“Pearl” (Courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories 2016)
The short film “PEARL,” in its intended format, is nearly impossible to watch the same way twice.
And therein lies the competitive challenge for an Oscar nominee that many Academy members might not see in full before voting.
“Pearl” is a touching, nearly-six-minute animation that centers on how a musical father and a daughter traverse the country — and the years — in an aging hatchback. And everything is viewed from inside their ’83 Chevy Citation; there is no establishing shot from the exterior, no master shot that fully establishes our wide horizons.
That perspective is a direct function of cinematic technology: “Pearl” is the first-ever virtual reality Oscar nominee.
But how does Hollywood fairly judge a film that — unlike every other nominee at this weekend’s Academy Awards — was conceived to turn the viewer into the director?
“Pearl.” (Courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories 2016)
“Pearl” was directed by Patrick Osborne, who has already proved gifted at more traditional digitally storytelling; he worked in the animation department on Disney’s Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6” and received an Oscar two years ago for directing Disney’s beguiling animated short “Feast,” a tale framed by the meals that a man gives his adopted dog.
For “Pearl,” however, Osborne (now at work on “Nimona”) entered a brave new world after he was approached by Google.
The film, from Evil Eye Pictures and Google ATAP, is one of the early Google Spotlight Stories, which allow the viewer to move a mobile device to control the camera angle, allowing for an immersive 360-degree experience.
Screening a narrative tale this way can feel a bit like a role-player game: While you don’t control the running time, you do control what direction you want to look in, and when — an aspect that encourages repeat viewings to more fully explore this world.
That cutting-edge approach, though, raises at least two issues.
First is the matter of creating a common experience for film competitions. To become eligible for the Oscars, the filmmakers had to enter a singular take that could receive a theatrical run (“Pearl” debuted at the Tribeca Film Fest, complete with HTC Vive virtual-reality headsets). But given the Academy’s reliance on studio screeners, the question arises: Will the majority of Academy voters never have experienced “Pearl” as a “self-editing” 360-degree video? (That 360 version is available on the Google Spotlight Stories app, YouTube and the VR device Google Cardboard.)
And then there’s the matter of what an Oscar win for “Pearl” could represent.
The favorite to win the animated-short category this year would seem to be Disney/Pixar’s beautiful “Piper,” which blends whimsy with near-photorealistic renderings of the ocean.
But an Oscar win for “Pearl” could signal the degree of industry fascination with virtual-reality storytelling. Already, Lucasfilm and Disney are exploring how to tell Star Wars stories in VR, and Steven Spielberg is heavily pursuing VR collaborations.
Even if “Piper” wins this Sunday as “best animated short,” “Pearl” should not be missed, as it’s the nominated movie that most boldly points to one exciting future for film making.