
All of this is being told in an animation style that can be best described as intricate, and has a very hand-crafted feel to it. In VR, viewers can take full advantage of this by getting up and close to the action. “Allumette” was made specifically for VR headsets with positional tracking, so viewers can find their own vantage point, look closely at the characters, peek behind corners, get down on their knees to see what’s happening on a town square floating below, or even stick their head into the ship to see detailed interior decoration and mysterious spinning gears.
Without giving away too much, it’s obvious from the source material that “Allumette” doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending. But the intimacy of the medium, and the sense of being right there while the story unfolds, do give the classic tale a new emotional quality. In other words: This may actually be the first VR experience that makes you grab for some tissue after watching it.
Penrose didn’t hold back on the feels for “Allumette,” but it did actually make deliberate use of VR technology. Viewers are immersed in the story, but there’s no interactivity. The flow of time doesn’t depend on where you look, forcing you to watch the whole thing again if you missed something essential. There’s no use of input controllers, and no gamification at all. Instead, the focus is on the story, which shines on its own.
It’s still early days for storytelling in VR, and producers will have to find their own answers to many questions. Interactivity is one of them, and others may make a good case for more of it. Another question many have been asking is: How long can viewers comfortably wear a headset and stay focused on a story? Just a few months ago, many would have argued that 15 minutes is the upper limit for a VR experience. “Allumette” runs a full 20 minutes, but doesn’t feel a minute too long.