Google’s Spotlight Story program has come a long way since Windy Day landed on Moto X phones in 2013. Since then, the company has consistently produced short films to take advantage of smartphone hardware. In 2015, the company worked with former Disney animator Glen Keane to produce the lyrical Duet, and later signed Fast and Furious director Justin Lin for the live-action monster movie Help!. Each effort has pushed the envelope in one way or another, all in order to move stories told in 360 degrees forward.
Now, Google is heading to the Academy Awards. Pearl, directed by Oscar winner Patrick Osborne, is easily one of the most affecting Spotlight Stories to debut in recent years. A love story starring a family and their ever-present car, the film is up against Pixar’s Piper and the Annecy Jury Award-winning short Blind Vaysha for the Best Animated Short award. If it wins, it’ll be the first film of its kind to win an Oscar — an incredible feather in the cap for the house that ATAP built.
“I am just happy that the audience of the film has expanded so dramatically,” Osborne tells The Verge via email. “All I want with any of my work is for people to see and connect to it in some way.”
This is Osborne’s second nomination in the Animated Short award category. Back in 2014, he won an Oscar for Disney’s Feast, a short about a terrier whose love of food helps rekindle his master’s romance. Pearl, which debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, is only the second film Osborne has directed. It’s The Giving Tree set to a folk song, with a father and daughter growing old together while their car Pearl silently cements their bond. It was a standout at the Tribeca Interactive Playground, all before joining an Oscar nominee field dominated by heavyweights like Moonlight and La La Land.
Pearl was shot in VR, with versions made available for YouTube, HTC Vive, and Oculus. However, according to Osborne, the version that screened for Academy voters was cut into a more traditional film. That, for him, means it’ll be awhile before movies shot in VR get more mainstream industry attention. But it also makes him bullish about this new kind of storytelling.
“I wish I could make every film in VR first and find the shots later, it's such a luxury!” he says. “I've become more of a VR evangelist. Especially when it comes to creating artwork in VR. Tilt Brush and Quill have changed the game for me when it comes to designing worlds.”
It’s only a matter of time before VR technology advances far enough for it to become a major draw for both filmmakers and audiences. Osborne told The Verge last year that one would need Cerebro from the X-Mencomics to make the best version of a VR film possible, and the industry simply isn’t there yet. However, Osborne is now happily part of a community trying to figure out its next steps.
“The sky is the limit really,” he says. “Experiencing a story in VR is fundamentally different than watching a film and the true advantages of telling a story this way have yet to be discovered. It was a privilege to be a part of figuring it all out.”
Osborne is currently working on a new ABC series titled Imaginary Mary, which follows a PR exec (Jenna Elfman) who suddenly has to deal with her childhood imaginary friend. The show allows him to bring his animation talents to television. But VR is still on his mind. And getting Oscars recognition for his work definitely doesn’t hurt.
“I use VR in some way on every project now,” he says. “We're still in the fledgling stages of that being possible with the tech we currently have. I'd say give it a good five years.”